Things I Wish I Knew Before Working in Industry

In April 2008, a representative from IBM gave a presentation at Georgia Tech about things he wished he knew before working in the the software industry. I have found his advice to be very useful at various points during my career. Sadly I have lost the presenter’s name.

Here is my outline of his presentation. Emphasized points are ones I’ve found to be particularly useful.


  • Future: integration
  • Needed: ease-of-use & less complexity
  • Do not reinvent wheels!
    • you’ll never finish the project

Technical Knowledge

  • Learn to learn
  • Don’t need to take a class to learn something
  • Learn a little about a lot of things
  • Read news highlights from worthwhile sources

Problem Solving

  • Build a network of people. Asking for advice is quicker than learning the hard way.
  • There is always more than one way to do something.
    Weigh the pros/cons of each – then pick and choose.
  • Innovate before you execute. Think critically before you act.

Business & Technology

  • Technology adoption is driven by business. (practicality)
  • Business is nothing without technology.
    Technology is nothing without business.
  • If you build a better mousetrap, they will not come.
  • A project, no matter how advanced, is doomed for failure without a paying customer.
  • Think about TCO (total cost of ownership) and ROI (return on investment).
    You must always justify your returns.
  • Communication with managers and customers is vital!
    If you can’t get someone to adopt your solution, what’s the point?
  • There is a difference between removing barriers and creating incentive (for a customer to switch to my project/product). You need both.


  • It’s not what you know.
    It’s not who you know.
    It’s who knows what you know.
  • Doing more of the same is not enough.
    • Need to try new things – take on more responsibility.
  • Doing what is asked is not enough.
  • Ask you manager what the expectations are.

Working with Others

  • Credit + gratitude are not limited resources.
    • Say thank you!
    • Give credit where due.
  • Be ambitious but be humble.
  • Don’t make assumptions about others.
    • Give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • “Your lack of planning does not mean I need to treat your request as urgent.”
  • Do what you say you will. Keep your word.
    • reliable
    • dependable
  • The best humor is self-deprecating.
  • There is always someone faster, smarter, and better looking.


  • They don’t have a magic wand. They don’t automatically fix problems.
  • Managers do not have a superset of the employees' (team members') knowledge.
  • Managers can’t read minds. Don’t assume. Communicate explicitly.
  • You are responsible for your own career. But ask for help.

You and Your Job

  • Your job is what you make of it. Don’t be confined by a job description.
  • Work/Life balance doesn’t have good default settings. You must do explicit actions.
    • plan
    • schedule for success
  • You are not your job. Do not define yourself like this.


  • We’re employed to add value, not spend money.
  • It’s easy to stay busy, but are you accomplishing anything worthwhile?
    • don’t needlessly clutter your schedule
  • If you aren’t looking at it from a customer perspective, you aren’t looking at it.
  • You can’t do everything. Pick what you won’t do. (The world won’t end.)


  • Don’t expect your first job to be your dream job. Look for a path, not an endpoint.
  • Be willing to stretch your comfort zone.
    • geographically, work type, etc.
    • Otherwise you’ll stagnate.
  • Know your employer’s business model.
    • Examples:
      • HP = selling ink;
      • Microsoft = selling Office and Windows;
      • Apple = iPod and (to some extent) Macs
    • Take a look at the annual reports for your company.
  • Get internships, even if with competitors, maybe even delaying graduation.
    • It gives experience.
    • Increases employment opportunities.
  • Start looking and prepare much earlier.

Successful Employment

  • If you want to make a difference, look for chaos.
    Stable environments offer little opportunity.
  • Good employees deal with challenges instead of pouting. Adapt.
  • Stay above the commodity line (with regard to skill set and type of work done).


  • Understand other people’s motivations.
    • Makes it easier to find new ways of solving the underlying goal.
  • Define your values and goals.
    • ex: What type of job do you want?
  • Your behaviors should support your goals.
  • Expect your goals to change. Success is dynamic.
  • Don’t let others define success for you.
  • You can get rich by getting more or wanting less.
  • Life is one great balancing act.
    • There’s no single right way of doing things.
    • Balancing your priorities and goals is important.