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Managing Software Engineers, by Philip Greenspun (philg@mit.edu)


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Many of my comments have already been said. I would also suggest to Phil that his RSI suggestion is much too flip. Sure, Microsoft natural keyboard. But even there people with serious RSI have problems.

But that's relatively minor. I think that you should take a look at the research into brain physiology and how that relates to attention and time spent on tasks. If you consult with people in neurophysiology and look around you will find out that the kind of hyper stimulation that you are suggesting leads to brain damage. It causes shrinkage of the brain tissues that deal with the correlation of data when prolonged. One can meet these people, the veterans of startups and places like the Redmond offices of Microsoft. They are the ones who know a great deal, but can no longer respond with the answer quickly. Many can hardly function at all without copious amounts of coffee.

My personal observation is that I think that such behavior when prolonged leads to other kinds of neurophysiological damage as well. I think that further research will document this. The behavior I am referring to is that of spending too much time concentrated on one task. Lack of sleep also contributes, as does levels of adrenalin. When coupled with the commonly poor nutrition of the "programmer lifestyle" you describe, all of this causes serious problems over time.

There is also the research of a neurologist at, I believe it is Harvard Medical School, though I may be mistaken, into the reasons for the greater shrinkage of the frontal lobes in males versus females by the time middle age is reached. He believes that this is related to the fact that males tend to use the same areas of the brain when in relaxation as they do when they are working. Whereas females show a slowing of metabolism in the frontal lobes when they are asked to relax. He is studying the 10% of the male population that does not experience frontal lobe shrinkage by the age of 50. (By the age of 50 most men have smaller frontal lobes than most women.)

Please note that the lifestyle and management methods you are advocating is, according to research, pretty much guaranteed to cause brain damage, and quite rapidly - just a matter of 5 years or so before significant effects can be measured. I am not being facetious here, it is quite a serious matter.

-- Brian Hanley, November 7, 2000

It's interesting that most of the people here appear to be US based.

As someone that now lives in regional Australia, But has spent most of my professional life developing software in New Zealand many of Phils ideas sound lovely but are unobtainable in these smaller economies.

A office decked out with playrooms, beanbags, Air Hockey etc would be great but outside of a dot com heaven like Boston or Silicon Valley it just is not going to happen.

Mine is a case in point, I'm working on a package for ACS 4.0 to help with News Media publishing (I'm a developer for a newspaper), I'm also the IT Manager, so yep I get to pull the 70+ hour weeks.

What I do have is the ability to go grab my dog and tube down the river at lunchtime if I want or jump on my ducati and go for a fang through the hills.

The message in Phils article is to treat good programmers like you would any artisan, accept they will have their idiosyncracies and provide an environment that allows that. Their own ego will discipline them into giving you a good return on your investment.

Sticking them on a 9-5 in Cubicle hell will just take the joy out of the art and you'll get crap code.

So do I provide people anything else other than a good screen comfortable office, no I don't. But if they want to start work at 2 in the morning (I don't care) they spend half the day surfing slashdot or reading Code Complete or trying a new language (I don't care). If I only loosly monitor these people I'll get far more out of them than if I MANAGE them.

Now if only I could bring my dog into the office, that would be cool, although a labrador that likes to chew could do serious damage to the fibre comms cabinet :)

Maybe when I've finished newsflow (the News Story ACS4 package) Arsdigita will open a office in Australia or NZ and I'll ship off my resume, until then the dog stays at home :(



-- Roger Lockerbie, November 7, 2000


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