Saturday, August 22, 2009

Software for the non-software girl

In a recent conversation with my sister, she mentioned her semi-annual “let’s look at the direction of your career” meeting with her boss, and the fact that she would need to make a decision between the “management” and “specialist” track. My sister works for a rather typical subsidiary of a multi-national conglomerate with its shares of mergers, shake-ups and spin offs—so her two main concerns were 1) job security 2) the ability to advance.

I told her to definitely go for the specialist track. When push comes to shove, the superfluous management layer is the easiest to trim. Not only is “managing people” highly over-rated (you become the person responsible for those boring-as-shit employee performance reviews); it is also highly un-differentiated. Everybody claims they can manage people; whereas, in my experience, the most effective managers were formerly People Who Could Get Shit Done. This past experience tends to make the former Person Who Could Get Shit Done good at detecting other people Who Can Get Shit Done and extracting useful work out of them. Lest you think I’m naïve, I won’t fail to mention the second and altogether nefarious breed of manager. THIS person’s meteoric rise in the corporate hierarchy owes to 1) the fact that they are surrounded by people even more incompetent than themselves 2) aware of their own limitations, they channel their energies into sucking up to their superiors and taking credit for their colleagues and subordinates’ work…until such time as it is expedient to betray those colleagues and subordinates. Such is the way of the world. Unless, you fall into the latter category of person, it is best to 1) learn to speedily recognize them 2) stay out of their reach.

Nothing is so conducive to keeping out of the clutches of The Nefarious Manager and preserving your job safety, amidst the inevitable corporate re-orgs, as acquiring some valuable skill…preferably a skill involving the company’s arcane software systems, or, failing that, a good relationship with the right geeks so that if, called upon, you actually know the people Who Can Get Shit Done. The farther people are From Getting Shit Done, the less likely they are to know whom to call on when a problem occurs. One day, for some interminable amount of reasons related to the company’s jury-rigged, legacy apps and forced upgrades from the Even More Nefarious Database and Everything Else on the Planet Vendor, X fails. Akil in department Y might know how to fix or patch X. Secure in his job, not so much because it’s an enviable job, but because the job involves the plumbing of the company’s jury-rigged arcane legacy apps that none of his superiors will come near, or possessing some more generalized knowledge that will easily enable him to get a similar job somewhere else, Akil has a decision to make 1) he can make-up some lame-ass excuse for why fixing X is impossible, an excuse that would be utterly transparent to a person with some modicum of technical knowledge, but flies above the head of The Nefarious Manager, because The Nefarious Manager has spent the greater part of his/her life studiously avoiding actual work…or 2) he can fix the problem. In this situation you either want to 1) be Akil 2) have built up a good store of credit with Akil.

Never in a million years did it occur to me that I would work in the software industry. I was nerdy person, but definitely a Humanities nerd. My school experience with Math and Science was gratitude in being able to get as far as I did, and even more gratitude for stopping where I did. The last computer class I ever took was a BASIC class in eighth grade. I had to work my tail off to get a B+ and, even then, I sensed that I reached my limits. I am not even a remotely logical person. In fact, I’m not sure I really believe in logic. My limited experience of looking at the world is that this is not a place where Logic and Reason prevail. The survival skilz I’ve developed (from being kicked in the ass by my own errors) don’t so much resemble a Philosophy as little collections of dictums along the lines of: “You are always better off working with an amoral mercenary who will double-cross you at the first opportunity to the extent that you can SEE those opportunities (concurrently or before the mercenary); you should always beware the well-meaning fanatic, to the extent that you CANNOT see into the working of such a person’s mind and, therefore, will fail to predict their behavior.

Why did I enjoy working in software? I’ve written on this theme in the past. Here’s another angle on my previous, accidental career. First, shallow but true, being a woman, in a field where women are under-represented, the male/female ratio definitely appealed to my vanity. If I’d worked in marketing or communications in some more traditional industry, I’d have never gotten a second’s notice. Second, as a writer, I can relate to engineers, to the extent that I think both professions tend to get frustrated with the Actual State of Things (the Illogical World filled with its Nefarious Scheming Individuals and jury-rigged, Crap Legacy Systems). Writers and engineers tend to like building their own worlds, where they can exert total creative control. While my husband and I became entrepreneurs by default--because nobody in their right mind with any money or gravitas in the software industry would have supported us—the latter reason is why I can no lo longer imagine working any other way. Third, in open source software, I enjoyed working in a collaborative field. The myth that other people are going to do Your Work for you, for free! (“You should be grateful I use this free POS, tell me right now, why will not JBoss scale with my app!”) is completely ridiculous. The truth is that people who tend to specialize in relatively narrow fields, where there are few people with whom they can communicate, are often very willing to share their knowledge (but not with idiots). If they enjoy what they are doing and are smart, these people have invested some time and effort acquiring this knowledge (or, if they are lucky, had a Eureka! moment), so sharing that knowledge validates their work and experience…


Marcf said...

Management vs Specialization.

Management is a mis-nomer. There is no such thing as "managing". You sign vacation schedules and such but that is it. Then you have administration, which is a clear function and the heart of most corporate americe. You have finance, which makes investors happy and you have creative types in the specialized roles. CEO's come from all 3 walks of life but I have a soft spot for the creative types.

The idea that "leadership" comes from administrators is unfortunately a common myth in corporate america.

Bill Pyne said...

The more interesting thing for me is how administrators are viewed in other cultures. I worked with a German software developer on a large project at a past employer. We were shooting the shit over a beer one evening when he went on a little diatribe about how screwed up the corporate structure is in the US. Specifically we talked about project managers and the power they're given here. He said in Germany a PM is nothing more than a secretary on a project. How is it in France/Spain/any other culture you've lived in?

Nathalie said...

Hi Bill, I've only actually worked one corporate job and that was in the US, prior to JBoss. I did read some research on this topic, referenced in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers (the chapter on commercial airline crashes). I think there is something called the power differential or authority differential index (readers feel free to help me here) index which measures things like how formal the relationship is between management and employees, ease of communication b/w these two groups (like how easily can a subordinate call out a senior person on an error). It might have been a footnote, but it said that Germany was noteworthy for being low on this chain of authority index, with highly empowered employees and a very thin level of management. They mentioned that, in France (which was high on this index), the same level of work would require many more supervising managers.

Bill Burke said...

Nathalie, where would JBoss be on this scale? ;-)

(Please don't ask me about Red Hat...)

Nathalie said...

Hi Bill, I never managed anybody at JBoss, so strictly-speaking, I couldn't say. I do hope we were on the side of the scale with less management, and more independently-empowered employees, at least we were in the beginning. We had to be, coming out of the do-it-yourself OSS culture, otherwise we could never have grown, as an early stage start-up.