Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Great Cautionary Tale

I don't know why I didn't think of this the first time I saw Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but seeing it again reminded me of a cautionary lesson everyone needs to know. Not just IT, but America as a whole. There's this wonderful scene at the end where Aragorn as the king sees the Hobbits pay their respects to him by bowing. He tells them, "My friends, you bow to no one," and everyone there, the king, the soldiers, the heroes of the dwarves and the elves, all bow to the Hobbits.

If I'm remembering correctly, this was already explained in professional criticism of Tolkien's work as his warning that mighty heads of state should not forget the little people that make up their constituency. This is hardly a ground-breaking moral. Leaders have been compromising their oaths for personal gain since, well, probably since Tomak the caveman leader first clubbed someone else's wife over the head because he was tired of his own. As humans, we've proven time and again that we just can't control ourselves. We've really got to work on that.

But without the people doing a leader's bidding, we would be nowhere. I'd give our societies less than a week to dissolve into chaos if the little people in charge of getting water to our homes decided to quit. Or less, if they also cut off sewage operation.

The moral is simple for world leaders: You cannot be a leader without reliable followers. It's also obvious for businessmen. There's always much talk about how to be a good manager but if no one follows, even a good manager is useless. Any manager can look good if he has great resources. But the greatest managers do it facing compromised resources and unexpected challenges.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Pretension of Profession

Another cautionary entry, but not entirely about IT. Infoworld's Chad Dickerson again writes a good one in his May 9, 2005 column. He's talking about how people are freaking out because of the heavy loss in interest students are showing in the computer science disciplines in college. But he makes a great point about it at the end, saying that the lack of a computer science degree doesn't mean you can't be successful in the IT world.

This is too true. We, and not just IT workers, but everyone, can easily succumb to the ego trap of assuming our job is important and special. We do this because we're humans and we want to feel important and special, even if that means treating others like rat piss. Don't lie, we've all done it at one time or another, even if we weren't intending to hurt or look down on someone else. And one of the more obvious ways we do it is by asking the innocent-sounding question, "Where did you go to school?"

How do you respond to the answer to that question? If the person says they went to the same school you did, you think, "Oh, this person is OK, they're like me," and much feigned camaraderie and back slapping ensues. If they mention some prestigious school, perhaps the response is one of jealousy, or respect, or of feeling intimidated. If they reveal a less prodigious institution or perhaps the fact that they didn't go to school, well, now you got 'em, don't you?

I know, not everyone falls to such base behavior. But Dickerson's article reminded me of the pretension we can all take with our professions, our degrees, and other nonsense. Sometimes it's good to stop and remember that we're all just little pieces of excrement in the universe. It's not right to discount others based on titles. Don't assume that just because someone didn't study computer science they can't do computing (conversely, don't assume that someone that studied computer science is always a good developer).

Here's a little secret: anyone can be a programmer.

All it takes to be a decent programmer is the capacity for logic, basic mathematical ability, and the ability to communicate. When I was at EDS, one of the things I was impressed by was that this company, known for being a huge computer firm, hired people from all walks of life. I worked with English and geography majors that ended up being good, hard-working, competent developers. It was more about a sense of professionalism than simply having been brought up in a computing-related academic discipline. EDS says that this was all part of the plan to build diversity in the company, but that computer novices would take lower salaries probably wasn't lost on management (sort of like how cruise lines brag, "We have an international staff" when the reality is that they have to because only people from third-world countries would toil on those ships for a pittance).

I think one of the nicest things I ever said was when a lady and her son were talking to me about schools. He was a good kid but struggled a bit academically, and was going to go to a junior college. She asked me, "Is it really that big of a difference, to go to a big name school?" I could sense that she'd probably been chatting with "friends" and when the hens all started clucking about the schools their kids were going to after graduation, she got to see the undersides of their shoe soles.

The truth of course, is that despite my diatribe here against pretentiousness, going to a big name school does make a difference in that first job hunt. Not because the big name school was necessarily better, but because people are pompous, and because we all have to live by rules we didn't write. But I told her a different truth, saying, "An education is what you make of it. It doesn't matter where you go. It's about how hard you work and what you want to learn." And that is the truth, because I went to a fairly respectable university, but I know guys that went to JCs and got, in some cases, better instruction than I did.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Software development: Art or Science?

I'm going to try and set the foundation for future discussions here by thinking about some issues that I think are really holding IT back from advancement. Metrics, developer evaluation, management, development techniques, and outsourcing are all subjects to come. Right now I want to discuss something that's bothered me for a long time.

Do we know what the heck software is?

