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Originally published in The Smalltalk Report, March/April 1997.

Keeping Good People

by Jan Steinman

(continued from the January column, Architects vs. Coders)


"I QUIT!" Trigger shouted, "and I REALLY MEAN IT this time!"

Aaron could see it was going to be a bad day. "Are you sure? Where are you going?"

"I'll go ANYWHERE! I'll dig ditches! I'll mow lawns! I'll deliver papers! I'll drive a cab!" Although "Trigger" Larsen, Aaron's best Smalltalker, was both excitable and tactless, Aaron had never seen him worked up quite so much.

Aaron Blake was leading his most difficult ever Smalltalk project at MegaCorp. When we left him in January, his manager, MegaCorp MIS Director Andrea Saunders, had been on maternity leave and so a senior technical person with no management or Smalltalk experience had been calling the shots.

"Listen, Trigger," Aaron began, "don't do anything rash. Give it another couple weeks. You don't even have another job to go to!"

"Like that would stop anyone with a pulse and some Smalltalk experience!" Trigger retorted, "I get at least a call a week from headhunters, and 'comp.lang.smalltalk' is full of jobs. I didn't pay them any attention when things were fun here, but now things are different!"

"This is not going well," Aaron thought to himself. He'd never had this problem before. It's not like no one had ever left MegaCorp before, but things had been especially stable since they began having success with Smalltalk. People seemed to enjoy learning new things and succeeding with them.

But things changed when Andrea went on maternity leave. Grey Thompson, her temporary replacement, insisted on micro-managing technical issues, even though he knew nothing about Smalltalk -- if he had his way, they'd start over in assembler, where you could really keep things under control!

"You're really serious? You don't want to think about this overnight?" asked Aaron.

"I tell you, I'm outta here!" replied Trigger.

"Okay, I'll start the paperwork," Aaron reached into his desk drawer, pulled out an ominous looking weapon, quickly spun around, and pointed it at Trigger, "but you know how I hate paperwork!"

Before he could get a shot off, there was a suction-cup dart stuck to his computer screen just beside him. "That could have been you, pardner," Trigger drawled, once again grinning. "They don't call me 'Trigger' for nothing!"

"That's a little better," Aaron sighed to himself, "no sense turning this into a personal thing." He sadly wondered if they'd ever have another dart-gun fight.


The project was in such a mess that Trigger was hardly missed, at least for a while. In fact, things were much calmer without Trigger's constant complaining about bad technical decisions. Then things really started coming apart. Many of the silly technical things Grey had insisted on began to raise their ugly heads.

But why now? Aaron only now began to realize what he had lost -- Trigger had been filling the role of "guerrilla architect," surreptitiously repairing technical mistakes on the fly. Aaron also realized what a great team they had made, because he was always somehow able to explain away Trigger's "insubordination" to Grey.

Of course, this subterfuge had a cost, and the project was dragging out much longer than Aaron's previous Smalltalk projects. After Trigger left, things seemed to actually speed up a bit before they started unraveling. Smalltalk's incredible productivity is a two-edged sword, and now they were writing bad software faster than anyone at MegaCorp had ever seen bad software written. Then Denny Hicks appeared at Aaron's cubicle entrance.

"Aaron, c-c-can we talk for a m-m-minute?" Denny stammered. Denny was your typical bright, introverted nerd. He hated confrontation.

"Sure, Denny, what's on your mind?" Aaron replied.

Denny shuffled into the cubicle, took a seat, and stared up at the ceiling. "Jake's group is having some problems with CIMPR, and they want me to go back and help them with it," Denny blurted out in one breath, as though he had rehearsed this for his only line in a school play.

"So Jake asked you for your help?" Aaron asked, using active listening to try to puzzle this out. Unless it involved technology, Denny could be hard to talk to.

"Well, actually, I-I saw him in the l-l-lunch room the other day, and I asked how things were going, and he said f-f-fine," Denny stammered, "but that they were starting a major enhancement, and that they missed me."

"So he doesn't really need your help, but you'd like to go help them?" Aaron asked.

