Saturday, October 02, 2010
The Same All Over Again
I want to know why people think that what I do professionally has no value.
And requires no particular skill.
The scene I am in at the moment – seated in front of an engineering vice president, explaining the basics of the documentation development process – is an eerie downstream echo of conversations I’ve had many times during my career. The older and more seasoned I become, the more I feel that I could hold up my end of the dialog without checking a script. The teleprompter of my memories rolls out the objections, the protestations, the multiple stages of grief that represent a V.P. coming to grips with the hard business reality that words cost money and that the absence of words costs more.
Saying “I told you so” to this man, however, is neither accurate nor fair. He’s young, American, probably quite good at what he does. The company no doubt hired him to stir their moribund development pot and breathe new life into an older software organization that has been stuck at the “mid-stage” for far too long. Like me, he is a hired gun slinger, here to revolutionize the engineering department and get everyone on a new and exciting development model. I don’t know these things for a fact; it’s just the feel of the whole set up. Also, there is something about his Chicago accent here in the land of Kiwis that makes the nerves twitch just so, no doubt a by-product of too much American television about shawdy gangsters and backroom poker games. I don’t think he’s here to make friends of the old guard. He’s here to play management bingo: carve off the fat, drive the team, throw out waterfall and implement extreme, agile programming. Yadda yadda.
One of his first concerted actions was to fire the documentation team. After spending only two days in the quicksand of their source files, I can’t say that was a bad decision. On the other hand, somehow management got the collective notion that they would replace the two full-time head count with engineering release notes and an occasional editorial contractor who would just roll in and “clean it all up” before each release. There are two major products, both release at least twice a year with multiple interim, customized releases to large enterprise customers. The existing corpus of documentation is roughly 20 manuals, guides, handouts, and help systems per product. It’s my job to explain why this intermittent editor plan is doomed to fail.
You’d think that would be self-evident.
I sympathize with this man across from me. I know him. I know everyone here. They are each unique individuals with families and goals and dreams and quirks. And yet, they are also just like their counterparts at the last company, and the one before that, and the one before that, and every other software development company I will work out into the foreseeable future. There is the smart and competent admin, the experienced project manager with the wry sense of humour. Over on the wall is the team lead who is excited to try out this new Agile thing and on the other side of my cubicle is the older, mumbler developer guy with no particular social skills but serious programmatic mojo. We have the nearly silent Asian engineer, the garrulous tester, the totally maligned network operations guy, and the random hired gun contractors drifting in and out like high priced, well dressed bullets. We even have the Asian chick with the high voice that all the white boys want to bang.
I try not to roll my eyes. I try really hard. The problem is me. The problem is that I care – down in the marrow of my bones – about these archetypal people. I don’t just enjoy the company of engineers, I thrive on their geek, luxiariate in their strangely twisted and totally reductive approach to problems both technical and social. I want this company to suceed. The real problem is that after nearly two decades watching these people, I know that this company, these people, this oganisation, these applications… they are dead. It’s a death spiral, late stage and unfixable. No number of hired guns from the States is going to fix the problems and rewrite the code in a way that will do anything more than delay the inevitable. I don’t want to know this, but those years have gifted me with prescience.
I’m sorry, guys. I can’t write you out of this one.