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Nosce te Ipsum

Navneeth MandavilliNavneeth Mandavilli is a senior technologist and innovator with experience ranging from hands-on development to the management of multi-national engineering teams building enterprise applications and system software. His most recent focus has been on helping others build development organizations that can successfully innovate, creating incubation teams that select projects based more on the promise of technology than proof. His approach has resulted in ground-breaking solutions, valuable acquisitions, and interesting failures.

Navneeth believes a successful career is rooted in two words: Know Thyself. He hopes that sharing his thoughts on what he learned about himself as he succeeded, and failed, in his career is helpful to the readers of this blog. He currently works in the Office of the CTO for EMC Corporation and is based in Santa Clara, California.

Follow Navneeth on Twitter @nmandavilli.

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IAmTooGooditis and Other Signs of Complacency

What Your Manager Expects From You - II 

Now that you know what your job is and are on your way to being a star in the eyes of your boss and colleagues, a few thoughts to keep in mind on the journey:

Take Your Work Seriously

The one thing that workers in any profession need to watch out for is complacency. We may start out with the best intentions but much like the seven year itch, complacency hits us just when we think we've mastered it all (perhaps because we think so) and unless we are watchful, will lead to rather unhappy results. The signs are different for different folks but here are a few classics:

          You start thinking of ‘the road not taken’: maybe you wanted to be a politician, or an English professor, or make a great movie. The day you catch yourself saying ‘I could have been a great …’ is the day you need to wake up and take stock. Are you being the best you could be in your current role? Think again. If you were as good as you think you are, you wouldn’t have time to day dream about what you are not: you would be nose down, enthusiastic and energized, working on designing the next exciting product from your company; your boss would be driving you, depending on you every day to help him make important decisions at work; your colleagues would be constantly seeking out your opinion; you would be scrambling to respond to all the mail you get from your highly respected blog on current technologies; you wouldn’t have enough time turning down invitations to speak at and contribute at tech conferences … is that the case? 1
 

-         You could do your job with your eyes closed: work has become a comfortable routine, like the daily commute -- you don’t think, you don’t prepare and you don’t sweat; the occasional deviation from the normal has you pushing to get things back to the routine as quickly as possible and irritated at the cause of the deviation. In other words, you have given up on yourself and FYI, so has everyone else at work.2  Nowhere is Heraclitus's aphorism about change being the only constant more true than in tech; and its pace of change is terrific. If you are still doing what you were doing 10 years back, you have been complacent.3 As I mentioned here, your manager will never tell you that you are mediocre; as long as you perform a function that’s required, you will be paid with all the accompanying blah blah of how important your job is. But think of it this way: a 16-year old usher at AMC is cute; a 50-year old usher? Not so much.4,5

           You dismiss your job as ‘easy’: this is the most insidious of all germs, particularly because it affects the smart ones. You are put into a job, you learn it quickly, master the ins and outs and now can do it without thinking twice. It’s still tough for others to do and you are perceived as a valuable member of the team, doing the difficult job that others cannot; and there is no other time that is more perfect than this to be stricken by ‘I-am-too-good-itis’. The symptoms are that you stop thinking about your job, start dreaming of the road not taken or just mindlessly surf the web in your free time, of which you have a lot. This is where a good mentor, friend or relative is crucial: to tell you that you are wasting your potential. If your job is easy, it does not mean you are a genius6; it means you are in the wrong job -- a sign for you to move on. Trust me, software engineering is not just about writing code or fixing bugs. I know you enjoy it a lot, and you enjoy it because you are good at it; but if you feel that you could do more, it probably is because you can. Bigger things await; tougher situations exist; go for them! 7, 8

           You watch the clock and look for excuses to take days off: this is the saddest of all signs. Like it or not, all of us who have to work a job to eat spend 8 hours or more every day doing it; this is way more than any other thing we do in our lives, except perhaps sleep. To feel unenthused and bored about doing it is the worst possible state to be in. If the thought of going in to work brings you down, if the conversation with your coworkers makes you want to kill yourself, if the work is driving you nuts with ennui, there is only one person to blame – you. You have ignored all the signs of complacency: you have chosen to be at an unchallenging job and refused to look for opportunities that would help you grow; you dismiss your job as being too easy or boring and yet have not done anything to look for another position within or outside of your organization; instead of defining your career, you’re waiting for something to fall into your lap. That sick feeling in your core when you think of where you are in your career? That’s you being disappointed with yourself. And the solution is straightforward: change your job. 9

