Stephen Freeman Rotating Header Image

March 23rd, 2008:

Suddenly I've become less sympathetic to non-technical managment

I bumped into an old colleague recently who told me her tale of woe.

She’d been consulting for a while with a small business that provides quite a successful online service. The company had been bought out and, for a while, she improved their naive development practices while coping with complexities such as a new CTO who lived abroad and regularly dropped out of contact. In the end, she moved on to a new contract.

Sometime later, the CEO got in touch. He’d backed off some of his worst ideas, dropped some of the management and, eventually, hired her back as CTO. Good news.

On her first day, the lead developer threatened to quit unless he was allowed to start a proposed rewrite that day, another developer joined the mutiny. The CEO phoned after lunch and, with deepest regret, her tenure was over. The thing to remember about this situation is that the development team were mainly hired fresh out of college and only know this one company, whereas my colleague has lots of experience and is a name in the field. In her view, the codebase is bad, but not beyond rescue. My guess is that the company will burn a lot of cash on version 2 while its customers get fed up waiting for new features or patches to a neglected version 1. It’s a very high risk strategy for a small company.

How could the CEO fall for this? Presumably he knows a lot about the business the company services, but he has no background in the mechanics of what makes his product work. He has no instinct for when the developers, with the best of intentions, are getting carried away. So he’s taken what looks like the lower risk strategy, keep the people who got them this far, when in practice it’s the opposite. He’s also shown that he’s hostage to his developers which, much as I want to stand up for the underdog, is not a safe policy for either side. If he has any survival instincts at all, he’ll be looking for alternatives. Version 2 had better be a winner.

Update: Thinking further, I think it might even be worse, since the CEO didn’t see this coming, he hired a CTO without knowing how various core people would react and he didn’t have enough of their respect to make them listen. This is in a O(30) person company, not a mega-corp.