Inconvenient Truths & Dirty Little Secrets, Part II: MABC Speaks

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 9, 2013 under Office Relationships and Politics, Software Development | Read the First Comment

I gave my presentation, “Inconvenient Truths & Dirty Little Secrets: What Suits and Geeks Wish the Other Knew (or Felt Safe to Say) about Software,” at Madison Area Business Consultants on 10/8/2013.

During my Q/A session and from my follow-up survey, I received the following. As I blog about them, I’ll add links. Subscribe to my newsletter and be notified.

Inconvenient Truths for Suits

Dear Suits,

  • IT won’t solve all problems—it’s a tool, among others; planning.
  • How can I help you, help me, to help you?
  • Scope needs to be managed, and all of the system needs to be tested even if we only changed a little bit of it.

Inconvenient Truths for Geeks

Dear Geeks,

  • The business process always has exceptions.
  • How can I help you, help me, to help you?
  • The business moves faster than you do.

Dirty Little Secrets of Suits

We Suits wish it was safe to say:

  • We don’t know everything.
  • We don’t really understand the business problem completely.
  • We generally ignore or work around things requested by people we don’t like.

Dirty Little Secrets of Geeks

We Geeks wish it was safe to say:

  • We really don’t know how the entire system works, or will work.
  • We generally ignore or work around things requested by people we don’t like.

Your “People Problems,” and How To Solve Them

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 3, 2013 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

For all its geekiness, software is an intensely “people” business.

Ask programmers to tell horror stories and they will indeed talk about irreproducible severity-1 bugs and traffic spikes that took down their website.

But more of the horror stories have to do with the insane scheduler, the requirements yo-yo, the scope creep (it’s also a noun, you know), and the User From The Nether Regions.

Unfortunately, we who are attracted to software development in the first place have “people problems” of our own. We’re quick to “flip the bozo bit.” We get into religious wars over the One True Coding Style (or text editor—are those days passing? It’s vi, just in case you’re wondering).

Once you recognize that software is a people problem (and thought leaders in our industry have been writing about it for years), you still have a problem. Advice seems to fall into two categories:

  1. “You just have to know how to talk to them.” Understanding motives, dialogue, and all that. I posted this because of an article called How To Cope With Troublesome People on I recommend Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High because it helps us all with our inner game—how to avoid dropping into lizard-brain Fight-or-Flight and triggering a destructive feedback loop when things get tense.
  2. “When the going gets tough, get tough.” These can be helpful and constructive, like Cloud & Townsend’s Boundaries (it speaks Christian-ese at times, but you don’t have to be a Christian to use the principles and techniques). Or they can be systemic, like The No-Asshole Rule; great if you’re the CEO, but among the rest of us it encourages bozo-bit-flipping because we can’t do anything about the subject. And then there are various books about winning at office politics, which remind me that, “The Winner of The Rat Race is Still a Rat.”

I believe it’s always best to start by controlling your inner game (a learnable skill) and striving for dialogue, but I’ve also encountered people who, over time, demonstrated by their actions that they weren’t the least bit interested in me or my &%@! dialogue. What to do?

Enter Alan Godwin’s How To Solve Your People Problems, with a map of the swamp.

  1. Conflict is inevitable
  2. Conflict can be either good or bad
  3. How we engage has a significant impact on whether conflict is good or bad
  4. The rules of engagement for good conflict depend on whether the other person is exhibiting reasonable behavior or unreasonable behavior.
  5. Reasonable behavior consists of humility, knowledge, awareness, responsibility, and reliability. (Dr. Godwin explains these very clearly). To the extent these are absent, you are dealing with a person who is acting unreasonably.
  6. Start with your dialogue skills, from Crucial Conversations or similar. That’s what How To Cope With Troublesome People recommends, too. If you get a measure of reasonableness back, use your skills to stay in dialogue, even if things get tense. Meet Reasonableness with Dialogue.
  7. But if you get sustained Unreasonableness back, in the form of Drama (there are four–I won’t spoil the surprise), then switch from Dialogue to Boundaries. Meet Unreasonableness & Drama with Boundaries. In extreme cases, Boundaries may have to be in the form of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Dr. Godwin’s book is also from a Christian perspective, but like Boundaries, you don’t have to be Christian to apply the principles. And don’t be too quick to flip the bozo bit.

