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Habits that Pay Off for Programmers

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the LogEntries blog.

I would like to clarify something immediately with this post.  Its title does not contain the number 7, nor does it talk about effectiveness.  That was intentional.  I have no interest in trying to piggy-back on Stephen Covey’s book title to earn clicks, which would make this post a dime a dozen.

In fact, a google search of “good habits for programmers” yields just such an appropriation, and it also yields exactly the sorts of articles and posts that you might expect.  They have some number and they talk about what makes programmers good at programming.

But I’d like to focus on a slightly different angle today.  Rather than talk about what makes people better at programming, I’d like to talk about what makes programmers more marketable.  When I say, “habits that pay off,” I mean it literally.

Don’t get me wrong.  Becoming better at programming will certainly correlate with making more money as a programmer.  But this improvement can eventually suffer from diminishing marginal returns.  I’m talking today about practices that will yield the most bang for the buck when it comes time to ask for a raise or seek a new gig.

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The Pyramid Corporation: Your Grade School Teacher for Adults

I can now proudly say that I have finished the initial draft of Developer Hegemony.  Currently, it weighs in at a robust 376 pages that contain my blood, sweat, and tears.  Digitally speaking, anyway.

I haven’t yet published the preview of it because I want to give the people I interviewed a chance to peruse the draft before I make their words available.  But I promise that you’ll have a chance to read in its entirety soon.  I have a lot more coming on that front as well, including the announcement of a launch date, so stay tuned.

I mention completing the book because this should leave me with more time and material to post here on DaedTech.  I’ve mostly cross posted from the other blogs I write for of late, but look for an uptick in posts here.  Alongside that change, I’m going to be shuffling some other things around in my life as well, and changing my focus somewhat in the coming months.  I’ll get to all of this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I plan to post more about the suboptimal current state of the corporate entity and what I believe we can do about it.

And, I’ll start that tonight, with a theme that I wanted to address but didn’t fit particularly well in the book itself.  I’m talking about all of the ways that the corporation has come to simulate a sort of parental/teacher hybrid for adults.

Caveats

Before I go too far, I want to say that I’m not intending to serve up a blistering critique of society, per se.  I feel more philosophical and observational about this.  In other words, think less “this is all so stupid and people are sheep” and more “how and why did we get to this place?”

I understand the how, to some degree.  I think, anyway.  Pyramid shaped corporations (the standard corporate structure) have a knack for becoming less than the sum of their parts.  You can get buy with common sense up to a certain level of scale, and then finally you get some weirdo that likes to clip his fingernails next to the coffee machine no matter how much anyone asks him not to.  Then, bam.  You’ve got a sign next to your coffee machine exhorting people not to clip their fingernails, and your whole company looks ridiculous.

I think that organizational childishness tends to scale more than linearly with the average marginal childishness of individuals hired.  The bigger you get, the more your collective adulthood escapes.  Still, though, it’s amazing we don’t blink more often and scratch our head at the state of things.

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Top Heavy Department Growth

I’ve been somewhat remiss in answering reader questions lately.  Largely, I’ve lapsed because I’m choosing to focus on my upcoming book.  Nevertheless, I apologize for the lapse.  I do appreciate all the questions you folks send my way.  I’ll try to compensate today with this post about organizations engaging in top heavy department growth.

I’ll paraphrase this reader question because the specificity of the titles and information involved could make it sensitive if I didn’t take a couple of liberties.

I read your article about architect title over-specialization.  I’m a software developer with senior level experience.

Recently, my company has created “levels” above me.  I used to have only a dev manager above me.  But recently, the organization has brought in both new team leads under the dev manager and architects under a different manager.  Both take precedence over the existing developers.  These people now have authority to tell us what to do and they get to choose what they want to work on, leaving us with the leftovers.

I feel as if i’m being promoted down hill. Can you please advise?

How Companies Expand

If you’re up for it, I’ll offer a good bit of background reading to flesh out the terms.  If not, I’ll furnish minimal definitions here for reference.  A while back, I wrote a post describing the company hierarchy.  That post contains excerpts from my upcoming book, which you can pre-order and read on leanpub.

