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Who Are You?

One of the most common, but least compelling, metaphors is the three-legged stool. It's trotted out anytime a speaker wants to show that three core values or activities enable some desirable goal. It implies that if any one leg should falter, the whole thing falls apart. This image has never worked for me because speakers generally gloss over a key aspect: For the stool to be useful at all, three legs must advance at the same rate. Which, of course, is frequently not a goal or even realistic. Moreover, most projects cannot be boiled down to just three essential aspects.

In a programming context, the latter point is often articulated as: "Cheap, fast, good — choose any two." (Here "fast" refers to delivery of product, not its inherent performance.) This little quip is often used as an adage in meetings with naive managers who want all three things from their developers. On further examination, however, it's clear that the dynamic is really between only two poles: quality and everything else. Consider the possible option pair of fast and good. Is cost really the principal obstacle to that? We know from Fred Brooks that spending more on people doesn't help the speed-quality combination. And so what cost is it that prevents fast and good? There is none. The three dimensions simply aren't related by opposing tensions.

Cheap-fast-good is only one possible set of values. Additional values are scalable, performant, secure. You can add many others, as long as they don't overlap. (Although one could well argue that scalability and performance are overlapping, possibly even congruent, features.) Eventually, you end up with a radar chart, such as the one here, of the qualities and their respective value to a project.

With little effort, it's possible to draw a similar chart for the organization in which you work. Fairly often, the comparative importance of the key qualities are well known and intuitively understood. (Performance is always crucial, cost is a mid-level concern, security is low level, etc. ) So it's not difficult to map them to a radar chart. In a world where everything was properly documented, such a chart would be given to every new member of the team, so that they would know the internal values that drive decisions.

This diagram becomes far more valuable when taken to its logical extension: Plotting this graph for yourself. What do you value in programming? Like most of you, I've met all kinds of developers. Those who obsess over performance and will write unmaintainable code to achieve it. And there are those who are very careful coders, concerned with correctness, and not much worried about performance. Others are obsessed with getting code out the door and are willing to accept small bugs in in-house apps to clear the backlog. The important thing in this self-assessment is to describe what you value (rather than what you're good at).

The resulting chart can show you that, in fact, you don't belong in the organization you're currently working in. You might know this intuitively, but now you can now see why: Your interests are not rewarded by the organization's values. On the other hand, if you're happy where you are, it can show you what skills you need to do to be a better contributor (as well as what pointless conversations to stop having.)

In an upcoming editorial, I'll discuss my belief that a developer's profile tends to dictate the use of certain tools and techniques, often conglomerated in ways that are not ideal because they represent values that are frequently not self-consistent. 'Til then...

— Andrew Binstock
Editor in Chief
[email protected]
Twitter: platypusguy

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