All of the above comes from not taking yourself, your career and your job seriously. Young people have a notion that taking work seriously is somehow ‘not cool’; being nonchalant or flippant about work has more cachet than otherwise. But no matter how talented or intelligent you are, without application and focused hard work, you will always fall short of your potential. If you look down on what you do every day, it has an effect on your self-esteem, however subtle. Taking yourself and your work seriously is about respecting yourself and your work, and therefore your colleagues and your organization; it's about believing in what you do and achieving your full potential while enjoying the process. As our friend Heraclitus also observed, man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play. Yes, you may have exceeded the goals that you set for yourself when you passed out of college, or the ones your parents had for you; but the mistake is in not changing them as you grow and gain knowledge and experience. You grew out of wanting to be a fireman, now remember to grow out of whatever you have been doing – you have bigger worlds to conquer.
 
Footnotes
 
1: perhaps that is the case. Maybe your boredom is the result of you having achieved everything possible at your current job and it’s only right that you explore other avenues of self-expression. In that case: Hello, Prof. Knuth; nice day, huh?
 
2: I can’t emphasize this blind spot enough. Look around you: can you not itemize in a list what the incompetencies are in every coworker around you? Well, here’s a news flash: so can they.
 
3: Yes, ‘C’ is still widely prevalent and you have held on to a job while others have lost theirs. But this is about you – how have you grown? How have your responsibilities at work grown? How comfortable are you talking to a freshly minted engineer about the current technologies? What experiences have you had in learning, using and building software? Ultimately, this comes down to how you see yourself: are you the man in the grey flannel suit? Or is there more to you?
 
4: the other question to ask here is why you still need to do the same job after 10 years? Shouldn’t you have fixed the problems in your software by now? Shouldn’t you have made the framework better, the logging more meaningful, diagnosis automatic, support better, processes scalable and errors self-correcting? If you had explored, proposed, suggested or thought out loud on any of the above and implemented any of them even partially, your organization would have seen you as a better fit somewhere other than the same old place fixing the same old problems.
 
5: Does being promoted to the next grade in the developer category count? You are now "Software Developer IV" instead of "Associate Software Developer". Well, it depends. What are you doing? Are you designing the product? Are you influencing management? Are you coming up with breakthrough ideas that result in your products outperforming competitors' products, or that result in all-new products? Are you known as a whiz within your division? Are you advancing the usage of technology? Have people outside your division heard of you? Yes, it counts, if you are at least aiming to be the next Kent Beck, Grady Booch, Dennis Ritchie, Larry Wall or even Marco Arment
 
6: usually.
 
7: not going after bigger goals while dismissing your current job is, I am sorry to say, a subtle hint of fear of failure.
 
8: what bigger things? There are numerous options to choose from in just creating software (see list of programmers in 5); but beyond that, mastering people and business management is a worthwhile challenge for every software engineer who feels unfulfilled
 
9: yes, changing a job is difficult; but not really. If you have a different opinion, feel free to post a comment below
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For most developers it's good, and perhaps ideal, to be "challenged", learn new things and grow personally and professionally. Most companies however, hire a person to bring value to a team by solving problems, sustaining products and developing new products. Regardless of how much a company says they "care" about your personal and professional growth, you're basically on your own. The company wants your value to the team as their primary focus. Companies don't exist as "nannys" for one's professional growth. There is nothing disgraceful about being dedicated to a company and their mission even if personally things become stagnant in terms of "growth" for periods. Every career has periods of "boredom" just as every project as lifecycles. One should not immediately "jump ship" if promotions and greater responsibilities are not given. Perseverance is a virtue. Complacency is singular but you give some good points for thought.

An additional thought: 1. It's more difficult for a person with a family and say 4 children to be constantly learning new things than someone who is single. Demands are different in different states or stages of life. We should not confuse complacency with perseverance. 2. Could we apply your same criteria to other professionals , say medical doctors? 3. Instead of looking for "incompetencies" in co-workers, look for their virtues and competencies and see what you can imitate!

Posted on 1/8/12 5:56 PM.

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