Of course, you say, we do, it's that collection of zeroes and ones that power an entire industry in the technology field. But with regard to development, why is it we keep shooting ourselves in the foot in IT projects? The answers can come from a dozen different places. Management is always a major factor, but so is the lack of metrics in our industry, and that the technology is still relatively new. That it's always changing doesn't help.

One of the problems is I think a misconception about it. Software and hardware both come from the discipline of computer science. Well, that word, science, implies reliable predictability. If you're a developer of any experience, you know that users, software, languages, hardware, and business requirements are neither reliable nor predictable.

Thus the struggle I have with the question, "Is software development an art or a science?"

It's a science because we've seen how the hardware we run on depends on the laws of physics and we're beholden to those laws. When we code, we know our code follows certain logical pathways and we know that features and abilities in our languages will uphold (most of the time) repeatable results, and that we can usually identify a change and its effects on our code. That sounds pretty scientific.

But it's an art too, isn't it? We start with a blank screen and with work, we end with a page of script or code that can do some amazing things. Software developers don't just crunch numbers, they also design graphic user interfaces that communicate with humans, digital interfaces to communicate with other machines and operating systems, and are continually striving to modify the code for processing efficiencies. Those things all require some creativity. Designing database schemas with efficient and maintainable structure, that's a task involving both science and art. Designing a software framework that can reduce maintenance hassles down the road, that takes real ability to plan and to process and research past experiences. It's not just about hammering out a couple IF statements. And when you look at it that way, it can sound pretty artistic.

And I think that's one of the problems in IT. Nobody really understands software. HR people, managers, and executives think IT is just a cost center that wastes money on that thing called applications development. It can't be that hard, nice software like Quicken only costs $30 after rebates, right? NO! Not right. Slapping out some code is easy, but making it sing is hard. Making it sing in tune is even harder. Making it sing in tune, in a choir with other apps like Oracle Applications, SAP, and Windows, across an unreliable phone line to a remote isn't easy, and some of those expensive choir members don't sing too well themselves!

But people at the top are often too quick to assume that computing technology is all simple science. Few realize that it's much more variable and complex and contains unpredictable artistic elements. That is, I suspect, one of the leading causes of misguided project plans and therefore a cause of having to burn the candle at both ends.

Here's another problem: managers and executives aren't the only ones that misunderstand the complexity of software. You know who else doesn't get it? Software developers! Yes, that's right. In my short 15 years in this industry I've figured out that most of us are complete morons. Mediocrity is threatening the quality of applications companies use, and that's debatably just as damaging to this industry as any mediocre manager. When I was contracting, I couldn't believe how many of the contractors were complete idiots. They could put together some basic things, but good grief, when an entire population of them didn't understand or care about database theory and didn't strive to perfect their craft by studying advanced techniques, it just doesn't speak well of us as a whole. There were and are guys I've crossed paths with that completely dismiss the artistic side of the development equation. And of couse those guys are getting paid more than me to work half as much, but that's a discussion for another day.

Anyone can figure out the IF statement. But it takes a real professional, one who equally reveres the scientific and artistic sides of our business, to truly earn the title of software developer. That means doing the artistic parts that aren't so fun: interacting with users to find out what they really want, learning the business, striving for code perfection in both function and form, DOCUMENTING their work for both other developers and the user community, and remembering always to never stop learning.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

H1B Visa: Threat or Benefit to America?

I'm not going to get too deep into this because there has already been plenty of other discussion and most of the IT guys out there already have an opinion that I'm not likely to change. But I've worked with several H1B employees in the last five years, and I'll share my thoughts.

The corporate line is that they helped fill a gap in labor skills. This is probably somewhat true from an IT perspective. Corporate America doesn't like to spend money to develop employees internally. To a ruthless businessman, that makes some sense. But a smart businessman, a patriot, an intellectual, an economist, or a sociologist might have a valid argument if they said that philosophy was short-sighted. I could fill fifty more blogs on that topic, so I'll get back to my H1B experiences.

I didn't see so many of them in the early 1990's when I was a full-timer in the EDS army. But as we moved to the mid-1990's we did pick up a few contractors and some were H1Bs here under the mantle of some consulting firm. When I broke away and went contracting myself in 1997-1997, I started seeing a lot more. By 1999, it seemed like 40% of every IT department I worked with was Indian!

In my 1998-2000 stint with PG&E (nutty company, but boy the folks there do take good care of their people and I will always respect them for that), my office mate and I, both frequent HBO watchers, saw a parallel between HBO's OZ and our IT department's diversity. OZ featured several factions, often aligned by race: the Hispanics, the Blacks, the Italians, and a few straggling misfits. My office mate would say our group was like that: we had the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Caucasians, the Indians, the Mexicans, and the Visual Basic guys.

