Managing Software Engineers – Philip Greenspun 2002

Managing Software Engineers – Philip Greenspun 2002

I submitted this article a long time to reddit, and it still has lots of great advice in it.

Some great quotes in there:

Negative reinforcement can work if the organization is extremely tightly managed, if the consequences are small and immediate (usually a problem set is due every week and only represents a part of the final grade), and if the goal is to make sure that everyone comes up to a reasonable level. However, the worldwide fame of MIT rests on research achievements by graduate students. This innovation is mostly supported by positive reinforcement.

What attracts good programmers?

Traditionally the best programmers seek the most challenging problems. They want to work in an organization that is trying to build something important. Programmers have huge and fragile egos. If they are somehow assigned to a trivial problem and that is their only possible task, they may spend six months coming up with a bewildering architecture more complex than the Windows 2000 operating system, merely so that they can show their friends and colleagues what a tough nut they are trying to crack. Another source of ego-gratification for programmers is to have other programmers admiring their work. Open-source software projects thus have a big recruiting advantage over closed-source software companies.

Since most companies still prefer office work over remote work, this comes in handy:

Your business success will depend on the extent to which programmers essentially live at your office. For this to be a common choice, your office had better be nicer than the average programmer’s home. There are two ways to achieve this result. One is to hire programmers who live in extremely shabby apartments. The other is to create a nice office

How to train up good programmers:

  1. A person won’t become proficient at something until he or she has done it many times. In other words., if you want someone to be really good at building a software system, he or she will have to have built 10 or more systems of that type.
  2. A person won’t retain proficiency at a task unless he or she has at one time learned to perform that task very rapidly. Learning research demonstrates that the skills of people who become accurate but not fast deteriorate much sooner than the skills of people who become both accurate and fast.
  3. Technology shifts force a programmer to go through bursts of learning every year or two.

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