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Agile Careers

"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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Build on Your Strengths

Society holds up many ideals of what is good and acceptable, and we all want to be good and accepted. We tend to set goals based on these ideals and set out to attain them, whether overnight or bit by bit. We often honor these social ideals for their own sake and become frustrated if we can't learn, or adapt, social interaction styles. However, to focus on our weaknesses, particularly as defined by social norms, is a crude, coarse view of career.

Engineers are always on the lookout for problems to solve, finding them and then countering them with solutions. It’s what we’re trained to do. So when we think of our career progress we often think of the obstacles and impediments, usually euphemized as “challenges” or “opportunities.”

And as engineers, we want a complete solution. To be lacking in any area is to leave a problem unsolved, and that leaves us unsettled in our soul. If we are poor communicators, we are told — by ourselves, our professors, and our bosses — that we must improve that.

Well, guess what. I’ve known lots of lousy communicators who were great engineers. Engineering is not just a communication discipline. That’s part of it, but it takes a cornucopia of talents to be a perfect engineer. Some of us are better at some of these things than others. We are all different.

Because we are all different, no one of us alone is likely to master every talent in the book. Most engineers still try, striving to become good at things that don’t come naturally. For many, this is the prime outlet of their career development energy.

However, it makes sense to focus on improving your weaknesses only if you believe one of two things: that you are bad at everything you do, or that you view yourself always as working alone. Let me explain.

Few engineering jobs call for a solo virtuoso. Sadly, a classic university education focuses on individual talents and accomplishments. Engineering curricula tend to be better than most in promoting teamwork, but the larger shadow of academic culture still looms large. Most Western corporations reward individuals.

One powerful way to compensate for your handicaps is to partner with others; it’s sometimes called teamwork. Most of the time, pairing up with just one other person who is different from you is enough to cover the bases. The detail-oriented, precise Dennis Ritchie and people/programmer-focused Brian Kernighan paired up to pen the original C programming language book, which still stands as one of the best programming texts ever. I myself have been involved in writing several texts, and in retrospect over the past 20 years, there is a strong correlation between the quality of the book and the fact that it was written by two authors, not one.

But there is an even more basic career strategy here. In laying out your career, build on things you are good at rather than improving things you're not good at. To do otherwise is to waste your energy needlessly. People succeed when they build on their strengths. Perhaps by focusing on our weaknesses we attain a balanced existence of mediocrity. Those who keep improving their strengths stand out and excel. And, remember: a great many social conventions have been proven wrong after surviving as a fad for years or decades.

So, yes: work on getting better, but focus on the impediments that keep you from doing your best at what you’re best at. That’s likely the real you, anyhow — would you want to be anyone else?

Comments
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This is a powerful message (build on your strengths) that sometimes gets lost when we focus on our weaknesses. This sentence captures it succinctly, and resonates well with my own experience:

"People succeed when they build on their strengths. Perhaps by focusing on our weaknesses we attain a balanced existence of mediocrity."

I recently wrote about this general topic myself -- would be interested in people's comments:

http://kartiksubbarao.com/mentors-and-dementors

Posted on 1/15/11 7:54 AM.

Great Post.
Along with taking responsiblity on building on your strength, if you are responsible for other people you should not push everybody to build similar strength. I've seen that as a manager you are tempted to compare your team members. And sometime do the mistake of asking people to acquiring the same skill set as one of your Star performer.

Thanks
Prateek Narang

Posted on 1/18/11 2:38 AM.

Jim: If you enjoy doing something you tend to do it well. I would agree that if you do something well, good compensation will follow. I would also agree that, teamwork is important and that using the strengths of each team member is an excellent strategy. However, this best used as a short-term solution. If you're on a team and the team has a weakness, it is to your benefit to build strength in that area to strengthen the team.

One caution about focusing only on your strength. Eventually this leads to over specialization and career stagnation. One needs to look at their desired career path and where industry is headed and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses against what is needed in the future. Everyone should invest some time in themselves and build build up those areas where they are weak.

Being the world's leading expert in an area with dwindling jobs will lead to unemployment or at best, intermittent periods of feast and famine. Expert COBOL programmers were well compensated during the Y2K reprogramming crisis., But their job prospects are much more limited than someone who has continued to strengthen their skills in areas of industry growth where they were weak.

Posted on 3/20/11 1:59 AM in reply to Prateek Narang.

The other side of this coin is that teams — or worse, managers — create arbitrarily high expectations of teams. Instead of aligning tasks with teams where the energy or can-do is, they hand out tasks arbitrarily. Teams that take these tasks arbitrarily have to divert their energy to things they are bad at. That doesn't serve the industry, and it doesn't make life better for the individuals.

The world has become too vast to support individual generalists. While we all need to establish some balance of familiarity with the world outside our walls (e.g., see Ars Gratia Artis and The Whole Person), I think it's a mistake to squander one's energy in trying to improve all the things we're bad at. We're bad at a hundred times as many things as we're good at and, in fact, improving most of them doesn't matter. You're probably good enough at brushing your teeth; you don't need to become a dentist to make sure that your tooth-brushing is good enough. Put your energy into the things that matter. If you're smart, those align with your life choices, and you've made those based on your passion and ability. Any other life is an incongruent life.

We're good at enough things — a handful — that we can always find something new that we're good at. See "Remaking Yourself." There's no problem in doing that several times during one's careers (note the plural). Most career stagnation in fact has its roots in failure to improve one's self in one's discipline, clinging to one's secure ways. Sometimes it's a consequence of circumstance. In that case, find something else you're good at, and follow your heart.

If you're stuck doing something you're bad at, or that you despise, it's not a career. It's just a job.

Posted on 4/15/11 10:20 PM in reply to Rush Kester.

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