Anyway, I digress. Was this proliferation of H1B workers good or bad? If you were an unemployed IT worker in the last five years or so, you'd understandably want to say it was bad. But let's take a closer look at the situation.

First of all, was it really cheaper for Corporate America to hire the H1B workers? I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure. I spoke with many of the H1B holders, and they told me that they were being screwed by their middlemen just as American contractors could be if working for an unscrupulous company. Several of the H1B workers I knew were getting paid annual salaries of 60 to 80K. That's a darn nice salary, particularly if you were sending a chunk of it back to Bombay every month! Knowing what we know about sleazy middlemen companies, they're not going to put their employees to work without a profit, so they were charging the American company perhaps $50-$80/hr in contract rates. Folks, that might be a little lower than what companies had to pay for an American contractor in the late 1990's (perhaps between $70-$90/hr with a those lucky SAP bastards making over $100/hr) but I wouldn't call it cheap. $50/hr is still going to be higher than the base salary of most full-time IT workers.

It seemed that many of the H1B workers were getting screwed by the middleman company. They might have gotten some modicum of benefits and tax coverage, but I know how these "consulting" firms work: they like to bill you out at double what they're paying you. I know, because I got royally screwed by the American counterparts of the Indian firms when I was contracting. There's a future rant to be had on the whole contracting business. But we're talking about H1B workers, and I really don't think they were that much cheaper for Corporate America, based on my experiences. I theorize that the issue is not only cheapness, but also impatience. Corporate America didn't want to wait for employees to be trained, it wanted to get going right away.

Oh, there are economic benefits, to be sure. Corporations liked the idea that the H1B guys were contractors, didn't need benefits, and could be released at will. Because there were so many available at the time, it was a natural matter of statistics that many H1B workers would pick up the contract work. But where I worked, lots of American contractors got work too. I really didn't see this as primarily an issue of economics, but again, that's just my experience.

Not that there aren't economic affects of the heavy H1B availability. The simple laws of supply and demand state that with so many of tech workers available, the rates they'd have to be paid would drop. And clearly in that regard having a lot of H1Bs around didn't help the indigenous population of IT developers, especially contractors. But I just don't see the pointy-haired ones as having planned this fallout, as so many disgruntled IT workers claim on bulletin boards and blog comments. Some of the corporate heads are soulless and selfish enough, certainly, but I'm just not convinced such a machination was nationally coordinated and executed by them and with such economic forethought.

I'd like to see the American worker get that job, and still see a steady but regulated stream of immigrant workers. But if we had to choose beween using H1B workers or outsourcing, I'd pick H1B. The H1B worker may be sending money out of the country, but as long as it's not for terrorism, then that's his or her right. What I like in the H1B option is what's happening to that other half of their paycheck. They're getting taxes withheld just like everyone else, but they're not going to be claiming any of that money unless they become citizens, and many did not have that goal (is it fair that they would pay taxes for benefits they can't claim? Yes, because they ARE claiming some of the benefits the government provides, like law enforcement, transporation facilities, and other infrastructure services, not to mention insignificant details like THE JOB). They also had to pay rent, buy gas, food, and pay travel fees. With outsourcing, all of that goes away. In this regard, the H1B program could be called a benefit for America, or more accurately perhaps, the lesser of two evils. It's certainly a labor practice that has more benefits than total outsourcing.

In any event, I'm not against immigration, because if you truly love and know America you know that immigration is what America is all about. Everybody here came from somewhere else, except the Native Americans, and who knows for certain that they didn't hop over from some other geographical plate during an ancient earthquake?

The problem isn't H1B workers or immigration. Those things are what help keep the world's best and the brightest coming to America (though the H1B limits can probably be adjusted to encourage Corporate America to develop existing employees). The problem is a self-absorbed and impatient America that thinks in terms of quarterly profit reports and not about the long term effects of treating human beings like cat shit.

You know who treats their people well? The Indians. How did they suddenly show up in the 90's with all these technical skills? They have a strong emphasis on education, and I found out from some of them that an education there is very affordable. In America, taking a class in a new language might be $3000, a bit high for a salaried IT person responsible for a family of four. But in India, you can take that class and more for the price of a lunch. And they can get cheap versions of our technical books too for about a buck. These books are legal...made by the same publishers that sell us the exact same text on slightly nicer paper for $55.

