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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To Everything, There is a Season

Most engineers try to plan their career paths. When I graduated, the typical engineer planned to make $50,000 a year within five years, to have 1.3 children, a $200,000 house, and to enjoy stable employment until Armageddon. In the old days, you could do that — as 1950s culture is described in Helgesen’s Everyday Revolutionaries (Doubleday, 1998). And it’s particularly true for engineers. Thomas Allen tells us that engineers do this because they expect stability. Traditional engineers traditionally show corporate loyalty. Scientists, on the other hand, are loyal to their discipline and less so to a firm.

Today you can't plan that far ahead. There is no right time to change career, to get married, to have children, or to stop drinking. There is only what you want to do, and a now. All else is illusion.

“I find that when going into battle, that plans are useless; planning, however I find to be indispensable,” said Eisenhower. Planning is in the moment. A life fully lived responds to the leading of what is most important right now. We can’t control or even change the past, and we’re pretty lousy about predicting the future. We convince ourselves that we can change it, and to a degree, we can — by doing things in the now.

Planning, therefore, should focus on three concepts in sequence: what, how, and when. Start with what. What do you want to achieve — to write a book or finish a program or fall in love or start a family or get a promotion? Don’t worry prematurely about how and when. Lay out before you what makes life worth living.

Second is related to the how. Are some of your whats building blocks for others? Are you missing some whats that are prerequisites for others? Figure out the dependencies between the elements of your vision. Consider everything. Don’t keep a personal calendar and a work calendar; there’s only one You, and that one You should have time to do what’s important at any given moment. Keeping two calendars gives you the illusion of being able to sustain two nows. You can’t. You’ll end sacrificing one of them.

Finally, there is when. A good when has a sense of immediacy: a now-ness. Brand’s The Clock of the Long Now (Basic Books, 1999) admonishes us that now lasted a lot longer in the old days then it does today.

As a concrete example: Right now I am still weary (but nonetheless content) from working on my most recently published book. I am not eager to publish another one right now, but I probably will someday. Maybe it will be a book of collected thoughts on Agile career development. If I were to do that, what would I need? Enough chapters of good ideas to challenge and entertain the reader — and enough energy. I’ll know it when I see it. When will it happen? Some morning I’ll awaken to the light at the end of the tunnel. Thought by thought, the book will have come together. I don’t know when that now will come — or even if it will come.

Over-planning your career like 1950s engineers did causes you to miss open doors. Occasionally bring your ever-changing perspectives together to uncover the new whats that life progressively reveals. However, without reflecting on these whats, you’re just out on a drunkard’s walk. A little housekeeping will help you do what you really want to do. Then, execute. Picasso admonished, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”

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Interesting (and astute) blog entry, although I attribute that last quote to Picasso, not Emerson.

As a 57-year old engineer, I can affirm that I value stability and have worked for exactly two organizations in my career. I have 1.3 children (rounded down), made $50k within 5 years and live in a $200k+ house sans leverage.

Posted on 7/18/11 8:03 AM.

I would point out that the $50k/year salary then would be maybe $400k/year now.

Posted on 7/19/11 4:41 PM.

Very interesting and thought provoking post. The order of What, How and When is important as you pointed out. Because if we start considering the how and when, before we finalizes on 'What', then the objectives will be constrained by the practicalities. Dream big and aim high when considering the What and the rest will follow if one is willing to work for it. And I completely agree with the pitfalls of over planning. Good stuff.

Posted on 7/20/11 10:14 PM.

David, you seem to be right about the citation. Thanks so much for pointing it out. I've made the correction.

I think we have a lot in common :-)

Posted on 7/21/11 12:05 AM in reply to David Gancarz.