Archive for the 'IT Management' Category

Morality and Software Development Leadership

Power, dominance, and responsibility are hot button issues which hover over and around every action leaders take like ghosts. And those who ignore them — who wield power without thought, who see only the ends, and ignore the means — put their projects at risk.

I think it’s a truism that there is no single barrier to IT project success more powerful than bad management. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which bad management directly and indirectly decreases productivity, and undermines even the the possibility of success.

Foucault, is the twentieth century master of uncovering hidden power relationships, and anybody who’s read his masterwork Discipline and Punish will learn a variety of tools to uncover hidden power relationships, and these tools can be immensely valuable in unpacking what’s really going on when a situation “just feels wrong.”

It’s hard to quantify, but knowing this stuff can definitely help you avoid political landmines, and create a safer work environment. But, I still haven’t figured out how to make Foucault palatable and understandable to the average IT manager. ;)

But Naked aggression is easy to spot

On the other hand, you don’t need a sophisticated set of tools for unpacking power relationships to see what’s wrong with some teams. For example, I once worked for a manager who held daily motivational meetings, in which he enumerated every small mistake that any of us could make that might make him look bad, and let each of us know in no uncertain terms that we would be “terminated” if we were seen to have made even the smallest mistake. If we didn’t answer the phone with the right phrase, or try to convince customers that they wanted more expensive products than they needed, or failed to live up to any of thirty different (and sometimes contradictory) arbitrary rules, we were told we would be fired instantly.

Doing the wrong thing may pay off now, but it almost always hurts you later.

I left after less than 6 months, by the time a year was up, only 2 of 20 of the original people on the team were left. But, the manager received a commendation for “running a tight ship.” Things were looking good. Then again, a year later he was fired, because his team just couldn’t keep up, and everyone on the team was so busy not screwing up that the had no time or energy left for the important things they were hired to do.

Dominance games, and pure aggressive pressure helped him meet his daily and weekly goals, but killed him in the long run.

Project managers need to learn to wield power with a light touch.

It’s inevitable that there are power-relationships involved in the context of an important project. If you’re doing things right people are passionate about the project, people want to do the right thing, and people don’t always agree about what the right thing is.

It can be tempting to jump into these disagreements and make decisions — and it can speed up progress in the short term. But be careful, just like the manager who made his short term goals, but lost in the long run, you may end up killing people’s passion, and cutting off discussion before critical information is revealed.

Sure, there are times when a strong good push can help people avoid prolonged and useless discussions, but it’s too easy to take advantage power relationships to avoid difficult but important discussions.

There’s lots more to be said on the subject of power relationships in software development, but I think one of the key things we have to understand is that computer nerds participate in power struggles too, they just do it naively and instinctively. And that leaves us easy prey for those who do it with knowledge, talent, and finesse. And those people are out there and in places where 2 years is a long time, they can get away with it for a surprisingly long time.

P.S. I wrote this post in 2007, almost published it in 2008, and am just now getting around to publishing it. So, please don’t think this is about anything happening to me personally right now, but it is something I keep seeing “around town” and something I think we need to understand better if we are going to stop falling prey to those who understand power politics better than we do and wield them more aggressively, and end up ruining many good projects.

Ann Arbor ArbCamp Registration open again

I’ve been very, very busy trying to get TurboGears 2 beta 1 ready to go, as well as a few other interesting projects, and had neglected to blog about a ArbCamp before, then it was sold-out, and I didn’t blog about it because I didn’t want to raise people’s hopes only to have then dashed upon the rocks. But, we’ve secured a new venue, so ArbCamp registration is now Un-Sold-Out. It’s UnSold because it’s free, and it’s un-Sold-Out because we can now fit everybody in. We had over 160 people registered and on the wait-list, but could only let 100 people in. Now we have space for 200, so those on the wait-list and those who didn’t sign up in time have a second chance.

