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The low status of software engineers

21/08/2014

A couple weeks ago I read an article by Michael Church titled “How the Other Half Works: an Adventure in the Low Status of Software Engineers“. It is the story of Bill, who had two very different experiences interviewing for two different positions at two different companies: one as a software engineer, and one as a VP-level manager. Bill’s experience is as you would expect from the title. The article is well worth reading.

It was difficult to process the article’s conclusions, because my interview experiences have not been like Bill’s. In fact, in some cases it has been the opposite. I once interviewed for a management-level position that I was woefully unqualified for. Once it was clear I wasn’t the person for the job, they changed the day’s schedule to allow some engineers to unnecessarily hammer me with technical questions. Likewise, I recently interviewed for a software engineer position at a healthcare company with a very small programming team, yet was treated extremely respectfully by everyone, including the CEO. Furthermore, I know I am not guilty of holding software engineers in low status, as anyone I have worked with will tell you.

A few days later, after thinking about the article some more, I started to get some flashbacks*.

I wanted to make changes to scrum teams, consolidating several smaller teams into fewer larger teams. I was told “if we do this, it must be secret. We cannot discuss team composition with developers. They just gossip and act like children.

I was discussing systematic problems with management structure with a sympathetic senior manager. I was told “I once put forward a proposal that employees should choose their own managers. I was laughed out of the room.

We were considering two senior developers for a second Technical Director position. I was told “you must leave this to me to handle, we do not want them to know the other is being considered.” Of course they were good friends, and eventually made the decision themselves.

I raised an objection to a workflow a tools team had put together, concerned it put a large and unnecessary burden on content creators. I was told, “if they don’t want to deal with it, they don’t need to work here.

A team griped frequently about their tools, which were both essential and horrific. Management felt they weren’t sufficiently appreciative when any minor fixes were made. Instead of fixing the tools, they and I were told “there will be no more discussion of these issues, except as initiated by management.

Until now, I thought of these events as incredibly stupid decisions made by unqualified and disconnected individuals. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. These are incredibly predictable decisions made by normal individuals who are produced by a totally unsurprising system. Once the engineers are no longer running the show, they are quick to lose social status. Engineers remaining in management will be assimilated, demoted, or their position removed entirely. There’s no way to reverse this, and I think it’s why culture can so quickly spiral from enjoyable to miserable.

Finally, it’s also interesting to think about this in the context of the Silicon Valley “anti poaching” conspiracy which depressed employee salaries. It demonstrates the systematically low status of software engineers better than anything. Management at Apple, Google, Adobe, Intel, and more, saw engineers as mere pawns, while simultaneously acknowledging how vital they were to the success of those companies. What a world!


* If you’ve worked with me before, you can probably guess who some of these nameless individuals are. I have not obfuscated things for the sake of protecting the innocent, because I don’t find these shitty managers innocent.

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A manager’s primary job is to build trust

14/08/2014

While interviewing for my new position at Cozy, I was repeatedly asked what the job of an Engineering Manager is.* By the end of the day, I had decided (for myself, anyway) that the most important job of an Engineering Manager** is building trust.

  • Senior engineers must trust you. They can succeed without you, but you can’t succeed without them. Why does your job exist? It isn’t enough for you to trust them; that’s a prerequisite. If you don’t trust them, that needs to be rectified first. If they do not vehemently trust you, your role is not just worthless, but a net negative.

  • Junior engineers must trust you. They need to have a reason to stick around. They must trust that you are giving them opportunities, and they don’t need to leave to be treated better. They need to trust that they are learning, growing, advancing. Finally, they need to believe that if and when they leave to see what else the world has to offer, they will be welcomed back. If junior engineers do not trust you, they will leave, and take their ideas and passion with them.

  • Design must trust you. They must believe you when you present estimates or assessments from engineers. They must believe that they are getting good information from you, and you aren’t an out of touch middle manager. They must see continuous improvement and engagement from the engineers. They need to trust that you and the engineers are working towards the same goals as they are, with fire and passion. If design does not trust you, you are damaging engineers and company and should just get out of the way.

  • Management must trust you. This is generally an easy one, because if they don’t trust you, they should fix it or remove you.

  • Finally, one that cuts across roles: malcontents and metathinkers must trust you. Many people (especially engineers) just want to avoid politics and are happy to work on on their tasks and not ask questions. As long as you don’t actively screw up, these people will usually trust you. Much more difficult are the critics. They come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not that they need to agree with you, but they do need to trust you. These people often have big ideas and cultural influence. Distrust will drain your organization of talent. As a member of this category, I take this very seriously. When I’ve actively distrusted management, and subsequently left, there’s been a flight of talent afterwards as problems get worse. I’ve written about the importance of the malcontents on this blog before, and as a manager it’s always been a yardstick. If malcontents and metathinkers are leaving, something is going very wrong.

