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Obligation Stifles Creativity, and other Myths of the Privileged Elite

My friend Stefan sent me a link to Steve Yegge’s blog. Everything that follows should be prefaced with “apparently” because honestly, that’s all I read. I don’t know Steve or anything about him.

Steve is apparently a Google manager. One of those privileged elites that are “in charge” of developers that bring us such great Beta applications as Google search, Froogle, Calendar, and Local. Steve is also apparently a writer. He writes engagingly, with cynicism and humor interlaced with opinion. Good blog content when the mojo is flowing. Boring, wordy, wandering drivel when not. I know what that’s like. I read all most a good portion some of what he wrote, and enjoyed part of that. Stefan was right. He’s got perspective, based on experience, has paid attention and likes to write.

Fresh Tasty Kool Aide

But what strikes me most about Steve’s piece on Agile Software Development is how much Google Kool-Aid Steve has been drinking. It’s running from the corners of his blogger mouth. He’s sloshing around so much in the Kool Aide he’s stained the carpet beneath his blog. The cleaning lady has already filed a formal complaint, because such stains are not “daily housecleaning”, and her building Supervisor has already submited a proposal for an extra-cost cleansing with the “expensive stuff” and 3 union workers. It’s not a pretty sight.

Steve initially writes about Agile Software Development. A good handful of paragraphs laced with tongue-in-cheek cynicism backed by an obvious first-hand experience with the method. That was fun. I think that’s why Stefan sent it to me. Stefan and I used to go back and forth on PHP code, playing with the concept of “more eyes on code”. It was great a nightmare. We both enjoyed it, much like he enjoys getting paid to be fopped over the head with a mostly-foam pretend sword in the middle of the dark woods, and I enjoy walking from downtown Vancouver to South Richmond on a rainy day. But I doubt we would do much of it, because it’s really a P.I.T.A. There are better ways to witness someone getting whacked with mostly-not-splintered-and-exposed play wood swords, and the bus is really a better way to cross from Granville to Richmond. There’s not much to see for almost 3 miles around the airport with no sidewalk. Good stuff to know, though.

Anyway Steve moves from Agile software development to project management, where he serves himslef the first round of bright red, frosty-cold Google Kool Aide from that bulbous glass pitcher…chink chink goes the perfectly-clear ice cube as it plops into the brand-new glass you would never actually let a little kid handle. Just like the commercial. It seems Google doesn’t really practice much in the Project Management department. First, Steve admits that

Google’s process probably does look like chaos to someone from a more traditional software development company.

and then he enlightens us about how it really works at Google:

there are managers, sort of, but most of them code at least half-time, making them more like tech leads.

With 20% time spent on “other things”, that means that at most one half of 80% or 40% of time is spent managing, and at least 40% of time is spent coding. So Google’s managers spend at most 40% of their time “managing”. Got it.

developers can switch teams and/or projects any time they want, no questions asked; just say the word and the movers will show up the next day to put you in your new office with your new team.

Huh? Wow. Is that true? I have to guess Google has one helluvalot of “managers” if they only spend 40% of their time “managing” and the company allows free flow of human resources at the employee’s will. Bejeesus, Steve, is that really how it “works” over there? Man, I’d keep changing projects until I got the office with the view. Find yourself sitting too close to Milton? Switch projects!

Google has a philosophy of not ever telling developers what to work on, and they take it pretty seriously.

Awesome (for coders). Wow. I want to work at Google, too (but not as a manager, thanks).

there aren’t very many meetings. I’d say an average developer attends perhaps 3 meetings a week, including their 1:1 with their lead.

Hmm.. am I starting to understand why “managers” are spending 40% of their time programming? USUALLY that’s not the best way to get world-class programming done, but maybe things are different at Google. Actually, Steve, what is there to meet about?

it’s quiet. Engineers are quietly focused on their work, as individuals or sometimes in little groups or 2 to 5.

Ha ha, Steve. I’d keep real quiet, too if I had it so good. Little coffee klotches groups of 2 to 5 make for the BEST kind of chat, I agree. Especially after a few rounds of IM and escalating email battles… there’s no gossip like the face-to-face kind. Dude, what an awesome environment!

there aren’t Gantt charts or date-task-owner spreadsheets or any other visible project-management artifacts in evidence, not that I’ve ever seen.

Um… maybe that’s because no one is making them, Steve? Who has time anyway? And it sounds like no one is asking for them either, so good call not making them. I remember the old days when we didn’t have those, either. And then some uppity B school guy came in and changed everything. What a raw deal. That was, like, 1980 or something.

even during the relatively rare crunch periods, people still go get lunch and dinner, which are (famously) always free and tasty, and they don’t work insane hours unless they want to.

Um, again, Steve, I think you’ve maybe missed a perception or two. That time when they feel busy, and chat about how busy they are, and curse the “deadline” but still have time to go to free-and-tasy lunch and free-and-tasty dinner? That’s not “crunch time”, Steve. That’s just a little obligation getting in the way of creativity. Some might call it “pooh pooh” time, as in the “oh dear I broke a nail” flusterment a Valley Girl might experience while in a hurry to get her hair done… NOW she has to pause to get a manicure and she-will-be-late for her hair appointment.

I have to confess that Steve goes on and on and on and on and on and on beyond this point and I didn’t read it all, and I did detect a TON of comments posted up there on his blog, so maybe he had a lot more good stuff to say about how Google managed to release beta application after beta application on time and under budget consistently and with aplomb. I just didn’t see it.

What I saw was a promotional advertisement for working at Google, disgusted disguised as a blog article on Agile Software Development. Google and Agile Software development. Google – Agile – Google – Agile – Google is more Agile than Agile itself. That’s what I read. Wow. Not only is Google all over the state of the Art (Google and Agile Development) but Google is way beyond mere Agile, and is truly agile!

From my proletarian perch in the valleys of the Google wasteland Internet, those software “engineers” haven’t finished too many projects. Lots of javascript, though. Is that what managers code? That would explain a lot. There was some Python stuff. And a bunch of acquisitions that ruined enhanced Google local.

Yawn. I thought I would enjoy this post because I did enjoy Steve’s first few paragraphs on Agile development, but it’s gotten old very fast so I’m gonna close it up. I have another $500/day PPC campaign to trim down and optimize so the client doesn’t continue to pay Google for broad matches on parked pages and web ring hobby sites (if I can even stop that). And then there’s that supplemental site that needs to be re-worked so it actually shows up when people Google the company’s name. Stuff like that. Obligations. Such a bore.


  1. IncrediBILL wrote:

    Getting closer as you’ve gone from coolaid to KOOL AIDE so it’s possible maybe next time you’ll nail KOOL-AID, but then again I’m the eternal optimist and unfortunately I think history will repeat itself.

    Tuesday, October 3, 2006 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  2. Sounds like steve manages self directed teams and ‘gets it’. You can’t command and control (good) workers without losing productivity. Sometimes you have bad workers or dysfunctional team members, that’s why they allow team switching at any time so that teams can reform, storm and normalize again without impacting the company’s bottom line. From what i hear google is really about their incentive programs to motivate people to do their goals, rather than ‘commanding and controlling them’ like a typical Project driven organization or functional/matrix organization.

    since you’re a seo, i think you would get that ‘self directed thing’. Who knows how best to tell you what to do? Yourself of course! It’s less a science than it is a talent. You have to think on your feet and not be constrained by managers (too many opportunities to get told NO)

    Good luck!

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 5:44 am | Permalink