My first job out of college was as a software developer at Microsoft. I have always been grateful for what I learned there. But the orientation I received my first day was surprisingly thin. It was 2004, in the aftermath of antitrust action, so it mostly consisted of guidance not to write anything down or look at open-source software. I’m sure things have changed since then but I was a bit lost when I finally got to my desk later that afternoon. I asked my new boss if he had any advice. He glanced back at me as he walked out of the room and said, “don’t break the build.”
I didn’t even know what the build was yet.
As it turns out, the build was what we were all working on. I was on the Visio team which was part of Microsoft Office. With thousands of developers all writing code that interacted in complex ways it was important to integrate that code on a regular basis and ensure it worked. If I contributed code that broke the build it wouldn’t just break it for me; it would break it for everyone. I had the power to prevent thousands of people from making progress if I was careless.
The cardinal sin in an engineering organization is to slow down others.
This is why I’m a bit of a fanatic about getting to meetings on time. It is why I try to be so responsive on email or chat (when working). It is why I prioritize my work by unblocking others before making progress on my own work. I never want to be the reason someone else is blocked from making progress. I don’t always succeed at being timely, of course, but I take seriously my responsibility to not slow down the work of those around me.