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A must-read for all software engineers and their managers

November 8, 2012 5 Comments

Thanks to Cat Mikkelsen [yes, ex-NeXT people, that Cat], I read this article. It’s written by Linds Redding, an art director and animator down in New Zealand who just passed away a few days ago. But it is very, very relevant to software engineering, particularly the ‘heroic’ model of software development. In it, he talks about the brainstorming he and his colleagues used to do, and then the fact that they would all go home, let the ideas sit overnight, and then reconsider them the next day “in the cold light of morning”. He then talks about how digital tools and deployment have steadily shortened that time of reflection from overnight to over lunch to the next ten minutes. An excerpt:

…I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a bit of a con. A scam. An elaborate hoax.

The scam works like this:

1. The creative industry operates largely by holding ‘creative’ people ransom to their own self-image, precarious sense of self-worth, and fragile – if occasionally out of control ego. We tend to set ourselves impossibly high standards, and are invariably our own toughest critics. Satisfying our own lofty demands is usually a lot harder than appeasing any client, who in my experience tend to have disappointingly low expectations. Most artists and designers I know would rather work all night than turn in a sub-standard job. It is a universal truth that all artists think they a frauds and charlatans, and live in constant fear of being exposed. We believe by working harder than anyone else we can evaded detection. The bean-counters rumbled this centuries ago and have been profitably exploiting this weakness ever since. You don’t have to drive creative folk like most workers. They drive themselves. Just wind ‘em up and let ‘em go.

2. Truly creative people tend not to be motivated by money. That’s why so few of us have any. The riches we crave are acknowledgment and appreciation of the ideas that we have and the things that we make. A simple but sincere “That’s quite good.” from someone who’s opinion we respect (usually a fellow artisan) is worth infinitely more than any pay-rise or bonus. Again, our industry masters cleverly exploit this insecurity and vanity by offering glamorous but worthless trinkets and elaborately staged award schemes to keep the artists focused and motivated. Like so many demented magpies we flock around the shiny things and would peck each others eyes out to have more than anyone else. Handing out the odd gold statuette is a whole lot cheaper than dishing out stock certificates or board seats.

3. The compulsion to create is unstoppable. It’s a need that has to be filled. I’ve barely ‘worked’ in any meaningful way for half a year, but every day I find myself driven to ‘make’ something. Take photographs. Draw. Write. Make bad music. It’s just an itch than needs to be scratched. Apart from the occasional severed ear or descent into fecal-eating dementia the creative impulse is mostly little more than a quaint eccentricity. But introduce this mostly benign neurosis into a commercial context.. well that way, my friends lies misery and madness.

This hybridisation of the arts and business is nothing new of course – it’s been going on for centuries – but they have always been uncomfortable bed-fellows. But even artists have to eat, and the fuel of commerce and industry is innovation and novelty. Hey! Let’s trade. “Will work for food!” as the street-beggars sign says.

This Faustian pact has been the undoing of many great artists, many more journeymen and more than a few of my good friends. Add to this volatile mixture the powerful accelerant of emerging digital technology and all hell breaks loose….

I read this and I think of all the app development shops and startups that are trying to create the next Angry Birds, and the people working therein. Thoughts?  ..bruce..


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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

Comments (5)

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  1. Donna says:

    Thank you for sharing: all very true, especially regarding the app store craze. In my case, Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the machine” came to mind. Different industry, same patterns, same scam. But it takes that few good people you find to make it all bearable.

    The (sad) worker in the app development shops

  2. bfwebster says:

    Donna: Thanks for stopping by to post; deepest sympathy about your life in the trenches (or tranches). Been there, done that myself (I burned myself out with 100-hour/weeks finishing release 2.0 of Sundog: Frozen Legacy; didn’t — couldn’t — program for a living for about four years).

    Just out of curiosity, how’d you find this post? ..bruce..

  3. Donna says:

    Thanks, Bruce. After preaching about risk management for years now to the point of feeling absurd, I went to do some research for my own sanity check (take a moment to imagine what it’s like explaining Waltzing with bears to the next “Angry Birds” startup). Startups aside, with mobile being the new desktop it’s sad how very few fellow iOS developers I meet know what NextStep is even they write code beginning with NS pretty much every day. But then I found your blog today and kept reading through the posts.

    Interestingly, Waltzing with bears was a gift from a retired IT consultant from who was very pleased to sell me a bunch of books on design patterns (and the first NextStep programming guide) and told me it’s pretty much the most important read in anyone’s career, not just IT. It’s great to see this book still being praised and relevant today (I was 1yo when it came out), so I can go on preaching risk management until I find someone who listens. Thank you for sharing your writings, I’m looking forward to reading your books and the rest of your blog posts. The “Dead sea effect” is a particularly interesting pattern, and I’m glad to see it addressed and discussed.

    As for burnout, you know what they say, it’s better to wear out than to rust out. I guess.

  4. bfwebster says:

    My first consulting project was at ARINC, where I was helping to get their development of the network management portion of the IRIDIUM satellite system back on schedule. (First clue of a problem: they had close to 30 developers writing a total of about 14,000 lines of code. Second clue: there was no architecture nor any chief architect.) With permission of the VP over that division, I bought everyone working on the project a copy of Brooks’s “The Mythical Man-Month”. As far as I could tell, not a single person read it. The project did get back on track, but that was thanks largely to Bob Millar, the Motorola rep (ARINC was a subcontractor to Motorola), who held their feet to the fire weekly until they got things, well, back on track.

    As for Walting with Bears — yeah, a pretty critical text, and one to ignore at one’s own peril. Here’s my ‘recommended readings in software development’ list, over on one of my other blogs:

    Hang in there. ..bruce..

  5. Donna says:

    Oh man, what a recipe for a disaster. If it’s any consolation, I usually share the shorter version by just sending a link to wikipedia entry of Brooks’s Law and people still can’t be bothered to read it (the explanation, not the short description on top). Tho they do find the comparison to “nine women delivering a baby in one month” funny.

    Thanks for sharing the book list and thanks for the support: hope it’ll take less than 4 years for me. My guess is it takes much more time to snap out of it in a profession where you need to predict and detect flaws, bugs, and all the things that can go wrong for a living, so naturally you go debug yourself as well. Except that downspirals into more & more draining negativity.

    On the positive side, science is coming to the rescue. Latest research shows our brains can indeed be trained and improved in terms of compassion and perspective taking, this is an economic point of view, but still relevant:
    The video presentation is a bit more clear on how the research was conducted, what are the results and what it implies:

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