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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Do Your Best

The programming trade recently lost one of its great contributors, Dennis Ritchie. As many of the emerging eulogies to Dennis attest, he was a quiet, focused man. I never saw him seek recognition or glory. His work spoke for itself, and earned him honors such as the Turing Award and the National Medal of Technology, awarded personally by U.S. President Clinton. Steve Jobs’ departure is another recent landmark loss.

It is these peoples’ outstanding influence that begs us to compare them to others and to ourselves. The Maslow hierarchy, a common model of human motivation, is a mirror of contemporary Western values. Maslow says that respect by others trumps even the love found in friendship and family. Even deeper lie our basic needs for safety, security, and survival (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs).

What is the place of career in being our whole selves? Do careers give meaning to life, or move us up the Maslow hierarchy? Reflect on others who have left their mark across human history. We can invoke several archetypes:

  • Mother Theresa, whom we remember for selfless contributions to thousands of individuals, but her example inspired yet many more. She is perhaps best remembered for two characteristics from near the apex of the Maslow hierarchy: morality and lack of prejudice.
  • Albert Einstein, who created a new body of knowledge, and set challenges that inspired many scientists and engineers in the human quest for knowledge.
  • Bill Gates, who transformed an industry and became one of the world’s richest men. Even whether he changed it for the better is controversial, depending on the technology affiliation of the people you ask, he is probably better known for the extent of his influence rather than its vector — similar to Attilla the Hun who, in spite of his reputation, in fact spread many positive aspects of culture across Asia.

If there is any universal across these three archetypes, it isn’t that they were all in it for the money, power, or fame. I don’t think we can say that they were seeking comfort. Why are we so intrigued by all three? They were all high on the Maslow scale. They stand out as human archetypes — so much so that they are held up as the definitive saint, genius, and mogul, respectively.

Which archetype do you aspire to — Gates? Einstein? or Mother Theresa? There is no right answer. It’s easy to stand outside these great lives as we evaluate and emulate them. Society’s values call us to that perspective. Yet it’s crucial that we turn these evaluations inward. Our externally visible career self is not our whole self.  Nor was it for these celebrities. Gates’ philanthropy stands beside his career, attesting to another Maslow level. A quick web search turns up a cornucopia of quotes that unveil Einstein’s humanistic side.

What is their universal common attribute? Perhaps it is passion. Perhaps passion correlates to one’s Maslov level. Dennis Ritchie had a passion for detail and precision. History rewards those with passion for such excellence, or for people, or even control. When considering which of these should guide your career, carefully attend to your intrinsic values rather than those of society. Modern research by Pink  (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead, 2011) shows that our sense of accomplishment is itself our highest reward — also high on the Maslow scale — independent of influence.

You don’t have to aspire to be a saint, or a mogul, or a genius in your career.  Just go back to the Cub Scout motto: Do your best. Somehow, I think that’s what drove Dennis.

 

You Go, Girl!

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are male. The British National Guidance Research Forum says that men outnumbered women in Engineering by 4-to-1 to 5-to-1 over the past 15 years. The U.S. department of commerce reports the 2009 ratio at about 3 to 1 even though the job market as a whole is split half and half. And the numbers for women in computing are falling (Beedle et al., “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” U.S. Department of Commerce, ESA Issue Brief #04-11).

Whether you had noticed or not, and no matter if your principles tell you whether it should or should not be so, women and men are different. Men prefer Android phones over iPhones, while for women it’s vice-versa (Nielsen Wire, 1 December, 2010). Whether you’re on the Android or iPhone side of the market you want your work force to understand both perspectives. One tips the work force gender balance at one’s own peril in the market.

Computing and engineering have long been male bastions. Numbers for women grew slightly back when I was in school in the early 1980s, but  fell off again and have never quite recovered. The reason? Maybe because women view male-dominated engineering cultures as less humane work environments than the alternatives. You can guess more reasons. And they’re important.

There’s more. On the average, women in technical professions are better-educated than their male counterparts  (The Gender Gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Occupations, scientopia.org, 4 August 2011).  Girls’ academic performance is better than boys’, and the gap is widening (BBC News, “GCSE REsults: Gender Gap Widens,” 25 August 2011).

