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Posted on: Sunday, 06 December 2009 by Rajiv Popat

If you are in the business of building software; every now and then; you will find yourself surrounded with moments when the sky-is-falling. Every now-and-then; you might also come across seriously kick-ass engineers who emerge as super heroes and save the day.

It is rather easy to identify and reward these super heroes of your organization and shower them with pats on their backs; salary hikes and promotions. What is hard; dear reader; is identifying and recognizing the silent programmers; who avoid the sky-is-falling moments or as Michael Lopp in his book; Managing Humans calls Malcolm events. He explains:

Avoiding Malcolm events is completely unsatisfying and here’s why: you know what failure sounds like, but success is silent. It’s when the release goes well. It’s when you don’t have to release an immediate update to your major release. Avoiding a Malcolm event is when you managed to predict the future and no one is going to believe you when you tell them what you did because nothing happened.

Management is the care and feeding of the invisible. You’re doing your best when it appears the least is happening. I love the thrill of the last month of a release as much as the next guy, but I suspect the reason we’re yelling at each other, working weekends, and feeling the depressing weight of compromise is because we’re surrounded by Malcolm events.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his  famous book - The Black Swan - explains the exact same problem of identifying the true silent heroes and rewarding them much more dramatically through his excellent story telling and though experiment:

Assume that a legislator with courage, influence, intellect, vision, and perseverance manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect and employment on September 10, 2001; it imposes the continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit (at high costs to the struggling airlines)— just in case terrorists decide to use planes to attack the World Trade Center in New York City.

I know this is lunacy, but it is just a thought experiment (I am aware that there may be no such thing as a legislator with intellect, courage, vision, and perseverance; this is the point of the thought experiment). The legislation is not a popular measure among the airline personnel, as it complicates their lives. But it would certainly have prevented 9/11.

The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. "Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease."

Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office. Vox clamantis in deserto. He will retire depressed, with a great sense of failure. He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful. I wish I could go attend his funeral, but, reader, I can't find him.

And yet, recognition can be quite a pump. Believe me, even those who genuinely claim that they do not believe in recognition, and that they separate labor from the fruits of labor, actually get a serotonin kick from it. See how the silent hero is rewarded: even his own hormonal system will conspire to offer no reward.

As software managers; we tend to look for people who emerge out of nowhere; and turn complicated defeats into victory and save the day. We glorify them and shower them with praise, salary hikes and promotions.

What we often fail to take a note of; dear reader; is the silent catalyst who gracefully builds synergy in the team; the brilliant engineer who does excellent estimations; the manager who sedates the monkeys; the technical lead who pushes the idea of keeping the team size small; the kick-ass programmer who quietly fixes the first broken window or the young recruit who changes the culture of the organization without making a lot of noise about it.

It is tragic but true; when it comes to the world of software development; a smooth sailing successful project without any panic moments does not seem to grab management attention. Add elements of panic; late night programming; working weekends or a rescue operation of an almost failed project and suddenly you have everyone giving you all the attention you want.

An excellent oracle database administrator who worked at one of our client; who for the purposes of this post; we shall refer to as Multiplitaxion Inc; received very little recognition for all his efforts.

During a casual conversation I asked him what was the most heroic moment of his life. He smiled at me and gave a reply which was somewhere on the these lines: 'none. maybe I should have taken our website database offline one or twice and then everyone in the organization would know me as a person who saved the day by bringing it back up. Maybe I should do that every five or six months and then I would be really famous individual in this organization'.

As a manager; the next time you come across a sky-is-falling event; a hero emerges out of nowhere and saves the day; sure; reward the hero; but also do a constructive analysis of why the sky-started-falling in the first place. Look hard; and you might find surprisingly new reasons and causes for the sky-falling.

As far as your smooth sailing projects are concerned; where Jack is sitting in the little corner and pushing the culture of writing clean code that takes a little bit more time; before you treat him like the legislator from Taleb's Black Swan thought experiment; do some serious soul searching and try to estimate the number of panic moments Jack is saving your organization from.

Next time you see Jack; try giving him recognition and reward for what he is avoiding with his talent and hard hard work.

Recognize your true silent heroes; give them  the recognition for their work; and you; dear reader; would have taken your first step to genuine management.

I wish you good luck.