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Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister

One of the saddest realizations of my career in the software industry has been discovering that no “Human Resources” manager I have worked with had heard about “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Not a single one. I’m not even talking about having read it, but at least knowing of its existence. None. Nothing. Nada.

I wonder what are the reasons for this lack of awareness. This is, after all, a book that would be a welcome read by most people in charge of others writing software. Instead, it is known mostly by those that have no hierarchical power to actually put its ideas into action: the programmers themselves. This is a tragedy; another one, as I count them.

“Peopleware” was not the first book dealing with the human aspect of programmers and coders. We have already talked about “The Psychology of Computer Programming” by Gerald Weinberg in this magazine. “Peopleware” is not only newer in its publication (1987 versus 1971) but also geared towards practical advice, while Weinberg takes a more descriptive approach.

The basic tenet of DeMarco and Lister’s thesis appears in the first chapter:

The major problems of our work are not so much technological as sociological in nature.

This book was arguably the first to propose the (still, nowadays) radical idea that throwing software to problems does not constitute a solution per se.

The main reason we tend to focus on the technical rather than the human side of the work is not because it’s more crucial, but because it’s easier to do.

Ouch.

I tend to believe nowadays that the reason why “Peopleware” is largely unknown, is because it shamelessly dives into all the uncomfortably truths of corporate life. And people do not want to be told bad news. Particularly, not “Human Resource” managers, of all people, who are supposed to actually improve the lives of workers to treat humans as resources. Their bonus might be at stake.

We are now in 2023 as I write these words, and the phrase “Human Resources” has fallen unfashionable (I hear somebody in the audience shouting “finally.”) Hence, we find monikers such as “Industrial Relations” (my girlfriend back in 1999 was preparing a bachelor degree with that name), “Personnel,” “People & Culture,” and lately “PeopleOps.” Sadly, a change in the nomenclature seldom indicates a change in the substance beneath; for by and large, the state of things has remained largely untouched. And I still have to find a single manager in one of those positions who has actually even heard about “Peopleware.”

Anyway.

“Peopleware” is worth a read even if you do not hold a management position with the political power required to change things in a hierarchical organization. If anything, it will give you a new perspective on your current employer, and might prompt you to change your current situation in various ways. For example, leaving your current employer because life is too short to have to deal with bad managers.

The general accounting convention is that all salaries are treated as expense, never as capital investment. Sometimes this makes sense, but sometimes it doesn’t.

(Chapter 20)

If by choice, merit, or sheer luck, you find yourself in such a position of power, you could shake a few things up in your organization following the learnings of DeMarco and Lister. I truly wish for that to happen. Of course, beware, because as explained in chapter 14 of the third edition,

SECOND THERMODYNAMIC LAW OF MANAGEMENT: Entropy is always increasing in the organization.

That’s why most elderly institutions are tighter and a lot less fun than sprightly young companies.

There is not much you can do about this as a global phenomenon, but you’ve got to fight it within your own domain. The most successful manager is the one who shakes up the local entropy to bring in the right people and let them be themselves, even though they may deviate from the corporate norm. Your organization may have rigor mortis, but your little piece of it can hop and skip.

The book provides a wealth of advice in a variety of topics, always in a colorful language that is not meant to make managers feel comfortable (another of the reasons why this book is virtually unknown in MBA curricula.) These topics range from hiring to office layout, overtime, “excellence,” evolution, meetings, “teamicide,” and, of course, dress codes, granting its inclusion in this issue of this magazine.

What the technology enhances is the dreadfulness of meetings. Our meetings are worse today than they were a generation ago, because a generation ago people wouldn’t have been able to bear them–they would have revolted.

Behavior that we take for granted today would have gotten you fired a generation ago.

(Chapter 31)

The discussion also famously dives into the open space madness, a folly that for the past 50 years has plagued the lives of software workers all over the world. In chapter 9, DeMarco and Lister cite a study conducted by IBM before building a new facility for their programmers, when they realized that they needed silence, and that cramming more people in smaller spaces, even if cheaper in the short term, was a bad idea:

Cost reduction to provide work space below the minimum would result in a loss of effectiveness that would more than offset the cost savings. Other studies have looked into the same questions and come up with more or less the same answers. The McCue study was different only in one respect: IBM actually followed the recommendations and built a workplace where people can work. (We predict this company will go far.)

I could go on and on and on. “Peopleware” is a timeless gem that is worth a thousand re-reads. As far as I am concerned, I actually gave a copy of it to one of my former “Human Resource” managers, but I have no idea whether they read it or not.

I sincerely hope so, if anything, because of the nontrivial amount of laughter contained therein.

Cover photo by the author.

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