How's the book coming?

A friend asked recently what was up with my book blog -- it's been a few weeks since my last post. Well, work has been busy and finding the spare time to blog is tough. But also I'm on the cusp of a new section in my book. The last few months have been part of the first section, which I originally called the "basics" but in hindsight I think a better term would be "philosophy." The second part of the book will be more practical, and address project definition, planning and execution; the tentative title I have for this section is "The Art of Software Project Engineering," and uses Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" to draw a parallel between military and engineering leadership. For the last few weeks, whatever free time I've had for blogging has been spent trying to organize part 2 of the book.

But since I'm blogging (and I'm still technically in part 1 of my book), I wanted to share another thought on leadership philosophy.

I was in my car listening to "Drops of Jupiter" by Train on the radio, when I heard the line, "Can you imagine... Your best friend always sticking up for you even when I know you're wrong." It reminded me of an incident when I was a young engineer...

We were investigating a problem in one of our products. The problem only exhibited itself during stress testing, and even then, only once every couple of days. Due to the cost of testing, we had a meeting to decide what testing should be done to further isolate the problem. I had a theory about the cause of the problem, and a test scenario I wanted to execute for two days to confirm my theory. A more senior engineer, also named Bob, dismissed my theory out of hand, and wanted to do a different set of tests for about a week. I tried to argue my case, but was consistently shot down. At the end of the meeting, our manager decided to fund my testing first, and if my theory was disproved, we'd follow up with the senior engineer's test proposal. I felt vindicated.

Outside the meeting I approached my manager. "So, you think I could be right?" I asked him. "No," he responded, "I'm almost positive you're wrong and the other Bob is right." I was stunned. Then why fund my testing? "Sometimes," he explained," my opinion doesn't matter. You feel strongly you're right. And I respect your opinion." He went on to explain that at worst it will cost us two days of testing, and that was worth the cost to explore my theory. And if he just funded testing that matched his own opinions, he would miss contrary opportunities.

As it turned out, it only cost a few hours of testing -- shortly after the test started, the failure recurred and my theory was shot out of the water. And in the end, the other Bob really was right. But it was worth it; it was worth the lessen I learned that day. A good leader will respect the ideas and opinions of his engineers, whether he agrees with them or not.

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