Thursday, March 6, 2014

Things Only Taught by Time

What do you learn over a career of coding, besides 123 different APIs? What's all this value in being an Old Hand? Well...
  • When I was interviewing for work, right out of college, there was a job I didn't take because all the developers had foot-thick listings on top of their filing cabinets. I knew my modest brain could never comprehend such a massive amount of code. Ten years later, I delayed learning Windows programming because applications appeared indecipherably complex, with dlls and a configuration database instead of a single executable.

    I don't print paper listings any longer, but if I did, mine would be ten feet tall. I've built many Windows apps. It sucks to manage dlls, but not because they're too complex to comprehend.

    LESSON: Anything that other programmers are comfortable with is not too complex for you.
  • I spent 10 years becoming a deep domain expert at my first company out of college. I figured I would become a "lifer", safe from the travails of the job market because of my valuable knowledge. Then during an economic downturn, the company changed strategic direction. They shuttered my whole division, laying me off along with 19 of 21 engineers, 12 of 12 marketing folks, and about 50 factory workers.

    It was hard finding a new job because (1) it was the bottom of a recession, (2) my deep domain knowledge was not applicable at any other employer in the city, and (3) I had neglected to learn the latest programming skills because I didn't believe, as a lifer, that I would need them to be up-to-date.

    LESSON: Skills and experience are only valuable if they help you find work.

    LESSON: Skills and experience that help you find work are valuable.
  • The two engineers that my one-time lifetime employer retained? One was a very lucky new college hire. The company valued its reputation for firm job offers. The other survivor was a nice lady; very quiet, someone who never asked questions or made requests. She wasn't the smartest engineer. She wasn't the most innovative. But she turned out an utterly reliable so-many-lines of code each month without variation. She became a lifer at that company.

    LESSON: what managers value in a software developer is not intelligence, or innovation, or great code. They value reliably low maintenance workers.
  • My very favorite sister-in-law died of cancer at 39 years of age. When her cancer was diagnosed, she didn't quit her job right away, but she did change her behavior. All of a sudden there were some meetings and some tasks that seemed so unnecessary that they offended her sense of limited remaining time. She told me that a week before her diagnosis, she had wasted a bunch of time in these meetings, and all of a sudden she really wanted that time back. She began focusing exclusively on the parts of her job that added value and that gave her satisfaction. She put off the dumb stuff as long as she could. She discovered that lots of dumb stuff eventually just went away if she put it off, because it was dumb stuff. She didn't lose touch by skipping boring meetings. They were boring because nothing happened in them. In this way she became recognized by her managers as the most productive worker in her office.

    I was going to boring meetings where nothing happened too. I vowed to behave as though I had six months to live. I became more productive, because I only did activities that added real value, and that I enjoyed. I came to feel as though I had become bulletproof. I reasoned that if I was ever let go for only doing productive work, the company would be doing me a tremendous favor. Such a company would not last long, and working there until the end would be awful.

    LESSON: Only do tasks that add value. You will be the most productive member of your team.
  • I became unemployed in the crash, becaue my employer collapsed. It was hard to find work because it was the crash, and nobody was hiring. It wasn't that I had the wrong skills or wanted too much money. There just wasn't anyplace to send a resume. It turned out that I wasn't bulletproof after all. I went from being the most employable guy I knew to being chronically unemployed. I became unemployed again in the Great Recession. Two employers in a row suffered dramatic, thirty per-cent revenue declines, and laid off their whole software team.

    LESSON: Bulletproof is not the same as invulnerable. Pride goeth before a fall.

    LESSON: Most software development work is project-oriented. Your job is always vulnerable between projects.

    LESSON: It is always the bottom of a recession when you get laid off. Nobody will be starting new projects then. It is prudent to have money in the bank to last you a year or so.
Looking back on these lessons, they seem very obvious. But each one had to be learned. They were all novel thoughts until after they happened. I'm not sure it's even possible for a rookie to internalize these lessons because the "duh" only comes with experience.

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