Giving back may take ten years to pay off

I’ve have a lot of wonderful support in my career and I’ve been reflecting on how to give back to others in the industry.  One of the hardest parts of giving back is the long cycle to tell that its working.  After all, when you are coding in an IDE, feedback is nearly instantaneous.  But depending on how you are helping people, it may take weeks, months, or even a decade to see the payoff.  So how does one get started?

I specifically reflected on two instances where Stacy Joines helped me, one with a five-year payoff and one with a ten-year payoff.  It’s worth pointing out that neither was a one-on-one interaction and that I didn’t actually meet Stacy until after these instances paid off.

The first instance was in the third year of my career.  I crossed paths with Ruth Willenborg who had an interesting email tagline: “Have you read Performance Analysis for Java Websites yet?” I was writing some Java-based installation code for an obscure IBM product and did not feel challenged in my career.  I decided that reading Performance Analysis for Java Websites (by Stacy Joines, Ruth Willenborg, and Ken Hygh) would be a good learning opportunity.

I read the book cover-to-cover and learned just how much I had to learn about Java, and about building, testing, and analyzing code.  I went out and ordered additional books on Java and worked myself through a series of Java certifications, from Sun Certified Java Developer to Sun Certified Java Architect.  I dug into JUnit and Test-Driven Development and applied it everywhere.  The development and testing processes I learned from all these books improved my software so much, it hardly seemed fair.

This journey took about five years, starting from the moment I read Ruth’s tagline.  In order to give back in a similar manner, I have written up my own lessons about testing, this time about how to test cognitive systems:  Cognitive System Testing From A to Z.

The second long-incubating advice I received was also early in my career.  Stacy Joines was talking to a packed IBM cafeteria about the importance of patenting, to protect the intellectual property we develop every day.  She described what it takes to create a patent (in short, write-up something that is novel, useful, valuable, and implementable) and she encouraged us that we each had what it took to create patents for our work.

It took me several years to figure out how to effectively write patents, but I might not have started without Stacy’s exhortation.  Ten years after her talk, I have filed approximately 70 patents, and have been awarded the “Master Inventor” certification at IBM.  Part of earning (and retaining) this certification requires helping young inventors, teaching them how to patent and helping them improve their own patent submissions.

There was a post on LinkedIn earlier this year which I will paraphrase as “you’re not a leader until you train a leader who trains a leader”.  My takeaway at the time was that by this definition, it takes a very long time to become a leader!  But I think it’s more appropriate to say that leaders should create lots of opportunities for potential leaders to learn and grow from.  Whether it’s writing a book or giving a talk, whether it takes days or months or years to take effect, the leader who gives back needs to sow fertile ground around them.

I’m hoping that my blog through this post and others starts another growth cycle, even if it takes years to pay off!