Sometimes I get lucky... recently Susan Visser connected me with Sam Lightstone, author of Making it Big in Software, and luckily, he agreed to an interview. Sam has a unique perspective to share on developing your career in software, so I hope you enjoy it! (And if anyone else has suggestions for people to interview on my blog in the future, pass them along!)
Learn more about Sam Lightstone:
His profile on My developerWorks - add him to your network
See book reviews from: Dr. Dobb’s, JavaRanch, i-Programmer
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Book overview and reader reviews on Amazon.com
Tell me about yourself and what you're currently working on...
I'm a Senior Technical Staff Member in the DB2 development team. Over the past decade I've been fortunate to have some pretty varied positions, including senior management roles, code design and development and some research collaboration. I've enjoyed them all. I'm currently working on several of projects to increase DB2's processing efficiency, working with the DB2 team, but also with folks in our research and storage divisions.
What first sparked your interest in technology?
It was all around me growing up. During the Great Depression my father dropped out of high school to get a job and help support his family. When WWII started he enlisted in the Canadian army and used his time there to develop skills in electronics and photography. After the war he started a television repair business. He couldn't afford to buy the equipment he needed, so he bought a few "build it yourself" kits and constructed his own vacuum tube tester, frequency generator, multimeter and oscilloscope. The television repair business didn't last long, and my father pursued his passion in photography (more specifically 'lithography'). So we had all this electronics and photographic equipment in the house, and my dad wanted us to understand it. Every know and then, at breakfast or supper, he would pull a pen out of his pocket and start drawing a schematic on the back of a napkin to explain a concept. These were simple ideas about electronics and circuits, or how a camera works, but as a child I felt these were the most interesting things in life. My father started a "family tradition" that every child would get a science kit for their 10th birthday. Being the youngest of 6 kids not only did I grow up playing with my father's gadgets, but all the science kits my older siblings had received were still lying around! Electronics kits, chemistry sets, microscopes - you name it. I was soldering circuits and developing my own film by the time I was 10 or 11. When I was about 13 I started programming BASIC on my brother-in-law's hand made computer that used a cassette tape storage device and a teletype for input and output. Personal computers were very new then. By 1982 I was 14 and studying programming at school on a Commodore Pet. I still remember how happy I was to use a floppy disk instead of a cassette tape!
How did the idea for your new book, Making it Big in Software, originate?
It was really about giving something back to the community. When I was in 4th year Electrical Engineering in 1991, the department held professional seminars on Friday afternoons. These were usually on technical topics like VLSI design. One day a speaker came from Newbridge Systems in Ottawa and gave us a talk about professional life after graduation. It really made a huge impression on me, and I decided that if I ever could I would return the professional courtesy and volunteer to speak to students about professional life after school. The problem is that school teaches us technical skills, but there's really no place that people are taught how to thrive professionally so they can maximize their impact, and optimize their careers. Once you know how to do it, a small deliberate effort over time can propel you to significantly higher positions of influence, higher salary and most importantly a more satisfying career. That's what Making it Big in Software is all about. In the late 1990's and early 2000's I began a series of talks at universities. The material I compiled for those talks became the basis for the book.
You have a list of 17 big names that you interviewed for your book. I'm sure that was fascinating. Was there anything they shared that really took you by surprise?
There were lots of surprises both in the personal histories and in the career strategies that these people use, and of course some great personal stories. I'll share four things that made an impression on me. First, it's true that most of the people I interviewed rose to fame and fortune. However, the person who may have made the biggest impact was Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email. Ray invented in email in 1971, but her wasn't credited with it until a journalist tracked the invention back to him in 1994. For over 20 years he got no recognition, and his massive contribution really didn't impact his career in a positive way. Even so, Ray is one of the happiest and most content people I spoke with. He's still working at BBN and programming. I found that very inspirational. Secondly, I think a lot of people have a feeling that the great days of computer science are behind us. The big killer apps have been coded, the great technologies are now commodities. But several of the people I interviewed expressed the contrary feeling that we're actually on the cusp of a profound transition in software, driven by mobile computing, cloud computing, social networking and increasing computing power and bandwidth. That means that software as a profession is going to keep accelerating. Third, I have come to believe that effective time management is a cornerstone to effective careers. So it was pretty amazing to me to see how messed up some of these very successful people are in managing their time! What they've lacked in time management they've compensated for by surrounding themselves with good people and being goal oriented. Finally, fourth, I was pretty floored when Steve Wozniak told me he programmed the BASIC interpreter for the Apple computer in binary! He had no money, no tools, not even a compiler. He couldn't even afford an Intel processor. With just 1's and 0's he changed the world.
