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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The Grass is Greener

The grass is greener on the other side — or at least it often seems that way. It’s the nature of an engineer — or more likely, of human beings — to feed their wanderlust in career space.

We grow accustomed to the accommodations, comforts, and sometimes even the discomforts of a given setting. Daily comfort doesn’t draw our attention: pain does. Our bodies, but even more so, our brains, are wired to alert us to danger through discomfort and pain. It’s a survival tool. So when you’re uncomfortable about your work, or about the results of a meeting, or about the location of your desk, it’s your system telling you: “Danger! Fix this.”

We are blind to the pains that lie on the other side of the fence because, well, our tactile nervous system isn’t engaged over there. We might hear the occasional cat fight over there, but because we’re not part of it, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression on that part of us creates association to pain.

So we want to move on. Goodness always seems to be “over there.” There’s a hint of excitement and adventure in looking elsewhere. This even comes down to the way we think about programming. Adele Goldberg, an early expert on object-oriented programming, used to say that “everything always happens somewhere else.” The class boundaries and polymorphic dispatch of object-oriented programming languages put the actual computation many many kilometers away. We enjoy the adventure  of writing these programs and the amazement when they actually work in spite of our utter inability to statically understand them. Programming in linear Pascal or FORTRAN gives us a feeling of total control, and there’s no excitement there.

Individuals have different tolerances for discomfort and different thresholds for moving on. It’s good if you understand what drives you as you consider your current station in life and as you evaluate next steps. It usually comes down to three basic considerations. First: are you willing to tolerate the inconvenience, discomfort, or pain of your current situation? I find that just about everyone complains about their job. In the very best workplaces people openly complain about details like missing out on the first fresh pot of coffee in the morning or about the boss being in a bad mood today. In moderately dysfunctional companies complaints are more discrete, more systematic, and drive deeper into issues related to the corporate structure. In the very worst organizations there is very little complaining, because the risk that the message will get back to the boss is too high. Assess your situation.

Second: what are the chances of making your current situation better? Said another way, this comes down to: Will my efforts to fix the current situation resolve more problems than they create? All change has risk. Engineers — a conservative lot — tend to overestimate risks. Challenge yourself to take risks. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

The last question is: Am I willing to take the initiative to move on? There is usually a high perceived risk in moving on to another job. You can reduce this risk with information.

Once in a while the pain of staying put becomes high enough, and the prospects for removing it low enough, that you decide move on. On the other hand, it’s folly to give in to all of your temptations. These cues can fuel Kaizen in your own location. Instead of moving on, fix your own environment. Looking for greener grass on the other side may say more about you than about your grass.

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