136063_sean-bean-as-ned-stark-in-game-of-thrones-2011I recently read Game of Thrones, partly just because and partly because I wanted to be done with the first book of the series before the HBO series started. (Might I say that I think that I was right to read the books first. While I really liked the pilot I’m not sure how many things are lost on someone who hasn’t read the books. It might still work, but it’s probably not the same.)

In the book I stumbled upon two passages that reminded me of very valuable management lessons which apply nearly as is to your common workplace. Here’s the first one:

„Know the men who follow you, “ she heard him tell Robb once, „and let them know you. Don’t ask your men to die for a stranger.“ At Winterfell he always had an extra seat set at his own table, and every day a different man would be asked to join him. One night it would be Vayon Poole, and the talk would be coppers and bread stores and servants. The next time it would be Mikken, and their father would listen to him go on about armor and swords and how hot a forge should be and the best way to temper steel. Another day it might be Hullen with his endless horse talk, or Septon Chayle from the library, or Jory, or Ser Rodrik, or even Old Nan with her stories.

I think this resembles closely to what I’d say goes for a manager. I mean, you don’t have to be each and every one of your employees‘ best friend, but at least get to know them a bit and make them feel that you’re interested in them. This can be purely work-related, by the way. Find out what they like to do, what tasks they enjoy and which ones they hate, what gets them motivated. In the best case, this is a win-win, because you might be able to assign tasks to the employee who has the most interest in doing a good job. You’re happy, they’re happy. I say, in the best case.

But even if you can’t just magically pull awesome tasks from your sleeves to hand out to your happy employees, getting to know them is important. We’re all just people and unless someone really is the kind of guy who wants to be left alone, we enjoy talking about… well… stuff. What you make of it is up to you and maybe it’s nothing more than showing that you care. In the end, though your employees probably won’t literally die for you, chances are they’re more likely to stick up for you and the rest of the team if they feel connected.

(Mind you, I’ve never been in a manager’s position, so this is just my idealistic developer’s point of view. If you want to read more about managing software developers which I’ve heard is very similar to herding cats, just go over and read Michael Lopp’s blog Rands in Repose or his great book Managing Humans.)

 

Another quote that immediately made me thing of some valuable software development lesson was this:

That was the trouble with the clans; they had an absurd notion that every man’s voice should be heard in council, so they argued about everything, endlessly. Even their women were allowed to speak. Small wonder that it had been hundreds of years since they last threatened the Vale with anything beyond an occaxional raid. Tyrion meant to change that.

That is a classic example of what I learned to know as Design by Committee Must Die. I didn’t come up with this lovely name, there is an excellent article over at Smashing Magazine which says about all that there is to say. It’s true though, while I think it’s important to have people discuss ideas at work, there are certain decisions that are better left for a single person (or at least a very small group of maybe two or three people) to make. The bottom line is, a) you never get done with anything if you want to discuss it first with everyone and b) half of the time you try to make compromises to make everyone happy which leaves you with a design that is so inconsistent that nobody’s happy.

This isn’t a call for tyranny, but it is a call for healthy judgement of decisions that don’t need to be made with the whole team. If someone has valid arguments to object the final decision they will (hopefully) voice them and if they are valid, they should be heard. But make that decision first and then see who deems his time and energy worthwhile to defend their take on the idea.

 

I find it fascinating who these ideas which are presented in a book in contexts of war and castles and kings and whatnot are so applicable to today’s management values. But then again, maybe it’s not that strange and there are just some values that hardly ever change.

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So, some of you might be acquainted with the whole Ginia Bellafante/Game of Thrones/Boy Fiction thing that’s been going on in the last couple of days.

If you haven’t, that’s the article in which she is „reviewing“ HBO’s Game of Thrones. And this is her reaction to the mass of outraged replies that first article has earned her.

In a nutshell, I’m with those who say they don’t care about whether she did or did not like the pilot episode of GoT. I usually watch what sounds interesting and don’t really care about what critics or – for that matter – anyone else thinks about it. And I think it’s fair that people don’t like what I like and the other way round. What I care about is that I, too, felt personally offended by what she wrote, and I’m not even that much of a GoT fan. I have only read the first book and enjoyed it a lot and I partly read it now so that I would be able to watch the show with a bit of context.

However, there are already a lot of blog posts out there from girls like me who have written down their thoughts and I agree nearly completely with what they all have to say, so I feel there’s no special need for me to write another reply in which I say what hundreds of other people have already stated very clearly.

What I would like to say though is that I’m always so disappointed when I come upon people who look down on what other people like and act like they’re better because they read supposedly  better books or watch better movies or even don’t have a TV at all, because TV is bad and books are great. 

Hey, guess what? I read lots and lots of books and I currently don’t have a TV for most of the week and when I’m at home on the weekends we sometimes manage to spend it nearly entirely without watching. I’m still able to stare in amazement at some of the crappier shows and love every minute of it without being ashamed to talk about it. 

In her reply to the comments Bellafante writes:

At the same time, I am sure that there are fantasy fans out there who may not know a single person who worships at the altar of quietly hewn domestic novels or celebrates the films of Nicole Holofcener or is engrossed by reruns of “House.”

I’m not sure what counts as quietly hewn domestic novels, and I think I have seen nothing by Mrs. Holofcener, but I really love watching „House“. I also watch „How I Met Your Mother“ and „Grey’s Anatomy“ and „Psych“ and „Parenthood“ and „The Chicago Code“ and „Supernatural“ and „Dexter“ and… yeah, you get the picture. (Too many shows, basically.) My last books have been some fantasy and science fiction novels, but also some classic children’s books (The Enchanted Castle and Anne of Green Gables), Room by Emma Donoghue and the heart-breakingly sad and charming The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Yes, I enjoy fantasy and science fiction. I might enjoy them a tiny bit more than lots of other genres, but that doesn’t mean I’m a fantasy and sci-fi fan. I’m a book fan. I’m also a music fan. And a TV fan. And a movie fan. And the only reason why I don’t watch horror movies anymore is not because I think they’re stupid, but because I won’t go through another week where I have to get up at 3 am to babysit my TV to make sure that no goddamn girl crawls out of there. I also watched only about half of I Am Legend because for the other half of the time I had my hands before my eyes. I like horror films, I’m just not very good at dealing with them.

But I’ve watched plenty of artsy French movies from the 60s as well as Japanese anime, comedies of all kinds (the romantic and the funny), thrillers, dramas, and I still think that Twister is really cool and Con Air is freaking awesome. I can do all these things.

I guess my issue with Mrs. Bellafante’s review and the quote isn’t even that she seems to be looking down on fantasy fans. That is bad enough by itself. What’s even worse is that she cannot seem to imagine that you don’t even have to be a fan to like reading fantasy. I’m not a fantasy fan per se. There is a lot of what is probably essential fantasy that I haven’t read and don’t currently plan to. I just like it a lot.

One reason why I enjoy fantasy and science fiction literature so much is that the really good stuff is mind-blowingly inventive. The nature of these genres allows them to go to places other literature can’t easily go as the authors are free to make up a world entirely of their imagination. But that doesn’t make the genre any better or worse than other books. (And it’s not that I’m saying other books can’t be imaginative and inventive, but it’s somehow different there. Read The Eyre Affair or Un Lun Dun  or Neverwhere if you want to know what I mean.)

What I do take pride in is that I never let any label determine whether I like something or not. I feel that as an intelligent woman I can just read and watch and listen to anything I like and I don’t need to care if it’s considered good or bad or high-brow or low-brow or if it has any label attached to it. I assume that I can decide for myself whether I like it or not and that others are entitled to their own opinion and that we can happily agree to disagree.

The notion that we are divided into genre-lovers disturbs me on a level I can’t quite explain. Basically it sounds incredibly stupid to me. But that’s the subtext I read in the articles of Ginia Bellafante. First she says she doesn’t know any female fantasy lovers. When called upon that she admits that there might be some, but automatically adds that there is a chance that these fans might not be interested in what she’s interested in.

