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Posted on: Friday, March 20, 2009

I spend countless hours out of my job life trying to interview managers who try to draw strict boundaries between personal and professional life. 'Don't take it personally', seems to be the management advice we seem to be giving our young and budding managers, as if it were some management mantra of success we are whispering down down their ears.

We train them to become oblivion to what can happen over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer; where else what we should be teaching them is The Godfather

If there is one thing I've learnt after years of working with small, yet closely knit teams of kick-ass developers, it is a lesson The Godfather inscribes rather clearly and articulately --- "In business, everything is personal".

In his book, The Art of Start, Guy Kawasaki, advices young and budding entrepreneurs to 'make it personal' when pitching their idea to venture capitalists:

I recently met an entrepreneur who wanted to start an online service to enable people to create trusts for their pets. She was concerned that sometimes people died before their animals. Her pitch hinged on the fact that nine million pets are euthanized every year in the United States.

My first reaction, as a venture capitalist, was that nine million pets may get euthanized, but not all of them because their owners died. Few are probably euthanized for this reason, so the market isn't as big as she thinks. My second reaction, as a dog owner (Rocky Kawasaki, boxer), was that she was right: What will happen to Rocky? He wasn't included in any of my family's wills and trusts.

The lesson is this: Position your product or service in the most personal way that you can. "What happens to Rocky?" is much more powerful than "What happens to the nine million pets?" If you hook  me with a personal concern about my own dog, I can extrapolate this to the millions of other people who are concerned about their pets.

For someone who told you dear reader, why no-one cares about you, your product or your blog, asking  you to add 'personal touch' to your work life might sound contradicting; but it isn't. It is the very fact of how the craft of building awesome software happens around the globe. The personal touch with each other, is, as a matter of fact, the secret sauce of hugely successful teams. An innocently unplanned team dinner is often the best project management tool ever.

Investors worth their salt knew the importance of personal touch even in a field as detail oriented, based on facts and numbers as financial investment. Steve Yegge  describes the warren buffet rule of investment in his rather long winded post on requirements.

The rest of Steve's post of-course is irrelevant to the context of this post, but what strikes me most, is Steve's description investors like Warren Buffet and how importance they give to the 'personal element' while deciding their investments:

Let's say, for instance, that you hear that Subway (the sandwich franchise) is going to do an IPO. They've been privately held all these years and now they're going public. Should you invest? Well, let's see... the decision now isn't quite as cut-and-dried as it was in their rapid-expansion phase, so, um, let me see, with current economic conditions, I expect their sales to, uh... let me see if I can find their earnings statement and maybe some analyst reports...

No! No, No, NO!!! Bad investor! That's the kind of thinking that loses your money. The only question you should be asking yourself is: how many Subway sandwiches have I eaten in the past six months? If the number is nontrivial — say, at least six of them — and the rate of sandwiches per month that you eat is either constant or increasing, then you can think about looking at their financials. If you don't eat their sandwiches, then you'd better have a LOT of friends who eat them every day, or you're breaking the cardinal rule of Buffett and Lynch.

Snap back to the world of software development. Diving into the depths of time, back in the days of Multiplitaxion Inc, I witnessed a senior manager being accused of granting a junior developer high ratings on his appraisal because he had better personal touch with the individual. This senior manager spent a decent amount of time trying to defend himself and ended up proving how the individual was way more efficient than others in question.

As I watched the incident unfold, I worked hard to figure what was so grossly evil about giving someone a high rating because he had a strong personal relationship. A strong relationship that had resulted out of mutual respect for each other's competency. A relationship formed out of working closely together during; and even after work hours. What was so wrong with honoring a strong comradeship based on mutual respect for each others quality of work.

During my course of software development, I've seen people lose their jobs for personal reasons, people get promotions for personal reasons and projects getting stalled because of relationships gone sour with clients because of personal reasons. I have been a personal witness to a rather crappy code base getting accepted because the client liked us, during the early part of my life as a developer. That's how powerful personal things are; even in professional life. 

You can sit here, bitch, moan and cry about how all of that is unfair; or you can embrace the fact and connect to your customer, clients and readers on a personal level; because if you do, they will reciprocate; and that, dear reader, will be a genuine relationship.

A relationship where you will earn, not just a customer, a client or a reader, but an honest well-wisher, who, in the long run, will care; not about you; but about whatever-it-is-that you have to offer them and the value it adds to their life.

In the world of software, much like pretty much everywhere else, everything is personal and if you don't get that, I'm going to have to call you an blooming-idiot and assume you don't take it 'personally'.

On a serious note, realizing how small personal touches and relationships have large impact on everything, is a crucial first step to understand software development in general and project management in particular. Connect with your team, your clients and your readers at a personal level; after all;  when it comes to business or your professional life, everything is in fact personal.