Ask Forgiveness Before Permission

Successful software development requires the right leadership and the right tools.
Tue July 9, 2013 9:00 pm
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper with colleagues at the UNIVAC 1 computer keyboard in 1960.

 

By July 1986, Rear Admiral “Amazing” Grace Hopper had become something of a legend in the young computer programming scene. She earned her doctorate in mathematics from Yale in 1934 and taught at Vassar before joining the Navy reserves in 1943. In 1949, Hopper went to work for the Rand Corporation where she became the first person to write a compiled script (essentially a computer language that was based on logic rather than arithmetic). At the time it was revolutionary. In 1959, she oversaw the committee that created the business programming language COBOL. And in later years, she helped move the government toward a decentralized network of interconnected computers, a footprint that has the same macro-system architecture as what the internet would one day become.

And yet, her most recognizable contribution may have come in an interview she gave to the Navy’s Chip’s Ahoy magazine when she told a reporter, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” That phrase has lately become a mantra for many both inside and outside the computer development world. What did Hopper mean when she said that and why has it become so relevant?

For Hopper, who was largely working in unknown territory for her employers (one of the hallmarks of innovation), the philosophy was a necessity if she ever wanted to make progress. She knew that if she was able to show the results of her work after the fact rather than try to explain how she was going to get there, she would have more success. Even more than that, Hopper was reflecting on leadership, specifically the type of leadership it takes to manage creative technologists who are breaking new ground.

Hopper saw the way forward. Her vision for how software teams should behave is tantamount to what’s happening in open source cultures and the most advanced theory for managing knowledge workers in the software industry today.

“You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership,” Hopper once said. She understood the promise of technology and that management may have been getting in the way. Today, web development projects too often become more about managing the budget, timeline, and scope than the end product itself. Let’s put the focus on the deliverable, where it belongs.

Hopper also understood that software will only do what it is asked to do. “We’re flooding people with information,” she said. “We need to feed it through a processor. A human must turn information into intelligence or knowledge. We’ve tended to forget that no computer will ever ask a new question.” In other words, leaders don’t need to learn how to code; they need to ask good questions. Technology is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Today, Web development is still a mystery to many in the business world, which is why Hopper’s words still resonate for those of us in the development community. For us, it means that we have to lead by doing, but it also means that internally we have to create environments in which our developers can succeed.

The most promising organizations in the web development industry are allowing the smartest people to step up and work at their own pace, when they want to work, no permission required. Even the tools we have at our disposal reflect this management culture.

GitHub, for example, is a web-based hosting service for software development projects that use the Git revision control system. It offers both paid plans for private repositories, and free accounts for open source projects.

GitHub, the company, has an asynchronous culture with no managers. By asynchronous, I mean no set hours. By no managers, I mean NO MANAGERS. They have grown from 4 to 171 people in less than 5 years. How are they pulling it off? How do they know their employees are productive?

At GitHub, nearly 100 percent of communication and work is logged. At any time, Github “stakeholders” can review an employee’s work and see if they’re creating value. The tribe manages itself, goals are set, and results are tracked. If you’re not contributing, its readily apparent within 3 months and you’re quickly removed.

Drupal is another great example. Drupal is an open source content management system built by a community of volunteers. It allows anyone in the world to download and build websites with common features. The standard release of Drupal, known as Drupal core, contains basic features common to content management systems. These include user account registration and maintenance, menu management, RSS feeds, page layout customization, and system administration. The Drupal core installation can be used as a brochureware website, a single- or multi-user blog, an Internet forum, or a community website providing for user-generated content.

Drupal Core is built, maintained, and updated by volunteers from all over the world. In addition, members of the community can contribute modules that fix every day web development problems that aren’t addressed in Core. If your code fixes an issue or delivers a common feature, its likely to be used by the community. If it has problems, people report issues or contribute patches that will fix the issue for everyone to use.

Human beings need to be activated. The brightest among us with the most to contribute don’t need to be bridled, but enabled. Governments, corporations, and organizations who are able to create a culture that empowers individuals to act on their passion, while contributing value to the group will attract better talent and create better products.

On your next web development initiative, try shifting your culture towards one that values thought leadership and doesn’t require permission or forgiveness. It’s not as risky as it sounds.

Ethan Worrel is the founder of  Entermedia, an agile team of web development, design and strategy experts specializing in Drupal content management solutions. 

No member of the Texas Monthly editorial staff was involved in the production of this article. For more information about sponsor content,  see our FAQ .

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