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


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It seems everyone responding is in the class of people beyond "just graduated". I recently graduated from a four year university and am currently working at a dotcom company. For me, I see it as an alternative to school. It allows me to push myself harder, learn faster, and get a jump on my financial future. Most importantly, the work is more rewarding and I deal with more intelligent people.

The article is aimed at managing startup companies. It's not for managing people who work at the large software companies. Startups generally don't have their own day care centers, gyms, pools, etc. A startup only works if you don't carry any extra baggage(i.e. people looking for a free ride). People working startups don't want those things (avoid them, actually). They work for one or more of the following reasons: money, inspiration, education, and freedom(yes, freedom). Freedom meaning nobody tracks your time, just your work. If you leave at 2 in the afternoon and come back at 11pm, it's up to you. A person working at a large company is there for: job security, retirement, benefits, and a paycheck. The goals are quite different.

Work is my entire life. Would my life be better spent if I joined a frat and drank myself to oblivion every weekend...I doubt it. We're purists: the type of people that think G. W. Bush's DUI makes all the difference in the world. For someone to be great at something, it is their life...no more, no less. His DUI tells me being president has not been his life's goal.

Jeremy H.

-- Jeremy Hughes, November 7, 2000

The key is finding the right sort of people to work this scheme with. Programmers/Hackers work in bursts. When there's an interesting or challenging problem, they are willing to work those insane hours putting the whole thing together. It's fun to spend two weeks holed up in the office with friends, working on a big, cool solution to a neat problem. This is not sustainable though in general. Eventually, everyone (even hackers) needs some downtime. The only way it can work is if you can find the kind of people who will competely forge their own social group around their co-workers. Then work is their social life, and they can work those 100 hour weeks without quality of life suffering. Depending on having that kind of person, while trying to grow your company past 40-50 people who share the same vision is the real trick.

-- Rob Meyer, November 7, 2000
Jeremy Hughes' comments are spot on. The practices and principles in this article may apply to start up companies and dot coms but are very difficult to apply once a company moves beyond this point. What start up companies and dot coms have in common are relatively simple products. Once a product matures and its customer base broadens what a product manager needs is those who can create the right product, in the right way that will meet customer expectations. This requires know-how and experience. Far more than a gun programmer that will work 80 hours a week to meet a deadline, the product manager needs an experienced software engineer who understands the market, good design, risk management and mentoring of others. This person is usually not in their twenties, wants a life outside of work and is willing to hang in there for the longer term.

-- Craig Ashley, November 7, 2000

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