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Hackers Dilemma

By grek in Culture
Sat Oct 14, 2000 at 06:56:43 PM EST
Tags: Help! (Ask Kuro5hin) (all tags)
Help! (Ask Kuro5hin)

You're a hacker working in a coding team in conjunction with a design team and a marketing team. All is well....until your project director moves on up in the organisation and the idiot from marketing is the 'hot' candidate to take his job. The design and hacking team try to bully the senior hacker into going for the job with their backing but he doesn't want the meetings, paper pushing, and managerial duties to get in the way of hacking - even though he knows that bad management will break the team up and destroy the project.

This is the hackers dilemma - give up (more or less) what you enjoy doing most for the good of the team / project or watch idiots take credit for your work and ability, while your colleagues leave, the project dies, and you're forced to move on.

It's a cliche but it's happening where I work. Since we're considering leaving and either getting jobs elsewhere or setting up our own business I want to ask these questions;

Is there a management structure where hackers can live happily - it's not simply about only employing 'quality people' becasue weasels will always be more interested in themselves, promotion, and money, and hackers more interested in the code, the project and the team (although, of course, you do also get hackers who are weasels). Weasels will always wriggle their way in and then up unless the management structure is designed to prevent it.

Is it possible to have a flat management structure but still get work done (or even get more done).

Is it inevitable that as a company gets bigger the 'management' takes over and those at the bottom of the tree always end up feeling left out of the decision making process (especially of those decisions that most affect them).

These are rhetorical questions - of course what I'm really asking is; How do make your company a nice place to work, where those whom decisions affect are part of the decision making process, and most of all, where jerks can't boss you about. Answers in less than 1000 words please, and once you've done that now tell me *how to make it scale*, because everything I thnk of only works for companies that are <= 10 people. Thanks!


A cynical and depressed grek


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Hackers Dilemma | 17 comments (15 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
You can be a "people" hacker too! (3.72 / 11) (#3)
by MeanGene on Sat Oct 14, 2000 at 06:25:40 PM EST

The meetings and other "managerial" can be used for a purpose or to waste everybody's time!

So you think you can stand a compiler that doesn't understand what you want, but you cannot deal with people who don't understand what you want. Pretty lame, eh? Please understand that social skills are as important as technical ones.

As you describe it, there're two choices: 1) acknowledge that you can be a respected and qualified leader and go ahead; 2) watch as the project disintegrates and the code that you labored over goes to waste - then complain that "they" didn't let you do the job.

There's a bonus to the first option - you can get back at those marketdroids. ;-)

There's an old saying that "every good soldier wants to become a general." Think of it - as you go higher up you'll be able to influence (call it "hack" if you like) a much-much large piece of code - isn't it a job worth being done well?

"every good soldier wants to become a general (none / 0) (#17)
by LiPalM on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 06:31:36 PM EST

yeah..but it is also said that "the best fighters are often the worst soldiers". So what do you wanna be ? A soldier or a true fighter ? Think of it too.
-- I'm root. Fear me !
[ Parent ]
Not a dilemma (3.25 / 4) (#4)
by aprater on Sat Oct 14, 2000 at 06:44:21 PM EST

This doesn't seem like a dilemma to me. If you (and nobody) else wants this open position and the person who is moving into it actually is a huge idiot, then you should go somewhere else. It sounds to me like you are pretty disgusted with your marketing department and feel a lack of recognition for your work. There are plenty of open positions for programmers where the marketing and management aren't idiots. My guess is that you wouldn't have a problem finding a team that's better suited to you....

Of course it sucks finding a new job, but I'd rather make the effort to find a new job working with people I like than settle for a job where I thought the people I was working with are idiots.

The current hierarchical sturcture of management with programers as the leaf nodes, doesn't seem like a problem to me as long as the mangement always consults the developer for his or her opinion (and actually uses the opinion for decision making). That's the structure I work in, and I'm perfectly happy with it, the management, and the marketing people.

But I've never worked for a huge company like HP. So it could be different elsewhere.

