But I’m an engineer, I don’t care about the bottom line
That’s right, I said it. As engineers, we laugh and cringe when we hear this over used, management word. However, there is a new term evolving that, if you don’t understand its true meaning, will affect your overall career growth as an engineer: business value. Want to get noticed by management? Start to speak in their language…no business suit required.
Business Value: The differentiator
Now, when I say engineer, I am referring to anyone who writes code, regardless of department and title. As an engineer, I know all too well how passionate and opinionated we can be. We rarely consider what the business thinks, we just want to make cool, awesome, functional code. But, in order to succeed and differentiate yourself between a lead engineer and a senior engineer does not only involve technical skills, but includes understanding the ways in which you contribute to the overall success of your company.
That, in a nutshell, is business value. There can be multiple ways to add value but perhaps the most obvious is linking work to a key objective that spans an organization. Have you ever noticed that you are always getting questions about this in your performance reviews? If you don’t understand how what you are doing adds value to your company and how to communicate this to management, you might be hindering yourself for advancement.
What story are you telling?
When your evaluation happens the majority of the people in the room (i.e. management) are less technical. This is just an unfortunate fact. If you wrote down that you “Automated patching of the RHEL 8 fleet” in your performance review, the person reading it might stare blankly at the screen. They almost certainly cannot correlate the value of the accomplishment of that task nor give you the credit you deserve.
Instead, engineers need to start thinking about the business value they added when they performed their technical work. It might feel like you shouldn’t have to ‘speak management language’ but if you want to advance, you must. You will only get so far up the ladder if you can’t translate your technical successes into terms the business side can comprehend.
Get feedback from non-technical colleauges in a safe space
Let’s go back to our prior example. What if we instead rephrase so that it reads something like “Saved operations team 240 hours of manual work (20 hrs * 12 months) by automating patching for RHEL 8 fleet” Now management can say “wow, that is a lot of time we used to spend on patching that our team members now get back to perform other work.” This is a simple example, let’s go over another one.
Level up your business value mind-set
Let’s say you have a great idea or project you want to work on, but it always gets deprioritized or there simply isn’t enough time to work on it. I’d encourage you to start thinking about how your idea or project can add business value. You might be hard pressed to link it to an overall organization goal, but instead, try starting a bit smaller and think about why your skip level manager (your manager’s manager) would care. Assuming you can connect business value to your idea, start pitching with that first then go through the technical details and timeline. Like all presentations or demos, know your audience. Eventually, you will become an expert at explaining how your ideas add direct value to the business. Wow, you must be a well known name around your organization!
Compound Business Value
If you are already taking both of these approaches, I’d challenge you to work on compound business value. Start integrating business value into your day to day work and decision making process to achieve business goals. Start asking yourself and your manager why products or projects are important to the business and take notes on why. You can use this information in meetings to prioritize stories as well as writing more meaningful performance reviews.
Go forth and practice business value
You can be an outstanding engineer from a technical level, but you must think in terms of business value when writing performance reviews, documents for management or even pitching ideas. This not only applies to the company you work for but any external company you interact with. You will move up the ladder faster and further by translating your decisions and achievements into this language and putting them into broader context.
Keep in mind that not everyone understands business value or can speak its ‘language.’ Make sure you’re talking to the right people to understand what matters inside (or outside) the organization. Once you become fluent in business value, you will be able to easily recognize those who also speak this language.