The Meaning of Impact

As a programmer, I often over-quantified my own impact. I wanted opportunities where I could do big things. This desire for impact was a part of the reason why I headed down a management track. I felt like the opportunities for me were only available through the ownership that comes implicit in management. This was a misunderstanding that worked out well: my skills ultimately were best suited for management. What I didn’t realize at the time is that individual contributors can have as much impact, or more, than any manager.

So what is impact? Impact is the scope of your influence. A mentor of mine used to say that early in your career your primary levers for improving are your knowledge, skills and experience. These are the things that enable you to solve problems and execute within an organization. Building this personal toolbox enables you to solve more complex problems as you grow. You can think of impact as a triangle, where these elements represent the three corners.

The biggest turning point in your career is the inflection point where the value added to your toolbox with each improvement becomes less noticeable. Learning a third, fourth, or fifth programming language doesn’t bring the same leap forward in understanding and value as the first or second did. As your return on investment gets smaller for each lesson learned, it gets harder and harder to increase the impact of your toolbox. These later increases in the area of the triangle are small as a percentage of the whole. This is when influence comes into play, turning your knowledge, skills, and experience outwards and using them to make others better, causing exponential improvement in the scope of your impact.

As my career has progressed I’ve run across a diverse group of programmers who had impact well above and beyond my own. These were people who learned the skill of influence and wielded it to great effect. Influence isn’t the divine right of management giving you credit for the work of others, but the ability to move people in the right direction through your contribution. As you grow as an individual contributor, helping to set the direction and efficiency of a team, a program, an organization, a company, or even a community isn’t impossible. In every organization there are engineers who are more than the sum of their skills, spreading their knowledge and experience beyond themselves to try and help make their company into the best version of itself.

Learning the very basics of influence represents the beginning of the transition into the senior tiers of engineering. What makes you senior? Your ability to help others grow. At first, this comes in simple forms: code reviews, training the new person, doing the dirty work to explain a new project to the rest of the team, taking ownership of a bigger component that has two or three other engineers working on it, and having accountability. These actions build on themselves to change the team around you and make your impact felt.

Within organizations the titles start to grow, as you move up from this level. These labels aren’t given to simply the best technical coder in the group but to the persons who have the biggest impact on those around them. This isn’t sitting back and being an architect, it’s still getting your hands dirty. It’s taking the responsibility and accountability for larger and larger groups of people, in a way that everyone feels your impact.

It’s hard to tell someone exactly what to do as a general guide for improving influence. What’s important is that you know that the goal is to increase your own impact and that you are inspired to find it.

This blog will be a place for Credit Karma’s engineers – we call ourselves Karmanauts – to influence the community and demonstrate their impact: in making a better product, workplace, internal culture and knowledge base. We’ll use it as a launching ground for making our staff better. We’ll announce great projects we’re working on, discuss the ideas that are at the foundation of our business, and detail technical achievements that will hopefully help you avoid some of the pitfalls and hurdles we’ve had. This is our opportunity to look at ourselves as an influencer not just for our members, but for our community. We hope you’ll join us often and tell us about the successes you’ve found with our posts.

About the Author

Matt Greenberg

Matt is Senior Director of Engineering and a technology leader who loves his job. "The world always seems brighter when you've just made something that wasn't there before." - Neil Gaiman