Becoming Invaluable

by Darius Kazemi on April 26, 2006

in Uncategorized

(Note: This isn’t part of my networking series, but it’s sort of related. Maybe the start of a new series of articles?)

Way back in 2001, Joel Spolsky wrote an article called Getting Things Done When You’re Only a Grunt, which basically outlines my entire philosophy of how I work at the game company that employs me. I’m not high up on the totem pole at all. In fact, I started as a temp QA tester, i.e., the lowliest position possible at the company. However, that did not deter me from using the strategies outlined in that article to Become Invaluable to the company. And while I’m still a grunt, I went from part-time tester to full-time developer, and did it rather quickly.

Have you read the article? Okay, good. Now I’m going to add a particular strategy Joel’s list.

Development On the Fringes

You’re a lowly programmer. Or maybe you’re just a tester with programming skills who wants to prove herself. While you’re doing your normal duties, keep an ear to the ground: you want to be listening for some kind of project that is potentially really useful to people, but was dropped due to mismanagement, or maybe it stalled because a key developer left, or whatever.

This project is a great one, but for some reason it lives in the margins, on the fringes. This is bad for the project, but very good for you. Nobody cares about a project that’s died, which gives you the freedom to poke around in your spare time. Work on lunch breaks, or stay an extra hour every day to spend time on this. The best thing is, because the project is dead, you will have no oversight, and can do whatever the hell you want. Which is the perfect opportunity to do some stealth rapid prototyping in a corporate environment that normally would see it as a waste of time.

I did this with an underutilized system at my company while I was a QA tester. It took me a month to develop a prototype of the working system in my spare time. It would’ve taken me a week working on it full-time, but hey, I got it done. And then I used the rhetorical power of the prototype to gather a lot of high-profile (VP-level) attention. As one lead developer put it: “Darius, you managed to finish in one month what [this other group] has been promising and failing to deliver for a whole year.” Needless to say, I was promoted to a developer position soon after.

This whole process can be helped along if you have good networking skills within your company. Particlarly, knowing everyone is a huge help, because if you’re friends with a wide variety of developers, you can bug them with questions about how the dead project worked back when it was alive. Don’t bug them too much: bug them just enough.

By picking a project on the fringes and developing the crap out of it whenever you can, you can get pretty far as a mere grunt, and is my suggestion for how you, too, can Become Invaluable.

{ 1 comment }

Craig Perko April 27, 2006 at 3:34 am

First: I can back Darius up on this. It’s a valuable skill, and he did quite well with it.

Second: It has nothing to do with your personal talents!

Darius isn’t some awesome hotshot programmer. Sure, he can program. But he isn’t as good as most code monkeys. It is, as they say, one of his secondary skills.

The key is that if you dink around on a failed project and fail, nobody will know. If they do know, they’ll be saying, “oh, of course. No surprise.”

If you dink around on a failed project and manage to succeed, even using a hodgepodge of Excel macros (coughcough), then you’ll come out shining. Even though you’re not a hotshot! Fail five times, win once, and it’s worth the investment.

I do this in most of my jobs (except the not being a hotshot part. I’m always a hotshot). It works for an on-site freelancer just as well as a hired monkey. Your task is X, but while you’re close to the company, you notice that Y and Z could really use improvement/implementation. Often, Y is a small task. Such as, say, a sign-in sheet on the company intranet.

Accomplish it, give it to them for free, and hint not-so-subtly that you can take on Z for more cash. You’ve already proven yourself twice.

This works amazingly well for every company I’ve worked for that I’ve tried it on.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: