One college summer, I worked at a small theater on the Mississippi river. It was a drought year. I remember it raining once the whole time I was there. The river flowed way below its usual level and ran dirty. The corn crop was devastated.
The theater was within miles of a huge pet food rendering plant. When the humidity allowed a breeze everything smelled quite literally like death warmed over.
And then the shad flies hatched. Lumbering insects that flew just well enough for one night of frantic bashing into things and mating. The next morning, their bodies covered the ground like gravel. I crunched my way from my apartment to the theater.
All this proved an appropriate backdrop.
The theater was a paddle wheel tug cemented to the bank of the river. The repertoire had been selected by the parks department. It consisted of fifty year-old musicals which required large choruses and performers who could sing, dance and act. The theater didn’t pay well and had no reputation. So our company consisted of twelve teens and twenty-somethings. About fifty less people than the larger musicals required. As for triple threats, some of us could passably act and sing or sing and dance.
And so we shambled our way through the summer – performers versus shows. Each evening or matinee without fail the shows kicked our ass. The artistic injury alone should have knocked that tugboat loose to immediately and permanently submerge in the river mud.
And yet, matinee or evening, audiences were entertained. They laughed. They applauded. They even waited outside to thank the performers.
What does this mean? What should I take from this experience?
We must strive to be better at what we do, to do our jobs well as we see it, without concern for recognition.
Mastering craft towards a beneficial end is a noble human aspiration. It is a good in the world. Like all attempts at doing or being good we cannot expect others around us to acknowledge us for it or even to recognize the difference even if they benefit from the effort.
Thankfully, I’ve moved on in my life. I’m a manager, a software executive, and a father but like the hopelessly miscast kid that I was, I still struggle to improve.
SD Times has a brief item on the Standish Group CHAOS Study update. In 2006, 65% of sampled software projects were canceled, significantly late and/or over-budget. Over ten years of thought and practice have improved our success rate by a meaningful but disappointing 19%.
Business execution shares more than equal credit for our state of play. Four of the first five Standish Groupare engaged, empowered and pragmatic product management.
There will always be a background failure rate no matter how excellent technical execution becomes. Things change and opportunities involve risks. Some well-executed projects will always fail to pan out. Still, 65th percentile is a mean aspiration.
I haven’t met a talented developer or development manager who wasn’t obsessed with self-improvement. Yet a focus on self isn’t enough. Standing out in the crowd may benefit individuals but it diminishes our craft. The failure around us lowers the hopes of society for what we can achieve.
Principle 7 of The IEEE Computer Society Code of Ethics says we should:
7.07. Not unfairly intervene in the career of any colleague; however, concern for the employer, the client or public interest may compel software engineers, in good faith, to question the competence of a colleague.
Inferior work embarrasses me. Behavior that perpetuates inferior work infuriates me. But when should we step beyond criticism of code to criticize those who author it? First, in good faith we should search our motives for self-interest and vanity. Opportunism is bullshit. Bullshit devalues truth. Bullshit destroys trust.
Ultimately we have a responsibility to protect the interests of those who pay us and the larger community who benefit from our efforts. We have a responsibility to society and the reputation of our industry upon which our potential to contribute to society depends. It’s our duty to find a way of expressing criticism that stands some reasonable chance of benefiting those interests.
Easier said than done where a power imbalance exists. As Ken Schwaber says in Agile Project Management with Scrum, “A dead sheepdog is a useless sheepdog.”
With all that to balance, how do we sleep at night?
I’m on the management side of the labor divide and yet I’ve never held a position my parents would consider a permanent job. To work these days is effectively to be employed at will.
I once had a senior executive tell me that my team was an experiment. To prove the value of development staff, we had to replace an outsource, maintain their legacy applications, and deliver a challenging new project. If we failed, next year’s budget would go to re-establishing the outsource.
We faced a hard date, skeptical clients and a steep learning curve but we had an honest leader, the means to succeed and a way of measuring it. All we had to do was execute.
I never felt more control over my fate.
A family friend works for Doctors Without Borders. His labor benefits society in ways that will outlive him. In the balancing act that is my life — privileged by world if not New York standards — I’ve deferred, if not entirely foregone legacy. My job is about significance and achievement. Significance comes in providing for my family, not only a biological imperative but a profound joy.
Achievement rests in approaching each year as if it were an experiment. What accomplishment justifies my continued employment? What one thing should I do to materially advance the interests of my employer, our customers and/or my team? It’s the chart of that course that makes me show up in the morning and it’s sightings along the way that allow me to sleep at night.
Here’s to competence, experience, courage and tremendous luck.
From a June 4th article in the Economist:
The student oath is part of a larger effort to turn management from a trade into a profession…
This is the exact debate going on in Software Development — emerging profession or craft?
One of the two main criticisms of the oath and of the whole idea of turning management into a profession, particularly in business-school faculties, is that it is either unnecessary or actively harmful… (by) promising to “safeguard the interests” of colleagues, customers, and society, are the future captains of industry simply short-changing their shareholders?
Defenders of the oath reply that the goal of maximising shareholder value has become a justification for short-termism and, in particular, rapid personal enrichment. They are concerned about managers doing things that drive up the share price quickly at the expense of a firm’s lasting health.
The second complaint is that the oath’s fine words are toothless.
Even these cheerleaders admit there are differences between practising management and, say, medicine. They concede that no self-regulating professional body for managers could possibly monopolise entry to the profession
We can debate that a practice has ethical consequences, i.e. that it has a larger array of stakeholders who can be harmed or benefited by the daily decisions of practitioners – without calling for accreditation, lincensing, certification, standards bodies, and regulation.
Developers should consider end users, society and our common reputation even as managers consider long-term investors, employees, their industry and the larger economy.
Name a widespread activity that isn’t abetted/enabled by software systems. Even the debate over an MBA Oath:
As for punishing unprofessional behaviour, Mr Khurana (Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School) is inspired by the internet rather than by a closed council of grandees. From open-source software to eBay and Wikipedia, new systems of self-regulation are emerging based on openness, constant feedback and the wisdom of crowds. These could be adapted, he thinks, to provide effective scrutiny of managers.
If anything about this strikes you as not true, I’d love to hear why.