Monday, June 12, 2017

Stockholm developers & Back seat managers


When does empathy become Stockholm syndrome?

“Stockholm syndrome is a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity. These feelings, resulting from a bond formed between captor and captives during intimate time spent together, are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims. Generally speaking, Stockholm syndrome consists of ‘strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.’” Wikipedia

It is one thing to have empathy with someone else’s outlook but sometimes empath gives way to something stronger, too much empathy not only becomes self-limiting but damaging to oneself.

Sometime when I argue the case for improving software quality - reducing defects, increasing maintainability - programmers start by telling me that their managers don’t care about quality. I talk about the cost and time implications of poor quality, and again I’m told that manager value speed above all else.

Asked who is to blame they point the finger at faceless “managers” who will not allow quality, will not allow the right design, tests, refactoring or anything else which is “good.” Ask what should be done to improve it and they will say “We don’t have time.”

Very, very, often I find myself debating with professional engineers who simultaneously despair at the lack of quality built into their code but claim that the company cannot afford quality. (See my old post The quick and dirty myth.)

Frankly, I think some programmers and testers suffer from a version of Stockholm syndrome: they simultaneously blame others but take on those views themselves.

Maybe it is not Stockholm syndrome, maybe its just a failure to take responsibility.

I actually find it easier to convince managers of the advantages of automated testing and test-first development. I find managers understand that higher quality is faster and cheaper when it is explained to them. I find managers are open to the argument that it is better to do less and do it better quality.

It seems to me that some unreformed managers do hold these opinions and they may well voice the need for speed to programmers. A few might even suggest that testing can be skipped.

But, since when was the manager the expert in the way to develop program code? Managers are managers not design experts, surely that is the programmers job? Many managers know they are not code experts, they know the programmers are.

Of course managers - and other “business” people want results faster - don’t we all? And of course they are focused on what customers want. Is there something wrong with that?

Managers are often in a worse position that programmers and testers because they are answerable to their own managers but lack the ability to do programming work. They are reduced to the position of children in the back of the car asking “Are we there yet?”

Overtime programmers come to share the same desire for speed, the same need to showing something. But since programmers control the means of production they take action, they make compromises with themselves. They cut quality. They skimp testing - after all their own code won’t contain defects. They abuse interfaces, they drop tests, increase coupling and reduce cohesion, avoid refactoring, they live with broken tests and they tell themselves “we can fix it later” even if everyone knows. (Not going back and fixing the things they meant to fix is another example of reducing quality.)

Time and time again I meet developers who do these things and claim “my manager won’t let me”. And I ask inside my head: “Does the manager sit beside them and tell them not to do these things?”

I’ve known managers who have said: “Ship bugs” but I’ve known more managers who haven’t said that.

The view that quality needs to be dropped seems to have two sources: ignorant managers and unprofessional managers who demand shoddy work, and, secondly, programmers who assume a desire for speed is a request to drop quality.

Sometimes I challenge programmers to tell me which managers have voiced the “reduce quality” argument. More often than not they cannot name such a manager. It is the programmers who interpret the managers - understandable desire - for speed as a request to cut quality.

I suspect that having cut corners and reduced quality programmers feel guilt. And that guilt leads them to make assumptions - perhaps even invent false memories - which allow them to pass these failings onto their manager.

I’m not saying managers are perfect or blameless. I am saying I think many programmers are more responsible for problems than they care to accept. (And of course, some just don’t know any better.)

In my mind programmers are engineers; engineers create solutions within constraints and professionalism should guild them to do the best job they can within those constraints.

Managers are like kids in the back seat of a car, if you keep giving them chocolate and telling them you are almost there they will expect more chocolate and to arrive soon. When you stop giving them chocolate and carry on driving is it any surprise they get upset?

Image: Gamla Stan stop in Stockholm by Kabelleger CCL on WikiCommons.

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