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Playing Nice

Pages: pp. 7-8

I just noticed Linda Rising's "Why Can't We All Play Nice?" article (Insights, IEEE Software, Sept./Oct. 2012, pp. 7–10) in the IEEE Computer Society Digital Library.

Why can't people all play nice on important projects? This is something I've pondered off and on as I now work at home mastering CDs for two regional orchestras, doing occasional wood sculpture for sale, and frantically trying to get my '74 MBG ready to sell while it's running so well.

Paying $19 for the article is a bit much for stingy old retired guys, but I'll comment on it anyway.

In my experience, one of the main impediments to playing well is that most sizable projects are staffed by people with a very wide range of talent. Those who are smarter and/or much better trained don't like to squander their valuable time trying to explain their work to others. And those others want to be viewed as being on a par with the best, especially at performance review time.

But occasionally a highly talented individual will make a blatant error and feel compelled to defend it. That can be pretty embarrassing, as the time I had to present my work to a group of managers, engineers, and scientists at a major aerospace company. In doing my logic design, there was a problem of how to deal with a dynamic interaction. I had deduced that it involved the time rate of change of a particular signal, so I called my solution the time-rate-of-change value. The ranking manager in the room said, "It's a derivative!" I proceeded to argue with him at length that no, it was my own time-rate-of change method. Later, one of my coworkers said, "He was toying with your shirt button with the tip of his saber."

The competition between project members can be very caustic. For much of my career, I was a roving troubleshooter or the only one with a specialty that was vital for the project. My last real job was for a large commercial company, but I simply could not fit into the culture. The CEO had decreed that each engineering division would lay off 5 percent of the employees each year. Employees were only competing with others in their own pay grade, but it was grounds for immediate dismissal to inquire as to anyone's salary grade. As a result, each engineer would work in isolation so that no one got insight into his/her piece of the project. I missed the freedom to circulate and discuss my own technical problems, and help others as well. I had long used an ad hoc, one-on-one, informal, detailed peer review as the need arose. Several times, at another organization, someone would barge into my office and ask for help to break out of some bind. As it was carefully and methodically explained to me, the engineer would suddenly say, "That's what I was missing!" and run back to his or her desk. Too many times, I was left without understanding the problem at all, yet the person thanked me profusely for my help.

And I remember the reply of a former coworker of mine, who is now a prominent consultant, when I asked how he liked doing consulting: "I now have the freedom to decide which idiots I don't have to work for."

Dale Gaumer


Linda Rising's column "Why Can't We All Play Nice" makes many good points. The way I look at these questions is that an hour clarifying goals is worth 10 hours coding, and an hour building relationships is worth 10 hours clarifying goals.

Unfortunately, she tries to base her true and useful points in some wrong statements about human genetics.

Here are some details about the biology, in case they are of interest.

Some genetic changes are clearly subsequent to the invention of agriculture. One of these is adult lactose tolerance, which in fact evolved twice independently, once in West Africa and once in Europe.

Humanity is a single species, and an unusually uniform one. This is partly because we passed through a population bottleneck not so long ago, but also partly because of population movement. Actually, humanity is unique as a worldwide species, and migration did not end at the time of first settlement of new territories. As an American, Rising is surely aware that people sometimes have children on a different continent than the one they were born on.

The spread of genes is not complete—lactose tolerance did not spread in China, where dairy products are not part of the diet. Neanderthal genes are part of the heritage of Europeans, but not Africans. Nevertheless, humanity worldwide is less genetically diverse than the gorilla population of a single forest.

Rising particularly claims that mutations that affect mental traits would not spread worldwide. I'm pretty sure that she didn't mean that the inhabitants of different continents have different brains, but that's actually what the statement entails. Don't go there!

It really wasn't necessary to give this veneer of biology—her own reported observations are convincing.

Chris Morris

Science and Technology Facilities Council UK

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