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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Two People at a Time

We treasure our friends here in Denmark. It may surprise American readers to hear that a Dane usually has only two or three real life friends (ven or veninde). Maybe you call them “best friends” or “soulmates.” More than anyone else, it is by these people that the world changes us, and through these people that we change the world.

What does this have to do with career? I launched this ‘blog by asking you to consider your place in changing the world. Jerry Weinberg taught me long ago that we change the world one person at a time. Sure, on a job—in a group or on a team—we maintain enough close working relationships to get the product out the door. Teams are important, too, and the relationships they develop can last a lifetime and be of great value. Don’t overlook the relationships in these connections, and don’t overly separate the professional and personal sides of that relationship (look back on The Whole Person).

My metric for a worthwhile change to the world is that some of part of it, no matter how small, has fundamentally changed. By fundamental here I mean changing beliefs, changing one’s reason for being in the world of work. That is career growth on a par with human purpose. Think paradigm shift. I could have alternatively defined success in terms of the mass or extent of change, because it takes less energy in the short term to move many people a small distance. Think Twitter. Fundamental changes take sharp focus, and it takes far more focus to engage in fundamental change on a group level than pairwise. I have instead decided to trust the social process of change propagation: I change one person, and I trust that person’s new foundations will propagate thousands of times. If I move that person a great deal, in the end, I will have moved the world a great deal. And I will have created a new, defining relationship in the process.

Society equates power with span of control. That tends to work against the painstaking process of caring for one individual at a time, and of carrying on a true dialog. You can’t seriously dialog with a crowd: you can only broadcast and receive disembodied slices of feedback. Dialog happens soul-to-soul. When I’ve had the job of lecturing to thousands about new technologies, or of writing to tens of thousands about design, it must have an impact. But it’s the individual feedback that matters.

I am concerned about the increasing use of social media as a primary venue for fundamental engineering dialog. I miss the thoughtfulness and depth of pairwise dialectic. Call me nostalgic, but, sure, I do Tweet, and have a portal on most other household social networks. And there is, after all, this ‘blog. It’s all part of the equation. But in the end, broadcast media are just an outlet for a task whose hope lies in hearing some individual story, one great success, or a single change of mind. I’m not here to align anyone’s agendas with mine. As a reader, you are a victim of my attempt to lure you more deeply into an appreciation of human sensibilities and individual worth. I don’t care what you believe, if you’re honest with yourself about what you believe. I do care that passionate people engage in dialog at an individual level;  that lifts the world.

Change the world by being part of changing each other. Jerry should have said we change the world two individuals at a time.

The Myth of Individual Invention

The Swarming essay drew the interest and comments of many readers. Most of the retorts evoked deeply held fears of one’s individualism being threatened. Society has taught us that survival owes to our salary at our job, and that our job owes to our individual performance. Society has reinforced those notions with accolades of individual accomplishment: patents, promotions, and promises of favor. Culture needs and has always needed such rituals, and we shouldn’t minimize their contribution. It is, however, important to know that they work differently in different cultures, and that there is a much, much bigger picture.

If one looks beyond the cultural trappings of recognition, it has long been known that it is society, and not individuals, who invent. The anthropologist Kroeber, in his book Anthropology (1923, Harcourt, Brace and World), tells us that “as long as the matter [of the nature of genius] is viewed simply as one of persons, it remains rather meaningless.” Many people invent, but “[o]nly a fraction are ever found out, or allowed the rank by history.” He lists inventions discovered by multiple inventors thousands of miles apart within months of each other: the telephone, telescope, steamboat, phonograph, natural selection, and dozens more. How can an individual in good conscience claim ownership of a novel idea?

You can argue that even if this is true, that society demands recognition of accomplishment on the Pavlovian basis that people do what they are rewarded for. Rewards are important as cultural artefacts; but we know from Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us, and dozens of other sources, it’s all about the intrinsic sense of accomplishment than any extrinsic motivator.

Social and technological progress are less about individuals than about groups and swarms. In his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead, 2011), Steven Johnson tells us that “Analyzing innovation on the scale of individuals and organizations—as the standard textbooks do—distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and ‘survival of the fittest’ competition.” Johnson’s conclusion is that “openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.” He offers case study after case study of how cross-fertilization of people and ideas led to good ideas.