I've got nothing against the Indians that are taking advantage of what's been put in front of them. But if our IT pundits, company heads, politicians, and universities are going to complain about the lack of skilled American IT workers, maybe they should also consider leveling the playing field. That means addressing the rising cost of tuitions, investing in employees, analyzing H1B limits, and reconsidering the tax breaks and protections offered to companies that outsource.

Oops, I wasn't supposed to go too deep on this...and come to think of it, I didn't...I've only barely scratched the surface.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Expert Opinion

Well well, I barely get my first major rant out the door and there's a couple of articles in this week's weekly IT magazines talking about related issues.

Paul Glen writes To Motivate, Don't Demotivate in Computerworld (2 May 2005). Pay attention to the part where Glen refers to "excessive monitoring" and relate that back to the last The Burning Ends entry. Also note his mention of internal versus external motivation. Great job, Mr. Glen, and well-timed to keep my last rant from making me look like a complete idiot.

Chad Dickerson of Infoworld asks Does IT demand too much commitment? in his weekly column (2 May 2005). I think IT does indeed ask a lot of people, but there are different inflections of overtime:
  • Forced, to meet a deadline
  • Forced, not for deadlines, but just because someone (a jerk) thinks it will improve productivity
  • Forced, because of an emergency. IT guys do this all the time when a system breaks at odd hours of the night
  • Self-imposed, where a dedicated worker does it either because he's trying to make things happen faster, or he's just crazy
More discussion on that in a future rant.

I like both of these magazines. Neither really has any deep technical information like the stuff I used to get from Sys Con Publications (like their various Developer's Journal series for Java, PowerBuilder, .Net, etc.) but they do a decent job of skimming the headlines for things pertinent to IT folks. Strangely enough, I don't always read every news or tech piece they favorite section, the one that always seems the most useful to me, is the management section in Computerworld.

I try to keep up with these magazines, along with other freebies like Software Development, and they'll make for some good conversation points in future blogs.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Cautionary tale: The Burning Ends

I call this thing a blog that's mostly supposed to be rants about lessons I've learned in IT, so here is the first one. And it shouldn't be a surprise that it's about management (or lack thereof).

Managers: I know you think you're big shots because you carry the title of "manager" but really, it doesn't mean you have carte blanche to be an inconsiderate buffoon. Most of the IT guys I know are dedicated enough workers that they don't really need a manager to provide a lot of "rah rah" motivation or whip cracking. We love what we do, we like the problem solving elements inherent in applying technology or developing software, and the work is largely its own reward. So when times arise that sometimes require "burning the candle at both ends," developers aren't shy about answering the call. But the way the human mind works, motivation can be internally driven or externally driven, and sometimes external "motivation" by a pointy-haired manager can end up doing more damage than good. I have a half dozen personal experiences to illustrate this, but I'll refine this diatribe to include only the two best ones.

I used to work for a huge data processing firm...those of you that know me already know the name of that firm, but to protect the innocent, I'll just call it something like, oh, Electronic Data Systems. This juggernaut is the classic example of a monolithic company often called a dinosaur by business analysts. Well, I still own stock in this place, so I hope they can turn it around, but the reality is that when you're 75,000 people large (circa 1995), you're bound to find both good apples and bad apples. And I had the fortune of knowing several of the not-so-good ones.

First Tale: The Theory X Manager

This manager was the worst I've ever worked for. I would be unlikely to accept working for him again even if I was starving and he offered the last job on earth. He believed in surveillance and keeping employees under his thumb. They were not resources to be cherished and nutured, they were to be exploited. He was a real gem of a human being too, and I'd heard of several unprofessional acts in the history of his time managing this site (he was dating one of the secretaries - son of a bitch couldn't even pick a better cliche). In management school I learned of William Ouchi's Theory Z (The Theory Z manager manages projects, yes, but also develops people. They're cognizant of the fact that their subordinates are human beings and might like things like a decent work place and that a happy employee is more productive than a fearful or forced one). This person was just the opposite, a total Type X guy. He'd sometimes berate you based on hearsay from other employees, rather than discuss things direcly with you or your direct report first to get the full story. And he was a cheap bastard and didn't spend a dime on improving conditions for the staff. No training, no new technology, nothing. And IT workers passionate about their work typically do like to learn new things. We are like any other employee, we like pay raises too. In the nearly two years I was there, there wasn't a single monetary adjustment to my salary, and I'm betting the other employees didn't see much either. I'd heard rumors this cheapness was because EDS managers got bonuses for staying under budget and so had little impetus to spend on the staff. I don't have proof that was the case, and I'm certain the perpetrators of such a policy would deny it if asked. But damn that story fits pretty well and would certainly explain the selfishness I witnessed.

