Becoming a Better Developer Part 4: Know What You’re Building

There’s an old story that goes something like this:

A visitor arrives at an IT department and approaches a software developer. He asks him what he’s doing, to which the developer replies:

“Writing code.”

He walks to the next cubicle and asks the same question of another developer. He replies:

“Building a web page.”

He walks to the next cubicle and asks the same question of yet a third developer, to which she replies:

“Writing a piece of web-based software that will make it easier for our customer service reps to assist customers.”

Why are their answers so important?

Knowing Where You Fit
Someone who knows what they’re building can see their place in the big picture. They realize the importance of their work and know without explanation why it’s important. If the application begins to crash in the production environment and someone comes running for the developer, won’t they have a greater sense of urgency if they know it’s affecting the company’s bottom line?

A Sense of Purpose
People who know what they’re building have a sense of purpose. It makes them feel as if they are serving a greater good, whether that good is a single person, a department, or the entire company. Purpose makes people work a few extra hours to finish a project on time. Purpose makes developers take one more crack at fixing a hard to find bug.

If You’re a Developer
Ask about the big picture. Find out why it’s so important that all of a sudden every button on the account summary page has to be red instead of green. Ask your manager, his manager, or the guy in marketing. If you ask questions with an obvious posture of learning, people will notice and appreciate the fact that you care.

If You’re a Manager
Educate your developers. Talk to them about what the company does from a broader perspective, and make them see why it’s so important that an application works. Show them how it helped generate a huge amount of revenue for the company, or how it allows the finance department to reconcile month end numbers in an hour instead of three days. At the beginning of every new assignment, ask them if they know what they’re building.

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