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Patrick McKenzie's "Don't Call Yourself a Programmer, And Other Career Advice"

Robin Kim

March 30, 2018

These are my takeaways from Patrick's post, where I quote verbatim whenever possible.

  1. "90% of programming jobs are in creating Line of Business software." Patrick is referring to CRUD software that's built to solve business problems. They're boring to use and boring to make, but they create revenue or reduce costs, so get used to it.
  2. "Engineers are hired to create business value, not to program things." Everything engineers do is in service of creating revenue or reducing costs, and it's probably a lot better to be attached to a profit center, where your work produces a measurable increase in revenue, rather than a cost center, where you're much more likely to be hit by layoffs or outsourcing.
  3. "Don't call yourself a programmer." Rather, e not defined by your chosen software stack." If you're good enough of an engineer, most companies will hire you and let you learn the particular language or tech stack they're using.
  4. "Co-workers and bosses are not usually your friends." While you want to have a great professional relationship with them, don't be surprised if the person responsible for hiring you is trying to talk you into accepting a salary that is several thousand dollars below your comfort level. (That said, being friends with your coworkers and bosses is definitely a nice thing!)
  5. "Most jobs are never available publicly," so make sure you're networking to hear about all of the unpublished jobs. While getting referred may be your only shot at getting unadvertised jobs, for publicly posted job openings that are spammed by hundreds of applicants, getting referred might increase your changes of getting a job by over a magnitude.
  6. "People who are skilled in negotiation make more than those who are not." Don't reduce your earning potential by thousands of dollars just because you can't handle a 5 minute conversation. Recognize that nobody cares more about you than yourself, and that the company is trying to get the best talent for the cheapest salaries. In fact, how would you feel if the hiring manager's bonus was dependent on how much money they saved for their company that year? You are your own best advocate, so make sure you're putting your best negotiating foot forward. (Read Patrick's original post for more.)
  7. "Your most important professional skill is communication." Being able to do your job and create value for your employer actually isn't enough. Rather, you need to convince your future employer that you WILL be able to do the job, and that's where clear, artful communication comes into play.
  8. "You will often be called to do Enterprise Sales and other stuff you got into engineering to avoid." Get used to (and get better at) convincing other people to do things you'd like for them to do, because it's a part of life and work.
  9. "Modesty is not a career-enhancing character trait"; "The right tone to aim for in interviews, interactions with other people, and life is closer to 'restrained, confident professionalism.'" While giving away all of credit for your team's hard work might establish more trust between you and your team, when you're trying to showcase your work and be recognized for what you've done (eg, interview for a new job or a promotion), take ownership of your contributions, and make sure you're good at doing it.

Below are the topics I didn't note (bc I didn't find it as interesting/relevant for me at this time of writing), so make sure you take a look at the original posting for the details:

  • "You radically overestimate the average skill of the competition because of the crowd you hang around with."
  • "Academia is not like the real world."
  • "How much money do engineers make?"
  • "How to value an equity grant."
  • "Are startups great for your career as a fresh graduate?" and "So would you recommend working at a startup?"
  • "Social grooming is a really important skill" and "Actual grooming is at least moderately important, too."
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