Outcomes over output

This is a guest blog post from Mark Sawers. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

As a software engineer, it’s easy to take our eye off the ball. The ball we really want to pay attention to isn’t the stuff we focused on in college. The ball is improving business/organizational outcomes. There isn’t a course of study or advanced degree on this, because it’s bespoke and custom to every organization.

You are on a team in your organization’s grand game to help the underserved, make money for shareholders, find some cure, save the planet or whatever its mission. A software-intensive system improves information access, automates task, entertains, etc. You pair with your business discipline in conceiving, building, testing and operating systems that advance the game.

Your real value to your organization is in improving outcomes. Not directly in how well you wield language X, tool Y, process Z. Not in how many features you add in a sprint, how many bugs you fix in one day, how much code you reviewed yesterday, how many answers you posted in slack, how many documents you wrote last month, and so on. Those are just means to an end.

Yes we need to constantly develop and hone technical skills (analysis, modeling, diagramming, programming, unit testing and others) and tool knowledge (languages, frameworks, utilities, operating systems, and more), but don’t mistake this for the end-game. Yes we should measure productivity; we do care about efficiency and throughput. But more product features, the latest tech, continuous deployment, two-factor authentication, and so on are not the goal. More is usually less, in my experience as a user. Isn’t that yours as well?

The goal is not output; the goal is outcome. The outcome is more revenue, more profit, more users, more product availability, happier users … right?

So, wait, isn’t that someone else’s job? What do you know about forecasting and measuring profit, anticipating user needs? Isn’t that on the product owner? The product manager? Marketing? And isn’t uptime the operations team’s responsibility? And finding problems the QA team’s responsibility?

You are on a multi-disciplinary team. You have at least one vital role to play on this team. Engineering is your trained discipline, and likely you focused purely on development. The smaller the company/business unit, the more hats you will wear. Yes your main contribution is technical, but in service of the bottom line. But don’t stay in your lane! Different perspectives are essential to this game. Your product owner doesn’t have a patent on designing end user features. And she may not be thinking about measuring success. Help her define the metrics and build those collection and reporting tools into the product. After you deploy a new feature, assess its success; don’t immediately move on to the next feature.

OK, so do I eat my own dog food? I try. The tech side requires lots of cognitive space, and so outcomes are easily short-shafted. Also, I have found this holistic perspective difficult to practice in large organizations. There is lots of specialization. It fragments responsibility. Incentives are set along discipline silos. My suggestion is to play your organization’s games (don’t leave that bonus on the table!) but bring your enlightened perspective as best you can.

Good luck,
Mark

Mark Sawers has been practicing software engineering for almost 25 years, as a developer, architect and manager. You can find his blog at http://sawers.com/blog and his LinkedIn profile at https://linkedin.com/in/marksawers .

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