On Being a Valuable Software Engineer

I’m not the most super hardcore sports fan. But, like most people in the Boston area, I’ve enjoyed all the pro sports titles our local teams have won.
Twelve championships since the big Y2K! If you’re a teenager or a little older, this is all you know. (Haters, please save your comments.) But it wasn’t always like this. When I moved to Boston after college in the 80’s, the Patriots were never all that good. The Red Sox had a few World Series titles under their belts, but the last one happened before movies had sound.
It’s kind of hard to remember that era of mediocrity and losing now. We’ve gotten spoiled over the last two decades.
It’s also hard to remember the last time that software engineers had a hard time getting jobs. Robust hiring for anyone who can code seems like it’s gone on forever, and will keep going on forever.
And, what with more things getting automated, and technology advancing, who knows? It might stay this way for years.
But it might not. Let’s make sure that those of us in software and technology don’t get spoiled either.
The year 2003 seems like ancient history now. Upcoming May 2019 Computer Science grads were in preschool back then. But in 2003, there were a lot of software engineers who couldn’t find work, and stayed unemployed for a year or more. Who could have predicted this? Three or four years before that, we were in the midst of the dot-com hiring feeding frenzy. Almost anyone who programmed could get job offers and raises anytime they wanted.
And then, without much warning, they couldn’t. The music stopped, and a lot of people couldn’t find a chair.
We’ve had a lot of upward momentum in software hiring for a long time. At some future time, it may stop. If you’re a software engineer, it’s a good idea to prepare so that, if that happens, you have the best odds.
How do you do that? There is, of course, no guaranteed formula. But my experience has been that it’s crucial to be valuable.
What do I mean by this? I mean that you have to manage your career so that you put yourself into situations that will stretch you. Where you are making tangible and impactful contributions to shipping a product. Where you are a member of a strong team, and where you are building good working relationships. Where you are translating the needs of customers into solutions. Where your contributions mean products delivered on time, and under budget. Where you are always learning, even if it’s on your own time. Where your activities are making your company more successful. Where you are making your boss’s job easier, not harder because drama and conflict.
Business has always gone through cycles, and it always will. Remember always to do the things that will make you valuable not only to your current employer, but to your next one.