mental gear shifting and reflections

I’m in this weird mental space today. At work, I’ve been putting a lot of effort into building infrastructure – or more specifically, creating things that build infrastructure. While doing this over the past month, I’ve hit a few interesting realizations:

That I primarily work in two modes:

  • “gettin’ shit done and stay the fuck outa my way”

Which is the rude way of saying I’m hammering out basic frameworks, making sure the theories of how something will go together work, mostly ignoring error conditions and error checking, and testing is manual and just as I need it. I sketch out structures, build blocks on each other, and hopefully end up with my arch/bridge/sofware component/etc – whatever construct I’m making.

  • “making it correct”

In which I get totally OCD about understanding how something works – even something I’ve just created, down to creating tests to cover the logic, defining the failure conditions, and picking “just the right names” for objects, method calls, and general analogies.

The first shows more apparent progress – really short term progress – very quickly. But if that’s all you do, then I’m deep in the bug/muck in not very long at all. I’ve worked with a lot of people who don’t toggle between these modes – or I think even recognize them. I think that’s a bit of a tragedy, and something I encourage people to look at introspectively when they’re working for me.

Another realization:

I have far, far less patience with executives and managers than I do with technical folks/line workers.

The explanation into that is a bit more lengthy:

Being a good manager is very, very difficult. (Related reading that I highly recommend: Managing Humans and Behind Closed Doors. Being a good executive (director or whatever up) is even harder. Doing either of those jobs without resorting to being a dick – keeping an objective and fair eye out is damn near impossible. The dirty truth (that most folks in management positions realize pretty darn quickly) is that you get more money and tend to make more progress if you ARE a dick/backstabber/amoral sonuvabitch. Much of the thinking at an executive level is about capital, progress, and rewards – where anything you control is capital, what you output is progress, and what you get from all this is rewards. If you want to know in a general sense why an executive is doing anything, find out what their reward structure is. The track from there is usually abundantly clear.

Oh – and as for that ‘progress’ thing, that’s really naive of me to assert. Here’s the cynical me:

I’ve seen instances where output is status quo because that makes larger business sense: you want to keep some segment of the operation running solidly. Those are usually the pieces of the business that bore the shit out of me, and ironically the ones that are “looking for creative people” – usually to do mind-numbing work.

I’ve also seen directors having the output of one group to just fuck with other groups – not playing to win, but playing to have someone else loose. Why? Because that makes it easier for other resources you control appear to be making progress (even if it’s not the case). I’ve almost always seen this at the director and above level; managers just don’t have enough resources under their control to assign some of them to screwing with other folks, and it’s very, very rare that you’re overtly rewarded for screwing over the other guy. Okay, maybe not in Microsoft if you’re working for the “office” or “windows” franchise components. There’s another company (that I worked for directly – I haven’t worked at Microsoft) in which this pattern is abundant.

The end result of this cynicism (or realism, if you prefer) is that I have little patience with people whom I perceive as not “trying to make things better”. A bit idealistic of me, I know – a place where my idealism doesn’t match at all with reality. A little quote from a favorite movie (Secondhand Lions):

Hub: Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.

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