SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

This Guy is Funny! (To Engineers at Least)

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 21, 2007

EV only has 2 rants so far on his blog, but I wanted to pass along a few quotations that I found amusing.

From “On Programmers and Business“:

“The knowledge of at least one simple programming language soon will be as essential as basic writing skills. Because as the complexity of average software increases, professional programmers become less affordable and less accessible for basic programming tasks.”

There’s been a scarcity for a long time.  IT used to write all their own software, now a tiny fraction can still do it.  Engineers moved into ISV’s.  ISV’s used to be entirely onshore and centralized, now they use lots of overseas talent.  Great software engineers are born, not made, and the US has no monopoly on them.

“I have grown to suspect that a lot of companies are failing simply because they hired dumb engineers. “

Building a bad product is certainly one way to fail.  Building a great product for a non-existant market is another way.  People seem to worry more about the second than the first.  I’m not sure why.  The second problem has always seemed Tragically Knowable to me.  Go talk to customers.  Show them a prototype.  It need not take a huge investment to answer whether there is a market.

“It is damn near impossible to tell good programmer apart from a bad one unless you happened to be an engineer yourself. And most companies are not started by engineers.”

Unless you are an engineer, or you choose your head engineer based on a careful examination of their personal track record and references from people who would know.  It is an interesting conundrum for a Sales or Marketing background CEO who is non-technical.  Having a great CTO partner is a key ingredient to success.  It is extremely easy to baffle a non-Engineer with technical gobble-di-gook.

“A sufficiently dumb engineer may hurt you more than most competitors will. When organized in loose formations, even in modest numbers, they can even kill an otherwise healthy business.”

From “On Ecosystems of Smart Hackers“:

“As shocking as it may appear, money is not everything. Smart people like to hang out with other smart people. “

This is true, and absolutely a corrollary to “It is damn near impossible to tell good programmer apart from a bad one unless you happened to be an engineer yourself.”  It is damned near impossible to hire great engineers unless you have great engineering leaders and architects, and unless your culture values great engineers.  I’ve seen companies where the engineers are locked away and handed stone tablets by Product Managers.  If they get to make a decision at all, it’s about the deep dark internal guts of things.  Not helpful!

“Just don’t put “Java” in the job description and you’ll be fine.”

Now that’s funny.  Increasingly, Java is viewed as “not hip” by the intelligentsia out there in the Java community.  You’d be surprised by who doesn’t love Java.

“And no meetings, of course. Those who are terrified by total absence of meetings are worried for a very good reason. If you do not have much to do in such meetingless environment, maybe your position should… (it is always hard to call someone else’s baby ugly) … not exist to begin with?”

On this one, I will part company.  The alpha geeks I’ve worked with love to strut their stuff.  They like architecture reviews and discussions.  They like to see demos as features near completion.  They want to hear the gameplan from other groups.  They do, however, have little patience for rote meetings that involve going around the room and asking everyone what they did since the last meeting.  I would amend this to, “Don’t waste Engineer’s time by holding any Dilbert-style meetings.”

“The coolest software projects, most of their code base, were written between 10pm and 4am. And those, folks, are not your normal business hours. Surely some code gets written and checked in before lunch. Remember the last time your browser crashed? That was probably it.”

I had to laugh out loud on that one, but there is a grain of truth to it.  I haven’t seen a modern software outfit lately that insisted folks get in before 10am, but you never know. 

It’s good to hear a geek speak out.  There aren’t so many of us who are vocal.  Sales and Marketing Guys, take note.  Understand this guy’s scrawlings.  He represents the sort of mindset you will have to learn to reason with and influence if you want your product vision converted into great code.

3 Responses to “This Guy is Funny! (To Engineers at Least)”

  1. marckickind said

    Bad programmers can certainly do you in. A multiplier of that, though, is the unshakeable conviction most programmers have (bad, mediocre, or even good) that they are Great Programmers. They believe that “gold code” streams from their brain through their fingers, and can scarce conceive that their software is anything other than deliverable as soon as it hits the screen and compiles cleanly.

    The truth is, there are Terrible Programmers out there, and confession is good for the soul…

  2. smoothspan said

    Marc, I know exactly what you mean.

    In my experience great programmers are born, not made. I’ve worked with awesome programmers who had high school educations, and worthless programmers with MIT CS degrees. I knew a guy one time who was an absolute wizard doing crazy undocumented low level things with Windows, but he could not factor code into procedures. He literally could only copy and paste. I worked with him for 6 months trying to teach him to factor, but he never could get it. I see no rhyme or reason based on age, although at some point you can’t stay up to all hours. I’ve known men and women who were great programmers. The list goes on.

    One thing I’ve noted (and others have too) is that great programmers often have good musical sense. They play instruments or they’re more acutely aware of the music than many others. Strange pattern.

    Best,

    BW

  3. Marc,

    I can really appreciate your post, and (through humor) how much of what you observe is true. Engineers are a special breed, and it difficult for a lot of people (especially sales and marketing) to understand them. I spent years in technical sales support and was thrown in with a coven of engineers, where I gradually learned their “ways.” To see how I drew inspiration from Jane Goodall and Doris Day to survive, check out my blog on:
    http://maxwellhoffmann.wordpress.com/2008/11/06/engineering-when-everyone-speaks-english-but-words-still-dont-work/

    Maxwell Hoffmann, Portland, OR

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