By Jason Lowenthal September 23, 2015

My Business is Software

When I attended Drury University, I was a bit of an enigma.  

My peer group in the business school didn’t understand why mathematics and computation fascinated me so strongly. My other peer group in the computer science department called that other building across the street “B-School,” and in their minds that school hadn’t even really earned a B.

Even now I see strong silos between “Well, that’s a business decision” and “Let’s let the technical team figure this one out.”

Having a background in business (read: economics, accounting, motivational theory, corporate policy, business law, marketing, and communications) dramatically improves a person's ability to drive their own personal brand.

For any self-motivated individual that has the drive to learn about these subjects without a classroom, there’s a plethora of options available that don’t depend on formal business school (here’s a good one: personalmba.com). I found it easiest to absorb this content behind a classroom desk being led by a really smart business teacher, but that does not work for everyone.

Remember, the most important thing about business theory is the content.

Motivational Theory

The Weakest Link

steel chain is held together by a paper clipThere’s plenty of catchphrases and simple quotes that basically revolve around the idea that every team member depends on every other team member to pull his or her weight. If one member of the team fails, every other dedicated team member slows down to pick up the slack.

Motivational theory in business school helps us to understand why someone becomes the weak link in the chain. It also explains why one of the most critical assets a company can have is its mission statement.

A significant amount of research and theory goes into the definition of company mission statements. At the most healthy companies, everyone has a say as to how their department understands the company’s mission. And if, for some reason, that department starts to feel excluded from the mission, a healthy company will change course to keep all healthy parts of the organization engaged.

Conversely, in a toxic organization, you’re unlikely to even know the company's mission. And if you do, you’ll never really understand how your work contributes directly into that mission.

In case the terminology of “healthy” and “toxic” above seems confusing – when you read articles about healthy organizations, it’s about places that everyone wants to work. Toxic organizations tend to be the exact opposite. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out which one you’re currently in.

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

Did you ask your interviewer for the mission statement of the company where you took your last job? Is the mission statement clearly accessible via a post above a door, or within a company wiki, or somewhere that anyone at any time can review and ensure they agree with it? Do you care?

If you don’t care, there’s a pretty darned good chance you’re in the wrong job. Or, at the very least, you’re doing it for the wrong company.

Having a personal mission statement that closely aligns with or complements the professional mission statement of your employer is a critically important part of job satisfaction.

I really don’t remember anything coming up in my compiler theory or operating systems courses regarding company mission statements. But I can say that I learned more about personal mission statements from reading books like Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change than I did in business school.

As a business school student, I learned more about why mission statements matter, not as much practical advice on crafting them.

A Stake in the Game

The most important reason why you need to know the mission of the company you work for is so that you can also know how your job propels that mission forward. By knowing the mission, you automatically buy yourself a little bit of extra autonomy within your role.

If you get an assignment that doesn’t seem to jive with the overall goals of the company you work for, instead of just doing work and not knowing its value, you can talk to your (hopefully) understanding manager about the discrepancy between your assignment and the overall goal of the organization. Then you and your manager can work together to make your current project assignment have more meaning within it, giving you a chance to see exactly how your work propels the overall company mission.

In essence, by tuning in to the less technical side of your career, you get a better understanding of your purpose in the big machine. You stop being just another gear that can easily be replaced and instead become a critical component piece of a well-oiled machine.

In time, you will eventually build enough autonomy into your role that you could choose to leave behind the machines others built to start making your own instead.

Where You Come In

Programmer teamThe programming industry as a whole seems to have started adopting agile methodologies and a continuous delivery mindset. This means that now, more than ever, our technical relationship with business leaders is crucial. In fact, I feel like all successful businesses have to have an integrated technology strategy to compete fully, meaning technical leadership is business leadership.

The number one most critical communication point between “the business” and “the programmers” in an agile development project is the product owner. The product owner sets user story priorities and, with the help of the scrum master or release manager, makes sure the most valuable work gets done first.

In a healthy organization, there’s a dichotomy where the engineering team can present critical technical debt that needs addressing, and the business team can present critical user stories and features.

The easiest way to make sure that technical debt gets addressed is to present the cost of that debt to the management. If we take the time to learn how to associate the production costs of bug fixes, it gives us the tools we need to talk to our management team.

I’ll talk a little bit about the cost of software in a minutespecifically how weighing accounting and economics together combines to help decide which software decisions to make.

Product Ownership

Primarily, when I’m talking about business education, I’m referring to taking an active interest in product ownership.