Inconvenient Truths & Dirty Little Secrets

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 1, 2013 under Office Relationships and Politics, Software Development | Be the First to Comment

I’m giving a talk about software at Madison Area Business Consultants on Tuesday the 8th of October.

I believe that a lot of software projects get in trouble because both the producers (“Geeks”) and buyers (“Suits”) have mistaken beliefs about each other. There are Inconvenient Truths that are hard for both Geeks and Suits to face. Geeks and Suits also have their own Dirty Little Secrets—which they think they need to keep in order to stay safe.

I’ve listed all of them that I can think of, but I’d like to hear yours too.

Or, if you’re a Geek with a question about Suits, or vice versa, I’d like to hear it. Maybe I’ll try to answer it in my talk, and then on this blog.


Inconvenient Truths for Suits

You can’t tell what a computer, even a computer full of business software, does just by looking at it. You also can’t tell if it’s in a good state of repair or about to cease functioning. It’s not like a building, a backhoe, or a bass boat.

Geeks really don’t know how long something will take or how much it will cost, at least not with the level of accuracy you want or believe reasonable. They really don’t.

Most Geeks have a higher IQ and a lower EQ than you. That’s why they were attracted to computers. That’s also why the communication problems are your responsibility—you’re better equipped to figure them out.

Geeks interpret uncertainty as a problem to be solved.

If you can’t figure out how to speak a common language with Geeks, you need a translator. Fast, accurate translators are rare and expensive. Slow, inaccurate translators are easily found and even more expensive, just not right away.

Inconvenient Truths for Geeks

Suits really don’t know what they want, at least not at the level at which you want them to. They really don’t.

Suits have reasons for what they say they want and when they want it. They really do. It has to do with making money. If they fail at that, you will be out of a job. They just don’t know what’s possible or how to ask. They expect you to tell them, though they will act unhappy about it. It’s called “negotiation.” Many Suits think it’s kind of fun; some do it for a living. If a Suit has achieved significant rank, they are good at it—sometimes too good for their own good, and yours.

Suits interpret uncertainty as room for negotiation.

If you can’t figure out a common language to speak with Suits, you need a translator. Fast, accurate translators are rare and expensive. Slow, inaccurate translators are easily found and even more expensive, just not right away.

Your employer is primarily trying to make money, not provide you with employment or interesting information technologies to work with.

Inconvenient Truths for Everybody

Computers are extremely powerful, totally obedient in a way that seems outrageously passive-aggressive but isn’t, and they have extremely bad judgment.

There are no IT (Information Technology) projects. There are business-change projects with a major IT component. To get the benefits, the Geeks have to get the IT right enough, and the Suits have to get the business change right enough, too.

When people feel unsafe, they get angry or afraid, and that drains the blood out of their frontal cortices, making them stupid. This happens faster with Geeks than with Suits, because most Geeks have a higher IQ to begin with (and farther to fall), and Suits typically have a higher EQ and can better manage their emotions. Geeks don’t want stupid people setting their project schedules. Suits don’t want stupid people modifying their production website on Cyber Monday. So help each other feel safe.

People feel unsafe when they don’t share a mutual purpose and have mutual respect, they feel unsafe. So maintaining mutual purpose and mutual respect between Suits and Geeks is worth serious coin, as well as peace and happiness.

Dirty Little Secrets of Suits

Suits are even worse at estimating the benefits of IT projects than Geeks are at estimating the costs, but Suits are better at staying out of trouble over it.

Dirty Little Secrets of Geeks

Most software salespeople know surprisingly little about their products.

Geeks don’t actually know how to do most of what they do. They know where and how to ask the question, are able to understand the answer, and know how to try out the answer safely in case it’s wrong, and how to repeat this process until it’s right.