Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Programmers and Paparazzi

You may not have heard of a little company named Cloudera, but that may change soon. Cloudera is one of the hottest startups in one of the hottest parts of the computer industry, the so-called "Big Data" space.

The management team at Cloudera at times looks like one of those 'dream team' assemblages that people put together in their fantasy football leagues; they've recruited top talent from places like Oracle, Yahoo, VMWare, Facebook, etc.

For a company like Cloudera, desparate to attract attention in a rapidly-growing, hotly-contested market, having big names is sure to help, and it's no surprise that many of Cloudera's competitors are assembling similar power-house talent pools, backed by vast sums of investment funds.

But it was somewhat of a surprise to me to see a new page turned in these talent wars over the last few years: companies now trumpet their personnel acquisitions like professional sports franchises advertise their latest trades, and so it's interesting to see Cloudera's Press Center touting this breathless love-fest article about their latest hire: World's Most Wired Software Engineer.

There's some sort of transition going on here, and I'm not quite sure what it means when publications like Wired are running articles that contain things like:

For Charles Zedlewski — Cloudera’s vice president of products — Impala shows off not only Marcel Kornacker the software engineer, but Marcel Kornacker the man. When Kornacker builds software, he builds it with an eye for the tiniest of details — and he’s intent to take it as far as he can. It’s the same way in his kitchen, on the other side of San Francisco Bay. Kornacker’s Epicurean exploits extend well beyond bread baking. “If you walked into his kitchen, you would think you walked into the set of Top Chef,” says Zedlewski.

Well, I don't watch Top Chef very much, either, so maybe I'm missing the whole point.

This whole topic is much in the light right now due to a long and fascinating essay by John Allspaw: On Being A Senior Engineer. Allspaw's well-thought-out, well-sourced, and well-presented essay has a lot to recommend it, even if I find myself agreeing with only about half of it.

But what I find most striking about Allspaw's essay, and even more so about the things that swirl around it, like the Wired programmer celebrity series, is the absence of humility.

Consider, for example, this follow-on from Adrian Cockcroft: What's a Distinguished Engineer?, advising people that the things that matter most are:

"how many of these people know who you are?". ... "how many DE and Fellows are hanging around your cube on a regular basis waiting to talk to you?"... "Do the top conferences invite you to speak?" ... "How many of the other invited speakers and conference organizers do you know?" and "how many know you?"

Well, pardon me, but all this name-dropping and publicity-grabbing is, to put it bluntly, a load of manure.

In my 30+ years in the software industry, I've known hundreds of superb, stellar engineers: people who taught me how to approach problems, how to encourage and take advantage of feedback, how to build software that lasts for decades.

And I've known my share of attention-hungry, limelight-seeking engineers: people who thrive on taking credit and being known.

And I can tell you, from long experience, that the intersection of these two groups is empty.

So please, young engineer, consider carefully the advice you're receiving from the Paparazzi; follow not the course of celebrity; strive instead for the immense pleasure and satisfaction that you will find in building software so solid, so clear, so reliable, and so robust that it lasts for years and forms the foundation of systems that make the world as we know it possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment