Agile Careers


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 recently released Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist. 

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Bah, humbug!

One of my recent installments (There is no failure, only feedback) was a short essay on a career perspective on problem solving. Some comments I received on the article made me realize that it didn’t sink in with exactly the people who need it most. So here is another try.

If you regularly work to remove the source of recurring problems you have the leadership seeds of a good career. A great way to kill a career is to deal only with problems you are asked to solve or that lie within the confines of a job description. Too many engineers limit their focus to engineering problems. My former Bell Labs department head, Steve Baumann, once told us that there had never been a technical problem that Bell Labs had been unable to solve: All the interesting problems are about people. It’s everyone’s job to solve those.

Saying this, I’m usually admonished to get back to the real problems.  It is not only the recent retorts here that are of this nature and have self-pity and bitterness lurking just beneath the surface. Instead of solving problems, the Scrooges and Grinches among us blame everything on others. Managers usually blame. employees. Workers usually blame managers. We hear: “management typically ignores the value proposition of common best practices” or even that someone feels their job is to “find a way to trick or coerce management into doing what they should be doing but are too busy golfing to ever get around to.” Would you trust your life to an engineer designing medical equipment, who sees tricking management as part of his job?

Enter the Grinches and Scrooges, who elevate this perspective to bitterness and a self-pity. Sure, I’ve had bad managers, too, and I spend a lot of my time these days advising managers. Many of them listen, and often act, if employees will only take the time to talk to them. And when that hasn’t worked out I’ve fixed the problem by moving on to something better. The bitterness doesn’t come from the problem — it comes from not removing its source.

While avoiding the problem (because it’s easier to trick management instead) is a bad thing, sometimes the worst thing you can do is to just fix it. That’s putting a band-aid on it. The bitterness of statements like “I try to improve the common value proposition by being ready to put out fires” reflects a job perspective rather than a career perspective. To gain strategic advancement, you must exercise strategic skills. Strategists embrace failure.

The principles of the Toyota Way lie at the heart of the most popular Agile approaches today, including Toyota’s application of Kaizen: making things better. Surprisingly, it’s not about fixing problems. It’s about removing the source of the problems, with the greater good of the community and company in mind. Again: think job versus career, respectively.

But, yes, Virginia (and Scrooges, too), there is a Santa Claus. And it could be you. Career-mindedness and a broad vista of problem-solving is what it’s about. Great problems don’t come up and bite you on the bottom. Engineers attack problems, even if  — especially if — they’re outside their job descriptions.

Every workplace (and ‘blog) has its Grinches who complain about problems and allocate blame because they feel impotent to solve them. Every company and every ‘blog site has them. But we wish a great holiday season even to them — and that includes you, Joshua. And the same to the rest of you — with an added admonition not to let the turkeys get you down.

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