I’m sure that with research I could find other numbers in women’s favor. However, looking beyond gender alone, diversity is a virtue in its own right. We can find analogous numbers that favor men. We can find other numbers that favor Asians. And others that favor just about any ethnic group you might choose.

Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From, Penguin, 2010) steps outside the “creative genius” engineering model to regard innovation as a result of diversity itself. He says, “This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters. A world where a diverse mix of distinct professions and passions overlap is a world where exaptations thrive.” (Chapter VI)

An exaptation is an inventive use of an old idea in a radically new context. Gutenberg’s printing press was a bastardized wine press. These twists of innovation come from idea migrations in a world of “a diverse mix of ... professions and passions.”

Too many engineering cultures stereotype women as project managers, usability specialists, or executive assistants. Such stereotypes in fact perpetuate what might be dangerous, deeper prejudices. If we believe Johnson, such prejudices break down the very structures that fuel innovation — which in many ways is the heart of engineering. Diversity in the professional environment isn’t only doing the right thing — it props up the bottom line. 

When I teach ScrumMaster certification courses I can predict, 9 out of 10 times, which team will score highest in the Velocity Game production simulation. It’s the one with a critical mass of women. Use your hiring and career development clout to grow diversity in your work force. You’ll be glad you did.

Related: Do Romantic Thoughts Reduce Women's Interest in Engineering?

Wisdom of the Times

One of my favorite books is "The Clock of the Long Now," edited by Stewart Brand. Brand will become a young man of 73 this 14 December. The book’s premise is that we who live now have a responsibility to the future. Ah, the past; the future. This is my third composition in a row that touches on the subject of time. My Season composition reflected on the fact that we can’t control our destiny in detail, but that, paradoxically, planning is important. The Routines reflection looked at the place of habit and cycle in life, and recalls Mary Poppendieck’s admonishment that we practice with deliberation. One theme common to these two perspectives is that we live in the now. But a good now is long, straddling past, present, and future.

While we are endowed at birth with various gifts, talents and abilities, most of our professional selves is nurture rather than nature. We are a product of our experiences: of the family that chose us to raise, of the schools we chose to attend, and of our chosen colleagues. Every now is worth treasuring as an opportunity to grow, improve, and to refine our influence. Planning helps us prepare for the opportunities that accelerate that growth. Ritual honors the human element and contextualizes our experiences to help us better integrate them into our whole selves. Improvement comes from time and attentiveness.

The most direct way to learn is first-hand experience from our work. Critical conversation with voices of experience can often be more efficient, optimizing our paths around needless blind alleys. King Solomon said, As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Vicarious learning is often the best.

While we can reap benefit from any conversation, we should listen with particular care to the voices of those who have had time to collect and assimilate the world’s knowledge, and to demonstrate that they could act on it. It has been fashionable in engineering for some time now to put our faith in youth, but the most resilient ideas are woven from grey hairs. I think of Jeff Sutherland when he invented Scrum at age 52, building on previous careers in the military, medicine, and finance.

As I write this, I’m on my way to spend some days with a friend and mentor, Trygve Reenskaug, who invented MVC at age 47. We’ll be talking mainly about nerd stuff, though the discussion will build on our combined lifetime of experiences. But more than that, we’ll both draw on the many gifts of insight that accumulated in discussions with others over the years.

In planning your career, think about your stage in life and how it affects your contribution both to your firm and to society. Share your knowledge in open dialogue but be willing to be challenged either by broader, deeper and more general experience, or by a new perspective that causes you to realize that long-held beliefs might be arbitrary stereotypes or tribal beliefs. Find good mentors who have followed, or perhaps pioneered, the path before you. Just take the time to hear them out. Integrating their experience, though sometimes outdated, with your own life experiences increases the chances you’ll take the right paths.

If you feel you are smart now, but can see how wrong you were in the past, it’s worthwhile projecting yourself a decade or two into the future. You can often do this through the eyes of someone that age. Extend your now into the past through the eyes of senior people, and into the future through your dreams.

