People over Code

time to read 5 min | 849 words

While there is value in the item on the right, I value the item on the left more.

This is in response to a comment by Jdn, I started to comment in reply, and then I reconsidered, this is much more important. A bit of background. Karthik has commented that "Unfortunately too often many software managers fall into the trap of thinking that developers are "plug and play" in a project and assume they can be added/removed as needed." and proceeded with some discussion on why this is and how it can be avoided.

I responded to that by saying that I wouldn't really wish to work with or for such a place, to be precise, here is what I said:

I would assert that any place that treats their employee in such a fashion is not a place that I would like to work for or with.
When I was in the army, the _ultimate_ place for plug & play mentality, there was a significant emphasis on making soldiers happy, and a true understanding of what it was to have a good soldier serving with you. Those are rare, and people fight over them.
To suggest that you can replace one person with another, even given they have the same training is ludicrous

From personal experience, when I was the Executive Officer of the prison, the prison Commander has shamelessly stole my best man when I was away at a course, causing quite a problem for me (unfortunately not something that you can just plug & play). That hurt, and it took about six months to get someone to do the job right, and even then, the guy wasn't on the same level. (And yes, this had nothing to do with computers, programming, or the like.)

Now, to Jdn's comment:

In a perverse way, I can see, from the perspective of a business, why having good/great developers, who bring in advanced programming techniques, can be a business risk.
[...snip...] you have to view all employees as being replaceable, because the good/great ones will always have better opportunities (even if they are not actively looking), and turnover for whatever reason is the norm not the exception.
Suppose you are a business with an established software 'inventory', and suppose it isn't the greatest in the world. But it gets the job done, more or less. Suppose an Ayende-level developer comes in and wants to change things.  We already know he is a risk because he says things like:
"not a place that I would like to work for or with."

If you view me as replaceable, I will certainly have an incentive to moving to somewhere where I wouldn't be just another code monkey. Bad code bothers me, I try to fix that, but that is rarely a reason to change a workplace. I like challenges. And there are few things more interesting than a colleague's face after a masterfully done shift+delete combination.
What I meant with that is that I wouldn't want to work for a place that thought of me and my co-workers as cogs in a machine, to be purchased by the dozen and treated as expendable.

You know what the most effective way to get good people? Treating them well, appreciating their work and making them happy. If a person like what they are doing, and they like where they are doing it, there would need to be a serious incentive to moving away. A good manager will ensure that they are getting good people, and they will ensure that they will keep them. That is their job.

Mediocre code that can be maintained by a wider pool of developers is in a certain respect more valuable to a business than having great code that can only be maintained by a significantly smaller subset of developers.

At a greater cost over the life time of the project. If you want to speak in numbers the MBAs will understand, you are going to have far higher TCO because you refuse to make the initial investment.

To quote Mark Miller, you can get more done, faster, if you have good initial architecture and overall better approach to software.

Jdn's concludes with a good approach:

I'm offering services for clients.  I can't disrupt their business because I don't think their code is pretty enough.
What I can do better, going forward, is learn to make the incremental changes that gets them on their way to prettier code.  My attitude is *not* "well, I can't do anything so I won't even try."
But at the end of the day, I have to do what is best for the *client*.  If that means typed datasets (picking on them, but include anything you personally cringe over), then I can partial class and override to make them better, but typed datasets it will be.

I would probably be more radical about the way that I would go about it, but the general approach is very similar, especially when you have an existing code base or architecture in place.