Ladder Climbers in Tech Companies

I was listening to yet another discussion about a business manager who asked for an initial LOE on some functionality and the development manager gave a number like 200 hours. The business manager got excited and said something like, ‘Oh good since we are doing Scrum we can swarm on it so it will only take 5 engineers a week to get it done.’ I have lost track of how many times I have heard statements like this first, second, and third hand. I always ask myself, “Why?”

Somehow the analogy of having 9 women making a baby in 1 month doesn’t get through either. I made some observations lately that help with the ‘why’ this still happens. So many managers in business are what I will call ladder climbers. What I mean by that is they climb the ladder for the sake of climbing the ladder. They only care about where the next rung is and how quickly they can get there. If that is their career plan, great, but they will miss some things along the way.

For example, they do not understand how much of a creative and evolutionary process software and other tech projects are. You would think calling it ‘development’ would give this away though right? This does not translate. Software has to evolve and develop and this requires constant creativity. It does not just happen and there are a lot of required pieces for it to happen. If you are not closely involved with the pieces or closely involved with those who are you will not understand this.

Something that is often misunderstood is calling programming languages as such, ‘languages.’ A non-technical person would equate this to a language such as German or Spanish. So a programming language must just be the language the computer ‘speaks,’ but this is where the comparison drops off. It’s not just a matter of knowing the right words to use to communicate. The interaction between computers and humans has different complexities than humans talking with humans. There are no logic structures or algorithms with humans. Human communications don’t have ’n’ number of layers. I don’t have to understand how someone’s vocal chords work and why they sound they way they do in order to talk to them. Talking to computers just isn’t natural for humans. There is way more to programming than just ‘knowing the words.’ This cannot be understood without making the investment in gaining the understanding.

There are many ways in which technical product development is misunderstood but a ladder climber will not make an investment to gain the understanding. After all, gaining the understanding is not one of the rungs on their ladder. Unfortunately, for the teams they will manage, there will be decisions made on many false presumptions and misunderstandings that will be crippling to the team. To make things worse, all of this will be transparent to the team, but not to the ladder climber. Often this only leads to more disparity and disconnection with the teams and the business managers. Most of the time the ladder climber thinks it is time to move up or move on and it emboldens them in their mistaken superiority.

I am not suggesting that everyone who ‘climbs the corporate ladder’ is a ladder climber as I have defined it. Nor do I think everyone who does has the wrong intentions. I do find it helpful to know the difference, especially if my intent is to make a difference and add value.