ArbCamp will be tomorrow night, in the upstairs of the downtown Cottage Inn’s, so this is kind of last minute, but I think it’ll be a very cool event. It’s an UnConference, and people will be self-organizing a variety of sessions, and the possibilities are endless.


Prolonged adolecence is not a new problem, it’s just new to the masses:

Children of kings and great magnates were the first to grow up out of touch with the world. Suburbia means half the population can live like kings….

Paul Graham

You can’t shelter people from everything bad or scary, and expect them to live in the real world.

Project managers, System Administrators, and parents should take note of this.

People can only step up and take responsibility when they actually know what’s going on. Seems to me that there are lessons for how we talk to people about project risks, how we handle e-mail spam problems, and how we think about IT services. It’ll be a while before I figure out what exactly all of those lessons are….

What is data?

Ocean asks on his blog is data an asset?

Data is certainly not like many other assets, it doesn’t depreciate, you can copy it endlessly, and it’s next to impossible to imagine a commodities market for data. Heck copying the data can either increase it’s value (think “The DaVinchi Code”) or decrease it (think passwords). People don’t pay for data as much as they pay for human attention. You can use data to get attention or you can use attention to collate, assimilate, and otherwise transform raw data into useful information, but either way data needs people to understand and interpret it to become valuable.

So at best:

data + human_understanding == value

Bruce Schenier takes it one step further, calling data the pollution of the the information age.

Data Pollution

SmokestackData sucks up space, time and human attention. But more than that, data can be parsed, manipulated, and transformed to fit various agendas. And in a world where data about all of us is “owned” by various large corporations, from Amazon, to Google, to Enron, it’s not always clear how that data will be used. Besides which millions of credit card numbers are stolen from various companies who store our data “in good faith.” Data costs money in terms of maintenance, in terms of storage, and in terms of liability. Heck, I know people who work for companies who have an e-mail retention policy — which is really more of a mandatory e-mail deletion policy.

Polluted Data

And that assumes that all that data is verifiable true, and that’s definitely not the case. I sold a car once and the new owner didn’t take it to the DMV to get it registered before his friend drove it without a license and got it impounded. And that showed up on my credit report for years. I have a friend who somehow ended up “deceased” even though she’s still very much alive and well.

All of this is to say that as software developers, IT Mangers, and companies in general need to think a lot more about data, and to invest in some better terms for the various different things we call data.

We need to differentiate between raw data, information, and knowledge. We need to help our customers think about the life cycle of the data they want us to capture. We need to educate people about the costs and benefits associated with keeping data, and ultimately we need to follow the mantra:

Think before you store

And if you’re concerned about privacy, and individual liberty, please take a few min and read Bruce’s article.

The motivational meeting…

Last week, I ranted a little bit about motivational meetings. Today I’ll make the opposite case.

Why have motivational meetings?

The right way to use motivational meetings is to reaffirm the purposes of the group, and help people to connect the dots between their individual efforts and the collective goals of the group, and to connect those goals with their own individual aspirations.

Basically, motivating people is easy:

  • Give them work that is meaningful to them and to the organization
  • Treat them with respect

Treating people with respect includes paying them a fair wage, and not doing any of these things.

Among other things it also means not letting people who aren’t contributing to the common goals of the organization hold back the group by not doing their job.

Research has shown that one of the survey questions most highly correlated with motivation and performance is:

Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

Which is another way of saying does your boss respect you. At the same time the single highest correlation for any question was:

I get to do what I do best everyday at work.

So, it’s really important to line people’s intrisic skills and internal long-term motivational drivers with the work you ask them to do.

If you’re not doing those two things, motivational meetings are a loss. If you are doing them you can use a meeting to remind people of how their deeper motivations are connected to what they are doing now.

P.S. My info on the top questions and their correlation to performance comes from Gallop research via the very interesting book First Break All the Rules, which is one of the best, and most evidence based, books on managing for exceptional performance I’ve read.