I worked hard at first, but by the time I'd finished my assignment there, I was bailing out at the 8 hour mark at every opportunity. I couldn't stand being there. I knew excellence wouldn't be rewarded or appreciated, so I didn't feel I should waste excess time striving for it. I was admittedly less mature then and also less skilled, but I still contributed and when you look at my total career, there's no question about my self-motivation. Few work a longer day on average than I do. But this guy managed to crush it. If he saw the quality of my work now and the amount of work I put in, he'd probably act surprised and ask, "Why couldn't you have done that for me?" BECAUSE YOU'RE A SELFISH ASS WIPE OF A MUSSOLINI WANNA-BE, OKAY? If someone was stealing from you or mistreating you, would you spend a second more around them than necessary? How about working lots of unpaid overtime for them?

Look, developers are pretty good people on the whole. I know there are some that aren't that bright and shouldn't be in this industry (thanks a lot, 1999!), and there are others that aren't as motivated as you'd like, and others that could use a major boost in the people skills department. Sure, I've met a few that were prima donnas, but every industry has those. And there are some criminals in the IT ranks (data thieves, pirates, inaccurate hour billers, and salesmen). But typically, IT folks are intelligent and reasonable enough as a group that they're no more high-maintenance than any other group, and quite possibly a lot less. All you have to do is show some respect and keep them fed with decent projects and some doughnuts. They'll reward you with quiet loyalty. For that matter, you could probably apply that management point to all employees.

Second Tale: The "You're just a Robot" Manager

I'm a new guy on a new development project that's pretty intensive. This is a big project that's building a system for the company to branch into a new segment of business. It will ultimately fail because of the oddest combination of quirky personalities, mismatched skill sets, and lack of experience that I've ever seen in my career. The manager I first start working for is not a bad person. He's nowhere near the Theory X guy in the first tale above. But he was clearly inexperienced or ignorant about the people side of management and was totally clueless about how to motivate people. Perhaps this is not totally his fault; he was a technical guy promoted to management, probably without the managerial training and social evaluation that should accompany such promotions. I don't know if this was a Dilbert Principle deal - I think he might have been a decent technical person in the right niche. Anyway, we're running behind on the project and people are already working hellacious hours (12-16 hours/day) mostly by virtue of self-initiative and the desire to be professionals. This is the truth and I can find witnesses if you don't believe me. We were coming in at 8 every morning and some of us were staying until 11pm (yes, most of us were single). Can you sense what's about to happen? He's going to mess it all up.

He and I are discussing the project schedule for the next few weeks before a pending deadline. There are more hours on the recently reworked estimate than there are 8 hour days before the deadline. "Oh!" he says, getting visibly excited, "If you put in some evenings and weekends, why, we'll be just fine." My heart sank. I had already been putting in extra time every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, but it was by choice. It was, foolishly, perceived by me as my duty and my honor. I wasn't thrilled about it, but I did it and didn't need to be asked. The minute it became forced, the minute the manager changed the focus from self-initiative to external pressure, the internal motivation withered. This manager actively and openly disregarded my personal time by saying what he said. I gave the time (which we were doing anyway), and what do I have to show for it now? Nothing. Two years between pay raises. No bonuses, no vaseline. The kicker? This manager left, saying, "My team doesn't like me because they want me to work overtime like them but I can't, I have a family." I can't put my response to that in printable words and still retain some professionalism.

Respect your people, and by extension, their time. Don't just assume they have nothing else to do during their evenings and weekends. Don't plan projects by pulling delivery dates out of your ass. Don't expect miracles if you can't acquire the best training and tools for your team, and rememeber the mantra that I'm going to spout on this blog until I die: Making software isn't hard, but making it right is. That means quality people are worthy of a quality salary. There might be a day when all developers truly understand OO and best coding practices, and the general quality of code is truly a mere commodity (fat chance, but you can believe it if you want). But the labor issue doesn't change. You're not just paying for skills (which change every ten years anyway), you're paying for intelligence, loyalty, and dedication (things you need all the time), and those should be expensive things, regardless of what continent you search for them on. I know, you're remembering the crazy 90's when you had good folks leave for better opportunities elsewhere, but if you were paying 1990's salaries insted of 1980's salaries, that might not have happened. There are good ones out're probably not hearing about them because they don't make a lot of noise or move around much. They're dutifully working.

If you're a manager learning that from me now, then that's pretty sad. If you're a manager and you're shaking your head and not understanding my point, then you SHOULD NOT BE A MANAGER because it's likely there are people suffering under your command.