In his book Finite and Infinite Games (Free Press, 1976) the theologian Carse describes the finite games that distinguish winners from losers: academic grades, promotion and, arguably, invention. He contrasts finite games with infinite games, whose goal is to continue playing the game. Intellectual process is obviously an infinite game. Over-attention to individual genius, and its rewards, reduces it to a finite game. Carse relates that playing an infinite game as though it were a finite game is the very definition of evil.

These are just five citations. They’re probably foreign to much of an engineering readership—a readership bent more on credit for inventing than acknowledging its place on the shoulders of the giants of history.

Of course, individuals matter, at least in so much as collective populations comprise individuals. At some level wars are fought and won by individuals. Yet one of the most highly celebrated soldiers in any war is the Unknown Soldier, whose tomb stands for the individual anonymity of the collective. From the long view of history, the inscriptions on the military cemetery crosses fade and blur into the big picture. The one universally remembered by name is the one with no name.

An Extra Day

We all dream of adding years to our lives—by giving up smoking, through good exercise and diet, and all those other good things we associate with clean, healthy living. Let’s say that life gave you an extra day, that an extra day just dropped into your calendar. Would you treat it like just any other day? Would you just get caught up on your to-do list? Let me invite you into a gedanken experiment about such a day being a great opportunity to focus on concerns that would otherwise never make it to the top of your list. When they try to make it to the top, you find you don’t have time.

Holidays come close to serving this need, but it’s not quite the same. The year-end religious holidays bring us thoughts of charity. The advent of the New Year gives time for reflection on how life has been good to us — or about how we can make it better for ourselves in the next year. But these holidays become almost a duty. People make New Years’ resolutions almost begrudgingly. These holidays are a ritual. We can muse that these are the kinds of thoughts that every duty-minded employee attends to as a duty to their employer, mindful of sustaining their secured income. We can muse that a career-minded person, on the other hand, leaves those issues to the daily joy of problem solving, and uses the gift of extra time for outward focus.

In the same way, February 29 can take its place in our calendars as a gift. It’s an equal opportunity gift afforded to everyone, independent of their station in life or level of accomplishment. It’s a way that our culture has chosen to remind us to take time for what is important to us.

Every day should be a February 29. Far too many people make every day February 2, in the sense of the movie Ground Hog’s Day. It’s natural to take time and its daily activities for granted; routine and ritual are, in fact, important to avoiding information overload and as such are key to our survival. But try balancing the gait of routine daily activity with excursions into novelty. Consciously spend time alone, or consciously spend time with others. Be intentional in your actions for one day. You’ll learn much about yourself.

This year will also be the year of the leap second as well—the first time since December 2008. On June 30 at 23:59:60 (yes, that time is right) you’ll again have time added to the length of your life. Even an additional second can be a priceless gift. A spark of inspiration can arrive in a second. You can give a smile, or receive one, in a second. So, first, use that extra second. Then ponder on the thousands of ordinary seconds that you have this year as well, and consider how to use them wisely.

Of course, there will never be enough days dropping into your calendar for you to clean up your backlog. Yet, somehow, the gift of additional time helps you focus on what your priorities really are by encouraging to think of how you should most effectively use that time. And if you did something mundane on this February 29, it means that you’re a day ahead on the work of the upcoming months. That gives you even more flexibility to choose one of those days as your ersatz February 29. Take that day and think great thoughts—or, even better, do something really great.


Monte Python’s Brian reminds us that we (most of us, anyhow) “are all individuals.” Rugged individualism is the hallmark of many cultures — most notably of Americans who celebrate a pioneering spirit borne of its expansionist 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps some day I’ll  dedicate some thoughts to that topic. But today I’d like to draw your thoughts to work-in-the-many.

Anthropologists sometimes debate whether homo sapiens are social animals like apes or loners like bears. I tend to lean to the social animal side of the argument. At this point, as you project where today’s installment is leading, you’re likely to roll your eyes in anticipation of yet another one of those homilies about teams. Teams are all the rage these days, and appropriately so.

However, today I want to talk about swarms. Yes: humans swarm, though the collected entity is rarely as physically identifiable as the apiarian analogue. Such structures have long existed in human culture. Religious denominations often fit this model, as do political parties. Swarms long pre-date the Internet, though the Internet has brought life to swarms with instant communication and connectedness that were unthinkable five years ago. I dare say that will remain a timeless claim no matter how far in the future you are reading this article. That’s why swarms are so important: our swarm-connectedness is bound to grow over the decades.