Trust is probably the most important metric for whether you’re doing a good job and your organization is healthy. It is a product of some actions, and a foundation of others. If it’s going up, your organization is getting stronger. If it’s going down, you need to get to work.


* I really enjoy interviews, especially in-person interviews, because it really helps me clarify my beliefs. This can lead to a high bounce-rate, but generally I’m left with culturally compatible companies after that. I consider this a benefit but YMMV.
** Any manager, really.

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“Do you expect too much from people?”

11/08/2014

Last year, a coworker asked me if perhaps I expect too much from other people. I thought about it a moment and said:

No. I do not accept the argument that I’m somehow inherently superior to most others. In fact it is because I know I am not superior that I have high expectations of others.

In the intervening year, I’ve come to see that this belief drives a lot of my management philosophy. In general, I assume the best of people I work with. If someone is not performing, I do not blame them; I blame myself (or whoever their manager is) and systematic problems that they are not in control of (but hopefully ones I am).

Of course people have different innate abilities and experiences. Some people have a high aptitude for certain types of work, and some have chosen a path that may not be a good fit. But the realities of business are that these things can quickly change, and an asset one day can be a liability the next. When a company has grown past a dozen people, I believe its time to start favoring nurture over nature. If someone isn’t performing, it is management’s problem.

This is true of not just employees, but other managers, and it was specifically about two other managers that this question was posed. The times were a-changin’, but these individuals were in roles they were ill suited for. They simply did not have the experience or competence to drive through the changes that needed to happen. It was up to their (our) management to take responsibility, but instead I heard apologies that “maybe they aren’t the best suited” and other meaningless explanations. I didn’t expect them to magically change; I expected management to do their job: get involved and well, manage!

If I expect something, it’s that people can both teach and learn. If the ability of people to grow is not an organization’s chief expectation- if management is not set up to grow employees, or management is not prepared to mature itself- I can’t imagine what they think their long-term prospects are. Perhaps they aren’t expecting much.

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You must manage what you can’t measure

8/08/2014

We all know the quote:

You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

The quote is often incorrectly attributed to W. Edwards Deming. Thank goodness, because that sentiment is absolutely ridiculous, and Deming is one of my heroes. In fact, a more accurate Deming quote is:

The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable… but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.

It’s very important to understand how absurd the “can’t manage what you can’t measure” idea is. It leads to articles like this:

It is an old management adage that is accurate today. Unless you measure something you don’t know if it is getting better or worse.

No, it wasn’t accurate when Peter Drucker promoted it, and it isn’t accurate today. This quote is so counter intuitive, I’m not sure it became popular. Are your managers idiots? Are your employees automatons? Do you believe you can measure everything about your business? That the more you measure, the more successful you will be?

If you want to truly engage with employees as empowered and creative individuals, you must manage what you can’t measure. If you want to create a learning organization optimized for long-term health, you must manage what you can’t measure. To forget this is to engage in one of the great sins of management.

An absolutely wonderful book on this topic is Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations. I really encourage anyone who believes that measurement is a prerequisite for management read it. It explains, with anecdotes, statistics, and logic, how depending on measurement will lead to deep organizational problems.

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Everyone should take vacation at the same time

31/07/2014

Throughout my career I’ve always seen people struggle with taking vacation. People are too wrapped up in what they’re doing. Managers can’t allow critical people to go missing. There are weeks of trepidation and handover and “I don’t know how to fix that” emails. To a large extent, this can be fixed with shared code ownership, comprehensive automated testing, and all those types of good development practices. I have a better idea, which I saw in great use at CCP (which for a long time did not have those good development practices):

Everyone vacations at the same time.

In Iceland, this was a cultural thing. From what I understand, employers aren’t allowed to deny you vacation between May and September. Everyone goes on vacation in July. The office is empty. Things just go relatively smoothly as no one expects anything to get done during July (its a great time for side projects). This “July slowdown” wasn’t limited to CCP, as people who need visa renewals in the summer no doubt learn.

In Atlanta, the studio just closed down for two weeks in July.

In both cases, there may be a skeleton crew to keep things running, people on call, etc. Its just that no one expects anything non-immediate to get done. This has many benefits: its easier to plan for, office costs are cheaper, there’s a single silent period rather than months of rolling disruption, everyone takes a refreshing vacation, and much more. It’s pretty much the only vacation policy I’ve seen that was largely resilient to the pressures that keep people from taking vacation. To be sure, some people were screwed over by bad managers, but (in contrast to most other management offenses) this was largely due to particular managers and not underlying cultural causes.