When I felt offended it wasn’t as a fantasy fan, it was as a girl who enjoys reading fantasy books among others and doesn’t like to be assumed to fall into any category that defines what she should and shouldn’t like. I was offended as a person who enjoyed reading GoT and other „books like Mr. Martin’s„. And I was offended by a lack of professionalism and respect for other people which resulted in a review like that.

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Okay, so here’s what I think a lot of people might think developers do: Write code.

If you know a bit more about the job, you might also know that we write some documentation, test a bit and fix them bugs.

But there’s quite a lot more that makes up the day-to-day life of a developer which most people not acquainted with the pitfalls of this lovely job might not know about. So, here’s just a selection of stuff I find myself confronted with regularly.

What Developers Do

Install Stuff

It takes hours. It’s not particularly fun either. But we do it. We install stuff. And then we update it. And then we install some more. And then we restart. And then two hours have gone down the drain because we had to install stuff and couldn’t really work on anything else in a concentrated productive way. But there’s no way around it and when that stupid Service Pack for Visual Studio is released we cannot really refrain from installing it, even though we know that it takes two hours and we need to close Visual Studio, so we cannot really do any coding in the meantime. Yes, it sucks and yes, we sometimes don’t realize what we’ve just started, until it’s too late, but it happens. It’s not an excuse for slacking time, it’s a fact of life.

Stare

Developers stare a lot. We stare at screens. We stare out of the window. We stare at the ceilings. We stare at the door. Don’t assume that we’re not working. Chances are we’re thinking. No, really.

The fact is that if developing software was just as easy as typing commands, you wouldn’t need specialized people to do it. Unfortunately (or for developers: fortunately) it’s not that easy and there are these times of the day where we just stumbled upon a problem that we have to really think about before it’s actually worth typing one more line of code.

Don’t mistake staring for doing nothing. And for developers, if you work somewhere where staring is commonly misunderstood for doing nothing, get the hell out! Anyone working with software developers needs to understand that part of our job is to think about what we’re doing. And while it’s nice to quickly draw something up on the whiteboard or have a lively discussion with another developer, some problems will only be solved by staring.

Marvel

Marvel is pretty similar to staring as it involves the former, but for another reason. Plus, staring usually involves some kind of vacant expression while marvelling involves a kind of irritated, slightly crazy grin or something similar.

The best kind of marveling I know is when you fix a bug and realize that the code should never have worked in the first place. This isn’t as absurd or uncommon as it sounds. It has happened often enough to me. There are other kinds of marveling: incredibly good code, incredibly stupid code, a bug that just shouldn’t happen, … you name it.

Marveling might not be as critical to our job than staring, but it’s usually more fun.

Be Annoyed/Irritated/Totally Surprised

This might be the other side of marvelling. Where marvelling revels in the joys of an obscure bug, being annoyed or irritated just hates the bug for existing in the first place.

There are other reasons to be annoyed though, and bad code or stupid bugs are just a small part. There’s crashing IDEs for example, or slow data connections. There’s the one configuration setting you always, always forget to change and spending an hour to debug until you realize it’s THAT THING AGAIN.

Being annoyed is the part of the developer’s life where we start to rant. It might even be that the time we need to vent off and be done exceeds the actual time we spend being annoyed, but so be it. We’re just people, too. (Maybe a bit geekier.)

Play Around

You can try and stop us and maybe even be successful, but you’ll take half of the fun out of our job.

On the plus side, developers tend to play around with stuff that might actually prove to be useful to their work, so unless you have serious doubts that they’re just goofing off getting nothing done, just let us play. We’re just trying out a little tool or playing around with some cool new technology anyway.

Fuck Things Up

We do that, too. Sorry.*

*One of the worst things I have had the pleasure to experience first hand (though I didn’t do it) was when a fellow developer accidentally overwrote one of our development web servers. And no, of course, there was no backup. On the other hand: there’s nothing like the sight of a developer with panic written all over his face. We recovered after the initial shock, and then at least you have a story to tell.

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