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Posted by gustav at 12:01AM, Thursday, December 04th, 2003

Vindication of long-held suspicions is good for the ego

In which our hero discovers that his career objective, should he choose to stay in the becoming-hideous IT field, might best be summed up as "Mentat."

As my friends know, I've been having a sort of crisis of faith regarding my "career" lately. Perhaps faith is the wrong word, as I've long been bitterly cynical about working in the software/IT industry. Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a slew of interactions with professionals in this industry which have left me feeling that almost no one in it understands the first principles involved in building software -- that, fundamentally, no one practicing software development understands the fundamentals of software development. Headhunters claim the company they're trying to place you in is different, but they lie. Managers claim they only have the interests of the users at heart, but then glad-hand a sleazy contractor who doesn't gather requirements and then says it's the users' fault that they hate his firm's software. Software, like almost anything else, is about the people, people. If you're not designing software for them, you're not designing software; you're just hacking.

These interactions I mention had me feeling on the one hand disgusted, but on the other disheartened -- maybe, after all, it was just my problem, since other people seemed not to be constantly dismayed at the state of the industry. The users didn't like the software, but hey, the consultants who wrote it get paid a lot more than I do, so they must be doing something right. Just because a travel company has a site with bad IA structure and no compelling content doesn't mean that the guy who interviews me there isn't perfectly reasonable to imply I'm an idiot because I don't understand his ineptly-put questions that reference a very personal vocabulary for Java technologies, a vocabulary I've never heard used to refer to the concepts I think he's trying to talk to me about. Just because another company, which tells me about the importance of customer service and communication in its industry, gives me a test on syntax in which they demonstrate they can't write grammatical English, and then forgets to send the last person in to interview me, doesn't mean they have a corporate culture that gets in the way of achieving their goals. Right?

Then, last week, a bunch of things started to happen at work. Let me backtrack: six months ago, when I started here, my first task on my first day was to sit in on a meeting with a consulting company that was putting in a bid to do some development for us. I sat in on the meeting, with no context, no knowledge of any of the systems here, no knowledge of the requirements or specifications for which the consultants were bidding. I did see how they interacted with the people who headed up the groups who'd be using the software (referred to here as the customers). I saw the consultants demonstrate a patronizing attitude, which amounted to politely telling the customers not to ask too many questions, but to just sit down, shut up, and trust the consultants. I was shocked when these guys won the bid. As far as the technology and implementation went, I needn't have known anything going into the meeting -- no one would talk about them. As far as the personal interactions went, I could tell from those 45 minutes that there were going to be a lot of problems.

Fast forward six months, and we see the customers, enraged, responding to a demo of the almost-completed project. The consultants have ignored their requirements; the consultants say everyone met and agreed to ignore them. The customers say that's bull, and produce the spec sheets that they gave the consultants in the first place to back their claims. The corporate IT division is in the middle, trying to placate the customers, but also to defend themselves for having made the choice to go with these inept consultants in the first place.

And now, oddly enough, although work is a living hell because one of our division's major projects is going very loudly, publicly, bad, I feel a lot better. I know I have technical chops. No one I've ever worked for has had doubts about that. It's a problem for people who don't know how to interview, but I'm coming to believe (or hope?) that that is endemic to the east coast and its wrongheaded approach to, well, everything. What's more important, though, is that I have an ability to contextualize information -- technical information, but also impressions about process and politics and interpersonal interactions -- that a lot of the "professionals" in my field lack. Without understanding people and their needs for software, without understanding developers and their interpersonal needs and workplace concerns, without understanding how consultants work and how what they say and don't say, and how they say it, tells you about what they're capable of, all the technical chops in the world are useless. When you get to that point, "technical chops" aren't really chops at all; they're memorization and rote and rules. We can program computers to do that stuff now. If you can't make use of your human side, you're inept as a developer. You do need chops to be a developer -- chops about thinking and analyzing and contextualizing. I've never thought chops had anything to do with how much trivia you knew about a particular language, or how much syntax you'd memorized. There's an old Einstein saw about never bothering to memorize anything one can look up. It's much more useful, I think, to have seen patterns and processes in the past, and remember what worked about them and what didn't, and apply those impressions to what you observe in the present. That combination -- of technical, analytical ability, and intuitive decision-making -- was part of what defined Frank Herbert's human computers, the Mentats.

The example from last week is just one instance lately where I've felt like I saw potential issues long before anyone else mentioned anything about them. It's not my role at my current job to comment on them, and my past experience is that people tend to get extremely defensive when a lowly developer points out this kind of stuff -- even when he's proved right again and again (want to talk to me about a place called dmod?) Even if it doesn't change anything outside my own mind, though, vindication is always good medicine.

No one ever asked me about being a mentat in a job interview, though.
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