1. Humble Beginnings and a Desire to Achieve
While he waited for his morning coffee, Achilles’ mind wandered far back into the past, with faint memories of his hometown on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean flashing in front of his eyes.
What a journey it was! He was now a proud veteran software engineer working for a multinational organisation, the size of which he could only have dreamed of even a few years ago.
The journey was arduous, tortuous, and exhausting, but not more than Achilles’ desire to achieve.
His world two decades ago was homogenous, tiny, and easy to understand. Causes and effects were readily correlated, technical proficiency and higher education were highly regarded, human relationships and networking were never a topic of relevance, and organisational culture was an alien concept. He had no clue of what lay ahead.
Soon after graduation, Achilles accepted an offer from a large corporation for a software programmer position, where he dutifully spent many years.
Although he was trained as an industrial engineer, software programming seemed like a nice extension which, in his view, was within grasp, and no more than a little effort was anticipated to fill the gap. How far from the truth those thoughts were!
His hot black coffee, now sitting comfortably in both hands, Achilles walked down the avenue leading to his modern office. The wind was chilly, and the morning was fresh.
2. The Messy State of Software Development
Achilles often wondered whether the challenges he faced as a software programmer were the product of his behaviour or attitude, whether they were unique to his situation or context, or were just manifestations of a deeper and more pervasive issue in the software industry.
In particular, the following doubts lingered for a long time.
- Why is it hard to change, despite the often unequivocal evidence and sometimes existential threat to the organisation?
- How can multiple best practices, methodologies, and assumptions coexist (Agile vs Waterfall, quality vs time vs scope, shareholder profit vs employee satisfaction) with all the apparent paradoxes they carry? Why was it difficult to empirically determine the most suitable course of action?
- What is leadership, and how would a consistent view of leadership reconcile the conflicting nature of a leader’s job? Are exceptional leaders scarce, or is the bar too high? Should all staff carry a degree of leadership within them?
Achilles slowly figured out the answers to these questions primarily through serendipity. Still, the latter can only work if the beneficiary is already on a quest to find the truth, armed with an open mind, psychological safety and critical thinking.
Achilles was lucky enough to acquire those three skills while his mind matured, shaped by (sometimes traumatic) experience.
An open mind means giving new ideas a fair go, an enzyme for change.
With psychological safety, one can readily admit mistakes, learn from them, and move on without fear of repercussions.
Finally, critical thinking is someone’s ability to pop out of their subjective existence, objectively examine their reality, notice fundamental cracks in the cultural, societal, or value edifice (should the need arise), look for explanations, and pop back in with an action list.
With psychological safety, critical thinking is more accessible as people can safely expose themselves to the truth.
- The Role of Emotional Intelligence In Modern Organizations– An Ingredient or Byproduct of Great Leadership?
3. The Newtonian View of the World
The engineering courses that Achilles was taught focused on hard sciences like physics, chemistry, and mathematics, with electrical, mechanical, software, and civil engineering theories built on top.
Exciting and relevant as they may have been, such studies did not explain the entire spectrum of phenomena that Achilles participated in creating during his career.
Engineers work in groups that are part of organisations that constantly interact with a changing and complex human environment.
The mechanistic mental models that Achilles relied on were deprived of crucial knowledge of human nature and complexity theory and could not explain creativity, faulty judgements (cognitive biases), and what appeared to be the irrational behaviour of his peers. These shortcomings caused Achilles much grief.
The discrepancy between a deterministic view of the world (where the laws of nature are immutable and causality is simple and evident) and a messy, complex one was agonising.
On the one hand, Achilles remained convinced that rational decision-making processes gave him (and his managers) the ability to effectively control the long-term evolution of complex social groups (like teams and organisations).
Therefore, Achilles maintained for a while that there was no need to delve into natural sciences or anything remotely connected with human nature and groups.
First-rate engineers, for instance, tend to take pride in not knowing anything about people. […] Human resource professionals, by contrast, often pride themselves on their ignorance of […] quantitative methods altogether.
As Peter Drucker wrote, there was a feeling of disdain even for anything related to natural or human sciences. A corollary of that assumption was that relationships were subordinate and inferior to technical proficiency, and teamwork, networking, and organisational culture, in Achilles’ mind, were irrelevant.
