Managing People

Technical problems can almost always be solved, but people problems are hard

By Jim Grey (about)

I’ll never forget the revelation it was when I figured out how to write computer programs. You mean, I thought, I can make this machine do what I want it to?

Brooklyn Bridge

It was a watershed moment in my life.

I was a teen then, shy and introverted. People often frightened me, at least a little. I struggled to interact with people I didn’t know well, and to assert myself with people I did know well.

And then here was this machine that I could order around. It had limits, but within those limits, it was all about what my mind could imagine and then code. I wrote games that my dad and my brother played. I wrote programs that illustrated concepts of geometry, which I demonstrated to math classes in school. I wrote a payroll application for my aunt’s small business. I even wrote a very rudimentary operating system once – it was terrible, but I learned a lot.

So I went off to college to learn more about how to make software. When I graduated the job market was terrible, so I took the only software job I could find, which was writing user guides for a software company. Later in my career I moved into testing, and into management. I’ve delivered a lot of software since I started 29 years ago.

Here’s the crazy thing I’ve learned: The hardest thing about making software is not the technical stuff. The hardest thing is getting people aligned and pointing the same way!

I’ve often said that it’s a modern miracle when a software project succeeds. Any software development project that involves more than about two people will have coordination challenges, differences of opinion, and all the other normal issues of working together. My experience has been that the programmers and the testers can do whatever you need them to, short of, say, developing a telepathic user interface. They will work hard at it and they may struggle to get it right. But those struggles can pale in comparison to how hard it is to get everyone to agree on what to build, how to build it, and what it means to be done. Here’s how code is better than people:

Once coded, code stays coded and reliably does the same thing over and over.You think you have people all organized and then they go off and do whatever they want anyway.
You will sometimes struggle and work hard to make your code do what it needs to, but you can almost always get the job done.Sometimes you simply can’t influence people. Drat their free will.
Change your code, it doesn’t mind. It knows no fear.People hate change! When change is thrust upon them, they often resist it or even run away, screaming.

By the way, the WordPress editor doesn’t offer a way to create tables, so I wrote some quick HTML to generate one. Fear my mad, l33t sk1llz.

Unfortunately, even if you have the best coders in the world, if you can’t get them to work together their projects will fail. Fortunately, I understand geeks, for I am one. I know what makes us tick. I’ve learned how to influence us and get us all reasonably pointing the same way. And I’ve built on these skills to learn how to influence non-geeks such as upper management, salespeople, and customer service folks to get them all working together. It’s not easy, and it’s impossible to ever get it perfect, but I’ve had pretty good success over the years and it’s contributed strongly to any number of successful software releases. And it’s helped me come out of my nerdly introverted shell.

I can’t remember the time I last wrote any serious code. I don’t miss it. To my astonishment, I’m having much more fun and success on the people side now.


Renewing the network

By Jim Grey (about)

I had lunch with a favorite colleague recently, someone I worked with several years ago and think the world of. She’s among the best at what she does, and is fun and warm and genuine while she does it. I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.

She moved here from elsewhere to take her current job, and finds herself wishing to be better connected in our city’s software industry. So she has been talking to everybody she knows to find out who the movers and shakers are, and try to get introductions to them.

Angel lighting the way
She met angel investors – not this kind.

She ran through the litany of people she has met and wanted to meet, a dozen names or more. We were both astonished that I had worked at some point with all but one of them, most of them as they were on their way up to enormous success. It made me realize I may have let something valuable slip through my fingers.

I told her funny stories about some of these people. One fellow owned a software company where I was a first-level manager. He was a veteran bathroom talker — you’d be standing there draining the tank and he’d come up next to you and start a conversation. And it wasn’t always small talk. You could end up making important business decisions right there at the urinals. Men everywhere know that this breaks the Guy Bathroom Code: no eye contact and absolutely no talking. In, out, move on. But not this CEO.

He sold his company and started a venture capital firm. Through his investments sits on the board of pretty much every growing software company in town. I hadn’t seen him in four or five years when he spotted me in a restaurant last year and came over to say hello. And my colleague said he was hard to meet because he’s so sought after.

I’ve worked with scores of people in my 25-year career, but keep up with just a handful. If I used to work with you and sometimes meet you for lunch, you’re not just a colleague, but a friend.

But lunch with this friend and colleague made me realize that I am very well connected — and I’ve let those connections languish. It’s a shame not only because these people might help me into a better gig someday, but primarily because they’re interesting people who do big things.

When I worked with many of them, there was no way to know that they would do so well. Most people I’ve worked with have not risen so far, actually; most of them are still writing code, or testing, or writing documentation, or leading teams. But so many of them are interesting, too.

But I’m an introvert of working-class roots — a fellow who prefers to keep to himself and let his work speak for itself. At least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel so bad about not reaching out to the good people I know. But if I could go back to the beginning of my career and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to not lose contact with the people I enjoyed or admired.

Fortunately, even though a quarter century has slipped by, it’s not too late to start now. I can reach out to people I’ve worked with recently, and rekindle some long-ago connections. I’d like to build a habit of keeping in touch. Maybe I’ll be able to help someone along in their career, or maybe someone will help me along in mine. If not, simply catching up and swapping stories will be ample reward.