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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Growing Others

Much of what passes for career growth is about individual aspirations and assessing one's place in the pecking order. But those with the greatest careers focus on seeing the fruits of their efforts blossom in others.

In the end, career has two consequences: to create value for the world around us, and to support and influence our colleagues. The bottom line is usually people, whether through the indirect contributions of our products and services or the more direct gift of our own time and presence (see Two People at a Time).

Many of us feel we do a great deed by giving our colleagues what our job requires or by being helpful. It’s one thing to be the light or water for a plant, and quite another to be the earth where the plant takes root or the trellis on which it leans for support and climbs skyward. Gardeners come and go, but the soil and trellis persist for at least a season of its development.

Bad colleagues (and consultants) position themselves as the primary sources of light or water for a plant to create a dependency of I-have-water-and-you-don’t. Creative people can always find alternative sources of water and light. Being the soil or the trellis creates an even stronger dependency, of course, but with the adventure of commitment for at least a season — a period together in a department or project. That kind of commitment takes trust and, if an increase in value ensues, it builds trust.

From a pragmatic perspective, growing others is about amplification. Giving someone your product or supporting them with your service is like selling fish; giving of yourself is more like selling fishing poles. Of course, don’t neglect your responsibility to generate value, but keep the bigger picture in mind.

Larry Constantine once relayed a challenge he received from a friend years earlier: Given the choice, would he rather have contributed something of long term significance but remain unknown and unappreciated or would he have preferred to become widely recognized but have done little of consequence?  Years later, Larry denies the premise that this is an either/or choice — but those who seek fame first diminish their chances to have both. The trellis hides behind the rose.

This attitude points to a deeper love either for other people, or for ideas themselves, than for one’s own career. It’s an attitude with roots in feeling secure and is a posture more easily attained from a position of accomplishment. As such, the opportunities to broadly grow others increase as one’s own contributions increase.

The usual view of career is that one rises through the Maslow hierarchy of needs. Gainful employment lets you meet basic physiological needs; a higher-paying job affords one a residence in a more secure neighborhood. This security affords one the opportunities to “belong” to some community, either within or outside of work. Accomplishment and a secure identity increase self-esteem, and ultimately one attains the pinnacle of self-actualization.

Choose to regard your vocation from a collective rather than individualistic perspective. Agile focuses more on the result (“working software”) in community (“individuals and interactions”) than on what sets one apart. “Belonging” is a birthright of agile rather than something earned. Group potential outshines the social ideal of achieving individual potential. Self-worth and actualization precipitate naturally from supporting  your team — but not vice-versa.

It’s about the Thou rather than the I. It is you, directly, rather than your product or service, that creates the greatest value in others. Invest in another individual’s career.

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I am not sure what your core message is precisely, but I'll comment on it anyway.

I can't say that the benefits are very appealing having given more than two decades of practicing the support and influence of collegues, subordinates, customers, suppliers and colleagues in light of achieving the goal and contributing to their growth

It sure is a pleasure to notice that the influence roots and the most gratituding return I've had is an electronic message through a social network from a past intern writing "thank you for the internship" ... more than 10 years after date!

It is also an attitude that is often critisized as in : "don't waste your time on that" (which I understand as helping him is not helping you, or you're not getting paid for that, or .... ). Which is also an indication of how little esteam the act gives you in society. It takes some courage to continue to support.

However, as the idea is to not focus on yourself, in the end this is mostly what happens: others do not focus on you either. If you don't sell and promote yourself, there will be only localized and temporary recognition and very little payback.

Another proof of this is open source. I have created and written an opensource software with close to 100k source lines (not including comment lines). I put up a donation button because some people had asked for it and out of curiosity to see how much that would result in: well just enough to pay the yearly hosting at about $80/year. And that is with about 30k downloads each year.
So why open-source? Putting that piece of code in the public is one of my ways of paying back the community for the other free open-source, but payback is limited. Besides being almost summoned to add this or that function before this or that date "please", it turns out that for some companies that same software is transformed in $$ when integrated in their solution.

Anyway, I'll continue to act in a "dumb" way like this, just because I think it is the right thing to do. Not because in the end it will pay back, because I am pretty sure that it will not.

Posted on 5/6/13 3:13 AM.

