Why Software Craftsmanship Needs to be Financially Viable

In 1957, Robert Noyce and the “Traitorous Eight” left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to form a little company you might have heard of: Intel. In doing so, they disrupted the employment model of their day. It wasn’t so much that they all left at the same time. It was that they left at all. The expectation at the time was that intelligent, successful people stayed with one employer for most, if not all, of their employment careers.

On the one hand, the Traitorous Eight are exactly what the American Dream is all about: adventure, pioneering, independence, and always pushing the envelope. On the other hand, they broke a model that promoted something in our industry that I am not sure we needed to lose: craftsmanship as a vehicle for progress.

There was a time when a person who had been with a company for decades was venerated and looked up to for his professional mastery. Today, in the tech vertical, that person is often looked at as an underachieving loser.

Craftsmanship or Career Advancement

As an industry, we don’t incentivize craftsmanship. More directly to the point—we don’t make it economically feasible for individuals to achieve a high level of craftsmanship. To do so, people have to settle for less career advancement than they would have had if they’d taken a different path away from excellence.

It seems that the de facto method of career advancement in our industry is organizational fracture. We tend to organization-hop for a new opportunity (and let’s be honest—for a bigger paycheck), leave a consultancy and start our own place almost exactly like the place we just left (thinking this will get us a bigger slice of that equity pie which will eventually pay us dividends), or create a product company of some sort and hope we get lucky enough to win the VC lottery.

We rinse and repeat these models until we reach a point where we can become keynote speakers and authors. Thus we end up achieving our zenith by talking about making things more than actually making things.

I understand why people follow this avenue. It seems like the easiest way to build equity and gain notoriety. This concerns me for one key reason: When the main vehicle for progress in our industry is leaving one place for another, achieving craftsmanship becomes exponentially more difficult. Workplace migration causes us to lose time that could be dedicated to becoming more advanced in our craft.

Whether it’s the creation of a new business or getting used to the new systems and practices of a new organization, terrible inefficiency is introduced when we leave one place of work for another. That’s time that could be put to use honing skill. Not to mention the fact that as you leave one organization, you leave holes that others will have to fill. More inefficiency! I believe this results in a mediocre workforce in what is a crucial industry for the human race in the 21st Century.

Knowing When to Walk Away

None of this is to say that the only legitimate way to advance your career while increasing your value as a team member is to stay in one organization. As E.L. Doctorow once said in an interview with George Plimpton, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When any of us start out our lives and careers, we have no idea how it will end up. Life is so wonderfully variable! Things emerge that we never could have hoped for or dreamed of.

Sometimes, an organization change is just a no-brainer. Other times, it’s just the right time to move on. Liz Danzico talks about the magic of quitting, of giving up on the idea of finishing. We need to have the courage to know when to call it a day and move on.

Craftsmanship and Career Advancement

Here at Atomic, one of the key things we are doing to make craftsmanship a viable ingredient to a successful career is our Employee Stock Purchase Program. It represents the effort to open ownership of the company to a wider group of employees. Instead keeping equity to themselves, the company ownership empowers makers to stay put within the Atomic family if they so wish—without feeling like they are missing out on the possibility of building equity for themselves as they become more senior in their careers.

This is a wonderful model for our industry as a whole. Want to change the de facto model of career advancement in technology? Give your employees a financially viable reason to stick around. As these employees stick around, they are able to engage in another invaluable practice which increases the ability of makers within our industry: mentoring others. Because senior makers are able to remain in the organization, they are able to teach what they have learned to younger generations.

Whether it’s through our paid internship program or through our informal practice of pairing senior and junior makers on projects, Atoms are encouraged to teach and learn as part of every work engagement. As we work, we are engaged in the multiplicative reproduction of professional craftspeople.

We also make it a practice of promoting from within wherever possible. With the exception of our cofounders, everyone on our current leadership team was promoted from within the organization. This, again, opens up avenues of advancement for senior makers as they move into new phases of facilitating our business practice.

A New Model

As an industry, it may be time to refocus our movement forward away from organizational fracture and grab hold of craftsmanship and commitment as our means of personal and financial growth. I have seen the way senior makers at Atomic are viewed with admiration and respect within this organization because of their obvious expertise. I’ve also seen Atoms transition into positions of leadership across the industry.

Whichever path they take, my hope is that Atomic alumni aren’t just useful professionals, but that they leave us capable of initiating practices and programs of similar types within the organizations they settle into.

Finally, I hope that the practice of building equity within organizations is something that grows into an expectation of professionals everywhere. It would be a great indicator of good health if professionals who dedicate themselves to their craft and to aiding others in developing that craft to a deep level become the most well-compensated, sought-after individuals in our industry.