Monday, October 10, 2016

March of the Flaming Squirrels

Pay attention to the Squirrels.
I have spent over 18 years working in technology.  In that time, it still surprises me how many people think what I do is magic.  Furthermore, those people think setting up complicated database and web systems are like plugging in a lamp and turning on a switch.  This creates all sorts of insane and absurd situations in the work place.

When I was a young person, one of the key measures of success was the ability to handle large piles of work with deadlines.  The metaphor my teachers used was the story of a squirrel.  Squirrels hibernate during the winter months but they still need to eat so during the summer months they spend a majority of their time gathering food to store for the winter.  They also binge eat in the fall so they have enough fat to hibernate.

I took this metaphor to heart and applied it to my undergraduate and graduate work.  Each day I spent a little time reading writing and gathering nuggets of information to help myself become successful.  It worked and it seems like a good strategy.  You do little things today so that big challenges of tomorrow don’t seem so daunting.  Then I became a software professional.

The technology world has too much work and not enough qualified people to do the work.  So instead of small efforts adding up to eventual success it takes super-human effort to prevent getting swamped from the demands of the business.  It is a like being a squirrel which is caught in a forest fire.  You still have to gather food but you also confront the grim reality of painful death.

I am spending much of my time telling business people why these “fires” are bad for the business and the software developers.  As author Jimmy Leppert says, “…firefighting creates a culture of arsonists.”  In my mind, where there are arsonists there are millions of dollars of destruction and countless maimed and dead animals.  The software developers become squirrels set ablaze.

I blame a lot of things for this.  Project are funded poorly with a fixed bid mindset.  Americans do a poor job training people to be engineers and technical professionals.  Many business leaders who manage software project have no practical knowledge about how software works.  Finally, short term thinking among business investors and leaders exacerbate this forest fire thinking.  Thus, your organization, which is a fragile ecosystem resembling a forest, is beset by arsonists with flame throwers and chain saws.

I do not have any cures for these problems but I do want to point them out so people who are smarter and more influential can fix them. In order to fix a problem, you need to understand what is causing it.  So if you see your technology staff running around like flaming squirrels you should be smart enough to kick the arsonists out of your organization.

Until next time.