Monday, July 06, 2009

IT Just Doesn't Matter!

No, this isn't a reprise of Nicholas Carr's controversial but revenue-earning published treatise that "IT doesn't Matter"...although I suppose it is in a far grander and abstract sense. It's actually a reprise of a Bill Murray line from the movie Meatballs.

Murray, a summer camp counselor in the movie, is trying to inspire a rag tag collection of youths that, if I recall correctly, have either just lost or expect to lose a challenge to a rival camp. Murray, in a rant that starts out calmly enough, sings the truth about all challenges in life. The point is that everything we do is just another step through the collections of experiences that make our lives what they are. It's not worth worrying about losing a sporting event in summer camp because in the end, it just doesn't matter. At the end of the speech, Murray is screaming the words "it just doesn't matter" over and over again. Total silliness, and yet spot on.

Another way to think of this is to understand that we cannot fear failure. It's hardly a new concept. For decades, MAD Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman has been saying, "What? Me Worry?" and of course there's the old adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," and it's funnier cousin, "If at first you don't succeed, you're about average." Perhaps William Saroyan put it the most eloquently when he said:
We gain more wisdom from failure than we do success.
My own personal quote about this:
Failure is an event, success is a destiny.

I just got back from hauling my family out on an emergency trip to visit a friend five states away from where I am. It was a long two-day drive out and another two days back, with just a day in between to spend some time. He has taken terminally ill, and the thought of losing him when he is relatively young both saddens and angers me. It is not fair and it is too soon.

But it certainly puts things in perspective.

I gripe about incompetent supervisors, soulless corporations, and incompetent software development practitioners on this blog, all in the name of trying to make life better for those that live in the code. My hope is that we don't have to while away too much time working unjustified overtime; that is, overtime executed by the programmers to compensate for mistakes sometimes their own but mostly of management.

Perhaps in the end, though, it just doesn't matter. Here are some lessons I've heard before, but that have been emphasized in the last few days.

Life is Short
You know, I have heard this so many times that I think the words have lost their power. You almost have to get hit in the head by the sledgehammer of life to appreciate it. Barring a miracle, I'm told my friend may be leaving in his early 50's. He will be survived by an eight-year-old daughter. It's just too damned soon; he will miss a lot of amazing parts of her life. So perhaps getting organizations, most of which have the inertia of a battleship, to change course, is folly. Maybe all those cynical bastards on the Joel On Software forums who always tell people, "Don't fix that rotten situation, just bloody leave," might be right. I know this isn't always true, but if you're meeting resistance from the top, remember that life is short.

Life is not Fair
Everyone says this. Everyone knows it. But once again, what's happening to my friend is downright rotten and really bringing the point home. He suffers while Ken Lay got a quick out. He is a good man, intelligent and congenial to all. I do not know him to have ever wronged someone. But we are surrounded by unethical nincompoops who take enduring enjoyment of life's spoils. I am wary to say that my friend was not wealthy, for wealth is not just about money, and my friend has lived a grand life and knows love. But the cretins I write of have also achieved diverse riches often while on the backs of others. Life is not fair, and it's short too. There are times when good men need to be a little selfish if they want to keep the fires burning as long as the other bastards. US citizens don't like it when they hear about their troops dying at the hands of cowardly guerilla tactics, but the US special forces also employ guerilla tactics. It's not necessarily cowardly; when the odds are against you, sometimes it's the only option you have to survive. Tactics and strategies aren't good or evil; it's about the cause and the way they're applied. Building relationships with the indigenous population to get information, or using laser targeting to bring stronger ordance against a fortified position to protect your own troops is smart. For any terrorists that think I'm giving them a pass, sorry, suicide bombing a marketplace full of people that have nothing to do with your war is stupid and cowardly.

Money is not Evil
My friend was not a millionaire by any means, but he did well enough, and he made some good decisions. He invested his earnings into a fine home, which he will bequeath to his surviving family. He has a pension they can use. He bought a life insurance policy. He will be leaving behind a wife and daughter, and some step sons. We are often taught to think of money as an object of evil or superficiality. My own mother tells me, "We should love people and use things, but instead it seems most of us love things and use people." She is right but like strategy and tactics, money is not good or evil. Money is a tool; in the hands of a good person, it can do great things.

Even in the hands of a bad person it can do great things. From Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like it in the World, I learned that the businessmen behind the transcontinental railroad were likely those that could be accused of "loving money". They were some downright corrupt bastards. But the transcontinental was borne of ideas from great men like Abraham Lincoln, Grenville Dodge, and Theodore Judas. Lincoln, Dodge, and Judas are regarded in the book as ethical men and long-term thinkers; the kinds of men that made America great. But they could not have built the transcontinental without the help of some downright corrupt bastards. Good men should be a little selfish sometimes and take a lesson from Issac Asimov's Foundation:

Don't let your morals get in the way of doing what's right

When software developers have to choose between career options, of course the best advice is to look at more than just the money. However, there's no dishonor in taking the bigger piece of pie if it's not doing anyone any harm, and you might be able to do more good.

Lessons Learned
With regard to software development, remember:

  • Life is short: You have a family you are responsible for. Giving extra hours to a soulless corporation will ultimately be less satisfying than giving them to your family. You don't know when your diety will tell you, "Put down that keyboard. Don't bother collecting your shit. It's time to go."
  • Life is not fair: There is a place for honor in this world, but it is best reserved for friends. Corporations, especially public ones, have too many stakeholders that don't care about human life. And your competitors, those hacks that leave their clients in a bind to jump to contracts featuring new languages or higher pay, well, unfortunately many of them have reputations for being productive because they cheat by writing shit code that they don't have to maintain. It may seem loathe to do, but sometimes you have may have to do the same. Just try to make it a better quality hack than the other guy's. Somewhere down the line another developer will appreciate it.
  • Money is not evil: You might make the mortgage, but you'll never be a philanthropist that opens a cancer research center if you work for a company that thinks making software is easy.

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