I think you're right: you didn't get the core message.

Much of your reply is about getting esteem for *yourself*, payback for *you*, focus on *you*. As I noted above, the kind of gifts I talk about here are best given by people who are already centered in themselves and who don't need that much professional acclaim any more. I know who I am, and there are a few people with whom I am in a warm personal connection, and together with the fact that I don't have to worry where my next meal is coming from, that is enough for me.

It's about moving beyond the Pavlovian behaviors that sustain our lower Maslow levels. If you have to bring up money or your own sense of acceptance, you're still climbing the hierarchy. It's about moving above animal needs to our human potential. And I think even Maslow got it wrong: it's about connection rather than garnering individual recognition. It's deeper than just value.

And I notice that your reply mentions nothing about teams — though the "thank you for the internship" comes close, and encouraged me. Growth, value and reward in an agile world is about the Us, not just about the Me. It's can be less about any notion of I-am-better-than-you than about an Us growing together.

You and I do have some things in common. In the past I have spent more on getting a software product to market than I made in my entire first year as a professional at Bell Laboratories. I consciously did so with no expectation of financial return. I did it for the social impact it would have. So far the financial rewards are in the realm of $15. So we are much the same here. I think that the difference is that you hint that you had an expectation of the possibility of making it profitable, while my value proposition was at a different level.

Several years ago, as I was discussing this issue with several other people, many people came to me and said, "One guy who has helped me a lot in my career, and never asked for recognition or for anything in return, is James Odell." This had to be more than coincidence. He has never sought fame for his support of other (now somewhat prominent) people, or money, or even business identity. But I'll bet he harbors a great peace about the value he has given to the world. And it's quite a bit more than the worth either of 100 KNCSL or $80 / year.

If you can appreciate that focusing on others is much more than about getting others to focus on you, then you're one step on the way to understanding what I'm saying. In you can come to the point of recognizing that you fail unless you yourself let others reap the recognition — in which case you may realize no kudos at all — then you will come closer to realizing your full humanity, and to appreciating my message here. Then you will maybe see how you can amplify your efforts through others. Growing in relationship with a single individual, giving of yourself rather than of what is yours, is much more powerful than thousands of downloads a year.

Posted on 5/6/13 11:04 PM in reply to Mario De Weerd.

Thank you for your reply.

Part of the reason why I talk about the 'self' is for instance the example of 'Larry Constantine' where fame seems to be mentionned as a goal but that to get it you must not seek fame but do without seeking to be famous.
Larry Constantine surely did act like that, but I think that the majority of people acting the same way do not get to a similar level of notoriety.
My main point is that focussing on others is not going to get you there.

I didn't mention team possibly I still did not fully understand your message. You mention 'team' at the end, and just before that 'community'. To me focussing on others is not "as such" about team achievement. It's about helping the other progress better in life and through that hopefully make this world a better place. In terms of team, I was once faced with an ex-aequo condition following a vote for presidency in an association - I was one of the candidates. The past president asked what we should do. So I proposed that the other person would be the president. My anticipation was that by doing so, this other person would be more implicated which would be more beneficial for the team and the members, with my implication remaining at the same (high) level but in the background. Which was exactly what happened and several years back I noticed that person was still very involved. The team no longer exists, the intern I talked about is no longer an intern, but I think that there are some powerfull repercussions of my interactions with them.

My open-source example was meant as a demonstration of how much "one way" it is. I didn't expect monetary return from it, but was surprised by the result of the experiment. I expected that other people would pick up and help make the projet live, but that did no happen either. One person did support the German community for a long time through a "documentation" site that he put up and helping with testing, a few people helped with translations, some provided code fixes or a function they needed, but most of the time it's about sharing expertise with others.
It is different than growing with a single individual, but it is still giving of yourself and still respectfull in terms of power if this managed to respond to some need of 100000 individuals.

What drives people like James Odell (and me) to focus on others is not a rational decision and I am not recommending others to do so in order to achieve great peace. It has to come from within. However, I would recommend to look more closely at people that do so, and through that, learn and possibly gain the desire to contribute in one's own way, and give those people some direct recognition: it will encourage them.

Posted on 5/7/13 2:20 AM in reply to James Coplien.