No politics Just Work

Actually, politics happen everywhere that more than two people congregate. It’s just natural. By “no politics” I really mean “no dysfunctional politics.” Programmers have very well-honed senses of justice. Code either works, or it doesn’t. There’s no sense in arguing whether a bug exists, since you can test the code and find out. The world of programming is very just and very strictly ordered and a heck of a lot of people go into programming in the first place because they prefer to spend their time in a just, orderly place, a strict meritocracy where you can win any debate simply by being right.

And this is the kind of environment you have to create to attract programmers. When a programmer complains about “politics,” they mean—very precisely—any situation in which personal considerations outweigh technical considerations. Nothing is more infuriating than when a developer is told to use a certain programming language, not the best one for the task at hand, because the boss likes it. Nothing is more maddening than when people are promoted because of their ability to network rather than being promoted strictly on merit. Nothing is more aggravating to a developer than being forced to do something that is technically inferior because someone higher than them in the organization, or someone better-connected, insists on it.

Nothing is more satisfying than winning an argument on its technical merits even when you should have lost it on political merits. When I started working at Microsoft there was a major, misguided project underway called MacroMan to create a graphical macro programming language. The programming language would have been very frustrating for real programmers, because the graphical nature didn’t really give you a way to implement loops or conditionals, but would not have really helped non-programmers, who, I think, are just not used to thinking in algorithms and wouldn’t have understood MacroMan in the first place. When I complained about MacroMan, my boss told me, “Nothing’s gonna derail that train. Give up.” But I kept arguing, and arguing, and arguing—I was fresh out of college, about as unconnected as anyone could be at Microsoft—and eventually people listened to the meat of my arguments and the MacroMan project was shut down. It didn’t matter who I was, it mattered that I was right. That’s the kind of non-political organization that delights programmers.

All in all, focusing on the social dynamics of your organization is crucial to making a healthy, pleasant place to work that will retain programmers and attract programmers.

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