Even if you’re not a product owner, those who pay attention to product ownership are the ones that are going to know how to evaluate the core competency of your organization and build a product backlog that best suits your needs within the market.

You want to have a product ownership team that’s engaged in the day-to-day work you’re doingbut only at the level that they can understand. They don’t need to know (or even care) about the reason why you decided that the latest task requires the technology you’ve chosen.

However, both you and the product owner need to understand that application performance for a given component is the most critical piece of the software you’re writing. By knowing that performance comes first, and knowing that the clients also need performance to come first, you can engage your creative technical capacities to have the best performing widget ever experienced.

Your boss and your business team will love you for it.

By knowing how to talk about the motivation of the business (specifically, the money behind it), you’ll gain a leg up on your peers, because the product owners are going to want to talk to you. Heck, the management team may even decide that you’re the best person to act as the product owner because you know how to talk to the programmers, and you also know how to decide return on investment for the next task on the to-do list.

The Cost and Value Of Writing Software

Opportunity Cost

One of the guiding concepts of economic theory is opportunity cost.

The general idea is that, even if you don't have to get your wallet out to complete an action, it has a cost associated with it. Put another way, we either pay with money or time. Or both.

You have to figure out how much value your time has and then decide how you want to spend it.

The Bottom Line

Some of the things I found super funny in school were the arguments and good-natured ribbing that happened between our economics professors and our accounting professors.

The general idea was that accountants think of cost as “I spent $50.00” whereas economists say it more like, “I invested $50.00 and earned $100.00, so I didn't spend anything.” At the end of it all, though, if you don't have $50, then you can't use it to go earn $100 doing something else with your time.

That's why it's important to know where your company's Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization  (EBITDA) sits and how your job impacts it. If you hear someone mention EBITDA, what this really means is a clean measure of the revenue coming in that can be compared month over month and year over year.

Return on Investment – Amortiza…what?

Man with cloud and money rain conceptYeah, they use big words that have important meanings in business terminology, too.

If you understand how amortization works for you (or against you, if you have consumer debt), then the time-value of money stops being a mystery. And all of a sudden, you know how to turn $100 into $105 in a year. Without doing anything. Multiply that by a thousand. Or ten thousand. You get the idea.

In fact, if you can figure out how to raise $1 million in principal for yourself (I’m still working on this part) and invest it wisely enough, you’ll have a $50K a year income. Without lifting a finger. Nothing at all.

Yes, I’m serious. This really is possible; John says so!

Imagine a scenario for a minute where this isn’t your standard income, but a supplement to it. Now you can keep putting (at bare minimum) $50K a year towards the principal you already have. Using the concept of compound interest, you’re quickly going to be paying yourself well over $100K a year. Just from having invested into a 5% yield something.

These things do happen. It’s how multi-billionaires keep making their income bigger. By investing properly.

Personal Branding

Marketing

This whole blog and John's book, Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual, centralize on the theme of personal branding.

Business schools have entire programs dedicated to marketing management. I took one class focused on marketing. The fundamentals I learned help me every day to know how to position myself in the best way possible.

In general, the most important message from marketing is that word of mouth is the fastest way to live or die.  People gripe freely. They aren't nearly as likely to give a +1.

Communications Theory

The main concentration when talking about communications theory is signal and noise.

Honestly, since a different guest author just wrote an entire article dedicated to this topic, I’m just going to point at it and say, “Hey, this is important!” right here: Test Your Understanding.

It All Comes Down to Dollars and Cents

Young students are pondering over the business degree. A concept of the MBA degree. Drawn educational icons on the chalkboard.As a broad generalization, the folks who only go to business school (or get their personal MBA) aren’t going to have the same level of academic drive as those who go into some kind of technical or engineering field.  

However, they are going to develop an instinct for the right way to make sure you keep getting paid for doing what you love doing.

If you can tap into the knowledge that they cultivate during their time in the classroom, you have a significant edge over your other technical counterparts who “don’t care about that business stuff.”
With proper enforcement of this knowledge, you’ll have a little bit of a better understanding for how to support your company in their goal of a stronger core competency driven organization.

About the author

    Jason Lowenthal

    Jason Lowenthal is an Architectural Software Engineer based in Springfield, MO. A graduate from Drury University, his past work includes stints with Bass Pro Shops, O’Reilly Automotive Inc. and Paperwise. When not contributing his time and talents to his employer, Asynchrony, Jason spends his free time raising his 3 girls, and learning about new technology. You can link up with him on Twitter, too: @lowenthal_jason