Back in 2000, Dick Gabriel’s OOPSLA keynote talked of the importance of swarm development in software. Open source had already been in full swing for many years. Forget pair programming: bug density plummets under the gaze of thousands of pairs of eyes. I can launch a question into the swarm about an Apple API and get a useful answer in minutes or hours. That was unthinkable even from dedicated help desks just a few years back.

Join a swarm — not a club — of thousands or millions of people. Clubs are about stature; swarm members are anonymous. Clubs are social and fun; while there’s a bit of that in a swarm, it’s not really part of the swarm dynamic. Clubs just gather; good swarms do work. Yet some swarms generate identities that emerge at a larger scale. The open source movement is a shining example — millions of anonymous workers building some of the greatest software on earth. The pattern community is another, and while it is like a bed of tulips where much the same flowers recur on an annual basis, it carries a vision of a shared worldwide identity. It is perhaps a club in transition to becoming a swarm if history so favors it.

Contemporary engineers are team creatures. Today’s engineering career path follows much of history as individuals hop the stepping stones from one team identity to another.  For all their good, however, teams are remarkably insular. They interact tens times as much among themselves as with members of other teams. More social progress comes from swarms than teams.

It’s important to note that “swarm” is not a synonym for “good.” While mutual trust characterizes some swarms, it is hardly germane to all of them. Invoking Gabriel again, we note “dangerous waterholes” in the savannah where both the lion and gazelle “swarm” to drink. If the lion kills the gazelle there, then the gazelles will stop coming there at all and will eventually be wiped out for want of water. Tune swarm parameters just right and you get mass movement psychology — a cancerous, collective insanity.

Are you a part of a swarm? Know what kind of swarm you belong to, or swarm into a good one.

Is there a doctor in the house?

 An academic degree is a way for your colleagues to recognize your hard work to prepare yourself for a job. Successful completion of an undergraduate degree supposedly shows that you are smart enough to be able to learn how to do your job in a given field (see the previous installment on Mentoring). A master’s degree, by its name, suggests mastery in some topic. A Ph.D. is at least evidence that you can navigate academic politics (and by inference, the politics of your discipline) and that you can be persuasive in selling ideas. And where I went to school in Brussels, a Doctorate shows your ability to start a research program in any field.

I actually embarked on my Ph.D. program so I could more credibly continue in discrediting the institution, as I had for years. I had seen too many theses taken at face value because of their academic stature, though they remained out of touch with day-to-day realities. I was actually cheated in that pursuit because I found myself saddled with a wise promoter, and found myself in a great environment that challenged me while also giving me opportunities to contribute.

On its face, a degree is a recognition of worthiness by society. Alistair Cockburn once told me that his Ph.D. was largely recognition of work already done. Such recognition does open doors.

These educational opportunities, and perhaps even the associated laurels, probably have some value. I’m not sure whether higher degrees offer any more value than what one can gain on-the-job. In fact, working with my colleagues in Finland, I find that most of the value in their Ph.D. degrees (and, increasingly, in their Masters’ degrees) comes from an action research approach — trying to gain what insights one can from actual on-the-job experience in some area of focus. The good news is that the students’ learning is grounded in day-to-day problems. The bad news is that their research publications are occasionally over-constrained by the artificial limits that the messiness of the real world imposes. Some research deserves to run unfettered.

More important, after having received four academic degrees (and earned enough credits for another), and after having kept my hands dirty working for almost 40 years, I think that the main tie from my academic credentials to my work situation is in the introspection encouraged by the environment in which I took my Ph.D. Academic degrees are not career milestones. For me, my undergraduate degree broadened my opportunities to appreciate the arts (see Ars Gratia Artis) and to develop a love of programming. My Master’s degree gave me a nurturing academic environment in a setting where I had a job related to my degree: Most of the learning emanated from the job, rather than from the classroom.

This perspective has implications for hiring. Why hire Ph.Ds.? It’s not necessarily because they are worth more. In fact, academic achievement tells us little about talent. Most academic programs are rooted in test scores, and those have little correlation with career success or even job performance (Michael Wallach, Tests tell us little about Talent, American Scientist 64(1), 1976).

A career is not a collection of academic degrees. Don’t hang your career success on academic achievement. Use academic institutions for the learning opportunities they provide, partially through the classroom but even moreso through their culture, environment, opportunities for deliberate practice, and opportunities for work-study programs. Employers: hire accordingly, and make a place on your staff for bright folks still working on their sheepskin.

Bah, humbug!

One of my recent installments (There is no failure, only feedback) was a short essay on a career perspective on problem solving. Some comments I received on the article made me realize that it didn’t sink in with exactly the people who need it most. So here is another try.

If you regularly work to remove the source of recurring problems you have the leadership seeds of a good career. A great way to kill a career is to deal only with problems you are asked to solve or that lie within the confines of a job description. Too many engineers limit their focus to engineering problems. My former Bell Labs department head, Steve Baumann, once told us that there had never been a technical problem that Bell Labs had been unable to solve: All the interesting problems are about people. It’s everyone’s job to solve those.

Saying this, I’m usually admonished to get back to the real problems.  It is not only the recent retorts here that are of this nature and have self-pity and bitterness lurking just beneath the surface. Instead of solving problems, the Scrooges and Grinches among us blame everything on others. Managers usually blame. employees. Workers usually blame managers. We hear: “management typically ignores the value proposition of common best practices” or even that someone feels their job is to “find a way to trick or coerce management into doing what they should be doing but are too busy golfing to ever get around to.” Would you trust your life to an engineer designing medical equipment, who sees tricking management as part of his job?

Enter the Grinches and Scrooges, who elevate this perspective to bitterness and a self-pity. Sure, I’ve had bad managers, too, and I spend a lot of my time these days advising managers. Many of them listen, and often act, if employees will only take the time to talk to them. And when that hasn’t worked out I’ve fixed the problem by moving on to something better. The bitterness doesn’t come from the problem — it comes from not removing its source.

While avoiding the problem (because it’s easier to trick management instead) is a bad thing, sometimes the worst thing you can do is to just fix it. That’s putting a band-aid on it. The bitterness of statements like “I try to improve the common value proposition by being ready to put out fires” reflects a job perspective rather than a career perspective. To gain strategic advancement, you must exercise strategic skills. Strategists embrace failure.

The principles of the Toyota Way lie at the heart of the most popular Agile approaches today, including Toyota’s application of Kaizen: making things better. Surprisingly, it’s not about fixing problems. It’s about removing the source of the problems, with the greater good of the community and company in mind. Again: think job versus career, respectively.

But, yes, Virginia (and Scrooges, too), there is a Santa Claus. And it could be you. Career-mindedness and a broad vista of problem-solving is what it’s about. Great problems don’t come up and bite you on the bottom. Engineers attack problems, even if  — especially if — they’re outside their job descriptions.

Every workplace (and ‘blog) has its Grinches who complain about problems and allocate blame because they feel impotent to solve them. Every company and every ‘blog site has them. But we wish a great holiday season even to them — and that includes you, Joshua. And the same to the rest of you — with an added admonition not to let the turkeys get you down.

Your Priorities


You’ve just found a bottle on the beach. You rub it and a magic genie appears.  But because it’s just an old Danish beer bottle you get only one wish — but it can be for anything (but no meta-wishes). What do you wish for?

Or you’ve completed a series of interviews for a new job, and you’ve just received a job offer. Tell me what your eyes scanned the page for when you opened the offer letter.

You probably know where this is going —  once again into the job / career dichotomy. But the two are linked, after all. And each of them addresses different Maslow levels of your value system (see Do Your Best, an earlier installment in this series).

Money is likely one answer that many people would give for the opening questions above. Come on now, be honest with yourself. But this answer is probably more common for recent graduates than those further along in their career. Why?

Rationalizations ensue: We argue that a good starting salary is the base that establishes what you will be making in 20 years (it’s not true). Those senior folks who don’t seek money are hippies or are financially complacent; maybe they’re rich from years of work and now they are seeking something else from working. And there are those who use their salary as a measure of stature — we’ll leave them alone with their thoughts. Money is more about feelings than about other facts

There’s a deeper answer. Start with the fact that money has no value in its own right. It is only a socially agreed token of exchange for goods and services of value.  Few people garner money for its own sake: paper money makes a lumpy mattress, and the metal stuff is heavy and cumbersome. There’s not much enjoyment having it sitting in the bank, particularly given the way things have gone with banks these recent years. No: money is our means to some other end.

