Business Value Isn't My Job

I was recently in a conversation on social media about the role of a software engineer.

As a SWE, what you bring to the table is knowledge of efficient algorithms and data structures for general computation. If a company needs domain expert they will hire one, this is typically a product owner or business analyst.

Oh, dear.

When I shared that experience, many other software engineers assumed the opinion came from a toxic manager who just wanted code monkeys to shut up and type. It didn’t. It came from another developer. They said that their talents were wasted on understanding the business problem and that if you were trying to be good at two things (computer science and the business domain) you probably weren’t as good a developer as you claimed. When questioned on this, they doubled down.

If the business tanks and you’ve fulfilled your role as efficiently as possible why would you care? The market is begging for good SWEs. If we continue to fill in the gaps in management we’re just being enablers. People need to fail to learn.

Perhaps “Ethics” would be a good addition to the CS core curriculum in universities.

As a software engineer, it’s not our job to drive business value. That’s why management and leadership are being paid and followed. Understanding the mechanics of development is why we study SWE and CS, it’s the entire value prop we bring to the table.

That may be all that you bring. You’ll not go far though and you’ll never work on my team.

Someone else responded,

“But what if some people could be good at two things at once? Seems like some companies might like to pay for that.”

Indeed they would. The only exception I’d take is that it’s not “being good at two things at once.” It’s being good at one thing, software engineering.

It’s time for real talk

If I am a carpenter, I need to know how to use my tools. I need to know how to execute joints that are tight, but not too tight. I need to understand how wood reacts to environmental changes and how to allow for those changes. I also need to understand what I’m building, why I’m building it, and what the goals of that structure are.

I recently had a deck built. The team of two that built it were professionals, not “hammer monkeys.” They didn’t require constant direction from the owner. Not only were their results well-executed, but they knew how to communicate to the customer (me). They understood how to address unexpected challenges that come with modifying an existing house and how to communicate bad news when it was discovered. They knew how to suggest changes that would both be better for the structure and for the final usability of the deck. It is not “trying to be good at two things” to also understand how to read plans, spot mistakes, and correct the mistakes. It’s not “trying to be good at two things” to understand how to communicate and get feedback from the end-user. It’s not “trying to be good at two things” to suggest design improvements. It. Is. The Job.

After sharing this experience, I heard from senior engineers, engineering managers, CTOs, and CEOs about the difficulty they are having hiring competent engineers who want to learn about their business so they can effectively solve problems.

I work as a senior software engineer solving the business problems and one of the problems we have is that too many coders expect to get exactly defined programming work somebody else prioritizes and defines.

I even had some executives offering me a job.

This is a sorry reflection on the state of our profession. We need to do better.

Be a professional

Professional software engineers take a broader view than computer science. We aren’t in academia and this isn’t a hobby. We need to deliver business results. The Apollo flight computer wasn’t programmed by mere coders. Software engineers did that. They understood the problem they were solving. Eagle only landed due to resiliency features the development team added because they understood the problems. No one specified those.

If you accept a job to help a company meet its goals, the ethical position to take is to fulfill your side of that agreement. Taking their money to play, build your resume, or deflect work is unethical. The code is a small fraction of your job. Learn the rest of it or go back to coding as a hobby and pay the bills flipping burgers. You’ll be more valuable to the team that way.

IMO if you’re worried about business value you’re not only devaluing the product team but also making inefficient use of your own experience and education.

Just wow! We are the product team. Level up.

How did we get here?

Mismanagement and bad incentives. Developer interviews vary wildly. I’ve sat in and performed interviews for senior engineers. Strangely, we never talked about how to reverse a binary tree. The conversations were entirely around solving real problems. However, many companies use things like LeetCode problems for interviews. I can only assume they lack any competent software engineers or are too lazy to do actual assessments. The result is they optimize for hiring people who can memorize solutions to kata and annoy people who can solve the problems they actually have. They work hard to attract people who lack the ability or desire to understand the real problems. Then they complain.

It’s time for engineering management to level up too. If you don’t understand product development, how are you competent to make hiring decisions?

Why do I care?

I mean, the more half-trained, lazy, and unethical developers there are in the market, the less competition there is for real professionals, right? No. There are many of us out there fighting to improve our industry and the lives of our colleagues. We are tired of poor quality. We are tired of developers being treated like fungible assets that are as replaceable as LEGOs. Those two problems are tightly coupled. We want everyone, developers, end-users, and everyone else in the value stream to live better lives with better outcomes. We want to work on teams of professionals because it’s just more fun to deliver things that help real people.

I’m not a stonemason. I build cathedrals. I have stories about how things I’ve worked on have not just helped but have transformed people’s lives and the lives of their families. I cannot imagine anything more rewarding. If you are reading this and also internally screaming, let’s all push to fix this. If you think I’m being unreasonable, I think Wendy’s is hiring.

Written on April 12, 2022 by Bryan Finster.

Originally published on Medium