Mrs. Robinson is the enemy of great software

I was watching The Graduate the other night, and another brilliant quote struck me – not the ‘plastics’ quote this time.

Benjamin describes his post-grad disillusionment to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, “It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. No, I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

The anxiety of being disoriented and confused about how to win the game in the early parts of your career is a wonderful thing. It forces you to adapt quickly, to learn hard, and to test limits.

But different people react differently to the pressure. Some become all about the rules – either creating, enforcing or avoiding them. Others don’t see rules at all.

This gets hammered home in an excellent blog post where Good Sense looks at how trust and autonomy and freedom promotes productivity and creative problem solving whereas controls and requirements and micromanagement have the opposite affect:

“I was part of a scrum team at a large company. Someone already broke the workload up into user stories. Those user stories were further broken down into tasks. The tasks were then evenly divided amongst all the engineers. Each engineer didn’t have much of a say in it.

I was told exactly what to work on and even the day I was going to work on it. It was the most unproductive time of my life.”

That sense of freedom you have after walking away from your last day of school is incredible, and yet so many capable people fail to capitalize on that freedom. They end up recreating structures in their lives that ensure they never face it again.

Of course, there are also many people who thrive on having structure. And there are many who support creativity by trying to create freedom within a structure. Not everyone works well with no rules. And some can even do a lot of damage without boundaries in place.

Agile development intends to deal with this, but I’m amongst those who believe that once you’ve defined a process for something you’ve already sucked the mojo out of it.

The comments on Hacker News are really worth a read:

“Scrum says that team members should answer three questions each working day:
1. What have you done in the last day?
2. What are you doing today?
3. Are you experiencing any impediments to your work?

Here is how these questions get implemented at many companies:
1. Did you do what I told you to yesterday?
2. Here’s what I want you to do today.
3. Fuck the third question.”

Sometimes that scenario plays out with more subtlety, perhaps under the mask of collaboration. I’ve seen many managers using the word “agile” to describe the way they are working when they really mean something totally different.

It’s these kinds of behaviors that Benjamin can’t get his head around in The Graduate – the unwritten rules, the cultural reinforcements, the hidden hierarchies and agendas.

Josh Williams, former co-founder and CEO at the now defunct Foursquare competitor Gowalla, wrote a brilliant post-mortem of sorts recently that should be a real inspiration to the Benjamins out there feeling overwhelmed by all the rules and systems and the perception of predetermination.

“Truth be told, we didn’t really care about Check-Ins. What we really wanted was for people to see the world through the eyes of their friends.

It turns out there was another app that shared a similar vision. They made the act of taking and sharing photos (many of which just happened to be location-tagged) fast, simple and fun.

They made their own rules. They called it Instagram.”