Routines

My last column was about about time in the large. My main message was that it is difficult to plan the big things in life far in advance, but that it was nonetheless important to adopt a ritual of planning. In this installment I invite you to examine shorter cycles of time, and a discipline of time on an everyday basis. If your career is the journey, rituals and routines are the disciplines that keep the ship in shape.

We follow routines because, though sometimes small, they can be essential to our long-term goals. Not brushing your teeth isn’t a big deal but in the long term could lead to losing your teeth, a subsequent poor diet, and eventually, death. Routines are those things we should do almost without thinking. Good routines become a matter of habit. Rituals are those routines that we elevate and celebrate as having social relevance.

Cycles go hand-in-hand with routines and rituals. In The Dance of Life (Peter Smith Publications, 1996), Edward Hall notes that cycles are one of the most powerful organizing principles of human behavior. You brush your teeth according to established cycles: it’s a routine. What are the rituals and routines of a good career? Here are some that are close to me.

Taking stock. In the previous column we talked about updating your direction by reviewing the what's on your plate. Making a routine out of this will increase the chance that it happens. Ritualizing this time celebrates the value of the activity in its own right and may help you gain the support or approval of others. I take an annual celebrated week in the Nordic woods to do this.

Meet with your colleagues. Whether it means just going to work, or the morning standup, or an annual conference, give your colleagues an expectation of seeing you regularly. This is the Fox’s most endearing advice to The Little Prince (Gallimard Press, 1946).

Appreciating others. Write holiday cards. Appreciate your customers and clients, co-workers, and boss. Appreciate colleagues on their birthday.

Take time off. Take time to do nothing and to find rhythms of relaxation. Too many of you who are reading this forget to stop working on weekends. Take some weeks away from the job on an annual cycle. Celebrate annual holidays.

Practice. Give yourself time to refine your talents, both professional and personal. You advance by practice, not by accident.

Write. Writing is crucial to an engineering career. Write regularly. Software great and poet Richard Gabriel taught me to write ritually every morning, exhorting me to write something every day. (I happen to not do it in the morning, but otherwise agree with him.) A diary, technical papers, letters, poetry, a ‘blog: find something to write.

Read. The rapidly arising advances in your field won’t walk up and bite you in the bottom. And no, I don’t mean reading what the dogs write on the Internet. Read good books, good journals, and carefully read the letters of your friends.

Change job or career. As described in the previous article, it’s hard to plan as far ahead as the time between career changes. However, there seem to be cycles even on long time scales. What Color is your Parachute (Ten Speed Press, 2010) describes seven-year cycles. Keep an awareness of these cycles in the back of your mind. You may note they correlate to “interesting times” in your life.

Remember: it’s not just doing these things that’s important. What’s important is to make them routine. The familiar lays a firm foundation for the unexpected.

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.”

The Difference between Theory and Practice

True to the unpopular predictions of my friend Haim Levendel 20 years ago, computing has become a commodity industry. Computer and software merchandising isn't much different in 2011 than it was for dish soap in 1960. Both academia and industry know this, and we have been through one or two decades of The Great Dumbing Down.

We’ve come a long way from Diderot, who held that all the world’s knowledge could be captured in a single, although encyclopedic, book. The data on the Internet grows tenfold annually. We simply can’t know everything any more. We have three choices:

  • Be a Jack of all trades and a master of none.
  • Strive for breadth
  • Strive for depth, and leave the breadth issue to team diversity (as I discussed in “Build on your Strengths” some seven installments ago).

If you’ve been reading my previous contributions, you’ll know by now that I value exploration outside one’s comfort zone. Innovation is crucial to most engineering endeavors, and most innovation comes from linking otherwise disparate ideas. This is popularly recognized in research and by the literature; for example, see Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From.” If you have broad foundations, you’ll be better as an individual at working through general problems.

However, we’re still stuck with the fact that we can’t know everything, while success generally depends on a grounding of deep knowledge. Teams sometimes feel safety in numbers independent of experience, but endeavors launched with these assumptions usually end in failure — many failed startups that went forward without business acumen stand testimony to this.

Speaking practically, you need a combination of breadth and depth. My main message here is: Start by striving for depth, because starting conditions are crucial. My secondary message is: Let experience be your guide.

How deep should you go? I’m a depth person. I subscribe to the old saw that the best way to learn a programming language is by writing a compiler for it. I have to admit that I have much empathy for, and was perhaps inspired by, the classic novel "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Pirsig takes us into a vision of the relationship between rider and machine that starts just as an intellectual toy: How, exactly, do the adjustable shock absorbers work? The relationship becomes more personal with long-term experience. I know that if I shift at this many RPM I can avoid carbon fouling on my spark plug. Eventually the senses shift from monitoring the tachometer needle to recognizing just the right whine and roar in the engine. You need thousands of miles of experience to get a feel for such things.

Let’s say that I was serious about learning object-oriented programming. With Java as my learning tool, I could learn enough to carry on cocktail party conversations and write code for most common environments on Earth. Most contemporary academia adopts such a commodity approach. But if I instead sought a deep learning experience, I would choose Smalltalk, forced to make the paradigm shift instead of being sidetracked by populist compromises. Or, with a good mentor and Ruby or Python in hand, I could better appreciate Kay’s original object vision of programming instead of missing the point in a forest of classes. Then, with experience, I could approach Pirsig’s ideal and know the human experience of OO programming.

As I wrote in Re-making Yourself, fundamentals are crucial. If you want to learn a concept, start deep and narrow to first master the basics. Then the real application and learning can start — with adaptation and experience.

Dogs on the Internet

Engineers understand the difference between data and information. In fact, a good deal of information is misinformation, particularly in this Internet age with its instant, personal publication. Publication is less and less a sign of authoritativeness. I used to show my English classes Peter Steiner’s 1993 cartoon of a pooch at a keyboard, saying, "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog."

The volume of Web data boggles the mind. Each of the world’s 3.2 billion workers would have to read the equivalent of a stack of books 58 kilometers long to digest the information that passed through the Internet in 2010. Bookstores are close behind: The world produces about 400 new English language books every day. The gap between archival literature and trade rags has grown vanishingly small.

Many people have much to say, but few professionals differentiate between opinions they want to convey and facts they want to pass on. In the end, it is in fact all opinion, but we reserve the term “fact” for conclusions that are more broadly or rigorously corroborated within some community’s mores. The natural sciences are fundamental to those mores in engineering, as is broad peer review. The findings of the ages provide the soil on which knowledge grows.

So when you put your pen to paper or bits to a URL, strive to substantiate what you say. Improved business results or process improvements from a single project are insignificant; strive to triangulate your claim by reproducing the results twice. We suffer from case studies; we need longitudinal research. Build on reputable sources that maintain high standards of peer review. These usually include publications from professional societies in your discipline—but even peer-reviewed articles in the trade press should be viewed with suspicion.

I dwell on this topic because I have seen a disconcerting trend in the supposed sciences, and particularly in software, over the past 40 years. We accept the written word as truth, and accept truth by repeated assertion. The Internet is their hand-servant. Both readers and authors suffer from confirmatory bias (imbalance in sources that support and refute some conclusion), but even more so from availability bias. We write and cite concepts within easy grasp — and the Internet extends our memory so information and misinformation are close at hand.

Any claim that is not backed by statistically significant analysis is suspect. Let me underscore that I said suspect, not wrong. Supposedly proven phenomen√¶ occasionally turn out to be misunderstood. Such is the story of much progression of knowledge in physics, where ongoing experiments cause us continuously to challenge our models. It’s good for engineers to follow suit, and most engineers thus aspire some day to become inventors. Before attaining that level we must first attend to basic respect for, and critical inquiry of, our bodies of legacy knowledge.

On the other hand, there is nothing like a public Wiki to support broad, open peer review. Suspect claims don’t last long on Wikipedia or on active open source sites. There is hope.

No matter what your station in your engineering career, you should treasure critical inquiry. Assess a source’s credentials, and challenge unsubstantiated claims. An amazing volume of ungrounded claims make it into the publications even of professional societies, and few contemporary technical books are grounded in theory, statistically significant evidence, or proof.

