“Build for the Customer, Not for Yourself” - My First Career Lesson

Photo by Graeme Worsfold on Unsplash

It was a warm March afternoon of 1991. I was five months into my first job as a software engineer. I must admit I had a smooth start to my career. However, on that particular day, I was very nervous. I was going to demonstrate the first application that I developed to my boss. Though I did a couple of utilities for other departments, this was the first application that I developed and I was so proud.

Let me introduce my manager. Mr.Y was one of the most senior engineers in that department. He was a Chief Engineer. He had multiple engineering degrees from top universities and had several awards and accolades. He was part of a core team involved in the design of power plants, oil refineries, space antennas, and other complex structures for companies around the world. He understood software very well and wanted to cultivate the software culture in his department. Even with all his knowledge, power, and influence, Mr.Y led a very simple life. I was so fortunate to have him as my boss, mentor, and leader.

The first application I developed on my first job was written in C language and ran on DOS (Disk Operating System).

This application that I developed was to perform the analysis of steel columns. Using this, an engineer would draw the shape, supply the dimensions and other parameters. When instructed, it would perform the computation and output of certain data. It allowed engineers to experiment with different sets of values in order to arrive at the desired design. It was a simple application written in C language to run on DOS (Disk Operating System).

I saw Mr.Y walking towards the computer room. He nodded as he reached and pulled the chair and sat down. I quickly typed the command to execute the application. As the program was loading, I adjusted the keyboard and pushed the mouse closer to the keyboard for him to use. He waited patiently for the program to finish loading. After a few seconds, the main menu appeared on the screen.

While the program was loading, I noticed Mr.Y was moving the mouse away from its position towards the edge of the table. He had a close look at the screen. Few seconds passed in absolute silence. Then, Mr.Y turned his face towards me and asked, “Which key should I press to make a start?”. At that moment, the entire world just collapsed around me and I almost fainted.

I realised the gravest mistake that I had made. I just learned one of the greatest lessons of my career. Even though the use of a mouse wasn’t quite popular for DOS applications at that time, I did not make the application operatable via a keyboard. It was an immature and stupid oversight.

Mr.Y stood up disappointed, looked at me, and gave a painful smile. I was speechless and had no words to explain. While leaving the room, he asked me to meet him later that day.

What I heard from Mr.Y were the words that lift you from the depths and give you the energy to continue your career along the bumpy track ahead of you!

At 5:30 PM, I was sitting in a chair opposite to Mr.Y, across his long table. Visibly shaken, I apologised for my negligence. I promised him to rectify the mistake and make the application better. My young mind didn’t know what else to say. I struggled for words. After listening patiently, in his soft tone, Mr.Y started talking.

What I heard on that day from Mr.Y was something no universities can teach. Words that would lift you from the depths and give you the energy. Words that would help you to become a better engineer. Words that would make you resilient on your career journey along the bumpy track ahead of you!

I left his room as a renewed person!

Main lesson: “Build for the customer, not for yourself”

Among many things that Mr.Y told me on that evening, one that directly linked to my career was, build for the customer, not for yourself.

He pointed out that, since I was assigned a computer that had a mouse attached, I simply assumed that every other computer is going to be of the same nature and everyone else is going to be using the application as I did.

Often it can be hard on us when we start our career. There is always so much to learn within a short span. We are put under pressure to deliver. We put ourselves under pressure by comparing with others. We join the race before we can run. Among all these happening around us, we focus so much on how to build something and not as much on what we are building.

Life lesson: “Quiet and comforting voice has more power than a commanding noise!”

The way Mr.Y handled the situation has few useful things to take note of. First of all, he did not make a big noise when he was disappointed. Instead, Mr.Y chose a quiet time to have a conversation with me. It was that soft and gentle way he spoke, and the appreciation he had for everything else I did, left an encouraging impact in me.

It is our nature that when we gain more experience and take on more responsibilities, we often become authoritative and commanding. While working with juniors we often forget what we’ve been through but become loud and threatening. We must constantly remind ourselves that whispering phrases can be more effective than loud shouts!

A gentle reminder makes us think and remember, whereas, an angry outburst provokes us to react and forget.

Life lesson: “Simple humane actions carry more power than words”

Mr.Y could’ve easily used the mouse and completed the testing, but he chose not to. It’s hard to tell whether he sensed the no keyboard support when I moved the mouse closer to him, or from the missing keyboard shortcuts on the menu, for his decision. The point to note here is his calmness even when interacting with a rookie. He never lost his temper. Though he was not pleased the way I developed the application, he still shared a simple smile while leaving the room. For a newbie, that was like a lifeline.

In life, we often search for extensive writings and elaborate speeches to learn but ignore the simplest acts of positivity that happen in front of us.

Life lesson: “Everyone needs a guide, not a commander”

Just like a baby making its first step or a child learning to ride a bicycle, when we start our career in the industry, we need guidance more than anything. We need someone who can pick us up and put back on the right track. For many, such early influential guidance shapes what they become. Many things that Mr.Y spoke to me were of that nature.

Simple guiding principles, when conveyed effectively, carry the power to last forever.

Conclusion

Each of us has a beginning in the industry. Whether you just started this morning or whether you completed 30 or more years in your career, we all started somewhere. You may have landed in a fast-paced environment or a serene atmosphere. Irrespective of the landing zone, it is important that we have our ears listening and our eyes witnessing the positive things that happen around us.

Not everything is going to be loud and clear all the time. Not everything is going to be successful either. In all such situations, we must listen, reflect, and learn. Even simple advice when understood and accepted wholeheartedly can shape us as better people, in our careers, and life!

Thank you very much for reading. If you have any thoughts on this, then please leave a comment.

And you can follow me on Twitter here.

Engineer. Architect. Leader. Writer. Speaker. At The LEGO Group. AWS Serverless Hero.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store