"Well, actually, I-I asked him if I could come back and work for him. I don't think I'm helping this project very much." Denny answered. "Jake said I should discuss it with you first."

Aaron thought for a moment. "How could you feel more useful to this project?"

"Well, on CIMPR, I made some mistakes, but they were my mistakes, and I made sure I figured them out. Here, I'm just a typist, and I don't really care how it comes out," Denny explained.

"Well, I'm not going to keep you here against your will," Aaron said, "but can you give me a couple more weeks to see if we can get you back to making your own mistakes again?"


"Andrea, this has gone far enough -- we're starting to bleed staff -- Trigger's gone, Denny's going..." Aaron said in a panicky voice into the telephone.

"Whoa there, Aaron! Calm down, slow down, start from the beginning, tell me what's going on!" Andrea replied.

Aaron briefly went over the problems that we reported in January: Grey's micro-management of technical issues and unwillingness to trust his staff. "If something doesn't change soon, there will be no one left!"

"Well, I didn't let you grow this team just to see it evaporate," Andrea said, "I'm sorry I haven't been able to see after this project as well as I'd have liked to -- let me make a couple phone calls and see what I can do."


"Amazing!" Jan said after hearing Aaron's latest story, "so what do you take away from all this?"

"First off, I'm never again going to put up with an architect who is totally unknowledgeable about implementation!" Arron chuckled, "You can ignore or work-around a 'zero' manager, but there's no way you'll make it with a 'minus' one.

"Also, according to DeMarco & Lister, it takes four-and-a-half to five months to integrate a new person into an organization, and according to IDC, it takes about 18 months to replace a recognized expert Smalltalker. This means we lost almost two person-years when Trigger left," Aaron explained. "When Andrea ran some of those numbers by the powers-that-be, it got some attention."

"So what happened then?" Barbara asked.

"Well, it was made clear that our team was to be 'kept happy,' whatever that meant," Aaron began. The higher-ups were terrified that everyone was going to ask for more money, but believe it or not, that was pretty low on people's list. What people wanted most was a feeling that they mattered, that they weren't just interchangeable parts."

"That's kinda like motherhood and apple pie," Jan replied, "but how do you manage to make that happen?"

"In this case, it was simple," Aaron continued, "the team came up with the answer: do something about Grey. So they made him a special technical advisor to the President, with no management responsability, and made me temporary director until Andrea comes back.

"First off, we scrapped the so-called 'architecture' -- which was really an inappropriately detailed design -- and then had a team session where we pulled out all the abstract concepts out of the mess we had been working on. This became the new 'architecture' and actually went quite quickly, because in order for people to realize they were doing it wrong, they already had a good idea of what it might be like to do it right!

"Next, we split that off into sub-systems that individuals and pairs could work on, and gave them a great deal of autonomy in how they worked out the details.

"Now we're nearly back to where we were when we 're-orgd,' but there's a lot less code, it's about 10 times faster, and the code we have is much cleaner," Aaron concluded.

"Congratulations!" Barbara exclaimed, "aren't you thrilled at your temporary promotion?"

"Actually, I'm counting the days." Aaron went on. "It's been fun getting the project back on track, but I'm attending too many meetings and writing too many reports, and worst of all, I haven't touched Smalltalk in two months! I can't wait for Andrea to get back!"

"Except for your wanting to get back to Smalltalk, it sounds like everyone's happy now," Jan asked.

"You know, that really is the key," Aaron said. "People don't look around when they're happy. Sure, we all have to do things we don't like from time to time, but DeMarco & Lister say 'get the right people, make them happy, and turn them loose,' and that sure seems to work around here!"

End Notes and References

1. page 106, Peopleware , Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, 1987, Dorset House, New York.

2. page 16, Smalltalk Market Accelerates , International Data Corporation, 1995, available from the Smalltalk Industry Council via info@stic.org or by calling 919/510-8448.

3. page 93, Peopleware.

Go to the previous column in the series, or the next column in the series.

Go to our review of ENVY/QA published in the previous issue of The Smalltalk Report.

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