Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Management Delusion

A good friend of mine sent me this:

Subject: New Stroustrup quote

"The companies are complaining because they are hurting. They can't
produce quality products as cheaply, as reliably, and as quickly as they
would like. They correctly see a shortage of good developers as a part
of the problem. What they generally don't see is that inserting a good
developer into a culture designed to constrain semi-skilled programmers
from doing harm is pointless because the rules/culture will constrain
the new developer from doing anything significantly new and better."

Those companies are in a bed of their own making. They want software written on a schedule which means hiring warm bodies who have the minimum training, enough to run a compiler, and can crank out code on a consistent basis; consistently low quality and in a consistently long time. When the pain of low quality software finally registers through their management-induced fog, they look for answers. What keeps these "Leaders" from admitting their own contribution to the problem?

Leadership sometimes means making hard choices, almost guaranteed to make someone unhappy. Leadership sometimes means suspending self-doubt to enable making those hard choices without the burden of guilt. Consider car company executives contemplating closing a factory - let all the employees down through bankruptcy or let a smaller set of employees down through a layoff? The best example of this would be President Truman's decision to use the A-bomb on Japan. Good luck trying get them to second-guess themselves - to do so would mean letting self-doubt out of the tiny box in which they hide it. Now, for the leader of the free world, we can understand why self-doubt is a luxury they can't afford.

What about the corporate world? Well, the upper-level executives may catch a break when they have to make truly gut-wrenching decisions like the car company example above. Middle and line-level managers do not have those reasons to hide behind so what's their story? Even without earth-shattering, bet-the-company decisions to make, a manager faces the same dilemma, how to isolate their own sense of self-worth from being damaged by potentially bad decisions. One way of doing this is by never looking back, never re-examining prior decisions, not entertaining the idea that they made a bad choice which is, by the way, popular with leaders at any level.

This may keep them from being paralyzed with self-doubt or wracked with guilt but is also makes them oblivious to their own short-comings. It takes a strong leader to learn from their mistakes, to emerge from self-examination stronger because they own up to their mistakes and learn from them.

Here then is the key. Allow me to extend the quote to the next logical step. Companies that are complaining about the lack of good developers are in a state of denial. What they are really complaining about is how few good developers want to work for them. There can be many reasons from an environment that accepts mediocrity to the unwillingness to pay the good ones what they're worth. In the first case it could be the red-tape just to get their development workstation setup, "What do you mean I have to get each Eclipse plugin on the approved software list!?!?" In the second case it could be failing to attract good talent; after all its only fair for a programmer that is 10x better than average to get paid 10x the average, right? Describing your workplace as "We have reasonable development policies and reasonably good salaries" you should not be surprised that you have reasonably talented programmers. To deny this is effectively admitting to self-delusion.

So, when your boss complains about the lack of good developers, they are really trying to deny their own reality and shift the blame away from themselves.

This reminds me of a story about 10 hiring managers who all insist they hire only the top 10% but I'll save that for next time.
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