Now, that’s O.K. But I wonder if we too often fail to take that next step and honestly consider: What is my deeper motivation for money? For many, it is the need for a feeling of security — feelings rooted in a childhood where there was never enough food on the table or where it was difficult to keep a roof over one’s head. But for most of us, money is a means to something beyond: to save for retirement, or to afford that cottage on the lake or summer house in the Swedish woods.

Do you want that cottage or that summer house because it’s a way to get away from your job, to spend time with your family? That’s kind of interesting — to take a job on the basis of making enough money to get away from your job. That job may take you away from you family more than a less-paid one. We too often hide these trade-offs from ourselves.

Some harbor an illusion that you work now and that life starts sometime after age 65. But those who most enjoy their retirement are those who keep their minds and fingers busy in the fun of their business long after their salary stops. And, it’s funny, those are many of the same people who seemed to know really how to live throughout their earlier years.

Seek to optimize your overall work life value. Make your job enjoyable, perhaps by using it to reach out to others or to create greatness in the world. The world tends to take good care of those who have that outlook.


There is No Failure — Only Feedback

We’ve all made mistakes. Some even admit it. The best of us learn from our mistakes. But the very best of us have a talent to ignore our long-cultivated reflexes that lead us to hide the consequences of our errors. A great career carefully courts failure.

Solving problems is fundamental to engineering. We often separate the problems we are asked to solve from the ones we cause, and classify the former as opportunities and the latter as failures. But we can’t, in general, always avoid failure. The nature of complex problems means we navigate failures as we close in on the solution. As Jerry Weinberg tells us: There is no failure, only feedback. 

History relates many stories of engineering advances at the hand of failure. Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From,  Penguin, 2010) tells how DeForest’s invention of the vacuum tube came from a misunderstanding of what made it work. Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was similar, as were Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype and Greatbatch’s invention of the pacemaker.

Systems thinking literature and philosophy has a cornucopia of advice about failure. Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle structures the feedback loop that compensates for missing the mark. We often hear that the fundamental form or architecture of the things in our workplace follows function, but Henry Petroski tells us that form follows failure (“Form Follows Failure,” Technology Magazine 8(2), Fall 1992).

Failure can be your friend. As long as he’s going to be in your neighborhood anyhow, you might as well get acquainted. You’ve heard that you can learn from failure. That realization has become the watchword of those looking for rationalizations when things go bad — when failure causes such pain that we contemplate fairness in creation and the cause of evil in the world.

Instead of rationalizing the big failures by just making lemons into lemonade, go a step further and capitalize on the more common and numerous glitches that are part of day-to-day business. We too often let these go by unheeded. If you pick out a few that you find worthy of attention, you will raise your own awareness of how to do better next time. 

The very nature of kaizen in Japanese culture is rooted in an introspective state of hansei: of deep reflection and of identifying with the problem. Only then are we truly in a position to understand how we can relate to solving the problem, either by removing its cause, or working with others to do so, or to embark on a program of continuous practice to remove the problem. Also intrinsic to kaizen is that improvement comes not so much from solving the problem, but from going to the next level to remove its very cause. There is lasting value in fixing a software bug. There is broad, lasting value from improving the process to diminish the chances that such kinds of bugs can ever arise again. But we need those bugs, those problems, to trigger the process changes. In that sense we celebrate the opportunity that presents itself when a problem arises, though we soberly assess our place in that system.

Speaking of intentional practice, periodic reflection is a good thing. Explicitly take time to reflect on opportunities to improve — as an individual, a family, a team, or as a corporation. It takes trust and courage, but it builds trust and courage as well. William James said “The error is needed to set off the truth, much as a dark background is required for exhibiting the brightness of a picture.”


I recently spoke at a conference in Oslo and was enjoying some lively interaction with the audience. One attendee bemoaned the fact that his company couldn’t rise to the challenge to excellence that I had put to the audience. When I inquired about what the problem was, he told me that their engineers were “stupid” and not up to acceptable standards. Feigning that I had inside information, I apologized for having forgotten that his company had a policy of hiring idiots.

Few companies make it a point to hire idiots, yet I often hear senior employees complaining about the inexperience of their staff. There is a widespread belief that companies live and die by excellence in their hiring programs — programs with standards designed to weed out the slackers while hand-picking the cream of the crop.

It is difficult to cream-skim talent a tight market. When prosperous times push the job market demand over the supply, or when long-term pessimism about the business creates a delayed shortage of graduates in some area, companies often must take what they can get.

