party crashing in Brentwood
Friday, October 27 2000
(Several of the following points were first articulated by Marc Siry in my forum.)
During my considerable workplace idle time (as I await the arrival of decisions and crucial pieces of information necessary to begin the construction of the UK site), I find myself surfing over to Netslaves for pointers on how best to serve the role of manager. Though no one has officially proclaimed me to be a manager, it is readily apparent, given the expectations placed on me, that I have become one. But from all accounts, management in an internet company is not an easy task. In the literature I frequently see it being compared to the herding of cats. This management difficulty is related to the problems encountered when trying to get programmers to do what needs to be done to meet promises made by overzealous teams of technically-unsavvy salespeople.
In the case of programmers, with all their positives (intelligence, youthful exuberance, etc.) comes a considerable suite of negatives: arrogance, social & emotional immaturity, laziness, lack of focus, and (all too often) marginal competence.
In many cases, those who manage programmers are not themselves technical people, and their methods of motivation include various forms of emotional abuse, often combined (in the case of female project managers - I've noticed that many highly-effective project managers are female) with thinly-veiled sexual tension, taking full advantage of the social-reject programmer's greatest weakness. For example, my housemate John's sister is a project manager (she recently worked on production of the official website for the teevee show Survivor), and from the little I know of her I can already tell why she would be so effective. When she's bitchy, she makes everyone uncomfortable. But when she's nice, it's the kind of nice that raises the serotonin levels of the guys around her. I can see why programmers would work hard for the sole reward of keeping her happy.
What with the ludicrously optimistic timelines, marginal competence of most programmers and the non-technical oversight of project managers, many dot com efforts result in barely-functional, unscalable, unresuable code that no one will ever be able to non-destructively modify.
My role in this particular deathmarch project is a little different from conventional project management, since my management is hands-on and highly technical. Nothing is magic to me; I understand what is going on and none of my staff can get away with producing shitty code or concealing laziness with claims of technical difficulty. Most of the problems I'm encountering in my new staff are more the result of the demoralizing lack of solidity in the substrate upon which we are building. The core site architecture is currently undergoing a massive redesign on all levels, and yet we're somehow expected to create a new skin for it with new database functionality as well as web-based publication tools suitable for non-technical publishers (people in the UK unaccustomed to working in anything but print media - it's circa 1994 over there). My solution to the problem of demoralizing fluidity in the architecture has been to focus my team's attention on the fundamental functionality of the existing site, the database application-program-interfaces (DBAPIs), assigning them the task of rewriting them from Vignette TCL into ASP.
Another problem is arrogance on the part of one of the developers. I cope with this by acting with Socratic deference, asking a series of non-confrontational but subtly-leading questions that bring him around to agreement with me on matters of disagreement. My main motivational mantra today was "With a project in the state that this one is, we're going to have to just decide to do something and then do it, and not worry about the consequences. The alternative is that we do nothing at all."
When I came home tonight, my housemate John cooked us a dinner of spicy cilantro-flavored black beans and corn, which we ate with corn chips. As a household, our core crop package is clearly the Mezoamerican one, although I frequently supplement my diet with Swiss cheese & mustard sandwiches.
Like mine, John's professional life has been problematic and occasionally unpleasant of late. At a school meeting a few weeks back he'd said something "inappropriately negative," and this has resulted in a series of negative administrative repercussions. In that meeting, teachers had been going around the room giving props to one another CollegeClub.com-Energy-stylee. True subversive that he is, John had taken the opportunity to give props to a teacher who was being forced to give up her lunch breaks to help a kid who wasn't receiving adequate one-on-one attention due to miserly staff provisioning. His negativity was noted, a letter was drafted, and it eventually found its way into his permanent record as an "advisement." Things like this have been adding up for weeks and weeks as John has experienced continual frustration and occasional humiliation at the hands of a bloated, over-funded but terribly entrenched educational bureaucracy. This "advisement" was the final straw. He'll be having a meeting next week with human resources and will give them notice of his desire to quit his job.
After we watched most of Henry Fool on HBO, Fernando came over, did a little drinking with us, and then, carrying through on a plan we'd made before Fernando's arrival, we all went on a walk through the local neighborhood looking for a party to crash. I hadn't done anything like this since the days of Big Fun, but it's definitely the sort of thing that fits in with my (and John's) dumpster-diving ethic. Fernando is a little too - I don't know what the word is - Schteveish perhaps - for such low rent entertainment, but he's a good sport and joined along despite himself. Still, he complained about it the whole time.
Somewhere north of San Vicente we found a party happening in a second floor apartment. There were about 20 very conventional-looking people there, 20-somethings mostly, and many of them were dressed in halloween costumes. We charged in and were enthusiastically greeted by some fairly bored people hanging out by the door. They told us where the beer was, so we went and got some, rejoined the party, and immediately dived into conversations with complete strangers. This locked us in; onlookers assumed we'd been invited, so we could have stayed all night had we wanted to. Fernando still wasn't fitting in, and after a few minutes he announced he was leaving.
I mostly found myself talking to middle-aged radar engineer. He told me that he mostly does computer programming these days, in C and C++. I was amused to hear him referring to a radar antenna system as "the front end." To him, the "back end" is the representation of the radar signals on a computer screen. In his real time world, there is no archiving of data and no database. By this point in my professional life, I've come where I can't imagine a computer system without a substantial database being hit by multiple simultaneous users, but this guy clearly didn't think about databases at all.
After John and I left, the walk back to our place was a little longer than I expected, but we encountered no further parties on the way. Brentwood is kind of lame that way.
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