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For Those About To Rock July 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , , ,

My very first job as a software developer was as a compiler writer.  I worked at Harris Corporation as part of a team developing the compiler for the Harris Programming Language. HPL was designed in the days when having your own programming language made perfect sense, and it took a crew of us to maintain the seven-pass compiler that produced code to run on both IBM mainframes and 8086 microprocessors.

The compiler was written in HPL, of course, and I began writing toy programs to learn the new language.  In the course of my experiments, I uncovered dozens of bugs in the compiler. I dutifully recorded each and every one as an APAR (Authorized Program Analysis and Report).  Over a period of a week or so, I accumulated several dozen APARs.

At the end of my “training” I delivered my stack of APARs to my boss.  He flipped through them, commended me on my diligent and thorough work, and handed the stack back to me:  “Fix ’em!”

What?  Who could have predicted this unexpected turn of events? Here I was, heroically finding all sorts of flaws and gaps in their compiler, and this was my reward?

Fortunately, my teammates were forgiving of the enthusiastic, albeit selfishly misguided, newby and put up with my insulting list of APARs.  Those bugs weren’t news to anyone but me: the team knew that they existed but involved features that were unused by the developers, so the bugs never affected actual users. If I’d spent more time talking to the team instead of poking at their code, I’d have learned that.

Everyone on a team is in the same boat, for better or worse.  Someone decides where the boat is going and gets to steer.  Everyone else has a choice: rock the boat to express your displeasure at the chosen destination, or row as hard as you can to get there.

Choosing to rock can be a risky decision.  Sometimes, a little rocking gets the leader’s attention and results in a positive course change.  Sometimes you rock too hard and capsize the boat.  And sometimes the rocking scares everyone else in the boat, and they throw you overboard. Fortunately, I learned that my rocking was inappropriate, and I settled down to row.

Choosing to row is the safer path, but not always the wise one.  Helping the boat get to the wrong destination is never a good thing, but working with the team is important.  When you are sitting in the boat, you can’t see what the helmsman can see.  Unless you are sure he is headed for a rocky landing, your best bet may be to row as hard as you can.

As a leader with your hand on the tiller, are you paying attention to the crew or staring off at the horizon? Is someone gently rocking, trying to get your attention?  Is everyone pulling together to keep things moving? Only you can make that call, and only if you are keenly aware of each member in your crew.

Sometimes we rock, and often we row.  What’s your choice today?


1. Marc Sirkin - July 22, 2009

“We salute you”

Chuck, great post as usual (and I hope you loved NYC).

As for rocking and rowing, I find myself on day 3 of my new gig at Autism Speaks already facing this very decision. The nature of my position requires major rocking, but at the same time, I’ve got to get up to speed quickly, earn some trust AND keep rowing.

Thanks for some perspective.

2. Joe Williams - July 25, 2009

Nice post, Chuck.

My guess is that this job, in addition to being your first job as a software developer, was your first profession job period. The transition from schooling to professional life is compounded by the transition from solo achievement (in school) to that of a team (in professional life). If colleges and universities recognized that teamwork is an element of success in professional life as well as academia, situations like you described would occur less frequently.

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