On the other hand, his colleagues refused to play nice, his managers’ decisions seemed erratic, and the world remained unorderly and unpredictable.
But Achilles was lucky, and occasionally through serendipity, other times through research, he pieced together a larger puzzle, a framework with better explanatory powers of how the world functioned.
After that, Achilles’ daily interactions were smoother, and anxiety hit much lower levels.
It was a great relief for Achilles when he finally acknowledged that absolute control of every detail of his world was utterly and desperately illusory.
4. Organisational Culture and Group Integration
After the first few weeks in his new job in early 2000, Achilles had made a solid impression of what life in that organisation meant.
Senior members of his team recounted many stories of extraordinary effort, late-night calls with clients, and extra long days of diligent coding to meet critical deadlines. He was often reminded that these criteria were vital if he wished to be successful.
These assumptions on the nature of satisfactory work and achievement puzzled Achilles for a long time. Wasn’t the motto always “work smart, not hard”? Surely his peers were aware of that concept already? Does working late not reflect an endemic state of fire-fighting rather than fire prevention?
Achilles had to wait many years before he came to appreciate the full potential of corporate narratives and organisational culture.
As it turned out, late nights at the office did not always signal faulty processes or a lack of planning. In most cases, it was a way of expressing personal motivation and a genuine commitment to the team and organisation by demonstrating the will to go above and beyond. It was a ritual that heralded complete integration into the team’s culture.
On the other hand, Achilles believed that innovative quality work would eventually pay off. He did not feel comfortable bowing to the mandates of what he saw as arbitrary rules of organisational culture.
These actions resonated with his core values, centred around enjoying time with friends and family, personal growth outside work, and work-life balance.
Achilles made slow progress in this organisation, never felt like a legitimate team member despite his many years there, and eventually moved on to new roles where he could grow.
But the lessons learned were immense, although making sense of them took years longer than expected. Achilles also made lifelong friends whom he called on Christmas and other Middle-eastern high holidays.
5. Context Shift and New Challenges
A fragile system, including almost all artificial objects (like tea cups or tables) and machines (like laptops and hair dryers), will buckle and break under pressure.
In contrast, Nassim Taleb’s brainchild, an antifragile system (like all living organisms, including nature), thrives under bounded stressors and slowly decays in sedentary lifestyles.
When subjected to minor, localized, but destructive environmental variations, subcomponents of a complex system will break down, fade away, and get replaced with younger, more robust components immunizing the system against future pressures of a similar magnitude.
Although he did not quite understand them in those terms, Achilles interpreted his experiences along similar lines, frequently quoting Nietzsche, “Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger“.
During his early years as an immigrant, rife with anxieties, Achilles underwent a series of paradigm shifts, an inner transformation of some sort.
Transformations are always traumatic, especially since, for people with high self-awareness, changes of such fundamental nature and magnitude directly threaten one’s identity and integrity.
Achilles learned to live with multiple identities that didn’t necessarily conflict with or compromise his core beliefs and values system.
Managing and deploying those identities in the relevant context was an important learning exercise. Achilles managed, nevertheless, with the help of his medium-sized library (which looks massive relative to his apartment) and a small but supportive environment.
Archaic ideas and Newtonian-anchored perceptions made way for modern, sophisticated, and complex paradigms better suited to deal with Achilles’ world.
Achilles carries his scars with pride; he is a survivor.
- Cultural Transformations and Resistance to Change: Understanding the Risks to Your Organization’s Growth
6. First Principles and Literature Research
7. The Software Engineering Toolkit
Agile Analysis Anthropology Architecture Books Business Management Complexity Complex Systems de Bono Decision-making Design Development DevOps Documentation Education First Principles Interface Design Leadership Modelling Operational Excellence Optimization Organisational Behaviour Organizational Culture Popular Science Process Process Engineering Process Improvement Project Management Project Risk Quantum Computing Randomness Risk Risk Management SDLC Self-Management Six Sigma Software Architecture Software Delivery Software Development Software Engineering Software Testing Solution Design System Integration Uncertainty Waterfall