If you see the people around you failing to take the proper vacations everyone needs to keep going, I’d encourage you to try having everyone go on vacation at the same time.

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Hiring your cake and eating it too

6/06/2014

When evaluating candidates, I have always been a believer that cultural fit and potential to improve is more important than technical ability. Of course I like to review real code samples and give a programming test, but I rarely ask for whiteboard programming. I am not a master of algorithms or math and don’t have a CS background, so I don’t require that of most candidates*. As Five Thirty Eight explains and shows, people just want to date themselves.

This policy is amazingly ego-centric. But it’s also worked pretty well. Without exception, I’m proud of the hires I’ve had a primary stake in. But it is the best policy, at least for the type of work I’m doing?

I think I am a pretty darn good hire. Why would I want to exclude people like me? Well, the fact is that I’m not special. There are way more gifted people around than me. There are plenty of people who are a great fit, and are great leaders, managers, developers, and coaches, and are awesome at math and algorithms. Should I overlook myself to try and get someone better?

Clearly companies like Google can do this. There are anecdotes about people who they hired the second or third time around. People like Steve Yegge. On the other hand, there are plenty of managers that hire “to fill a seat.” Can every company interview like Google, and reject otherwise promising candidates that do not ace a challenging technical interview?

Who you choose to hire does not define what your company is, it defines what your company will become. If you give in and make unenthusiastic hires, your amazing company will be dragged into mediocrity. If you hold the line and hire only the best, you’ll continue to excel, if you can find people. In reality, most companies are somewhere in the middle.

The “best” policy is the one that fits your situation. In an isolated job market, you may choose to value fit and culture. A tight-knit culture may help retention, and make it easier for the inevitable low performers to improve. At a startup, you may have limited headcount, short timelines, and immediate technical needs. Cultural fit would be trumped by technical expertise and experience. On the other hand, cultural fit may be most important at an established company. The biggest risk is a dilution of the culture, and there are plenty of senior people around to do mentoring.

Recognizing what you should select for is much more important than simply always trying to be as selective as possible.


* Obviously there are exceptions. If you need expertise, you need expertise. My thoughts apply to the 80% case.

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Should a team be able to abort a sprint?

2/06/2014

After my second retrospective on a new project, I unloaded some pretty harsh criticism about what we were building. I felt it was a “solution in search of a problem” and “not high value.” After proposing an alternative and convincing everyone to change direction, our sort-of Product Owner blasted me for not bringing my issues up sooner and basically wasting two weeks of work. I said I had voiced my concerns, but not strongly or formally, because I was focused on getting the sprint work done. My feeling was that it wasn’t constructive to second-guess things in the middle of a sprint, and that I trusted the people who made the decisions. Especially as the new guy on the team, I leaned towards agreement.

We both had a point. As a senior person, I had a responsibility to speak up. As a team members, I had a responsibility to get our work done. I don’t know if I made the right choice in this instance. Perhaps if I argued too loud too early, I wouldn’t have had enough credence for people to believe me, and would have been in a worse spot at the end. Or perhaps I would have saved two weeks or work.

This is one more reason I prefer one-week iterations. A week is too small to break up, so you just go heads down. But you don’t work on the wrong thing for too long. You get two or three times the chances to learn and improve.

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There is no essence of Agile

30/05/2014

real agile is: talk to the users directly, know their pain point, address it, repeat. -someone on Twitter who I disagree with

In many conversations about Agile, especially as of late, I read something like the above tweet. I don’t know where the idea that Agile can be distilled down into one or two practices or principles comes from. Thinking this way is extremely harmful. If you think like this, I’d love to hear your explanation.

Agile methodologies come out of Lean thinking which comes out of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The TPS is incredible. It mixes explicit practices such as 5S, ideals such as JIT, and principles such as “respect for people” into a unified, harmonious way. TPS is often represented using a house metaphor as in the following image:

house-of-lean1

The house is an apt metaphor because every single component is structurally vital. “Talking to users” and “addressing pain points” corresponds pretty closely to “customer satisfaction,” which is the roof of the TPS house. The roof is elevated by the walls, which are secured by the foundation. The roof is integral to the function of a house, but no more so than any other component. Customers can only help inform what you produce. If you are unable to produce those things at high quality, speed, and efficiency, and improve over time, then it doesn’t matter how much you talk to customers.

Adding an Andon cord to an assembly line does not make a manufacturer Lean. Being Lean requires a whole set of practices, ideals, and principles working in unison. It can be TPS, or your adaptation, but it requires incredible rigor, skill, and learning, and it’s not simple. Likewise, no single practice, from TDD to iterations to talking to users, creates a well-performing Agile organization.