If the company is full of assholes, leave! (3.33 / 6) (#5)
by Mendax Veritas on Sat Oct 14, 2000 at 06:45:49 PM EST

Very simply, if this problem even arises, you probably ought to leave.

For one thing, the notion of having a single "project director" who runs both the marketing and engineering sides of the project is stupid. Instead, what you want is a product manager who is in charge of the marketing side, and a separate project manager who is in charge of the technical side. These two need to respect each other and work together adequately. If they don't, there will be trouble.

Also, you shouldn't have to deal with a marketing department full of assholes. If marketing and engineering don't get along, the product is in trouble. It really isn't true that all marketers are assholes; just most of them.

One thing I really like about my current company is that it has a severe shortage of assholes. I like all the engineers and their managers, I like all the marketing people, the HR people, the MIS people, the receptionist, etc. They're all competent at what they do, and pleasant people as well. I think the fundamental reason for the company being this way is that its founders were very nice, highly competent people, and they did a really good job of hiring people who shared those qualities. So, from this, I infer that a company full of assholes was probably founded by assholes, or at least, by people who weren't very good at filtering out assholes from their candidate pool. Or perhaps the company has just been around so long that the few assholes who did manage to get in have had time to spread their condition throughout the company. Whatever the reason, a company with a lot of assholes, even if they're all confined to the marketing department, is just not going to be a great place to work.

Start your own business (3.33 / 3) (#6)
by recursive on Sat Oct 14, 2000 at 10:52:35 PM EST

I suggest that you set up your own business. This will help you to appreciate what marketing and management do for you. And if you think that hackers are good at management just because they are smart, read what the Jargon file tells about a Hacker's personality.

-- My other car is a cdr.

Re: Start your own business (none / 0) (#8)
by magney on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 01:53:24 AM EST

grek knows what good management can do to make the hacker's life better. He used to have a good manager before this marketroid came in.

Do I look like I speak for my employer?
[ Parent ]

Re: Start your own business (none / 0) (#10)
by MeanGene on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 11:37:59 AM EST

Come on - if only starting your own business was easy as 1-2-3! Just check out the <A HREF="http://www.1099.com">HREFhttp://www.1099.com"1099 magazine - a website for "Independent Professionals."

If you're afraid of dealing with people in suits - how on earth are you going to get these same suits give you business? Running your own business means you have to be involved in selling and marketing your services - without the protective cushion of "marketdroids."

[ Parent ]

Give it a chance to work (3.33 / 3) (#7)
by katravax on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 12:55:08 AM EST

Chances are the Marketroid will fubar the process, but I have seen people rise to new heights of quality when put in a different position they weren't beleived to be capable. The Marketroid will have to do it well, or the programmers will hike. A software company would have to know this. With enough complaints and enough failed projects, the Marketroid would be shown a different desk.

However, to make the process work, you have to give it a chance. Do your job and do it well, especially if you're following the lead of the new Project Manager/ex-Marketing guy. If projects fail, the suits will know why. If your team turned out good work before, but projects now belly-up under the new guy, it won't be your fault. The key here is to maintain professionalism and do your job well.

If the guy turns out to be bad to work for and causes project failures, then you have a legitimate complaint. Fear that he will fail won't get you sympathy either at your current job or when interviewing for the next one. One way to handle it if he does fail is to go see a higher-up with a group of programmers that feel the same way. Don't go in and whine; go in with a specific list of how you've succeeded in the past, and why you're failing now. Wait for results. It is entirely possible that the weenie will turn into a good project manager. It may not be likely, but you have to wait and see. I've been through the situation you're describing before, and have found that patience and cool-headedness pay off. Good luck!

My observations of how it goes... (2.50 / 2) (#9)
by gunner800 on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 03:31:16 AM EST

Hacker graduates from college and gets well-paying job doing coding, or network configs, or whatever he specializes in.

Hacker works for a few years, getting better and better with experience. Hacker naturally takes on some informal management responsibilities by helping out those with less experience.

Another few years later, Hacker sits down to do some coding and realizes that they're pretty damned rusty. He hasn't written code in months; he's been drawing pictures or helping less experienced folk with scheduling and good development.