But first, talent is probably overrated. Richard Gabriel reflects that talent has little to do with the level of excellence that an individual can attain — only with the speed with which one can attain it. There are exceptions, of course. But a company that sets new employees on a career path, instead of just giving them jobs, will more deeply value your potential to learn than your college grades. It makes sense to scrutinize the track record of a mature market hire only if he or she will be expected to do exactly the same work in their new job as they did in the old one — and that is often not the case.

However, it might not matter that much. First, Deming tells us that quality owes more to the process than to individual performance. Second, schools rarely arm students with the skills they will need to thrive in the corporate world or even in any particular engineering discipline. Practice may follow academic theory or the tenets of basic training if you just land in a job, but they don’t prepare you for the employment opportunities that can launch a career. Industrial practice is always more particular, exacting and contextualized than either educational experience or previous employment can prepare one for. 

That means that employers can’t help but bear the burden of educating new employees. Many corporations have a “mentoring” program to bring new employees on board. While these programs are well-intentioned, they are often superficial. Corporate value systems expect mentors still to complete all their assignments while brining a new colleague into the company, and expect mentees to be “self-directing” in their quest to climb the corporate ladder. Mentors may expend a few days giving the new hire a tour of the premises, tips on standard procedures, admonitions about exigencies and taboos, and an overview of upcoming work assignments. But mentors too often end being just a “safety hatch,” checking up on new employees now and then to ensure that they aren’t stuck, and to be sure that they aren’t doing any damage.

Good mentoring is a partnership, and while it is good to have a single “buddy” who can help bring a new employee on board, it’s a team responsibility. Expect each new employee to detract from the effectiveness of each team member by about 25% for 6 months. If that’s not the case, you’re probably not doing a good job of mentoring — and you’ll pay the price in the long term.

Small Things

Uncle Bob honored me back in 2008 by asking me to pen the foreword to Clean Code (Prentice-Hall, 2008). Though perhaps better known for writing about programming in-the-large, I was being asked by Bob to reflect on the crucial issues of programming-in-the-small. After all, the greatest mansion eventually reduces to its boards and tiles, and the most ambitious creations in software are built brick upon procedural brick. Small things matter.

In career, as in architecture and coding, there is a close tie between quality in detail and quality of the whole. We can recall a host of cultural saws that recognize and celebrate that relationship. He who is faithful in little is faithful in much. A stitch in time saves nine. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The architect Mies van der Rohe tells us that God is in the details.

A paradox lurks here. A career is a grand notion that transcends decades and thousands of individual acts. No one is under any illusion that we can define a precise career destination and arrive there by taking exactly the right footsteps in exactly the right order. Together, however, steps are guided by an underlying compass needle, a broad goal.

Agile principles lie deeper still: the power of choice to change one’s compass heading. We may do so to adapt to temporally short obstacles. More fundamentally, we can choose to redefine the destination. To unthinkingly plod to a stubbornly fixed destination can be a death-march. The mid-20th-century notion of “taking over Daddy’s business” is one archetype of such paths. Agile careers recreate networks of associations every day, because the world changes too much not to.

Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow, 1974), offers a metaphor linking the big picture with crucial details. “To strive only for some future goal is shallow.  ... [I]t is on the sides of the mountain where things grow. Yet, there are no sides without a top. The top defines the sides.”

If the path up the mountain twists and turns, and if we even switch to another mountain now and then, what is the deep, underlying invariant? Pirsig suggests that it might be caring. Caring plays out in the small things of life.  Any destination is the accumulation of thousands of individual acts. So while the compass needle points the way, our daily choices define the path. The destination can be foreseen, but the path is defined only in retrospect.

You can make the grandest claims about being an engineer striving to make the world a better place, but it is a hollow accomplishment if you climb on peoples’ backs to get there. Accomplishment goes deeper than some goal: equally important to what you do is who you are. As Pirsig reminds us:  the journey is on the sides of the mountains.

Caring subsumes a host of ethical preconditions to any career. I opened my foreword to Uncle Bob’s book with an anecdote about a Danish licorice box. Our Ga-Jol licorice boxes all come with a witty saying printed on the inside of the lid. On the morning of the day that I was to write the foreword I opened a box to the admonition,  Ærlighed i små ting er ikke nogen lille ting. “Honesty in small things is not a small thing.” Keep the big picture before you, but attend to excellence, honesty, integrity, beauty, and joy in the small things of life. Big things will follow.

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