Building résumés

During a wave of fatigue in the end game of shipping a piece of software, a quality engineer (that is one who writes automated tests) came to me complaining about the lack of movement on the defects she had found.  She had a point; they were weeks old and we were shipping soon.

She said, “I mean, what are we building here?”

I replied, without even thinking: “Résumés.”  She laughed one of those nervous laughs and went back to work.

For several reasons, including some out of our control, the result of that work came to nothing in the field, yet the engineers had new, ephemeral buzz words in their list of experience.  And they hadn’t even used the technology well; they displayed no particular talent at producing anything valuable with it.

It remains a tension in engineering work.  If someone doesn’t keep up with changing technology, one becomes typecast.  Or cast as a dinosaur.  Which is unfair because it’s inaccurate.  I don’t write this because I’m an older person – a mere 10 years in my field can produce the same effect if one doesn’t “keep up” with change.

But I wanted to temper and challenge the common wisdom because I don’t believe it is wisdom but mostly a self-anointing priesthood with very little to show for itself.  So here are some observations about living on, promoting and requiring other to live on the bleeding edge:

  1. Technology requires at least 5 years to prove it’s worth investing in. 80% goes away in that time, and only after 10 years is its value – its staying power in production – proven.  The examples are myriad.
  2. Yet marketing stir is so rabid that “new” is a word inspiring great investment. Investment in nothing, because either the cool was based upon only buzz or the technology is pressed into service for ways it was never designed.
  3. Technical people with buzz take full advantage of non-technical people with money and power.
  4. Knowledge being power, those who claim mastery of new tech are quick to dismiss individuals or groups pressing for responsible oversight in key aspects that make solutions valuable in the field.
  5. And that – value – is too late or too infrequently even considered. Talk of the cost of implementation, ROI, and future-proof-ness threaten the résumé building, so they are often ignored until after launch when truth comes out and people move on to other projects.
  6. In the frenzy of knowledge- and experience-acquisition, accountability is fleeting if it exists at all. Organizations don’t seem to learn or care about the insidious pattern, so it goes on.

That list sounds negative but such is the ugly picture I’ve seen.  And .. I am not saying that the use and integration of new technology inherently fails, of course it does not.  Nor am I saying that failed projects are worthless; there are too many nuggets among lessons learned to even think that.  And relevant, up-to-date experience matters, particularly if one goes job hunting.

But even then, I would sooner reward the ability to provide one’s customers with real business value over proficiency in a tool, language or part of the great “full stack” (which to me is a funny adjectival clause because there are some very important stacks “full stack developers” know nothing of).  When I recruit people I ask questions about design and applicability of this technology or that.

Because … I have found that acquired principles – that is, points of applied wisdom – are more important than acquired knowledge.  Because they port, scale and broadly apply.  They build real value, and résumés take care of themselves.

I don’t say any of this as old person who’s slowing down, only one who’s learned the folly of devotion to only keeping up.




The case of the fictional monkey experiment

I had heard a story of an experiment performed on a community of monkeys.  Don’t worry, it’s not true.  Well, not true as an experiment – it never happened.  But I still love the story.  It’s a variant of this one.  Of course the whole thing comprises a moralizing sermon of sorts, maybe even a mediocre one in the scheme of things.  But when such describes life it’s useful for me.

In my telling, 20 or so monkeys were put into a large area with a greased pole at its center.   At the top of the greased pole was a cluster of delicious bananas.  But naturally as any simian in the group would attempt to scale the pole, s/he would fall and get nowhere.  The bananas might as well not have existed.

Then 2 things were changed – 5 new monkeys were brought in replacing 5 who removed, and the pole was de-greased.  So a monkey could legitimately climb the pole to get the bananas.

But it was soon found that only the new monkeys would even attempt such a thing.  And when they did, they were pulled down by large number of other monkeys who knew that it was impossible.  So even then, the bananas went uneaten.  And even the new monkeys learned one could not ascend the pole.

It is of interest that it doesn’t matter if stories like this ever happened in a scientific experiment.  Because they happen in corporate life so universally.  And it’s tragic. Wasteful.

Innovation is stifled.  Businesses fail.  The new monkeys quit or assimilate into cynical dysfunction.

Let me not paint too grim a picture though.  Because thankfully and triumphantly poles do get de-greased and get climbed all the time as well.  Or some diligent monkey climbs them grease and all.

However, and probably the main point, the intentionality in climbing that pole is substantial; there are no old-timer monkeys to encourage or give hope.  In fact, they will call the bananas imaginary, mock you for trying and even discredit your achievement as rotten bananas even as you eat them and share them with your friends (well you have certainly heard of sour grapes).

There is no particular effort or project to which I wish to apply this parable except to assign it to all of them.  I have been both an old and new monkey.  And if I’d say “Don’t let this environment happen to you!” it would be pointless because it probably already has somewhere in some way.

But I will tell you every time – Climb the pole!  Those bananas are real and they taste wonderful.  And stop discouraging others; let them get greasy and learn the way they will.