Here you have an apt illustration of the average company.  At the top, in executive roles, you have opportunistic individuals who define (and violate) the rules and culture of the company.  Then, in the middle, sit the idealists, who guzzle that same kool-aid and ask for more.  Finally, at the bottom toil the pragmatists, who roll their eyes at the company but put up with it for lack of better options.

Significantly, pyramids retain their stability by maintaining their shape.  Thus the most stabilizing growth pattern involves rewarding (over-promoting) loyal pragmatists, and hiring a bunch of grunts beneath them.  If you think of an existing pyramid that needs to get larger, you wouldn’t heap stuff on top.  Instead, you’d build from the bottom.  You’d pull some senior developers, make them architects or team leads to reward them hanging around, and hire a bunch of new grunts to report to them.

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Resolutions Like You Mean It

Let me start this off on an improbable foot by saying I’m not huge on the concept of New Years resolutions, per se.  But I do value reflection and improvement.  And if just after the winter solstice seems like a good time for it, don’t let me stop you.

Finding Feedback

Last fall, I began participating in a mastermind group.  If you have a W2, your employer will typically offer you rather paternalistic guidance under the heading of career development.  I call it paternalistic, since it generally assumes that your goals include working for the company forever, and emulating the people that have worked there forever.  But, set that aside, and you can often extract a bit of value from it.  For instance, you’ll get someone’s take on how to secure a promotion or get assigned to a better project.

If you go the solo consultant or entrepreneur route, nothing like this really exists.  I don’t think someone has used the words “exceeds expectations” in front of me for about 5 years.  This I attribute to the fact that nobody uses those words outside of the corporate performance review.  And I haven’t had one of those in half a decade.

A mastermind group, more or less, fills that gap.  A few people get together at some interval (weekly, for instance), brainstorm, share ideas, hold one another accountable, and offer mutual advice.  Pound for pound, this offers much more individual value than the corporate perf review/boss one on one because it focuses entirely on my goals, not my goals in the context of being a perpetual good solider.

Measure It

At one of the mastermind group calls, we laid out goals for 2017.  Not having done this before, I lurked more than participated, to see what sorts of goals these meant.  The other participants laid out real plans, with real numbers, to do things like change revenue by X% or shave Y% of time off of some operational concern.

I came to the table with vague notions of, “I want to spend less time in cold places.”  Part of this results from my tendency to let lifestyle goals dictate work arrangements.  But part of this comes from sloppiness and the consultant’s peril of not taking one’s own advice.

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The Nature and Eventual End of the Journeyman Idealist

This is part 3 of the series about journeyman idealists.  You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Hiring Ditch Diggers

We toil in an industry that loses sight of this basic problem, and no wonder.  In a simple scenario like that, we can reason about value.  But I’d like to employ an allegory to show how opaque that reasoning becomes at scale.  And in that opacity, the journeyman idealist reigns supreme.

Let’s say that I need to have a ditch dug in front of my house, and I have two competing laborers willing to do it.  The first one talks enthusiasticilly about soil aeration and the mineral properties of dirt in the area and whatnot.  He talks about the real craftsmanship that goes into ditch-digging and how people don’t realize that.  The other guy charges a few bucks less per hour, so I hire him.  How hard can it be?  And, besides, I can look out my window and see how it’s going.  If he fails and the ditch caves in or something, I can call the other guy that likes to ramble on about soil.

guy-digging-a-hole

But now imagine that I can’t actually see any of the progress as it happens, and I will only know if it went well when one day, either sewage backs up into my toilets or not.  Wow, okay.  Same labor proposition, but with opaque progress and all-or-nothing results.  Earthworm Jim now sounds more appealing.  I have no idea how Jim’s knowledge translates into money or outcomes, but I take it on faith.

Journeyman Idealist Ditch Diggers

Now imagine that instead of my house, I run a massive construction company and I’m building several developments simultaneously.  Jim is my digging foreman, and I trust him to make sure we dig ditches.  Jim asks people lots of questions about topsoil acidity and demands they estimate how many aphids could fit onto a leaf.  All of that seems kind of stupid to me, but what do I know?  The ditches get dug, so it must be working.  And, besides, for some reason every ditch digger around seems to want to work here because we have “interesting soil” and Jim uses that outsize demand to tell them that aphid-know-nothings like them deserve to start at a lower pay grade.

I have hired, in Jim, a journeyman idealist.  And he hires in and indoctrinates more of the same.

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