Thoughts on Peopleware

Posted June 6, 2005

I recently picked up a copy of DeMarco's classic management text Peopleware. I was a little worried about its age, since it was written before the bulk of the PC revolution, but it turned out to be pretty timeless for the most part, with arguments about the problems with telephone interruptions translating pretty closely to the same with email, for instance.

A full review is out of scope, but I did want to reflect on a few points. First of all, DeMarco put into words something that hit pretty close to home, about the motivating factor of a "cult of quality". Namely, that developers and creators in general care deeply about their work, and have standards for quality that are higher than what the market typically will demand. If you force them to ship something when it's "good enough", that is a blow to self-esteem, and productivity drops with morale.

On the other hand, if you let developers exercise their own judgment, and even encourage a cult of quality ("We make the best widgets on the planet, by God!"), then the boost in productivity essentially gives you happier workers and better products in about the same length of time anyway. On the insani team, this has happened with us: we take pride in going the extra distance to make things as perfect as we can, even if we know no one else will look close enough to notice, and it's kept our morale high.

The other meta-point that Peopleware makes is that management is hard. So much of what we think of as "Dilbert management" is just a reaction to people not being able to manage unpredictable, individual, quirky, human employees properly, so they instead end up managing people as if they were simple creatures with identical, modest needs: a desk, a cubicle, a paycheck. That's something they know how to do.

This insight turns management into a damned difficult job, as opposed to a sinecure. I'm sure I could personally manage people badly, treating employees as entries on a ledger, since that's a well-defined problem that I know how to solve. But doing it well, keeping track of motivations and treating every employee as an individual... well, that's now a hundred problems instead of just one, and it's beyond my empathic abilities. If you find a good manager, treat his skill with all due respect!

The short review is: you should read this book if you work for a living, because even if you aren't a manager, this will open your eyes to factors you should watch out for in your work environment and your boss.