Hacker looks around and sees the New Guy, fresh out of college and doing code.

Hacker says "I want the New Guy's job...I quit..."

---Ignore poorly-chosen handle for purpose of gun-control discussions.

<= 10 people (3.00 / 3) (#11)
by speek on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 11:40:31 AM EST

Maybe it's just a law of human nature. Working in small groups is healthier and more enjoyable. And in some fields, more productive. So, start a company with your friends and don't _let_ it scale up. Unless you find a solution along the way.

The reason companies get huge is because some people are getting rich off the sheer size. If you start a company, that is your temptation - to let it grow beyond what it can handle. I suggest people need to have a different goal. Instead of getting rich, how about make a living? Don't ever go public. Don't ever grow beyond what you enjoy. Do what you like and don't expect more than that, cause you'll ruin it.

al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees

This is true (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by CiXeL on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 01:36:47 PM EST

In cultural anthropology its learned that tribal societies can contain a maximum number of people before they split and develop new groups. There is a optimum efficency limit that is reached i suppose. Perhaps this is a limitation builtin to our brains and applies here. Theres also evidence that when scientists work in groups of 5 theyre far more productive than a group of more or less.
Question Tradition...
[ Parent ]
The relationships can't scale (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by Sunir on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 03:16:42 PM EST

It's not hard to figure out why groups don't scale: communication overhead.

Consider that between each pair of people in a group, a relationship is created. Borrowing from graph theory, this can be represented by a complete undirected graph with n people as nodes and n(n-1)/2 relationships as edges. Thus, the communication overhead grows at O(n^2).

And as any computer scientist knows, O(n^2) is killer.

By the way, this problem is central to social systems in general. See also the ConnectedGraphSquaringProblem on MeatballWiki for more on this.

"Look! You're free! Go, and be free!" and everyone hated it for that. --r
[ Parent ]

Javaspaces (none / 0) (#15)
by speek on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 11:19:23 PM EST

Or, you could use a subscriber/listener pattern, with a centralized messaging system (or multiple, semi-centralized). That way, it's only n^2 if everyone who joins is interested in hearing about everything. Well, I guess that's why there are managers and hierarchies, eh? ;-)

al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

Dual hierarchy a solution? (3.33 / 3) (#14)
by SuperG on Sun Oct 15, 2000 at 07:28:50 PM EST

I can't remember where I heard of this (for all I know it is a seminal piece of literature in comp sci, but who knows). Basically it deals with this problem of having techy people pushed into more "managerial roles", which actually reduces the effectiveness of the team(s), while annoying the hell out of the techy themselves.

The solution proposed was to have a "dual hierarchy", where you have two streams, technical and non-technical. Basically you removed the glass ceiling on techies, and introduced equivalent positions to those considered management, such as 'systems architect' and so on. The idea is that you have management people handle the "managing admin" crap we hate, and have the technical people have control of the design issues etc.

I realise this isn't an easy thing to just spooge into an existing corporate culture, and that do so you need a heavy-hitting champion near the top of the tree, but done right you can hope to avoid such problems as described in this column.


Span-of-Control (none / 0) (#16)
by redelm on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 04:23:55 PM EST

First, on your dilemma: If you don't want to do administrivia, don't. You will also be spared the alleged rewards.

How to avoid overbearing managment is extremely simple: minimize PHBs by maximizing their span-of control. I have worked for many years in an 20,000+ employee worldwide organization. Once upon a time, every supervisor/manager had only ~5 direct reports. [S]he could keep an unhealthy eye on them and felt they had to. Micromanagement.

Now, in many places it's increased to 10-15 direct reports. The managers don't have a prayer of keeping up. They have to trust their subordinates, and can only work the highest priority issues. If they can still bird-dog employees, then give'em more 'til they break down.

As an interesting side-benefit, since the managerial ladder has lost alot of it's attractiveness, technical promotions are used more to reward people. We have lots of specialists who are paid more than their managers. Everyone is much happier, even the managers who eventually realized they had to let go.

Hackers Dilemma | 17 comments (15 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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