Career Development for Computing Nerds

Business Context-Prerequisite to Professional Survival and Advancement

Computing nerds bring value to any company for which they work. They bring knowledge and an understanding of systems and projects that can help managers avoid bad decisions. But the computing nerd in this stage still has room for growth. In this week's column, Payson Hall says there's a higher level of value computing nerds can achieve. And, in today's economic environment, this level is far more valuable than ever before.

Current economic conditions have many of us looking for ways to enhance the value we offer our organizations, reasoning that the more we contribute to the organization's survival, the better our chances for long-term employment and advancement.

I would like to share a hard-won insight from my career in the hope that if you haven't figured this out for yourself, I might expedite your process. Bear with me if this isn't news to you. Think of it as a booster shot and gentle reminder about the importance of balance between nerdiness and business context.

A Computing Nerd is Born
I chose the software profession because I like to build systems and solve problems. As a software developer and systems integrator, I worked on teams that built solutions to real-world problems, and it was gratifying to see those problems solved. I must confess to being a bit of an opinionated idealist earlier in my career. I had arguments about the "correct" architectural choices from the perspective of partitioning of function, hardware independence, and ease of maintenance. I had strongly held opinions about what constituted "sufficient testing." I thought that the people who disagreed with me weren't necessarily stupid but didn't understand the big picture. I was sure that I could enlighten them with my insights, wit, and pragmatism given sufficient time. I was a computing nerd.

Computing nerd is a step in the evolution of a computing professional that people enter when they possess sufficient practical experience and theoretical knowledge to have an informed opinion. They finally "get it" from a technical perspective. They have worked on a few successful projects and a few failed ones. They have seen corners cut and have learned which were ill-advised and caused violence and chaos. They have seen what matters from a technical perspective-like having a solid software architecture or good instrumentation in a system for tracing execution or monitoring performance-and are constantly trying to improve the state of the practice on their projects. They keep up on their professional reading, devouring magazines, online references, books, and other sources on their own time to gain wisdom from others. They can sort the useful ideas from the chaff and the smart practitioners with useful insights from academicians and theoreticians who needed to get a paper published but haven't really implemented production systems. They become opinionated and believe that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to do things. This is a computing nerd career plateau.

When you reach this level of practice, it is easy to look with scorn on the pointy-haired bosses of the world who want to talk about tradeoffs and who want to constrain budgets or meet deadlines. The nerd replies, "It will cost what it costs and be ready when we have done the things needed to build it right." I have been there and said this. If you have been in this place in your career, you recognize it. If you are there now, you aren't foolish but you might be a little naïve. I want to suggest a next step in your career enlightenment.

The Nerds' "Right Way" May Be the Wrong Way
Imagine you decide to renovate your kitchen. You meet with a contractor, explain what you don't like about the current kitchen, and sketch some changes that would better meet your needs. You jointly agree to your budget and schedule constraints (you want the kitchen ready for a big family gathering in two months). The next day, burly guys with crowbars destroy your existing kitchen and carry your appliances, sink, sheet rock, and flooring to

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