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A must-read for all software engineers and their managers

November 8, 2012 0 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 LLC. 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 720.895.1405 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

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