Talk at Yale: Part 2 of 3

This is part two of the text of a talk delivered to the Yale Computer Science department on November 28. Part one appeared yesterday.

After a few years in Redmond, Washington, during which I completely failed to adapt to my environment, I beat a hasty retreat to New York City. I stayed on with Microsoft in New York for a few months, where I was a complete and utter failure as a consultant at Microsoft Consulting, and then I spent a few years in the mid-90s, when the Internet was first starting to happen, at Viacom. That’s this big corporate conglomerate which owned MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Blockbuster, Paramount Studios, Comedy Central, CBS, and a bunch of other entertainment companies. New York was the first place I got to see what most computer programmers do for a living. It’s this scary thing called “in house software.” It’s terrifying. You never want to do in house software. You’re a programmer for a big corporation that makes, oh, I don’t know, aluminum cans, and there’s nothing quite available off the shelf which does the exact kind of aluminum can processing that they need, so they have these in-house programmers, or they hire companies like Accenture and IBM to send them overpriced programmers, to write this software. And there are two reasons this is so frightening: one, because it’s not a very fulfilling career if you’re a programmer, for a list of reasons which I’ll enumerate in a moment, but two, it’s frightening because this is what probably 80% of programming jobs are like, and if you’re not very, very careful when you graduate, you might find yourself working on in-house software, by accident, and let me tell you, it can drain the life out of you.

OK, so, why does it suck to be an in house programmer.

Number one. You never get to do things the right way. You always have to do things the expedient way. It costs so much money to hire these programmers—typically a company like Accenture or IBM would charge $300 an hour for the services of some recent Yale PoliSci grad who took a 6 week course in dot net programming, and who is earning $47,000 a year and hoping that it’ll provide enough experience to get into business school—anyway, it costs so much to hire these programmers that you’re not going to allowed to build things with Ruby on Rails no matter how cool Ruby is and no matter how spiffy the Ajax is going to be. You’re going into Visual Studio, you’re going to click on the wizard, you’re going to drag the little Grid control onto the page, you’re going to hook it up to the database, and presto, you’re done. It’s good enough. Get out of there and onto the next thing. That’s the second reason these jobs suck: as soon as your program gets good enough, you have to stop working on it. Once the core functionality is there, the main problem is solved, there is absolutely no return-on-investment, no business reason to make the software any better. So all of these in house programs look like a dog’s breakfast: because it’s just not worth a penny to make them look nice. Forget any pride in workmanship or craftsmanship you learned in CS323. You’re going to churn out embarrassing junk, and then, you’re going to rush off to patch up last year’s embarrassing junk which is starting to break down because it wasn’t done right in the first place, twenty-seven years of that and you get a gold watch. Oh, and they don’t give gold watches any more. 27 years and you get carpal tunnel syndrome. Now, at a product company, for example, if you’re a software developer working on a software product or even an online product like Google or Facebook, the better you make the product, the better it sells. The key point about in-house development is that once it’s “good enough,” you stop. When you’re working on products, you can keep refining and polishing and refactoring and improving, and if you work for Facebook, you can spend a whole month optimizing the Ajax name-choosing gizmo so that it’s really fast and really cool, and all that effort is worthwhile because it makes your product better than the competition. So, the number two reason product work is better than in-house work is that you get to make beautiful things.

Number three: when you’re a programmer at a software company, the work you’re doing is directly related to the way the company makes money. That means, for one thing, that management cares about you. It means you get the best benefits and the nicest offices and the best chances for promotion. A programmer is never going to rise to become CEO of Viacom, but you might well rise to become CEO of a tech company.

Anyway. After Microsoft I took a job at Viacom, because I wanted to learn something about the internet and Microsoft was willfully ignoring it in those days. But at Viacom, I was just an in-house programmer, several layers removed from anybody who did anything that made Viacom money in any way.

And I could tell that no matter how critical it was for Viacom to get this internet thing right, when it came time to assign people to desks, the in-house programmers were stuck with 3 people per cubicle in a dark part of the office with no line-of-sight to a window, and the “producers,” I don’t know what they did exactly but they were sort of the equivalent of Turtle on Entourage, the producers had their own big windowed offices overlooking the Hudson River. Once at a Viacom Christmas party I was introduced to the executive in charge of interactive strategy or something. A very lofty position. He said something vague and inept about how interactivity was very important. It was the future. It convinced me that he had no flipping idea whatsoever what it was that was happening and what the internet meant or what I did as a programmer, and he was a little bit scared of it all, but who cares, because he’s making 2 million dollars a year and I’m just a typist or “HTML operator” or whatever it is that I did, how hard can it be, his teenage daughter can do that.

So I moved across the street to Juno Online Services. This was an early internet provider that gave people free dial-up accounts that could only be use for email. It wasn’t like Hotmail or Gmail, which didn’t exist yet, because you didn’t need internet access to begin with, so it was really free.

Juno was, allegedly, supported by advertising. It turned out that advertising to the kinds of people who won’t pay $20 a month for AOL is not exactly the most lucrative business in the world, so in reality, Juno was supported by rich investors. But at least Juno was a product company where programmers were held in high regard, and I felt good about their mission to provide email to everyone. And indeed I worked there happily for about three years as a C++ programmer. Eventually, though, I started to discover that the management philosophy at Juno was old fashioned. The assumption there was that managers exist to tell people what to do. This is quite upside-down from the way management worked in typical west-coast high tech companies. What I was used to from the west coast was an attitude that  management is just an annoying, mundane chore someone has to do so that the smart people can get their work done. Think of an academic department at a university, where being the chairperson of the department is actually something of a burden that nobody really wants to do; they’d much rather be doing research. That’s the Silicon Valley style of management. Managers exist to get furniture out of the way so the real talent can do brilliant work.

Juno was founded by very young, very inexperienced people—the president of the company was 24 years old and it was his first job, not just his first management job—and somewhere in a book or a movie or a TV show he had gotten the idea that managers exist to DECIDE.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that managers have the least information about every technical issue, and they are the last people who should be deciding anything. When I was at Microsoft, Mike Maples, the head of the applications division, used to have people come to him to resolve some technical debate they were having. And he would juggle some bowling pins, tell a joke, and tell them to get the hell out of his office and solve their own damned problems instead of coming to him, the least qualified person to make a technical decision on its merits. That was, I thought, the only way to manage smart, highly qualified people. But the Juno managers, like George Bush, were the deciders, and there were too many decisions to be made, so they practiced something I started calling hit-and-run micromanagement: they dive in from nowhere, micromanage some tiny little issue, like how dates should be entered in a dialog box, overriding the opinions of all the highly qualified technical people on the team who had been working on that problem for weeks, and then they disappeared, so that’s the hit-and-run part, because there’s some other little brush fire elsewhere that needs micromanagement.

So, I quit, without a real plan.

(Part three will appear tomorrow).

About the author.

In 2000 I co-founded Fog Creek Software, where we created lots of cool things like the FogBugz bug tracker, Trello, and Glitch. I also worked with Jeff Atwood to create Stack Overflow and served as CEO of Stack Overflow from 2010-2019. Today I serve as the chairman of the board for Stack Overflow, Glitch, and HASH.