Benjamin Geer on Mon, 3 Jun 2002 20:33:04 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> engineers, managers and creativity

On Friday 31 May 2002 14:17, wrote:
> I have heard comments about
> how current programming skills are a necessity for everyone including
> senior management. This is of course nonsense and is the mark of low
> level engineers who do not have a grasp of the larger design issues
> beyond their isolated component.  For some reason, they cannot
> understand that major issues of customer value, allocation of scare
> resources, design evolution and development & acquisition of core
> technological competencies, market fit, etc.  cannot be developed as an
> application of the latest JAVA tool. They cannot seem to understand
> that the issues that can be handled by these latest low level tools
> were identified, investigated and solved by the previous senior level
> activity which they scorn. They are simply applying solutions that were
> previously found by senior management and technologists previously.

While I agree that current programming skills aren't a necessity for 
managers, I disagree with the assertion that senior-level managers 
identify, investigate and solve low-level issues.  I rather think that 
advances in the computer industry have tended to come from environments 
in which very talented engineers have had great freedom to experiment.  A 
classic example is Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where Xerox 
essentially gathered together the brightest people it could find, and 
gave them a very vague mission which essentially meant `go invent the 
cleverest and most useful things you can think of'.  The result was the 
laser printer, client-server architecture, Smalltalk, the Ethernet, and 
many other innoveations.

Another example is Bell Labs in 1969, where Ken Thompson and a handful of 
other brilliant engineers invented Unix (and the C programming language) 
from the ashes of the failed Multics project.  Unix was invented not 
because a manager thought it would be a good idea, but because Ken 
Thompson felt that the benefits of Multics could be achieved in a simpler 
way, and because he just went ahead and wrote it.

As for Java, it was invented because some Sun engineers were allowed to 
lock themselves in an office for 18 months, with no contact with 
managers, with the goal of coming up with something that would anticipate 
the `next wave' in computing.

As a developer at a large financial software vendor, I'm definitely not 
expected to simply wait until senior management tells me which wonderful 
new tool we should use.  On the contrary, I'm expected to keep abreast of 
developments in the software industry, and to have an encyclopedic 
knowledge of tools and techniques, so that when managers tell me about 
their clients' problems, I can imagine and propose solutions.  Those 
managers may have a general idea of what's going on in the industry, but 
they rely on developers like me to propose that we use particular 
technologies, and to make the case for using those technologies.

Perhaps there are still software companies where there are low-level 
engineers who don't need to have any grasp of larger design issues.  
However, I've never worked in such a place.  It's actually a rare treat 
to have a boss who has any awareness of design issues.


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