Career Development for Computing Nerds

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Business Context-Prerequisite to Professional Survival and Advancement

a large dumpster. Construction has begun. I'm not a builder, but I'm sure there are "construction nerds" just like there are computing nerds. Imagine that a well-intentioned construction nerd, looking out for your best interests, discovers imperfections in the lumber sent to frame your new kitchen. The lumber will be structurally sound but will require some putty in places to make it fit "just right." The lumber supplier argues that the lumber meets specifications and refuses to replace the lumber for free, so our construction nerd insists on ordering lumber from another supplier to get the "right" product-with a net effect that your project is delayed two weeks and exceeds your budget by $5,000.

"Sorry about the Chinese takeout at the family gathering rather than the traditional communal cooking fest and that $5,000 cost overrun," says our construction nerd, "but there is a right way to do things and I was looking out for your interests."

Indignantly, you realize that this well-intentioned nerd is missing an important part of the equation- you. As the project "sponsor" you deserve a voice in the project priorities and decisions. "Right" and "wrong" are often not nearly so black and white as the nerds of the world believe. There are trade offs and compromises that should be discussed in any serious undertaking.

The same is true for the development, testing, and implementation of software. The business context of what is being done is a critical part of the problem. If your organization must get a product out the door by a specific date, there rarely are clear right and wrong guidelines about the level of functionality, performance, or even quality, only tradeoff discussions that should occur to assure that any compromise from the nerd definition of "right" is made with the informed consent of the sponsor paying the bills.

The Mature Nerd
This is the key to the next evolutionary step in the career of nerds-learning to be respectful of the business context in which decisions are being made and assuring that they are informed decisions. In these economic times, approaching this task honestly, openly, and ethically is critical to organizational survival. When you develop and demonstrate that you have the maturity to participate in this dialog, you will become more of an asset to your organization. To do this, consider asking more questions about the business aspects of your projects:

  • Who wants this project completed? How will the product be used? What features are most critical? Who is the project sponsor? Who are the product consumers? What process will be used to identify and reconcile differences between these two sets of stakeholders?
  • When is the project to be completed? Why then? What are the business consequences of a delay?
  • What is the project budget? What human resources are available to work on the project? Who must approve increases of the budget or personnel assigned?
  • Who has the authority to make tradeoffs on the project? What are the project's general priorities among schedule, resources, and quality or functionality? What is the process for considering and making decisions about tradeoffs?

These questions can enlighten nerds of all disciplines, helping orient teams to the subjective nature of their projects. The answers help move us past ideological arguments about what is "right" and "wrong" to more useful discussions of what is appropriate in a particular situation. This is a good time to improve your game and increase the level of discourse around your projects. Are you up to the task? Take the next evolutionary step in your career, if you haven't already.

About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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