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As Simple as Possible
More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter
by Ron Jeffries
July 29, 2003
Becoming a boss doesn't make us smarter, nor is it a license to use our power unwisely. We need to listen to our folks, and let them act on their own, sometimes even when they're wrong.


"When I was more junior, I did what I was told. Now that I have been in the league a few years, others do what I tell them or I fire them--it's that simple. When I want someone's opinion I give it to them."

When these words appeared from the e-pen of an otherwise esteemed colleague on a mailing list I frequent, I tried hard to remain calm and reasonable, but I fear that I may have failed. The final words of my reply were: "Frankly, I am appalled." Here's why. [1]

First, and most important, we owe it to those around us to treat them the way we would like to be treated. We are not a race of queens and drones. Though we are surely all different, we are the same in our essential humanity, and our common human needs.

When I discuss things with people, I use logic, fact, fantasy, wit. I even use ... sarcasm. I know all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and ... satire. I am vicious. [2] I cheerfully expect the same from others in the discussion. I try never, however, to make a personal remark or to pull "rank", not least because no one has useful rank in a business or technical discussion. It's true that someone may have the final decision, but that doesn't guarantee them correctness, only blame.

The position that others' opinions are unworthy because they are of lower rank is wrong. It is morally repugnant, and what's worse, it doesn't even work. The cop on the beat, the coder on the keyboard, often has a perspective, and knowledge, that's critical to the situation.

When by virtue of our rank, we get to make the call, let's remember that while our pronouncement may be the last, it isn't automatically the best.

Second, even if we were qualified to make all the decisions, that simply won't work. Even if I do know everything, which even some who know me seem to doubt, I haven't the time or the ability to communicate and enforce all my infallible pronouncements. In order to get things done, the only viable choice is to make one's values and objectives clearn, and then empower people, nay demand of them, that they do their best to understand and accomplich those objectives while working within those values.

Long ago, when I had been left out for the wolves and was raised instead by a roaming band of itinerant Jesuits, I was taught, "Hate the sin, and love the sinner." I'm trying hard to do that, but of one thing I'm certain. The quote that begins this entry is a sin. I hate it. I respect the person who wrote it, and suspect that the words don't really reflect his true values.

[1] The author of the quote has since made clear that he was describing what he believes to be a prevalent and bad attitude among managers, not his own position. (Whew.)

[2] These words, of course, are borrowed from Monty Python's tale of the notorious Piranha brothers. I'm not really like that -- or am I?

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About the Blogger

Ron Jeffries has been developing software since 1962, when Bill Rogers at Strategic Air Command handed him a Fortran manual. In that time, Ron has worked on operating systems, language compilers, database management systems, and a host of applications. As far as he knows, he has only put one company entirely out of business, and he is almost certain that he has helped some others. Ron has been involved in—some would say implicated in—the Extreme Programming movement since its beginning, and is the senior author, with Chet Hendrickson and Ann Anderson, of Extreme Programming Installed. Cribbing from Einstein, Ron believes that the best software, and the best processes, should be as simple as possible ... and no simpler.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2003 Ron Jeffries. All rights reserved.

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