Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reid vs. Google

I was lucky enough to start my career in computer software at a research facility that one of my colleagues described as a "halfway house to the real world". There was a broad cross section of humanity, from recent college grads to world-renowned research scientists. There was one guy who was nearing retirement. Although he was a smart guy, a former nuclear engineer, his skills had atrophied and it was clear that he was just trying to hold on until he could collect a pension.

At the time, i thought it was a little sad but i didn't really imagine myself working as an engineer into my 60s. What i didn't anticipate was that the "old guy" in the IT organization would someday be the 40-something. It's hard to say exactly what the truth is behind this lawsuit, brought against Google by computer scientist Brian Reid, but the implication is clear: experience is not as valuable as the willingness to put the company before your personal interests.

Places like Google, and Microsoft in an earlier era, are unique in the sense that the rewards that can accrue to people with a good idea and no external distractions are very significant. But it does make you wonder if there's room at the elite levels of software development for people with lives. On one hand, i believe that any corporate environment should be a meritocracy. On the other hand, i feel that experience, even if it's only in a non-technology-specific sense should be valued. As the resident old guy in an Internet organization for the last few years, I've experienced the intense frustration of the young and ambitious needlessly repeating the mistakes that we made twenty years ago. It's not simply that experience in software development is undervalued, it's that many software organizations, especially in the Internet space, are culturally conditioned to believe that there situation is novel and not subject to the rules of earlier eras.

You would not believe the insanity i've seen propagated as a result of this. I've seen younger programmers go through the pain of rediscovering what many of us have known about optimization and performance for years. I've seen virtually unbounded arrogance with respect to estimates of how long projects will take, and the inevitable assignment of blame to the naysayers when the death march reaches its logical conclusion. I've seen the rediscovery of ancient technologies given fancy new names. What i have not seen is productivity.

Google's a really cool place with a lot of interesting technology, and i hope this is an isolated case that doesn't really reflect their values. If it does, then they'll eventually end up like Microsoft-- painted into a corner by their inability to learn from their own mistakes.

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