Last week I took a day off on Friday. So when I came back to work on Monday morning I was all bright and shiny ready to work happily. Then, a product manager came to me with a ten feet face. She said “we are so late, the journalists are not happy, I received a very angry email from them saying that the website we launched last week is crap.” Then she pulled out a pile of post-its and as she was sticking them on the wall she said “We need to do all this. It’s for last week.” That set the tone of my lousy week.
To give you a little background on my work, I build websites where the contributors are journalists and the product managers are editors. So the workflow is journalists -> editors/PM -> engineers (us). We rarely see the journalists and the specs come from the editors who are supposed to gather information from the journalists. Except that sometimes the information between the two gets lost somewhere in the space-time continuum and that results in journalists saying that what is in production was never what they asked for. That explains why PMs often come to us with requests like “Hey! Can you do this? It’s for yesterday” to which you feel like answering “Of course ! I’m a professional monkey, at your service !!”. So obviously I spent the week as a software plumber really.
From different planets
Fortunately, recently (during my blogging coma) we changed the way we work to fully integrate PMs in our team. Since we are working on critical projects at the moment to prepare the coming Olympic games and other big sport events, we preferred to be in the same team, in scrum mode. So we do stand-up meetings with them every day, we’re in the same office and we are in touch every moment. We also work with a big wall filled with post-its to work faster. In the end we get on well with our PMs, and we always find a working solution for them. But sometimes it still feels like we’re from different planets.
For example, this week another PM came to ask me some information for an external partner that’s supposed to provide us with the data related to the Olympics. The partner needs to give us some data that we will display on our website. So the PM asked all kinds of questions and then concluded “Ok, so I can just give you their Excel sheet then?” … I paused. Then I tried to rephrase her request to understand better “Excel sheet? But what’s in the Excel sheet?” “- Well, all the data that you need to put on the website of course”, I paused again. Then I attempted to understand “But what would I do with an Excel sheet?” “- Well, isn’t that how you do it? You take the data from the Excel sheet and then put it on the website?” For 1ms I imagined myself extracting the data from an Excel sheet. Visions of monkey business all over again. I finally got what she meant and said “No, no, no, no, no, no ….. no. We need a data format that we can use. Like html, xml, json, more commonly xml, but we don’t use Excel sheets.” Finally we were back on the same planet again, she said “Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh. I’m gonna ask them for that, thanks.”
Not alone in the universe
Strangely, in parallel of my lousy week, I stumbled upon this great article about the frustration of engineers that was exactly describing what I was living. It’s all so true. I was surprised that it’s actually the same everywhere. Some aspects of engineering are sometimes so frustrating. But when the author explains why engineers almost always say “no”, he forgot to mention that when we say no, we really really enjoy saying no. Honestly.
In the continuum of my lousy week, we had a recurring request from the journalists to put a spell-check widget in their text editors. The spell-check already exists, they just don’t want to click the button to use it. Right. I completely understand their request but at the same time we have other deadlines to meet and we can’t develop an entire solution for them just because they don’t want to click. So we said no.
As an alternative solution though, we thought of suggesting them to type their text in a text area and benefit from the browser’s inner spell-checker, but they would have to write in HTML. muhahahah.
What to do
I love producing useful stuff but some things really frustrate me. I’m unfortunately still at the stage where someone else tells me what should be created. In my case, I think that if I was in a software company rather than a media company, things would be better, technology would not just arrive at the end of the process. It would instead be the focus of everything and engineers would actually be able to give their opinions more.
Currently, the people who tell me what to create unfortunately don’t care at all about the software, it’s not their problem, and they know nothing about it. Yet I find it interesting and motivating to produce software that is applied to a certain field, it makes the software useful. So what to do?
On the one hand, the majority of the companies who need software only use it as a tool, not the product, and on the other hand software companies that care about software don’t have an interesting field of application. I haven’t figured out my ideal company yet, or actually I have, but I haven’t figured out yet if it exists.
Fortunately the good thing with code is that you can practice alone, so I can create software on my own and free myself from directives that I sometimes don’t get, also I still learn a lot technically at work.
Anyway, this week has been a bit stressful and other things made me feel a little down at work, but at least the ambient geeky atmosphere cheered me up. Now that it’s less misogynous than before, I can begin to appreciate it. I don’t think there are any other fields where you can make lousy jokes and still laugh precisely because it’s so lousy. That’s the only place. Some jokes are completely untranslatable because language specific, but for example there’s a guy in another team called Hanz and we like calling him Require Hanz. Private joke. I shouldn’t advertise the jokes we tell in my team because that would give a really lousy image of us. But all of that to let off a little bit of my frustration this week. Things will be better.