Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Management Conundrums - The Cowboy

I read an article refuting the value of crunch time and got to wondering about it.
I've been the cowboy before, working 100+ hour weeks. Dreaming in code, pulling 24 hour days, a real Team Player. I don't want to ever go back there again. I'd like to prevent people I work with from going there too.
I found crunch time to be a vicious cycle. Rather than sit back and think my way through the problem, I dove in head-first and bumped my head on the bottom. Hard. Repeatedly.
I found myself working long hours, making mistakes along the way, and then working longer hours because I told myself "I'll just fix this later." And then working longer days because I couldn't remember the fix that I had in my head earlier but it all seemed so clear to me and in retrospect, fuck embracing death march values.

To push my street cred through the roof, I'll just quote Bun B who puts it better than I do.

Start with your head, homie, then use your hands / If you try it in reverse, you don't even stand a chance.

I don't know if it's confirmation bias on my part - I'm a pretty lazy guy (note to anyone daydreaming of hiring me: I'm totally joking about that). Am I just buying into what these people and their so-called "studies" are saying because I'm (*cough* not) lazy and want to believe anyone that's telling me that working a square 40 hours a week is really OK and even preferable?

The thing is, not everyone believes it - and this is not just managers that I'm talking about, either. As the comments on the article over on programming.reddit show (and as my anecdotes reinforce), some developers have an almost bloodthirsty need to believe in the power of crunch time. There were a couple of chaps in there extolling the virtues of brutal hours of work, stating that without doing months of crunch mode, their projects wouldn't have finished. I prodded, trying to lead them down a path to questioning whether the projects might have finished in the same amount of time without crunching for it, but it was rejected out-of-hand.

The Mythical Man-Month gave us the should-be-more-famous truism that "you can’t get a baby in one month from 9 women" - some tasks really are going to take a set amount time no matter how many resources you throw at them. The mother can start pushing on day one or wait until month nine to start pushing; the baby's not coming out any faster no matter how many months she's been pushing. I think that believing that you can accelerate nature (I'm talking development projects now not babies; work with me, people) is equal parts foolhardy and arrogant, but I also think that a good developer needs a healthy dose of both of these qualities.

When it's a team gelling and putting in the overtime because they want and need to, you let it go. That's a no-brainer. Of course, you can't go on auto-pilot. You need to figure out when they're sprinting to a dead end, when they've started sprinting too soon and have been sprinting so hard that it's counter-productive and maybe you should kick them the fuck out of the office at 5 PM on Friday so they can see their families and come back ready to do good work on Monday. You need to reel them in at some point. Like any design pattern, "crunch time" has its use. Just take care to not treat it like a golden hammer and you'll be fine.

It's the lone cowboy that I'm concerned about, and I'm concerned about what to do with them. When it's a team working to a goal, they're building together. When it's the lone person banging away at all hours, they're using their back more than their brain and will miss simple, obvious solutions to their problems and get aggravated at everyone else who isn't putting in the same brutal hours they are.

Part of me wants to save them, but then again I'm not sure that anything can be done with or for them. Reason, logic and studies seem to bounce off of them (it did off of me) like bullets off of Superman's skin.

At my current job, we had a cowboy developer. Good developer, smart guy, put in long-ass hours. Went on vacation, came back in with a custom XML business rules engine (like Drools) that used .Net Reflection and all that good stuff to drive it. It's pretty good code, just that in retrospect... we didn't really need it. I never had the heart to tell him that outright and thousands of lines of code nobody wants to refactor out of the application remain today.

When he eventually left, another of our developers quietly became the new "hard worker" to pick up the imaginary slack left behind. I don't know that I'd even have noticed this quiet change if I hadn't read The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom (this and The 48 Laws of Power are Dave Solomon picks for bizarroland must-read management books).

In The Lucifer Principle, Bloom relates an anecdote about a researcher's study at a summer camp. The researcher had identified four major archetypes for kids in group behavior - the "alpha male", the "bully", the "joker" and the "nerd" and conducted an experiment with them (nothing on the level of Milgram or the Stanford Prison Experiment).

The scientist assembled a cabin composed entirely of "leaders," boys who had been dominant, "alpha males" in their old groups. Very quickly, the new cluster sorted itself out according to the familiar pattern. One of the leaders took charge. Another became the bully. A third became the group joker. And one of the formerly commanding lads even became the new group's nerd.

- The Lucifer Principle, Howard Bloom, pg. 92

I know I'm doing a terrible job explaining this, but what it comes down to is that I've seen the shift in my co-worker and I don't think it's a conscious one. He may think that he "needs" to work longer hours (I've certainly danced around it trying to get him to feather the brake pedal on it, so to speak) to get things to work, but could he explain why?

Of course, self-interest on my part demands that I don't push them too hard to not kill themselves. I'm not the boss and if he's not doing the long hours, I'm sort of afraid that someone else is going to give me the stink eye because I'm not checking in code after midnight just before I leave on vacation to show that I'm a team player, never mind that the code's invariably broken in some hideous ways and people are going to have to quickly find and fix all the mistakes I've made because I was tired and rushing.

Moreover, like I said, I suspect that there's some subconscious understanding about the archetypes (for developers, read: "design pattern") of a team, and that the "overachiever" is one of them. I know just how loaded the word archetype is which is why I think it's probably an aft metaphor - if our work habits are indeed an unconscious manifestation of our identity, then there's no clean way to divorce one from the other - the cowboy's going to keep drawing for that six-shooter no matter what you do and resent you for telling him to keep it on safety before he blows his foot off. They may not be able to do it any more than you could conquer someone's fear of snakes just by bringing to their attention the fact that they are, in fact, terrified of snakes (I suspect this is an easier one to break though). Moreover, you get rid of one and another will rise to the occasion.

Unless you do what you can to make them and everyone else on the team aware of your distaste for their overwork and unless your boss (and bosses all the way up) are on board with holding people to a square forty, I doubt it will happen.

Sadly, getting everyone to throw fallacious common sense overboard and accept the fact that working smarter and working harder are just about always mutually exclusive and working smarter beats working harder just about every time isn't an easy task. If it was easy and if these work archetypes didn't exist, then everyone wouldn't be positive that today's Dilbert (for pretty much any value of Dilbert) just had to have been sent in by one of their co-workers.

But I'm no manager, so I keep on doing what I can to make things better, forty hours a week.

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