Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Programmers are people


Something that annoyed me for many years now is how the games industry (well, software development community in general) treat individual developers as "resources" in a project schedule. It doesn't just sound awful and is a direct insult to the profession, it's also plain wrong, stupid and counter-productive.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking.. but yes I would argue programming is a creative line of work, you are designing and building something. Do you think a car manufacturer talks about "designer resources" when coming up with a new model? Does a TV show producer have "screenplay writing resources" (well maybe they do, I don't have a clue). Of course it matters who designs and builds something. You can throw hundreds of bad composers on a soundtrack, but it still sounds horrible.

How many weeks does task X take to complete? The answer should always be the same - it depends on who does it. There are no man-hours, man-weeks or man-months in this industry. Building software is not like building a house. There are always tons of vastly different solutions to a given task. There might even be a tool out there that already solved the problem. Maybe the task itself is an effect of a previous design mistake?

When loading boxes of oranges a good worker might be twice as fast a bad worker. An awesome worker might be three times faster, but that's really pushing it. In software a highly motivated, awesome programmer can easily replace a whole room full of mediocre (not Mediocre!) programmers and still produce way better results, fewer errors, more maintainable code at a fraction of the cost.

Finding such talented programmers is of course very hard, but I wouldn't say they are quite as rare as most people think - keeping an awesome programmer motivated is the bigger challenge. The magic only happens when a great programmer is given freedom and responsibility. Unfortunately very few people seem to have realized this - the typical scenario being a big company headhunting some of the best programmers in the world and pay them tons of money to sit in a cubicle and munch dull scrum tasks off a backlog. Not so awesome anymore? Seriously, what did you expect? If you treat great programmers as generic programming resources they will become just that.

4 comments:

  1. Agreed. I consider it my own responsibility to find the job with the right mix of freedom, responsibility, salary etc. Luckily there are plenty of opportunities, especially in bigger companies that can afford a r&d or skunkworks style environment.

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  2. Agreed, very true.

    Yet at times it seems that absent a steady paycheck some of us have to tolerate this. Hence why what you do give us programmers hope.

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    1. Totally agree with this essay. Great programmers who work well with others are valuable for cost and schedule effectiveness, reliable quality deliverables, and competitive positioning and solutions. This rewards shareholders as well as executive careers. Great programmers with great experience are fabulous at figuring out different approaches to difficult problems (assuming a project hasn't been butchered or reversed insurmountably midway through due to politics). Top senior programmers also know how to keep overall labor and schedule costs to a minimum when beginning new projects. Staffing solely with lower cost people, severely shortstaffing to burnout, not establishing quality technical design upfront, and rushing buggy products and interfaces out the door are common shortsighted problems that always lose reputation, positioning and market base. Much more expensive in long run. Good engineering/software management to enable the labor/costs efficiency as you have observed is key, but rarely understood. Takes a special combination of people in various roles. Joy when it does happen.

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