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Mary, director of engineering for a mid-size software company, was talking with Syed, a recent college hire.

“How are you feeling about working here, Syed?”

“Honestly? I feel like I’m going through a second degree program. Your approach to writing software and working in teams is completely different from what I experienced in school.”

“We hear that from most of our recent graduates. How are you handling it?”

“My team is great. Having a mentor from day one has helped a lot. Having someone I can go to no matter how silly I feel a question might be.”

“I’m glad that’s been helping. I want everyone throughout my team to feel comfortable asking anything to anyone else.”

Syed shifted in his seat and looked away from Mary.

“No judgment,” Mary said softly. “I’m not here to blame. I’m here to help you do your best job and be your best self.”

Slowly, Syed turned to look Mary in the eye. “How do I know what I want to do?”

Whatever you love creating has value to someone else

“In what sense?”

“I really appreciate that I have a say in the work I do. But, I don’t know enough yet to have an opinion. So, I take whatever seems interesting. Or whatever I haven’t done yet. Or just whatever is left after everyone else chooses.”

“When you don’t know where to go, any direction is as good as any other,” Mary agreed. “How is that working out for you?”

“It has been working well. I’m getting exposed to most parts of the system. That is connecting me to people far outside my team.”

“That all sounds useful and productive…I sense a ‘but’ coming, though?”

“Yes: But, I am starting to have opinions. I kind of enjoy working in the build system and things like that. Those are always left behind by everyone else. They must know something I don’t, right? I mean, that work isn’t flashy like frontend work is. It’s not seen by customers. But, it’s the only way that frontend work and everything else we do gets to customers. It seems like these build work items are more important than anything else. So why doesn’t anyone want to do them?”

“Have you asked your teammates why they don’t want to do this type of work?”

“Yes. Mostly they just shudder and say something about ‘the worst month of their lives.’ I’m starting to look forward to that work, though.”

“This is one reason we focus so much on understanding who you are.”

“All that ‘squishy people stuff,’ my team calls it.”

“Yep! The more we each understand what lights us up, the more we can choose work that does light us up. We have enough people that, whatever one of us doesn’t enjoy doing, someone else on the team probably does enjoy doing it.”

“So, I’m not missing something? It’s just that no one else enjoys working on the build?”

“You’re not missing anything. At least, not that I can tell. As you say, nothing we do matters if we can’t get it to our customers. And, yes, those tasks tend to be the least loved. Once people realize you’re picking up that work on purpose, you may become a hero to everyone else.”

“Several people have thanked me for keeping the build break squirrel for so long. I thought they were razzing me. But, I haven’t broken the build since my first checkin. And, I guess, I’ve picked up every build story since, so no one else has had a chance to break the build. So, maybe they were genuinely thanking me.”

If what you love creating changes, continue creating what you love

“Anything else on your mind today?”

“Well, what happens if I eventually decide I want to work on something else? The team will have grown to rely on me doing that work. If I switch to working on something else, I’d be letting my team down.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Ummmm…I guess that work goes back to being the work no one wants to do? So, people have to do it who’d rather be doing something else?”

“Yes. They’d be no worse off than they were before you started picking up that work. What else might happen?”

“We realize we don’t really need to do that work?”

“Yes. We might decide it’s not worth the effort. What else might we do?”

“We might find a way to incentivize people to do it. Like give them extra days off. Or priority choice on assignments next cycle.”

“I’ve seen both of those work well. What else might happen?”

“I’m so happy doing the new thing, I’m happy to still do build stuff too.” Syed held up his hand, forestalling Mary’s next question. “Many more possibilities are popping into my brain. I get it: I don’t need to worry about what will happen. Prioritize what works for me and things will work out.”

Creating what you love always enriches those around you

“Anything else coming up for you right now?”

“What if what I want to do harms the team?”

“Do you have a specific example?”

“Well…what if I discover I’m interested in machine learning, or sentiment analysis? Something that has no relevance to anything we’re working on. So, I have to move to a different company.”

“What if that does happen?”

“All this time and money you’ve invested in me would be wasted.”

“We wouldn’t see that as a waste. We would see that as investing in our industry. Plus, we would become known for producing engineers who know what they’re doing. That goodwill would be immeasurable.”

“So, you encourage us to leave?”

Mary laughed. “Not exactly. We encourage you to find the job that best fits who you are right now, and who you are becoming. If we can’t provide that opportunity here, then yes, we are happy for you to find it elsewhere. That gives us contacts throughout the industry. Which, again, has immeasurable value.”

“I guess there’s also the possibility that this thing I’m interested in may be hugely transformative to the way we do things, we just don’t know that yet.”

“Absolutely! When software-as-a-service first became a thing, many companies were uncertain about its value. Why would they give up control over when to upgrade to the newest release and everything else they needed to consider? Now, many companies have flipped to ‘Why would we ever want to worry about those things?’”

You create value no one else can

“So, what I’m hearing is: whoever I am, whatever I’m interested in producing, that has value for my team. Someone on my team probably would love to produce whatever I’m not interested in producing. If what I’m interested in is not valuable to my team, we may just not yet recognize why it’s valuable. Also, you’ll celebrate my moving to another company that values it.”

“That’s a fantastic summary.”

“I guess you must have this conversation with every new college hire.”

“With many of them, yes. And, you might be surprised to learn, with many of our experienced hires. It often takes more than just one discussion for them to start understanding. Let alone believing.”

Syed’s startled expression demonstrated his surprise. “I understood something faster than people with much more experience? I don’t quite believe that. But, maybe that’s what this whole conversation has been about: I add unique value that no one else can bring.”


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