The point is not to have an impressive reference list. By all means honor your sources, but honor your reader first. How many sources do you think I investigated in writing this article? Maybe I’m just a dog on the Internet.

Practice Makes Perfect

I got a great engineering and computer science education from some of the best institutions in the world. Then when I arrived at my first job they had to re-teach me everything important. The important stuff, you'll learn on the job. If you're still in school, seek work-study programs and get a summer job. Seek apprenticeships. If you have the good fortune of being in Finland or another culture that supports work and study at the same time, take advantage of it.

Learning the facts and theory behind engineering concepts is a starting point. It’s important to have the “Aha!” moment when you can truly appreciate a newly learned idea in a simple and direct way. But to make the idea useful, and certainly to take it to its height of value, requires practice. Good practice leads to habitual action. The more that habit guides work, the more your mind is free to focus on increasingly higher levels of accomplishment.

Practice, while literally meaning repetitive exercise, usually implies activities in a safe environment. You practice first, then do the real thing. Sometimes it’s a good idea to hone your skills outside the critical path, and that’s why it’s sometimes good to take a bit of your profession into your hobbies. You’ll find that it comes naturally, anyhow.

But application itself is practice. You become a better negotiator by negotiating. You become better at working with people by working with people. You become a better writer by writing.

Good practice also goes hand-in-hand with reflection, introspection, and feedback. Actions can become so habitual that we entirely lose awareness of them, so it can be hard to notice about whether practice has led to improvement. Take some time to get outside of yourself and reflect on your progress. More importantly, solicit others’ feedback on your performance.

Practice is both about achieving and sustaining excellence. Don’t forget to focus on the fundamentals: great baseball and tennis players always return to the bare basics when they are in a slump.

It takes focus and dedication to achieve and sustain excellence. Because most of us are below average in at least half of those hundred things that we do, we could expend a lot of energy on the lackluster 50. That doesn’t leave much time for polishing the other 50. Partly because of the technical precision inherent to its work, and partly because of its artistic overtones, engineering cultures tend to value excellence over competence. Focus on weaknesses that you can improve, but do so within the realm of your strengths and passions.

Mary Poppendieck urges us to Deliberate Practice — one of her favorite speaking topics. Mary suggests:

In the nature vs. nurture debate, researchers have declared nurture the winner. People who excel are the ones who work the hardest; it takes 10+ years of deliberate practice to become an expert. Deliberate practice is not about putting in hours, it’s about working to improve performance. It does not mean doing what you are good at; it means challenging yourself under the guidance of a teacher.

It’s the deliberate notion here that is important. Whether within or outside the critical path, consciously focus on technique and seek the feedback that will make you better and better.

In practical terms, take up programming as a hobby. Encourage your boss to let you explore, refine, and practice your skills at work. Attend or organize design and programming dojos, design contests, or other activities that deliberately drive you to practice in your work skill set.

Don’t ever get out of practice.

Learn to Rite

Writing has become a lost art. The US Department of Education estimated that 1 in 7 Americans are functionally illiterate, a figure relatively unchanged from 1992 to 2003. Effective written communication complements effective verbal communication. (Before we go too far, let me also remind you to hone your listening and verbal communication skills. Given the option of verbal or written communication, verbal communication is almost always a win in a small group.)

When we write for an audience, we aspire to move the world a bit in our direction. Sometimes we seek a bit of immortality by contributing to a body of literature that will outlive us. In either case, what we write matters — perhaps more so than our more ephemeral verbal communication. Writing, therefore, begs the discipline to evaluate consequences. Good writing is leadership. Use writing to develop a following in a direction that adds value to the community and the world.

Good writing is hard work, but discipline can make our writing more effective. If there is one universal rule, it is to continuously revise: evolve good works into great works. You and your work should be agile, responding to newfound inspirations, learning, and insights. Though in the end a written work carries its message unaided to the world, any work in progress should be embedded in dialog and dialectic. Too many writers use the pen as a one-way tool. Keep the conversation going until it fades — then, it’s time to hit the SEND button, or to publish.

