Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Realities

I have just begun a new job. No hiatus between this new one and the old. One day I am in hell, the next in paradise.

The one I left was as a software manager in a large organization, and the current one is as a software lead in a very small organization.

Other objective differences: the previous job was bureaucratic, there were many processes and constraints and a network of communication and decision paths, and the systems my team built had to reflect the complex interrelated and often historically constrained requirements.

The current one is technical, working within a small team and with very precise mostly self-defined scientific requirements, adjusted to meet specific customer requests. The software has to run precision equipment to capture and calculate results within extremely tight tolerances, both in time and numerical accuracy. The only measure of quality is repeatable precision. The culture is one of technology and science.

In the new job, I report to people who have the same engineering training as I do, who have more experience in the R&D business than I do, who I can ask questions of without risk of offending or destabilizing them emotionally. Peers and superiors in all senses.

In my previous job, I reported to people who asked me to explain what I did "in simple terms" and who liked to hear themselves talk so that they could pretend to make sense of their lumbering thoughts in public forums, often referred to as "meetings" but which felt like beatings. Dissent could be career limiting.

The analogy I would like to give to dispel any conclusion that I may be a pretentious ass is as follows:

Suppose you are a medical practitioner, a physician, and you see patients in a clinical context. You have to diagnose and prescribe treatment as part of your day to day routine.

Also, suppose that you are "managed" by someone who had not undergone the same level of training as you, say a registered nurse, who knew the lingo, understood the context, but did not feel confident enough to make life or death decisions affecting patient health, but felt competent enough or was somehow appointed to tell you, the physician, how to run your practice.

For example, "please use language that is easier to understand in your charts". Or  "make sure your handwriting is legible for the pharmacist", or " you have not seen your quota of patients today, why did you spend 6 minutes more than average with Mrs. Smith today?".

Could you practice under such circumstances? How long would you last?

I lasted 5 years in the analogous IT context. My manager was a technologist, previously a school teacher who joined th IT boom of the nineties and hung on. She did a bit of COBOL programming, hated it and went into management because she could talk better than she could listen or understand.

She is proud to claim that she does not understand the need for system architecture versus program design, her eyes glaze over when there is talk of latency, language choice, servers, data flow analysis, code profiling, and factoring and she had no patience for options analysis or proof-of-concepts. She will not deign to read code. She has trouble with email client software and spreadsheets.

She wants simple, clear explanations and plans, and wants to set deadlines before beginning design, because iterative work can only lead to grief. She always used waterfall approaches in COBOL, and they worked fine for her.

Her weakness and fear prevent her from adding value, from making decisions. She was a pass-through for her manager's decisions to me and my peers. No value added, but lots of aggravation and delay. Never understood or wanted the concept of situational management, which is probably the most effective way of managing people, so effective that there have been lawsuits about who has a right to claim authorship and teach it. She is a scared rabbit, hanging on until she can retire and cash in.

Others in that environment have said that we, the technical folk who did the work, should not "speak Neanderthal" when in the presence of senior executives, by which it was meant that we should use non-IT terms of less than 3 syllables. The executives in question were the CIO and her direct reports.

But all this is now in my past, one-day-old stuff. I am now in another world, where the conversations around me centre on measurement tolerances, ADC resolutions, real-time interrupt-driven code, clock speed and sampling rates, hierarchical state machine approaches, language selection and compiler efficiencies. I have scope probes and micro-controllers on benches beside me, no fuzzy walled grey cubicle partitions in sight, and a project to deliver with people I can talk to who want me to talk dirty.

I am in heaven.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it can be soul destroying indeed