Tech Life Two oddly-named hires

Russian History

“Rands, I’ve got the idea. I’m serious. It’s going to be big and I’ve got my three MBA buddies lining up seed financing. Seriously big idea here, Rands. And I need a favor.”

Uh oh.

“I need a Free Electron.”

There is a list of the six confirmed Free Electrons that I know. Every six months I rewrite this list on a small yellow sticky to remind myself who these people are while also thinking if there are any new additions to the list. When I’m done, I fold the sticky into a small yellow square and swallow it.

There’s no way I’m coughing up my Free Electron list. I’m saving those six names for the day when The Great Idea finally shows up and I start dialing for Electrons.

Sorry.

I will make it up to you by describing two other essential oddly-named hires you need to make whether you’re at a start-up or a big company and we’ll start with:

The Russian Lit Major

This is a strange hire because one of the defining characteristics of the Russian Lit Major is that they simply aren’t that technical. They aren’t going to write code and when they first show up, your engineers aren’t going to trust them. Still, they are in engineering and they serve an essential function. They translate.

The Russian Lit Major should have been a computer science major, but they got off track. I don’t know how or why, but Russian Lit looked appealing to them as they were slogging it through college. They own a computer and they can do some wondrous things with that computer, but they can also speak Russian and read Tolstoy, which are two things you’re never, ever going to do.

When the Russian Lit Major got out college, they quickly discovered that the market for Russian Lit Major skills were, well, non-existent. They remembered, hey, I’ve got a computer and I’m not scared of it, so maybe there is a gig for me in high tech? I hear the money’s good.

Somehow, who knows how, they got hired in a big high tech company and they cut their teeth. Localization, technical publications, who knows… some Russian Lit Major-friendly portion of a large company where the Russian Lit Major remembers, “Shit, I should have been a computer science major” where it’s clear engineering is the place to be.

This first gig defines two things for your Russian Lit Major. They learn how a high tech company functions and they begin their professional struggle towards software development. It takes years and it probably never happens the same way, but the Russian Lit Major lands in an engineering group. Maybe it’s as program manager position or perhaps it’s a product manager, but they make it to engineering… where no one trusts them.

Trust them. See, in the struggle to get from wherever they started to their eventual engineering gig, the Russian Lit Major networked with a good portion of the company. They learned how different groups worked and they learned how to speak a variety of organizational dialects. Whether they eventually land in an engineering group inside their first company or at your start-up, an experienced Russian Lit Major has developed a complex communication toolkit to relate to the rest of an organization and that’s what your engineering team desperately needs.

If you’re in a start-up, you need them because, very soon you won’t be able to figure out everything by walking the hallway. There are too many people. If you’re in a big company, you need them for the same reason; there is simply not enough time in the day to regularly take the pulse of the company and that is what your Russian Lit Major is going to do. They’re going to make sure that whatever relevant shenanigans are going on outside of your team are going to cross your table. They’re going to eliminate surprises and they’re going to do this the best when they know that they are an essential part of the team.

Your team is not going to trust your Russian Lit Major because in their engineering world, if they don’t write code, they don’t create anything. Therefore, they are a waste of resources which could be better spent buying them a 30″ flat panel. Your job, as the engineering manager, is to drill into their head there is exactly one currency in a company and that’s information. They won’t believe you. They think they fact they made file searching in the application 27% faster is a major corporate development and while I’m happy file searching is faster, I’m more interested in whether or not my Sr. VP is going to kill the whole project.

Cruise Director or perhaps Spy is a better name for the Russian Lit Major, but those terms are pejorative. They ignore one simple fact: it’s not that your Russian Lit Major speaks Russian or is even Russian Lit Major. The point is that in their quest to get into engineering, they’ve developed vision. They’ve seen aspects of the organization that you’ll never see and that gives them a uniquely valuable perspective on how to get stuff done.

The Historian

The other essential hire is easier to explain because they are an engineer, but they’re harder to hire because you’re not going to know they’re a Historian until a couple years after the hire. Story time.

We were in the scheduling phase of the third major release of the web application at the start-up and I was lying like a fiend. Now, I didn’t know I was lying because I was passionately waving my hands in front of everyone telling them that, yes, we could hit June. It was only four months away, but we only had two features and the team was 25% bigger, so this is GOING TO BE NO PROBLEM PEOPLE. CHAaaaaaaARRRGE!

Phil in the front row raised his hand and I deflated because I knew whatever Phil was going to say was going to totally derail my impassioned plea.

“Rands, we’ve never done a release in less than six months. Furthermore, with each new customer, the team is doing additional support work that we’ve never integrated into the schedule. Lastly, we’ve got an additional new product that no one is talking about that is going to dominate at least two engineers’ time.”

Phil is a total buzz kill.

No, Phil is a Historian. He never forgets a damned thing.

As a manager, when you’re standing in front of your co-workers, waving your hands, and possibly lying, there are two types of folks in the audience. Those who will let you lie and those who will raise their hands and explain how you are lying. More often that not, that’s your Historian.