There are plenty of pseudo-Lean companies, just like there are plenty of pseudo-Agile shops. On the plus side, the damage from Six Sigma Black Belts is far more severe than the Certified Scrum Master racket.

Companies that are Lean are rare, and have been at it for a while. It’s silly that every JIRA jockey thinks they have learned the essence of Agile. Being Agile is difficult, complicated, and takes a while. Let’s not try and distill it down so much that we totally dilute it.

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Adjustable standing desks should be mandatory

26/05/2014

At CCP’s Iceland office, everyone’s desk is able to adjust into a sitting or standing position. I don’t know who decided this perk. It must have been a huge expense. Adjustable sit/stand desks are already expensive in the USA, and in Iceland I’m sure they were three to five times more expensive. Until recently I thought it was required by law! This is quite an investment for each worker, but in my opinion, well worth it for a wide variety of reasons, from health to programming. Why?

  • Lots of people want to try a standing desk but don’t want to be “that guy” who asks for an expensive piece of equipment but doesn’t use it. Having an adjustable desk by default removes barriers to entry.
  • Seeing people stand (and talk about how much better it is) becomes viral. I watched it catch on at work over a few years to where everyone in certain areas is doing it. This wouldn’t have been possible without everyone already having adjustable desks.
  • Standing for part of the day completely fixed my sciatica (lower back/hip/butt pain). It also apparently has lots of other health benefits.

Okay, but “health of your workers” is a pretty nebulous concept, and in America, a business’ job is to make money for shareholders, not, like, improve society! Why would Donald Sterling want to buy black employees adjustable desks in addition to cars and houses?

  • It helped me concentrate. I was able to work faster while standing. Standing is time for working. I don’t know if this is universal, but I certainly didn’t see many people playing games or getting lost in a “YouTube hole” (as a friend puts it) while standing.
  • Pair programming and over-the-shoulder reviews were incredibly more effective while standing, even with people of different heights. Standing, I could pair easily with pretty much anyone, from a good friend to an interviewee. I was able to mentor far more effectively since standing felt like such a more natural way to collaborate.
  • Even if you don’t like pair programming (have you tried pairing while standing?), being able to program and edit code collaboratively during a code review is, IMO, a requirement. Standing code reviews were more effective than sitting. More issues got uncovered and more knowledge was transferred.

How do I know all these things? Well, when I transferred to the Atlanta office, I no longer had an adjustable desk (or a sensible healthcare system, but that’s another matter). Suddenly, reviews with people I was very comfortable with and worked with previously felt rushed and unpleasant. They were done while leaning over (“when can I get my crotch out of this other person’s face“), or sitting together (“oh god we keep brushing knees“).

Pair programming, which is the foundation of the way I mentor (and learn), was basically ineffective. No one programs well at an angle to the monitor, and people mistype constantly if the keyboard is not in a natural spot. It’s difficult to share knowledge or equipment in such an awkward situation.

If you want a vibrant and dynamic engineering culture, standing desks are a must. I view them as fundamental to a programming team as decent workstations and SSDs.


Real studies about adjustable desks are difficult to find. This 538 analysis is promising: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/i-stand-corrected-about-the-best-kind-of-desk/. Otherwise, it is very easy to find endless anecdotes about the usefulness of adjustable desks. Start with the 538 article’s comments if you don’t know anyone!

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The myth of the brilliant jerk

21/05/2014

Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high. – Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO

So I was all prepared to write about how much I hate this quote, but Freddy Nager already did. It is thorough and insightful and explains how out of context this quote is. Thanks to Freddy for doing a far better job ripping this apart than I did. (It also reminds me the difference between real writers/bloggers and people who just have a blog, like me…) Here’s his conclusion, but I suggest you read the whole thing:

In short, Netflix wants only stars who are passionate and courageous and innovative and always do A-level work while abhorring process and questioning assumptions yet working as a team — otherwise they get fired. Sounds brilliant. And jerky.

Why is the Hastings quote so popular? The Netflix presentation is a really excellent one and full of interesting advice and strong statements. I’d even say the brilliant jerk of corporate culture presentations! Why does this quip about “brilliant jerks” resonate with people so much? Probably because we’ve all run into the “brilliant jerk” and the idea of just firing him or her is so pleasing. It also remains cowardly.

This hits particularly close to home for me because I have seen the mistreatment of far too many brilliant jerks. Brilliant jerks are necessary to grow and innovate. The difficult part is to figure out how they can be brilliant but be less jerky.

Firing brilliant jerks is the absolute worst thing to do for teamwork, or indeed the health of the company as a whole. I could spend more time convincing you, or you could view the Netflix slideshow that spawned the quote!

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