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Over the last few years I've worked in a number of companies as a software developer, with industries ranging from manufacturing to banking and finance.

Unfortunately, it seems that I haven't really made the most of these opportunities to learn about the industries involved. For example, I worked in a major investment bank for over a year, but I can't really say I know much more about finance and banking than the average joe.

I believe it is in part due to the nature of my work which generally has been writing software for database access, charting, and data manipulation. There is no business benefit for anyone to tell me any more, so it's up to me to learn and find out more on my own.

How would I go about trying to find out about the company and what it does, and how the industry works?

I've tried talking to people at lunch breaks and inviting them for coffee, etc. with mixed results. Primarily I've found that many people are reluctant to take me up as part of their "network". I suspect it is in large part because they don't see how they would benefit as in their eyes I'm "just an IT guy" which to some people has the same status as kitchen staff.

Am I doing something wrong, or is the prospect of "start with XXX job and work your way up" just a myth?

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    My "just an IT guy" experience is different; non-technical people want me to fix their computers all the time. – Monica Cellio Jun 12 '14 at 15:59
  • @MonicaCellio Monica if you're female there's a good chance people asking you to fix their computers just want an excuse to get you at their desk.. – CaptainCodeman Jun 12 '14 at 18:22
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    @CaptainCodeman, funny most IT men I know get asked this just as much as the women. – HLGEM Jun 12 '14 at 18:43
  • In any case, surely you must be aware that a guy who is your friend for the sole reason that he wants you to fix his computer isn't really a strong contact? – CaptainCodeman Jun 12 '14 at 20:54
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How would I go about trying to find out about the company and what it does, and how the industry works?

On the job - you can do this by looking just a few steps beyond the information you're being told when you are asked to do work. Start asking the people you work with "why" - why do we need the software to do this? Why is the data structured this way, not that. Then you are giving something (better ideas) while you learn more.

Other options on the job are to network with people who have responsibility for making your software fit the business needs. That's usually:

  • Your manager
  • The Product Manager
  • Program Managers (sometimes)
  • Other managers
  • Sales people
  • Tech support

Never turn down the nugget where someone in engineering actually has a broader thought, as people with this understanding who can relate it to engineering ideas are just incredibly useful to know.

At the company - look for broader company communications:

  • Read the newsletter, ask questions if there's a way to do so.
  • Go to briefings that are public, but not necessarily in your domain
  • Take the training for the sales people - they often have slick training, but it tells you what the company does and why from an insider perspective. Also - how sales are incentivized tells you a lot about what the company thinks of as it's profit sources.
  • Read articles about the business from the outside.
  • Poke around the internal intranet site.

Lunch with people you get along with from diverse points of the organization can be incredibly useful, but lunch with random people who don't know you is likely to be much less so. To get a really useful understanding, you have to have someone who can explain in a way that makes sense to you - this is much likely to happen once you know someone. Also realize that in a public lunch setting, some folks may NOT want to talk about work ... it's their lunch break!

My favorite - is to make friends, not look for a network. I got some of the coolest and most interesting insights into the businesses I worked in by becoming pals with people in other areas of the company - anything from lawyers, to cleaning people, to security (both infosec and physical), to sales, to just about anything. Everyone has a story, and a mission in their work, and I really like learning it. It starts as a random conversation about absolutely nothing. It goes into a joke, or something that connects us and next thing you know, we find common ground. Eventually learn why they work here, what they do, and why it matters... people love talking about that stuff - once they know you.

Am I doing something wrong, or is the prospect of "start with XXX job and work your way up" just a myth?

I believe you are mixing concepts here. Very few people go from database engineering to business-related management. The first few promotions are usually within your subject domain - so the "business" at hand that you need to know to work your way up is the business of how to do your job efficiently and the business of how your work ties in with the work of other people. That can be remarkably similar from engineering department to engineering department. I've worked in software engineering in the defense industry, federal economics and private service based companies - and it's far more similar from job to job than it is different, even though the way the company generated revenue, viewed it's investments and structured it's strategy was wildly different from place to place.

When you are nearing the top of the technical food chain then you DO need to know how to get your engineering organization how to move in line with the business itself. By this time you will also have mentors and sponsors who are helping you get what you need to move forward.

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    Thanks, this is a really superb answer. I'm just curious though, what do you mean by sponsors? Who would sponsor an individual to move forward in his career? – CaptainCodeman Jun 12 '14 at 22:03
  • Here's a good description - forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/10/08/… – bethlakshmi Jun 13 '14 at 20:19
  • A "sponsor" is someone in the company who is in the right position to advocate for you. There's often experiential criteria (both official and informal) that are required for a promotion. A sponsor both puts you in the position to get those experiences, and advocates for your good work while you're doing them. – bethlakshmi Jun 13 '14 at 20:20
  • @bethlakshmi Great answer as always. I would like to add a small point for OP: following your company on social media (eg. twitter) enables you to stay updated with latest offerings from them like new products, upcoming events like public conferences etc. – Chethan S. Jun 15 '14 at 14:38
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    @Chethan - good point. Also (mileage varies) social media output is good conversational points in the office. – bethlakshmi Jun 16 '14 at 13:36
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Honestly if you are doing database work, there is a lot of business benefit in you knowing more or you will not know if you are getting the right results out of the database!!!! If you don't understand the business, you don't understand the data and there is a close to 100% chance that you are giving them bad results. Any dev who accesses a database must thoroughly understand the business needs for that data to do his or her job effectively.

