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 Risk Paradox

Imagine a career with zero risk. It smacks of an ad in a cheap magazine, targeting the unsophisticated to lure them into some kind of scheme. There are careers with little risk, such as being a hotel receptionist. Then there are careers where risk avoidance is essential to the nature of the job or the state of the technology, such as bomb defusing or piloting commercial airliners. Then there are careers like race car driving where the risk itself draws us to the profession. I think that a great engineering career is much like race car driving in this respect — though I have also seen engineers in the hotel receptionist category. Of course, you never can make risk go to zero.

I used to work in the then-prestigious Bell Labs Research, where our job was to explore new frontiers. The unexplored always has risk of low payoff and the application of research results has sometimes made things worse. The nature of research is to take risk.  The question arises: how do you reward a researcher? What is good research? A developer playing it safe and masquerading as a researcher wouldn’t fare well in the organization: they rarely fuel the innovation engine. So a balanced degree of failure is not only allowed, but expected. This is the risk paradox: for someone in a research career, there is no personal risk in taking risk. The enterprise manages the risk at a higher level by managing the number of people allowed to fail as frequently as researchers do.

We tend to associate research with novelty and risk with adventure. Risk and adventure are related but neither one is about novelty alone. I can have adventure without risking value, life or limb, such as we challenge ourselves to on roller-coaster rides. Maybe there is always a potential sense of adventure behind risk-taking, but too much of it can lead to compulsive dysfunctions as with habitual gamblers.

Engineers tend to be conservative (see The Grass is Greener) and, as such, try to push risk into the distant columns beyond the decimal point. Our profession is so linked to risk aversion as to color English vocabulary: you rarely hear the term “under-engineered” in vernacular English, but its complement is common.

An agile project or career is one with higher-than-normal risk. Great organizations not only tolerate risk, but encourage it. Don’t tempt fate with irresponsible action. On the other hand, don’t avoid failing: strive for excellence instead.  In Bell Labs Research, even in the days when we were expected to be “relevant,” playing it safe was not an option. I teach Scrum students to push themselves to the raw edge of complexity staring in the face of chaos. It’s important not only that you learn your organization’s current risk appetite, but also that you help the organization push the limits to the edge of increased value. And remember that in well-managed risk, there is no failure: only feedback.

All risk has a time factor. I have taken career risks by making a stand for what was right when I could have stayed quiet. That sometimes cost me in the short term, but I have no regrets. Maturity helps one cope with the delay in the gratification of knowing one has done the right thing. That knowledge itself is a treasured outcome above and beyond the value accrued over the years from such decisions, and that helps put the short term losses in perspective. Maybe there is less career risk in taking career risks than you might imagine.

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Nice article. Good presentation, and though not new it provdes a reminder, especially (for me) the idea to take the risk temperature of your organization. Sometimes I forget that.

Not sure I go along with the "no failure, just feedback" idea. That sounds a little too good to be true. Planes do crash, despite very serious attempts to manage risk. If there's no downside, there's no risk. If a researcher's experiments always fail, perhaps a career intervention is warranted (which sounds more like failure than like feedback).

But I like the engineering/research comparison and the main message. Thanks.

Posted on 3/1/13 9:36 AM.

Well, there are intelligent risk-takers, then there are--well, I think they are called "Jack Asses!" In the 1950's so many test pilots were lost in high risk flights that Edwards Air Force Base was running out of streets to name after them. Today, flight testing dangerous aircraft and systems is much safer and its goal is often stated as "risk reduction."
Risk should never be a substitute for lack of interest or boredom. Intelligent risk is always hard work that includes planning, focus, and discipline. If feedback is a substitute for failure caused by high risk, it had better be robust feedback. There are too many unstable Chernobyls out there in the real world.

Posted on 3/4/13 2:15 PM.

It has been useful to me to estimate the cost of the possible failure associated with the risk, and the cost to reduce or remove the risk, then let the stakeholders join in the choice to take the risk.
I think this applys to risk in design and implemetation, but does it apply to risks in research?

Posted on 3/5/13 1:50 AM.

Victor, it's great seeing the nice words of a seasoned veteran here.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, with consequences that we call by a number of names from "inconvenience" through "tragedy" to "disaster." I'm not saying that decisions, or even the whims of nature, are without consequences. I'm saying that it's better to avoid an attitude of surrender and defeat but to instead rise above the consequences to a plateau of learning. Most consequences of our own misguided actions bear the seeds of learning and improvement, and it's better to view them that way than just as dead-end "failures."

Posted on 3/8/13 11:20 PM in reply to Victor Church.

To regard risk as separate from lack of interest or boredom is, I think, to deny the most fundamental elements of human nature. Blaise Pascal's entire formulation of the human condition regards our professions and pastimes as activities that distract us from the futility of existence. We find a common tension in professional settings between the test-pilot-like researchers who get to do the exciting stuff and the mundane factory workers who turn nuts onto bolts. Our profession rightfully rewards risk taking; more than that, so does humanity. Such is the source of hero myths, ballads, and the great stories of human history.

Most day-to-day professional risk taking doesn't incur the ends that are the subject of your perhaps overly dramatic characterization. Absent good risk management, negative consequences are costly; in their presence, such consequences are integral to our engagement and growth. We indeed have a responsibility to elicit robust feedback when possible, but we aren't god-like enough to control nature when it believes it should do otherwise. Embrace change and treasure the inevitable reality of negative feedback rather than seeking a Pollyanna existence.

Posted on 3/8/13 11:41 PM in reply to Dan Biezad.

Ronald — brilliant insights! Risk sharing is the essence of a good partnership, and good partnerships are the essence of effective agile development. But if you are hinting that risk is qualitatively different in research than in development, I agree. Too many (in fact, most) companies today label "advanced development" as research — a kind of self-agrandissement — but retain the same value expectations as for development.

When Marissa Mayer told Yahoo! employees that they had to ship in six months or forget it, I'm betting that there are still people with a title of "researcher" to whom that applies. In fact, such a policy kills research and doesn't just eat the seed corn: it shovels it into a blast furnace powering an enterprise towards oblivion. There must be some percentage of corporate endeavor — its magnitude modulated by good risk management — focused on research that is largely decoupled from short-term stakeholder concerns. The stakeholders of risk-taking in true research benefit in different ways and through longer and more indirect feedback loops than through the risk-taking in production.

Posted on 3/8/13 11:42 PM in reply to Ronald Baldridge.