While we usually think of writing as outwardly focused, it is in fact a great way to challenge and reflect on you own prejudices. Forster quips, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It is not only others who can challenge a work in progress: use your own internal dialog to challenge yourself. You may find that writing becomes a tool to keep you more honest with yourself.

Rather than standing on their tiptoes, great writers stand on the shoulders of giants. A great engineer goes beyond his or her own wiles and educational foundations not only to build on the knowledge of colleagues and friends, but of all of those who have gone before. I’m not talking about Googling the web for pithy quotes, but about investing in the topic about which you are writing. The research that accompanies great writing helps you appreciate the world around you and to see it with new eyes. Writing can be a great medium to pass on treasured insights that others have given you. Give them credit.

If you're in college, take literature and poetry classes. Keep a diary. Write poetry. Find a pen pal and write letters. If you’re a programmer, remember that computers are people, too, and that code is — or should be — literature. Name every identifier with the same care as naming a first-born child. Express the business goal crisply in your code. When editing a colleague’s code, treat it with the dignity you would accord to their poetry. And whatever your station in life, you’ll find that voracious reading will improve your writing — whether the medium be articles, code, or a book.

Good writing emerges from habits, and habits emerges from practice. Richard Gabriel once advised me to try out his habit of honing every Email into a refined work of literature. While it is helpful to learn the more formal tools of rhetoric, in the end you become a good writer by writing. Why do you think I do this blog?

The Best Way to Predict the Future Is to Create It

Career is about the future. Those musing about career performance peer into a crystal ball, while those reviewing job performance just glance in a rear-view mirror. Most technical professionals surrender to the perspective that they can’t control their future, particularly when the chips are down. Yet we all seem to be soothsayers. The water cooler is the font of prognostications about corporate reorganization, growth, and demise. The ‘blogs, journals, and conferences abound with “insights” about the future of technology.

Engineering industries build on novelty. Emerging technologies almost always enjoy the largest funding and opportunity for long-term growth; it’s rare that a company eagerly pumps money into old ideas. Career-minded engineers can nonetheless be future-minded in several ways. First, there are innovators who pioneer such ideas. Maybe they aren’t even “inventors” but just the “early adapters” who bring ideas into the corporate value stream.

As professionals, engineers are builders and refiners, but — let’s face it — our job often takes place in the background. Nonetheless, visions still have a place there — whether for the betterment of technology, or of the enterprise, or of humanity. Powerful visions need not be grand. Managers may share a vision simply as servant leaders to help their teams' innovations thrive in the long term. That is a career with vision.

Second, there are the solid citizens who wait until the noise dies down and then join the effort as willing contributors. These are rarely the people who think in terms of career; as I mentioned in previous columns, they just have a job.

Third, there are the “career hounds” who seek the limelight, attention, and potential rewards of the next fad. These are the people whom Bran Seli? feared would vindicate their attitude in this column until I assured him otherwise. They abandon their “boring” assignments to jump to the “sexy” ones. These are false careers: the individuals gain in title and stature more than the enterprise gains value.

Each of these strategies relate to predicting the future. The career hounds seek predictions that they can follow to glory. The solid citizens try to predict when things will stop changing so they can sign up. The career-minded predict the future by making it.

While we like to blame circumstances or others when things go wrong, most of the time we can quote Henley’s Invictus: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." In the end, each personal mission shapes the corporate mission. Corporations don’t invent: people do. I once worked at a company where I bucked the ISO 9001 trend and showed —empirically — that there was a better way to meet ever-shortening market horizons and to reduce waste. Jeff Sutherland cites that work as one influence on Scrum. My employer didn’t value it at the time and it was one of the factors that resulted in my departure — though they invited me back to give a talk on the subject to a packed auditorium eight years later. It had become a place to have a job, but not a career.

Today, a technical generation of developers in a large Nordic company have fallen far enough behind in the innovation game that they no longer can hold their own. Their careers have also given way to jobs.

Become part of your employer's destiny by taking charge of your own. Take your professional discipline by the horns and shape it. It is hard work, but you'll find that the rewards are worth it. Make the future.

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