First step is to ask those questions as part of the requirements definition. Suppose someone wants you to write a budget report. Talk them about how they intend to use it, and how you can know if the data is right. Talk to them about why the report is important to them. If you are in a regulated industry, then at requirements time always ask if there is some law that impacts what you are doing. By asking questions during the requirements phase (and even if devs don't do the requirements, they should be asking questions when they read them to make sure they understand what is wanted), you are making it clear that these are business-related questions.

At times you may need to point out that something now is inconsistent with something else you did earlier and ask why and how to reconcile the two (I had the same person ask me to update names in an import and to not undate names in the same import about two months apart). Part of learning the business is remembering the bits that you get through various tasks and then using that data again to ask questions about new tasks and learning to relate information from different tasks to new tasks.

For instance, I know there are certain states that have stricter regulatory rules than the federal government in my industry, When I get work related to the regulated parts of the industry that doesn't mention those states, I ask how they want me to handle them. Turns out that sometimes, you have a bigger picture than the people doing the requirements because of the broader base of things you have seen in the past. As a dev, you actually end up being exposed to more parts of the business than many individuals who are asking for things. Use that to your advantage and look for ways to relate what you know from previous projects to the current one.

Often you learn more by pushing back on a requirement. If something seems off to you, find out why. If they want to do something in an awkward way, find out why (government regulations are often the cause of this one).

  • I disagree with this in the general case. For example I worked with a database storing the profit/loss from every transaction. They asked me to draw charts from these. There is very little benefit for them to explain to me why they made profits/losses from these transactions, or even what they represent. To draw a bar chart you just need to add and divide some numbers.. – CaptainCodeman Jun 12 '14 at 18:24
  • In a database if you don't understand the business rules, you don't know exactly what filters to put on to get the correct results. If you don't see that, then I certainly would not let you anywhere near a database I manage. – HLGEM Jun 12 '14 at 18:42
  • You're being a bit sensationalist. Of course I understand what's going on in a very superficial way, but what I'm saying is that if the requirements are to build charts from Profit & Loss, nobody is going to explain to you where the profit comes from, and if you ask they'll tell you "why does it matter, just add them up". – CaptainCodeman Jun 12 '14 at 18:46
  • Odd, no one has ever not answered me when I have asked a similar question. And no I am not be sensationalist, the single most imporatnt qualification for anyone accessing data is to understsand what it means. And by asking when they give you requirements exactly what is meant, they have an incentive to actually answer your questions. – HLGEM Jun 12 '14 at 18:54
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I think you can do a couple of things rather easily to understand some of the basic things about the company:

Talk to a Product Manager Often the product managers are the ones who need to understand the product market, the clients, competition, pricing and industry. Companies may also have someone in Product Marketing who could also be useful. I would just have a few questions prepared and reach out to one of the managers to ask them if someone on their team would be willing to talk to you for 15 minutes under the guise of knowing more about the business will help you do your job better.

Public Companies have research reports done by analysts You may have to search a bit but try to dig up a report written by someone about a company. That report will typically discuss the opportunities, risks and key metrics. Also public companies file with the SEC 10ks which have sections that talk about the business and key metrics. I have always found reading them to be really helpful. If you just search for "Company Name 10k" it will likely lead you to the 10k PDF.

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I tend to take a formal and an informal approach. Sometimes I ask as part of the requirements gathering to get more "background" information. Explain it help you understand the big picture. I know, it's a buzzword, but sometimes you need to use those to your advantage and get business people's attention. I find most people don't mind talking about the work they do and don't attempt any cost benefit analysis of their time and whether or not this is important. Maybe I've been lucky in this areal.

Othertimes, I may just ask one person a question at the end of a meeting when everyone is getting up or after they've come to me with a question. I'm genuinely curious, so I just ask naturally.

Asking people to take up a lunch or coffee break may be a little too much. Usually people want to avoid work at these times.

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How would I go about trying to find out about the company and what it does, and how the industry works?

Well, you could research the public data for those companies that trade publicly to get the perspective that investors may have. At the same time, I'd consider the question here how much are you wanting to know the day to day operations, what growth strategies does the company have, what challenges does the company see coming up are all different pieces.

For example, at the investment bank, were you wanting to know how they decide what fees to charge clients, how they decide which clients to accept and so forth? Alternatively, did the bank run its own investments that you wanted to know how did the funds actually run?

Am I doing something wrong, or is the prospect of "start with XXX job and work your way up" just a myth?

Depending on how high up the ladder you want to go, in which industry, with what connections and talents, I could see this as good advice or really lousy. If you read "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" by Robert Kiyosaki, then you'd see this as the advice the poor dad would give. For some people it may work well. I imagine most military generals and admirals started at one point and worked their way up for one example. On the other hand, for a lot of other places it may depend more on culture. If you're going for a Chief Information Officer then you need to know what are the main systems the company uses which may differ from how the company operates on a day to day basis.

The author has worked in numerous industries yes. His poor dad worked for the government and had a secure good job that he believed his son should follow that pattern of get a good education, get a good job and let the company take care of you. In contrast, the rich dad invested in real estate mainly as I recall.

  • I've read "Rich Dad, Poor Dad", doesn't he say that he spent a number of years working in various industries, learning about the companies? (Or maybe that was another book?) – CaptainCodeman Jun 12 '14 at 13:08

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