How Software Companies Die

     By:  Orson Scott Card

     The environment that nurtures creative programmers kills management and 
     marketing types - and vice versa.  Programming is the Great Game.  It 
     consumes you, body and soul.  When you're caught up in it, nothing else 
     matters.  When you emerge into daylight, you might well discover that 
     you're a hundred pounds overweight, your underwear is older than the 
     average first grader, and judging from the number of pizza boxes lying 
     around, it must be spring already.  But you don't care, because your 
     program runs, and the code is fast and clever and tight.  You won.  
     You're aware that some people think you're a nerd.  So what?  They're 
     not players.  They've never jousted with Windows or gone hand to hand 
     with DOS.  To them C++ is a decent grade, almost a B- not a language.  
     They barely exist.  Like soldiers or artists, you don't care about the 
     opinions of civilians.  You're building something intricate and fine.  
     They'll never understand it.


     Here's the secret that every successful software company is based on:  
     You can domesticate programmers the way beekeepers tame bees.  You 
     can't exactly communicate with them, but you can get them to swarm in 
     one place and when they're not looking, you can carry off the honey.  
     You keep these bees from stinging by paying them money.  More money 
     than they know what to do with.  But that's less than you might think. 
      You see, all these programmers keep hearing their parents' voices in 
     their heads saying "when are you going to join the real world?"  All 
     you have to pay them is enough money that they can answer (also in 
     their heads)  "Geez, Dad, I'm making more than you."  On average, this 
     is cheap.  And you get them to stay in the hive by giving them other 
     coders to swarm with.  The only person whose praise matters is another 
     programmer.  Less-talented programmers will idolize them; evenly 
     matched one will challenge and goad one another; and if you want to 
     get a good swarm, you make sure that you have at least one certified 
     genius coder that they can all look up to, even if he glances at other 
     people's code only long enough to sneer at it.  He's a Player, thinks 
     the junior programmer.  He looked at my code.  That is enough.  If a 
     software company provides such a hive, the coders will give up sleep, 
     love, health, and clean laundry, while the company keeps the bulk of 
     the money.


     Here's the program that ends up killing company after company.  All 
     successful software companies had, as their dominant personality, a 
     leader who nurtured programmers.  But no company can keep such a 
     leader forever.  Either he cashes out, or he brings in management 
     types who end up driving him out, or he changes and becomes a 
     management type himself.   One way or another, marketers get control.  
     But...control of what?  Instead of finding assembly lines of 
     productive workers, they quickly discover that their product is 
     produced by utterly unpredictable, uncooperative, disobedient, and 
     worst of all, unattractive people who resist all attempts at 
     management.  Put them on a time clock, dress them in suits, and they 
     become sullen and start sabotaging the product.  Worst of all, you can 
     sense that they are making fun of you with every word they say.


     The shock is greater for the coder, though.  He suddenly finds that 
     alien creatures control his life.  Meetings, Schedules, Reports.  And 
     now someone demands that he PLAN all his programming and then stick to 
     the plan, never improving, never tweaking, and never, never touching 
     some other team's code.  The lousy young programmer who once 
     worshipped him is now his tyrannical boss, a position he got because 
     he played golf with some sphincter in a suit.  The hive has been 
     ruined.  The best coders leave.  And the marketers, comfortable now 
     because they`re surrounded by power neckties and they have things 
     under control, are baffled that each new iteration of their software 
     loses market share as the code bloats and the bugs proliferate.  Got 
     to get some better packaging.  Yeah, that's it...working toward a 
     better product line...

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This message was sent on 4 Jul 1996