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Don’t underestimate your positive impact as a software engineer in the financial services industry

“In every day, there are 1,440 minutes. That means we have 1,440 daily opportunities to make a positive impact.” - Les Brown

As human beings we all strive to be appreciated. For young people this is the appreciation of their friends, family, colleagues…​, but as you get older you strive also towards after-live appreciation, i.e. your legacy.

With the increased automation and the rise of AI, a lot of jobs are threatened. As many people define (a big part of) their life by their job (one of the first questions many people ask someone they meet for the first time is what their job is), their ability to be meaningful and appreciated by society is at risk.

But even people with good job security, ask themselves the question whether their job has a meaningful and positive impact (i.e. do good/make a difference) on society. Especially the young generation is very sensitive to this desire to do something enjoyable, while making a difference in society (a "purpose" in life).
During the Covid-19 confinement period, many people asked themselves this question. Obviously the jobs with a strong human-interaction(social workers, doctors, nurses, care-givers, hairdressers…​) proved to be critical in our society and have hopefully gained even more our well-deserved respect.
While these jobs are essential and we should be grateful that these jobs are done with so much commitment and care, it can be easily forgotten that other jobs are just as crucial for our society. Every profession provides a piece of the total puzzle and contributes as such to all accomplishments in our society.
The difference is that jobs with a strong human-interaction can have enormous impacts on individual human lives. The flip-side however is that those jobs are very labor intensive, meaning one person can only help a few other people a day.
Most other jobs have a (very) small impact on human lives, but via automation this impact can often be given to dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of people per day.

When we summarize this in a graph, with on one axe the level of (positive) impact you have with your job and on the other axe the number of people you (positively) impact, you get 4 quadrants (excluding any activities which destroy value for society, like e.g. criminal activities):

  • Low impact - Low volume: this type of jobs will hopefully disappear by providing either a more meaningful and impactful service (more customer oriented, better service, less repetitive…​) or by automation, allowing to reach higher volumes.

  • Low impact - High volume: most professions are situated in this quadrant and often have a feeling of disconnection with the value they deliver. However, in total value, they often make just as much impact on human lives as the 3rd category.

  • High impact - Low volume: this is the category of the above-mentioned jobs with a strong human-interaction.

  • High impact - High volume: ultimately this is the category, which we all aspire to be in, but very few people are situated in this category. Typically, this includes public figures (like politicians, artists, writers, actors…​), top CEOs (assuming they do their job well, which is not always a given), high net worth individuals (unfortunately having a lot of money increases your impact also considerably) and top scientists and engineers.

Even though we all struggle to find our place in society, there exist more means to create an impact on a large number of people than ever before (i.e. your sphere of influence can be bigger than ever before). Consider this medium of blogging for example. This didn’t exist 20 years ago (not even 10 years ago). If you wanted to spread your ideas in the past, you needed to write a book and find a publisher, which was difficult and reserved to the happy few.
Today, I can write this article, which will (hopefully) be read by a few hundred people and have as such an impact (even though this impact can be very small).

As a software engineer you are ideally positioned to change the world and have an impact on a large number of people, as the same software program can be used by thousands if not millions of people (at very little extra cost). Depending on your project, your impact and the volume of people impacted will differ of course.

If you work e.g. for a Retail bank with over a million customers and you improve the technical performance of the mobile banking solution, allowing the first landing page to be loaded half a second faster, you have created a big impact.
Assuming that the customers of the bank connect on average 1 time a week, you would have 1 million x 1 time a week x 4 weeks / month x 0,5 seconds = 23 hours. This means you have created overall 23 hours of valuable time a month, which can be better spent, and this doesn’t even consider the better feeling you give to all users as they have a more frictionless user experience.

Recent evolutions allow software engineers to have even more impact thanks to an increased leverage, i.e. an increased output for the amount of time you are investing:

  • Higher productivity via better programming languages, new abstraction layers, reusable components…​

  • Lower risk of projects abandoned after months (if not years) of work or delivered software which is never (or very little) used. All this thanks to the rise of Agile deliveries, which allow to generate value faster (Optimize for Impact) and in smaller blocks and get faster end-user feedback (short feedback loops) if a wrong path was chosen.

  • The development of modular components, which can be reused in other projects and by other engineers, within the same department or even another department of your firm.

  • Open source software, i.e. if you contribute as a software engineer to important open source projects, you will not only positively impact the users/customers of your organization, but also the users/customers of many other organizations (using this open source software component)

  • Easy automation of manual tasks, via RPA tools, low- and no-code platforms and other tools. This way, time is freed up to do work which creates more added value.

  • …​

As a software engineer it is therefore crucial to stay connected with your end-users. This will not only make you a better engineer, but it also ensures that you have short feedback cycles (ensuring you are delivering positive impact to your users) and is very motivating, as you get to see first-hand the positive impact you are making.

It is also important not to think too big (don’t try to boil the ocean). We don’t all need to change the world and we can’t change the whole world at once. The world is changed one brick at a time, so many small impacts can just as well change our lives drastically for the better.
As a software engineer you can do this via your direct contributions to deployed software, but just as well by making your team feel more happy and motivated or by helping (giving advice and mentorship) colleagues to grow their skills.

A software engineer has the means to influence a large number of people for the positive. It will however be up to each engineer to make sure he impacts for the positive (i.e. delivering projects successfully, delivering what end-users need, delivering good quality…​) and maximizes his impact (by increasing the user base, by open sourcing his contributions, by mentoring colleagues, by sharing his expertise on the internet…​). When done properly, the resulting positive (direct and indirect) impact can be exponential.

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