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Making it Big in Software: Get the Job. Work the Org. Become Great.

There is a world of opportunity for software professionals, so it's worth knowing what it takes to evolve your career to its highest possible potential for impact, leadership, innovation, freedom, financial compensation, and fun. Sam Lightstone, Program Director and Senior Technical Staff Member with the IBM Software Group, offers advice for how to make it big in software.
This chapter is from the book
  • "Success didn't spoil me, I've always been insufferable."
  • Fran Lebowitz (1950– )

Software is an amazing place to build a professional career. In few other domains can you have so much fun with so much positive potential to change the world, while pulling down a decent living to boot. Software has made complex technology accessible, and allowed us to control systems and processes in a way that manual operators could once only dream about. We've shrunken the world, brought people and societies to greater common understanding, and allowed families and friends to connect when they are apart. Business and researchers have faster and more accurate access to strategic business information, historical records, data analysis, and mathematical optimization. The world is creating nearly 15 petabytes of digital information daily, and by 2011 an estimated 2 billion people will be connected to the Internet.1 Almost everything that has an electrical power source, from handheld phones to refrigerators, is running software. That's what I call demand. All that demand means a world of opportunity for software professionals. With all that potential, it's worth knowing what it takes to evolve your career to its highest possible potential for impact, leadership, innovation, freedom, financial compensation, and fun.

Making It Big in Software is a book about maximizing your career success and your professional impact. From getting a job and honing key skills to becoming a leader and innovator, this book walks you through the skills, behaviors, and personal qualities you need to reach your professional potential. In addition to my own thoughts, stories, and metrics, I've included a number of interviews with industry-leading luminaries between the chapters. These interviews with major executives, innovators, and researchers provide fresh insights into the art and business of the software professional. Their ideas are often profound and sometimes controversial. Having gone through the extraordinary process of interviewing all of them, I found it profoundly interesting to see the points of convergence and variation among them on topics from time management to the value of graduate degrees. One of the major points of convergence is that all these leaders and innovators clearly love what they do. It's both a cause and an effect: Loving what you do is the most necessary of all ingredients for success, but it's also true that being successful allows people to spend more of their time on things they love.

What Do "Big Shots" in Software Do?

Success means different things to different people. For many people, the first and most important meaning of success is financial compensation. The more money you earn for what you do, the more "successful" you are. "He's a very successful lawyer, a partner in the firm." "She's a successful entrepreneur. Her business grew into an international conglomerate." "He's a successful surgeon. He earns enough in six months to spend the rest of the year traveling." We're all accustomed to that way of thinking about success. Make no mistake about it, financial rewards are indeed a very significant part of what most people consider career success, and for some this is the most important component. However, it's a shallow mind indeed that considers it the only component. Beyond financial rewards lie several other measures of success, and the relative value of each varies from one person to the next. Here are some other hallmarks of success gleaned from the interviews in this book, as well as from decades of discussion with industry leaders at major software companies around the world:

  • Fun and interesting work
  • Corporate and industrial influence
  • The betterment of society
  • Freedom to work on what you want, when you want
  • Fame
  • Travel

Successful people in software are defined by some or all of the attributes in this list, and financial rewards follow as a result. For example, most of the software giants interviewed in this book define their own success by their contributions to the industry and their impact on society rather than by their bank balances. Even so, several of them are very wealthy. Although relatively few people in the software industry become fabulously rich, it's a surprising and hopeful fact that the short list of the world's wealthiest people contains several notable software gurus: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, just to name a few. Microsoft's success created many millionaires in the 1980s and 1990s through employee stock option programs, as did several other high-flying software firms of the period. Indeed, if becoming rich is your goal, there's precedent for doing it through a career in software. Many a software millionaire has been made by software developers just doing their thing, writing great code and marking just the right time to "cash out."

Corporate and industrial influence comes after you have made a reputation for yourself as an industry expert in a technical field or as an executive with a track record of leading great success. When that happens, your opinion is sought to direct the strategic investments in new technologies, to approve standards, and to help foster industrial research efforts. This gives you significant influence over how technology evolves, not only in your own company, but also across the world.

Technology aids in the betterment of society, though many people feel that it continues to be our downfall and that in some pockets of life technology will always do more harm than good. Even so, the general purpose of technology is the betterment of society: reducing humankind's labor and suffering, engendering freedom, and advancing our exploration and understanding of the universe. Software big shots, our business strategists and technical architects, are the people who have the greatest influence on technology. Okay, it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a wide range of professionals to successfully bring good software to market, including wise investors, savvy managers, salespeople and sales channels, and a lot of luck. But nobody influences the shape of technology more than those who create it. Having read this, the venture capitalists are now red-faced and fuming, the salespeople are pounding their tightened fists, and the project managers are rolling their eyes, but I stand by it. Certainly, without these people, most projects never achieve lift-off. But although they enable, they do not shape, define, or mold the creative expression of the engineering team the way the technical and executive visionaries do.

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