Career advice: Making your mark in software programming

5 tips for raising your professional profile

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by James E. Gaskin - This insider tip is courtesy of Sam Lightstone, program director for an IBM software group in Toronto, and author of Making it Big in Software: Get the Job. Work the Org. Become Great. published by Prentice Hall.

Lightstone had a great time interviewing 17 famous software successes, including Steve Wozniak, James Gosling, and Linus Torvalds. Here are five tips, among many others, he put in his book for programmers looking to make their mark in the world of software.

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Tip #1: Have fun. David Vaskevitch, Microsoft CTO at the time, told Lightstone, "you have to have fun to be successful, not be successful to have fun." What is fun? Solving problems, influencing your project team, your company, or the entire computing industry, meeting other programmers, speaking about software are all fun. Your idea of fun doesn't have to match up to anyone else's, but it should be enjoyable. Besides, you get professional pay, like a dentist or an accountant, but you can usually wear jeans and a t-shirt.

Having fun writing software will not only help you be more productive, you may write some code that will positively impact your company, your customers, or the whole world. That falls under the heading of serious fun.

Tip #2: Project overruns will kill your software project, and, when repeated, your career. Yes, overruns have been part of software development for decades, wreaking budget havoc regularly. Yet many coders, and managers of coders, still don't realize how dark the career stain such delays create.

Tip #3: Actual programming is only about one-sixth of many projects. Figure about half the project hours go to testing (and still not enough many times), a third goes to planning and the upfront phase, and suddenly the actual programming is almost an afterthought. It's painful for coders to admit, even if they realize how little they get to actually code on many projects. Many programmers still think actual coding takes half to three quarters of the project time.

Tip #4: User interfaces remain too confusing, too complicated, and are not intuitive enough, according to, among many others, Steve Wozniak. Few programming companies allow a usability expert to move high enough in the organization to really make an impact, even though that would help considerably.

Why is one of the most famous user interfaces, the Google main page, so sparse and clean? Sergey Brin admitted that when he wrote the page, he didn't know enough HTML to do more. It was the best he could do with the experience he had.

Tip #5: Programmers and their managers need to understand the value of measuring the value of software. Although that sounds a bit like some philosophy from a confusing fortune cookie, Lightstone believes this tip could really help programmers get more respect.

Take the time to measure what you're doing, rather than jumping to the next problem. Did your group upgrade some software to make a program module run twice as fast as before? Let people know. Take credit, make a pie chart for managers, and realize the value proper measurement has to the company. Doubling performance can be a great marketing hook, so tell the marketing department. Give exact numbers, replacing "faster" with "2.1 times better performance."

There are two other great results. First, the engineering team gets some well deserved credit, and the entire group gets uplifted. They work hard, and deserve to have people appreciate their efforts.

Next, proven value in the past tends to de-mystify the planning process for the next project. Measuring what you and your team did in the past will help you be more successful in the future.

James E. Gaskin writes books (16 so far), articles and jokes about technology and real life from his home office in the Dallas area. Write him at readers@gaskin.com.

More programming tips:
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