That is the basic essential function of your Historian. They have deep organizational memory. When everyone is panicking because the boss says we’ve GOT TO SHIP in three weeks, the Historian looks at the bug database, counts the open bugs, estimates the incoming bug rate, scribbles on his white board and thinks, “We’ll be shipping in six because, historically, this is how many bugs we fix a week and that is how many are still going to be found. Hasn’t changed in four years. End of story.”

A good manager doesn’t actually lie, but often when we get our lips flapping about some important strategic direction, we forget about basic organizational physics. This is when a good Historian chimes in, not with the intent of being contrary; but because they are the conscience of the organization.

When you’re thinking Historian, I want you to think jwz of Netscape fame. He remains one of the defining Historians for me not only because he took the time to write down what was fucked up at Netscape, but he also clearly cared about the health and well being of the “idea” which, through his influence, became Mozilla. To me, that’s the definition of a great Historian. Someone who knows when it’s time to stop boring you with facts and starting reinventing the future.

Yes, Historians can be squeaky and aren’t always right. They’re going to annoy you with their inconvenient truths, but they’re simply trying to keep you honest.

Now Hiring

You don’t actually hire either of these folks. As I said above, Russian Lit Majors are likely to show up as a program management function and who knows whether they even let you interview those types. In any event, once you’ve correctly identified a Russian Lit Major, your job is to bring them as close to the organization as possible. You do this by explaining to all those engineers who say, “Uh, she doesn’t code… why should I listen to her?” that “You should listen to her because she knows more about this company than I do”.

You don’t hire Historians, either. You hire great engineers who, after a year of silence, raise their hand during that all-hands when you’re lost in the passion weeds and say, “Rands, you said this a year ago. What’s changed since then?”

“Uh. I did? Really? How’d it sound back then?”

10 Responses

  1. Oh, dear.

    I was a Russian Lit major.

    Now I’m a CS graduate student, after five years as a “web editor” and four as a small-installation sysadmin (and webmaster, etc.)

    I am printing this out and stapling copies to my resumes should I ever leave here.

  2. Jeff Kinz 10 years ago

    Hi,

    So – how many years is it going to be before you get hit with the big idea?

    Are the Free electrons busy?

    Tell you what – if one of your close friends comes to you for a free electron suggestion make a deal with them – “If I need them back you agree to sever them from your company’s employment right away.”

    Get it in writing if you need to. Why wouldn’t a friend be ok with saying they’ll do that in writing? (yes, this is simplistic and may not work out in reality. Since you don’t know if the FE will ever be interested in working on your big idea, it not really that much of a gamble anyway)

    There – you’ve kept the free electron free for your work and you’ve helped your friend and you’ve given the free electron a chance to get rich and work on something interesting.

    What? Yes. I know such a contract isn’t normal business practice. heh. Using unusual business practices is one of the best ways to gain a business advantage that I know of!

    OK, I have nine big ideas written down right now. Are you, um busy?

  3. Just keeping the list a secret could be a goal in itself. He might not even have talked to these top-notch people at all. If he puts the name out to someone, the name will spread and maybe other names could be worked out by knowing the first name. And suddenly half the list is out.

  4. Does my Philosophy degree count if my Step-Mom was a Russian Lit Major? 😉 Isn’t knowing Hegel, Kant and the gang kinda like knowing Tolstoy?

  5. Elizabeth Warren 10 years ago

    Are you hiring? I’m not a Russian Lit major but I am someone you would want on your team in the event of some sort of apocalypse or if you were creating a new company. Smart, resourceful, personable – however sadly lacking direction.

  6. Nigel Kersten 10 years ago

    Nothing wrong with Philosophy degrees…

    If you can read Hegel and understand what he’s on about, you can read any barely passable technical documentation in existence and get a feel for the framework.

    If you can read the Critique of Pure Reason and understand the bridge-building that Kant tried to do between rationalism and empiricism, then you can understand a lot about legacy code and stuff that has been done on top of it…

    There’s a lot of Philosophy graduates who do great stuff in IT…

  7. Joe Pellerin 10 years ago

    all very respectable and thoughtful positions, rands.

    but the really important thing is that iowa state is going to pummel the living crap out of iowa this weekend – which is, of course, a shameless and totally unrelated plug. but it’s still true.

  8. Russian Lit majors who speak Russian can be useful in a high-tech firm as a go-between between the off-shore team in Krasnosibirsk (if that city ever existed), and the stock-optioned team in Sunnyvale.

    So it’s not all that unuseful…

  9. Slashdot posted a link to this Christian Science Monitor article on the Mythbusters of TV land. The interesting thing is that Jamie Hyneman has a degree in Russian literature. After reading the CSM article, and Rands article, I’m not so sure that Jamie fits Rands model of a Russian literature major…

  10. I think that we can safely call him a borderline Free Electron/Russian Lit.