The Importance of People

I was out to dinner with some colleagues last week (if you are a regular reader, “out to dinner” has become a frequent phrase in this blog) and we began to exchange anecdotes about our careers. The attendees were software teams from two different companies with a range of experience from intermediate (6 to 8 years experience) to senior (27 years of experience; me).
Anyone familiar with high technology culture knows that cool technology is so important to engineers that they will pass up higher pay (within reason) to work on interesting projects. We love talking about all the cool stuff that we’ve done. When it was my turn, I dug back into the early 80s to describe the wireframe 3D rotation software that I worked on, a contact lens expert system in 1982, automated climate and lighting control of my house in 1986, photographic image display software written in hand-tuned Assembler in 1990, compression algorithms in 1991, neural networks in the 90s, etc, etc. In the process, my career trajectory has gone from a 3 person company, to my own business, to a series of startups, to a Fortune 500 software company, and finally to my current position with a company that began as a startup but now has over 1000 employees.
In the course of conversation, it occurred to me that my perspective has changed. I no longer feel that my career accomplishments are so strictly defined by technical achievements or shipping products. Engineering milestones age rapidly. It’s hard for today’s engineers to relate to the challenge of writing a 3D rotating wireframe model on a 20 MHz 16 bit processor when they are accustomed to playing virtual reality games on desktop computers with supercomputer chips on the graphics card.
At this point in my career, the accomplishments that really stand out to me are those that are related to the people that I’ve worked with. Entry level engineers that I have helped to learn proper software development processes, developers that have become successful managers or Software Architects, and line managers who have become executives. Identifying potential talent and mentoring and working with those people over the years, one hardly notices that the former novice now has an opinion of his own; more often than not an opinion that has become as educated and well thought out as yours. It’s not always fun to be bested in a debate, but there have been many times that I have suppressed a small smile of satisfaction when a former “student” one-ups his “teacher”. That’s validation that both of you have grown.
So my perspective has changed. The “cool” engineering accomplishments that I worked on in the past will eventually be forgotten. But the people who have achieved and accomplished success due to their own hard work, with just a little bit of push and guidance from me? Those are “accomplishments” that we share, that will be passed down to their future colleagues, and that will live on.

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