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Letters to a Young Manager

Leave your Signature, #6
LTYM > Leadership and Values

Dear Adam,
I'm glad to hear that you are taking pride in your work. Being associated with good work is part of your personal brand. It is worth cultivating, nurturing and promoting.

I remember my first job on Wall Street, writing FORTRAN code for the Corporate Finance department at a leading investment bank. It was one of the unromantic languages I learned as a liberal arts major. Helping students debug their FORTRAN code in graduate school had landed me the job. And I was good at it.

In the decade before spreadsheets, FORTRAN was the Lingua Franca of financial applications. We built stock pricing and project finance models, and put in long hours doing it. FORTRAN was a primitive procedural language, a notch above the machine specific assembler code, and a half notch below the dominant business language of the time, COBOL. In these languages, it was easy to build a "rats nest" of spaghetti code that became increasingly difficult to maintain. The GOTO statement was the usual villain, with code branching every which way. This was the stuff that had to be replaced and encapsulated during the Y2K infrastructure overhaul before the turn of the century.

This was also the time that structured programming debuted as a reaction to unmaintainable code. Good engineering principles were applied. "Black box" modules were encouraged, and readable, maintainable code was de rigueur. I was fascinated with the structured programming movement and applied it with a vengeance to all my code. I was also interested in programming style, and became a student of Kernigan and Plauger's work of the same title [1]. Adding a unique style to FORTRAN code was a challenge, especially when following the rules of structured design. So I used the statement numbers as my particular style. All of my loops referenced numbers beginning with 33, all format statements began with 99 and so on.

A year after I moved on to the Equity Research department, there was some question about whether I was responsible for a particular program that had become problematic. The programmer who had inherited the Corporate Finance code spoke in my defense. I remember him saying that it could not have been my code; my code had a unique "signature" that this program lacked. He said my code was obvious, to anyone who read it, that it was mine. It made me feel good to hear that. And I was proud of what I had written. I had "signed" my work with my style and standard of quality. There is no better signature for one's work.

When Lotus released a later version of the 1-2-3 spreadsheet, there was a rumor that a certain keystroke combination would cause a scrolling list of the program's authors to appear in a window. (I tried it and recall seeing it.) My father worked on the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) of NASA's Apollo program. He told me there was a brass plaque in the LEM's base that had the names of all the engineers who worked on the project.[2] Somewhere on the moon is his name along with the others indicating that this was their work. He was very proud of that.

So look for ways to sign your work. It may not be a visible signature on an "about" page or on a brass plaque, but it most certainly will be in the DNA of the work itself. Will others recognize your work, and more importantly, will you be proud of being its author?

[1] The Elements of Programming Style, by Brian W. Kernighan and P. J. Plauger (Paperback - McGraw-Hill, 1974)
[2] One of the LEM's plaque/posters was a signed poster that was reduced and placed in the LEM base module. A photo and explanation is on Quora. The photo and caption is in: Joshua Stoff, “Building Moonships: The Grumman Lunar Module,” Kindle Edition, 2004, p. 101, but I was not able to locate my father’s signature on this edition,


Style matters; leave your signature

Discussion Questions:

1) What elements of style have you left imprinted on your work? Other than reading your name as the author, how would someone tell it was your work? How would they tell it was quality work?
2) Are you proud of all the work you do? Which work are you not as proud of? Why?
3) What are your own personal work and quality standards?

For Further Reading:

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