What are some of the unique challenges of working in the software industry? What are a few significant changes happening?
You've asked two questions but in fact there is one answer to both. What makes software careers so unique is change! Change is our challenge. We work in an industry that redefines itself every few years. There's no other profession like that - even in the engineering disciplines. Think about other professions, like accounting, law, nursing, medicine, dentistry, education. Their skills and tools evolve over time, but fundamentally what they do at the end of their career will look pretty similar to what they did at the beginning. Not so with software! New languages, new platforms, new paradigms emerge all the time. A few years ago nobody was talking about social networking, cloud computing or multi core programming for dozens or hundreds of CPU threads. These are today's sea changes. That constant change will continue, and it's what makes software so dynamic. But it means all of us in the profession need to ride those waves and stay current.
I'll add another point to my answer which I think is really important for software programmers and engineers to internalize for career advancement. A unique quality in the software business is that a lot of the great innovative ideas come from the engineering teams rather than the business and marketing executives. That's what has, to a large degree, elevated programmers from their early status in the 1960's and 1970's as skilled technologists to our modern conception of software programmers as rock stars. Driving software innovation elevates your rock star status and can be a major impetus in fueling your career.
Have you had any memorable situations where you learned from failure?
I've had many. Bill Gates once said "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” On the software side, my early attempts to estimate how long work would take were pretty disastrous! It caused me a lot of late nights at the keyboard during my early years as I tried to make up for overly aggressive estimates. After that I spent a fair bit of time studying the best practices and software engineering literature on project scheduling and management. I dedicated an entire chapter of Making it Big in Software to avoiding software overruns. There are few things that can mess up your career worse than being consistently late. Conversely, teams that consistently on time and on quality, are golden. On the management side, my early attempts at recruiting were painful. I hired people based on their academic results in combination with feedback from past managers. It turns out that academic results are too loose an indicator and previous managers may not be that reliable either! I had to fire someone I recruited, and it was really upsetting for me. After that I became maniacal in recruiting only the best people I could find, and I grill candidates pretty thoroughly to get a sense of what they know, how they think and whether they will jive professionally with the rest of the team. My goal now is to always be the stupidest person in my group! I'm immodest enough to think I'm a reasonably sharp software engineer, and if everyone I recruit is smarter than me then I know I have a really strong team.
What role do you think social networking can play in developing a software career?
I don't think we've seen the full force of what social networking can achieve. Facebook for example, only started in 2005, and although it has grown to 400 million members, it's still evolving rapidly. These are early days. I see three main ways social networking is directly impacting software careers today. First and foremost these technologies allow people to maintain relationships in a more profound way than they could previously with email and telephone. Successful software careers are heavily biased by maintaining relationships. Who you know not what you know is a big part of that. Second, but equally profound, what you know is driven by who you know! In an industry where knowledge is king, it's critical to have efficient ways to get and filter information. One of the best filter factors on finding the most important pieces of knowledge is through your social network. During my interviews with successful personalities in Making it Big in Software, many of the interviewees, like James Gosling (Java), John Schwarz (CEO Business Objects), Grady Booch (IBM Fellow), Bjarne Stroustrup (C++), David Vaskevitch (then Microsoft CTO), Robert Kahn (Coinventor of the Internet), Mark Russinovich (Microsoft Fellow and Windows architect) and others, told me they depend heavily (but not exclusively) on their social network to figure out and filter what tech trends are the important ones. Third, I think that social networking is blurring with social marketing, and we are already well down the path of using this kind of infrastructure to market and float new ideas. The people who leverage that dynamic successfully will be able to advance their careers and their companies the most successfully.
How do you use social networking?
I use it for all three of the ideas I mentioned above. I use Facebook and LinkedIn pretty heavily, as well as my own blog on software careers, and there are a few bloggers I follow on both technology and technology marketing.
What are some of your favorite websites/feeds/twitter accounts to follow?
I've configured a Google search feed to feed me an anthology of relevant articles every few days. I subscribe the eWeek's email news, and I follow activity in the database community by subscribing to DBWORLD. I enjoy Seth Godin's blog, and was a fan of Joel on Software, though he recently stopped blogging.
Are you a gadget junkie? Any new gadgets you'd love to get your hands on?
I'm a gadget junkie wannabee! I love gadgets but I just can't find time to learn them. My kids make fun of me because I can barely figure out how to use my cell phone. I'm still amazed by my GPS watch that tells me how far I've jogged or cycled and draws a map of the route I've covered. I'm also pretty fond of my 1TB wireless backup disk that backs up the data for every computer in my house over our wireless network. I bought it for less than the cost of dinner for two. Some cliches are a little too accurate - boys love toys!
- Thanks Sam!