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.