What an ARM chip designer taught me about my career

Almost twenty years ago, I was an undergraduate at Manchester University in the UK. I’d been lured there by the promise of being in the same room as Steve Furber, a key designer of the original ARM chip, and so spent a lot of my time on hardware courses in the hope of hanging out with my hero. After a couple of years I eventually plucked up the courage to have a few words with him over warm white wine at a departmental mixer, blurting out the first thing that came into my head, something about how chip designers didn’t seem to get good salaries. He told me “If you’re really good you’ll get paid well, it doesn’t matter what the field is“. I liked that advice, it gave me permission to focus on learning the craft of programming, in the hope that it would pay off down the line whatever my initial job decisions were.

That was lucky, because my job choices were terrible. My first professional job paid less than I made at the shelf-stacking one I took to make it through college, I wasn’t working on interesting technology or problems, the company itself was beyond chaotic, and I was an awful programmer. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that I was learning how to suck less. One of the bright spots was our lead engineer Gary Liddon, a ‘veteran’ of a very young industry. He scared the living daylights out of me, he didn’t have any patience at all for time wasters, but he made sure I had support as I tried to figure out how to do my job. He showed me the secret to debugging impossible crashes for example – just comment out half the code, see if it still happens, and binary search your way to the answer.

As I bounced between jobs, I tried to spot the people like him who were better than me and learn whatever I could from them. I made some idiotic career decisions (who moves to Scotland to find work?) but over time I found myself becoming more capable as a programmer, which gave me the chance to recover from those bad choices. I found that hanging out with smart people who could show me amazing new ways to build software makes me want to go to work too! Learning started as something I focused on for my career, but I found it made me happy as well.

I’m not much of a believer in life advice, I feel like I’m still groping in the dark myself, but Steve’s throwaway remark has served me well as a guide. At least focusing on getting better at what I do is something I have control over.

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