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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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Change the World, a Bit at a Time

Welcome to this new blog, where I’ll be sharing with you about life and career. We probably don’t know each other yet, but maybe that can change in a small way in this space. I think a lot about people, my relationship to them, and our collective relationship to our world and to history. Don’t expect me to prattle about this generation’s industry fads here. This is about bigger things.

This first installment, entitled Change the World, sets the tone for the rest. To make a career from your calling is to change the world. If you're not changing the world, it's not a career: it's just a job.

You probably didn’t learn how to change the world in school, and your orientation meetings at work probably didn’t cover that either. You probably think I’m going to suggest making a long-term career plan to become a CEO who can influence a big company, or getting a patent that helps cure cancer.

Goal-setting is big these days. But it rarely happens like that. Life happens a minute at a time and a person at a time. Changing the world is about small things in the moment. Honesty in small things is no small thing, as we say in Denmark.

It’s not a choice: you can't help but change the world. The autumn butterflies here in Denmark really do affect the hurricanes off the American coast. Every selfless—or selfish—act at school or work affects dozens of people, each of whom in turn touches dozens more. Just look, and you’ll notice it.

As I wrote as guest editor of an IEEE Software issue in 1999, the work of computing professionals is woven into the fabric of society. We put our pants on one leg at a time; we write code one line at a time. We don’t view each one as changing the world. But the lines add up, each one contributing its small bit. This perspective captures the sentiments of the architect Christopher Alexander, who would say that communities grow through millions of selfless acts of thousands of individuals. What it means to earn your place in history isn’t to become one of The Greats, but to be fully human.

Engineering history offers plenty of evidence for this. Who invented the telescope? Photography? The telephone? History usually honors a single individual because it wrongly ascribes progress to individual genius. The anthropologist Kroeber points out that each of these was “discovered” independently by two or three people within the same year (Alfred Kroeber, Anthropology: Culture, Patterns and Process, 1948, p. 140).

Millions of earlier selfless acts accumulated in the fullness of time. We have the thousands of individuals of the preceding decades and centuries to thank for that.

It is, however, important to know where you fit in. Contemplate how your actions affect your customers, and beyond, to your end users. Think of how your actions open and close doors for your colleagues: the everyday stuff.

The bad news is that you must become more attentive to the details at work, ever comparing today with yesterday. That implies measuring yourself not by how much you know, but by the rate at which you are learning.

The good news is that you don't have to be a rock star to change the world. The few opportunities the world has given me to change its course haven't come as I stand at the tiller, but as the breath of my voice adds to thousands more to fill the sails.

Let’s change the world.

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Cope, as you might be aware, I am a great admirer of your expertise, wisdom, and overall humanistic approach to technology. However, in this case I feel compelled to raise a concern with what you wrote. In my experience, people who focus on building their careers tend to be a self-centered bunch whose impact on the world is greatly biased in favour of helping themselves. Don't "build a career", build something useful instead -- I am afraid that these two are often at odds with each other. Careers should be consequences, not objectives.

Knowing you as I do, my guess is that you were not appealing to careerist motives here. But, I am worried that in this world where management and HR bureaucrats are taught to persistently talk about "careers" the essence of your message will be misunderstood. Let's leave careers to the politicians.

Cheers...Bran

Posted on 10/4/10 7:08 PM.

Hi, Bran,

It's good to hear from you here. As usual, I suspect that you and I are about to find that we violently agree at the core. You are right in that I was not appealing to those who build a career for its own sake. And I agree that anyone can easily choose to misunderstand any one of these 'blogs in isolation. A career is a rich, human institution and as such cannot easily be encapsulated in 600 words.

First, let me give you a preview of the titles of forthcoming 'blogs in this space that elaborate on this foundational beginning. Do the Right Thing. Break the Rules. Build on your Strengths. Ars Gratia Artis. I think you will find that these articles build up a piecemeal system of ethics that you might be proud to identify with. I certainly hope so. A good career must integrate a wide range of caring, action, creation, community integration and involvement. As I said, this 'blog isn't about industry fads, but about bigger things. Career for its own sake is one of these fads. But it starts with an awareness that our very pursuit of career does change the world. In the follow-up 'blogs I'll look at value propositions that we can associate with that influence.

A career should add value to humanity. We get one shot at this, called a lifetime, and usually get one shot at this within each of our lifetime callings. I call those opportunities careers. Yes, one can change the world by building something. Building good things can make the world a better place. But in the end, it's about growing people - both individually and in the sense of the connections between them in community. Even in building product, we should be attentive to its ethical impact on humanity. A great example is the vision of architecture that both Christopher Alexander and I wrote about in IEEE Software 16(5) back in 1999. We should not build product to serve utility and the economic theory of value alone, but should build morally profound product that is attentive to the casuistic and emotional theories of value as well.

These days, while I still work on product, most of my career is not about product, but about people - not me, but other people. Product for me is a means. The essence of my message is that in the end, that's what it's about. When we met in your home country last year to support the engineers there, it wasn't about product. We were there together with Dan and Alan to build people. (And I just did it again last week in another corner of the globe.)

You might even think of this 'blog as a Trojan Horse which, by its title, will attract the very people about which you express wariness. It is my hope that this series of articles will help them re-orient themselves towards outwardly focused value that can change the world in a positive way. That, to me, is what a career is all about.

Peace, buddy, and thanks.

Posted on 10/5/10 7:32 AM in reply to Branislav Selic.

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