Uncharted Waters

Dec 10 2014   11:15AM GMT

Humility and Technology

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Tech jobs are often steeped in ego contests and political games. Matt wrote about a scenario he calls ‘Faking it‘, where some people will navigate their way to the top of a company by doing anything except work that directly adds value. Telling the difference between bad and good and great work is difficult for folks that have been out of the game for a while. People still in the game, I mean the technical contributors, often want to advance through the ranks. The obvious route to that is sometimes self-promotion. I mean working specifically so that each thing you do is a strategic step toward a raise or promotion.



There is also a more difficult route of humility and service. I’d like to talk about both.

My first interactions with one manager was supposed to be a one-on-one sort of thing so we could get to know each other. My initial assumption was that he wanted to feel out the kind of person I was and how I fit into the team and the sort of contributions I was making. My assumption was wrong…way wrong. This manager spent an hour talking about his background, how easy management is, how easy some languages were, and how good he was going to be at some languages he had never used.

We had rocky beginnings. The manager made a bad impression on me and I responded poorly.

Giving and accepting feedback

This is often where I get a first glimpse of an ego. As a tester, I’m in a position where I have to give feedback to the folks I work with constantly. A lot of the time, the feed back is bad news about something I found in their work.

Delivering bad news is tough and when it is done frequently, I have to be very careful about language and making the message diplomatic. Mostly, I have to try to make it as clear as possible that the critique is about the work and ideas, and not the person.

For non-testers, you’ll probably find yourselves working with junior people just out of school eventually. One thing I’ve seen pretty often is a more experienced person taking a question about something simple, like a basic HTML, CSS, Javascript webpage, and then suggesting that the work is ok but they should probably be using Rails, and the latest version of Backbone, and probably a NoSQL database and on and on. I’ve mostly seen this on forums where it’s easy to take a question way out of context, but have unintentionally done this with people early on.

Now, within reason, I take any special effort made as a ‘Good Thing’. Downplaying a persons efforts, especially someone new to the field can be devastating, so let’s be more gentle.

Politics and self-advancement

Matt and I have mentioned The Gervais Principle here once or twice. The relevant part of the story is what the author, Venkat Rao, refers to as a sociopath. In his model, the sociopath is a person whose every action is based on some sort of strategic self-promotion.

People like this are where we get our distaste for politics. Misuse and abuse has spoiled a useful tool, something that can be used for good, in the minds of many people.

I have certainly said on multiple occasions that I prefer to stay completely outside of company politics but at this point I think that is probably impossible. If politics is based on relationships and how we influence and get influenced by others, there is no escaping. One thing we can do though, is use them for good.

This story paints a grim picture, but things probably aren’t really that bad.

If they are that bad, then an easy place to start making a difference is with how you treat people.

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  • Michael Larsen
    Great Post, Justin. Politics are inevitable, in that we all have to work together to achieve an end, and the actual way that that is done, the policies, the processes and the interactions... it's all political. That doesn't mean it has to be toxic political. I remember a former co-worker of mine who often remarked about "affording your attitude". His point was that, in most circumstances, you have to prove your self worthy of consideration before you can make pronouncements. I try my best to remember that :).
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