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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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Re-Making Yourself

You won’t believe this, but within five minutes of sitting down to write this article I received an email from LinkedIn announcing that 141 of my contacts had changed jobs during 2010. At that rate I guess that, without LinkedIn, I’d lose touch with just about everybody after four years.

I remember signing up for a job for life in the Bell System in 1979. I was probably one of the last to have any hope of hanging on to that illusion. Many old saws underscore the need to be agile with one’s career vision. Nils Bohr admonishes us to be careful about predicting things, particularly if they involve the future.

We’re told that the only thing that is certain in life is change. You'll likely change careers many times — I was lucky with only five successions: from software engineer to process researcher, university professor, electronic design automation engineer, and organizational consultant. It's not only about having a new job, but a new vocation — again and again. Today a remarkably small fraction of my work relates directly to software. I’ve changed tack every two to three years, and have changed ships about every seven.

On the other hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same. More and more of commercial technology practice is driven by fads than by sound engineering. Those who roll through the fads and who prosper and lead across successive generations of technology are those who don’t let the fads distract them. The key is to focus on the timeless ideas.

I have found that attentiveness to these core concerns will serve you well. Armed with these, you’ll roll through change. They can help you rise above change. They can even help you to help those around you manage change.

Fundamentals are always important. Those who “move up the technology ladder” too easily lose touch with the reality of the physics beneath them. Many times have I seen an idealistic designer create an ingenious logic design that would consume enough watts of power to burn itself to a crisp. I remember Jack Manley admonishing me that even digital design depended on the analog circuitry beneath it.

Systems thinking must be a tool in every engineer’s toolbox. More than just “problem-solving skills,” systems thinking sees beyond the solutions of a specific engineering discipline to embrace the broader problem context, including non-technical considerations. A broad education and rotational assignments through your firm can help.

In the end, it’s always about people. Without a human focus, your working relationships and engineering results are unlikely ever to reach their full potential. Charlie Ranous taught us these things back in Engineering school in the 1970s. We found it tedious at the time; today, I understand the power of the seeds he planted back then.

Bran Selic reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein: "Concern for man himself and his fate must always constitute the chief objective of all technological endeavors...in order that the creations or our minds shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."

As I discussed in my previous blog, a well-developed skill set in aesthetics, and a sense of beauty, are both timeless and increasingly relevant in engineering. Stephen Perin suggested a quote from Gustave Eiffel: “Must it be assumed that because we are engineers, beauty is not our concern?”

Plan on re-making yourself every seven years or so. But stand on a firm foundation. Be a timeless engineer, and roll through the fads.

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Just wanted to say thanks for this. after some 25 years in this business I can confirm that core knowledge/understanding/application is always more important in the long run, but so is applying that knowledge to the market and letting the fads run their course.

Posted on 2/7/11 8:02 AM.

I cannot but agree that we must constantly be eager to remake ourselves. It's been 50+ years since I first touched a computer (the old Univac I). I've switched employment regularly. And, yes, the foundation is important. Your previous blog post touched on what I find different about the future. The foundation for the future will demand an ability to reason with and about aesthetics. It goes beyond sensitivity to artistic or aesthetic matters. We will need to work on the symbolic value of what we create.

Some of this can be explained by the nearness of the general public to the artifacts for which we are responsible. Our technology is being thrust ever deeper into mass markets. As Apple has so successfully demonstrated, getting the aesthetics "right" with mass market artifacts is very important to their success (or even to their survival). Making that happen, consistently, demands an ability to work with, to massage, to manipulate the aesthetic, symbolic content of that which we create.

This feels to be a qualitative difference about the future. Constant change is our collective reality. But the growing need to pay attention to context is leading to a qualitatively different set of requirement on the engineers of the future. We need to be able to think like artists, especially artists successful in meeting the often unrecognized psychic needs of their clients.

It's not just more of the same, .... or so it seems to me after my 50+ years in the field.

Bob Fabian - www.fabian.ca

Posted on 2/7/11 8:07 AM.

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