Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Next Page

My friend and co-worker is the Page of Wands. At least, that’s how I think of him. He was hired as a replacement for another friend of mine, really good guy and very smart, who was laid off, mostly because he didn’t want to move and take a cut in salary doing it. While I miss the guy who got laid off, because he was so knowledgeable about the business and an all-around good guy, I like the new guy. But they can in no respect be considered equivalent resources.

My buddy the Page of Wands, or PoW as I will call him here, is struggling a bit with his job. He’s expected to know systems that haven’t been documented, turned over, demonstrated, kept updated or otherwise even tickled in years. Because his title is Senior Business Systems Analyst, he’s just naturally expected to know all this stuff. This is dangerous, but at least PoW has an awareness of the danger. That’s one of the reasons I like him.
Picture Postcard Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

For instance, if you knew a guy who was a Senior Pilot and you plopped him down in, say, an Alien Aircraft, where the knobs were meant for differently shaped hands and what little labeling on the control panel was in a language that nobody knows, would you feel safe? After all, the business requirement here is, “Fly this thing and land it safely where we want it to go.” He’s a Senior Pilot. He should know how to fly, right? Except, he’s never seen anything like this. And no one can help him. Feel safe?

“Who is your business user?” I ask him, suddenly afraid for him and anyone else near the Alien Spacecraft that is the software he’s supposed to specify, describing in detail how it functions and how it should function and what users can do with it if they are a certain role and what they can’t if they aren’t and all that.

“You are my business user,” he replies, with all the faith of a puppy.

“Yeah, but…I don’t KNOW anything about this stuff,” I protest. “There has to be someone who wants you to do this besides your boss, right?”

Most of the time that’s true. Every once in a while, something bad will happen in software development and someone in technology management will decide they know how to make a better system than the business users do. While that in itself isn’t a bad thing at all, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is usually the business appetite for such a project. Sometimes, and I have worked at these places in the past, sometimes the technology management needs to prove that the system needs to be on a different, more up-to-date technology platform. Say, you could do this from your Dick Tracy watch, right? But the system isn’t really suited for a watch-sized user interface or the people who are going to use it every day don’t have and don’t want Dick Tracy watches, etc.

I’m trying to make a sometimes complex idea easier to understand here. I don’t think anyone is asking my buddy PoW to do things on a Dick Tracy watch. At least, I hope not. Just given the high-level nature of the system, watches would be the wrong user interface. Just sayin’.

Lucky for PoW, there is a business user to talk to. I’m hoping this helps PoW but it may not.

He admitted to me that he was expected to know a lot of stuff he doesn’t know. When he applied for the job, it was as a Junior Business Systems Analyst but they hired him as the Senior Business Systems Analyst. Now, his bosses have expectations of him that he never meant to convey that he could fulfill.

So we have two mistakes here: one, the bosses hired a junior guy to be a senior guy and are now disappointed. Two, the junior guy said yes to the job offer. Now they are both stuck.

I’m not saying PoW can’t learn. Pages are students. Students learn. PoW is the Page of Wands not because he is the slickest thing since sliced bread, but because he has a really limited attention span. He can absorb information in small chunks at a time. He’s not good with slogging through vast folds of information, separating the bullhockey from the puck, so to speak, plodding through on his own to come up with the Right Answer. He’s thrilled if he’s told, “Go get the widget; it’s in the left rear corner of the blue box.” He will bring it right back, no problem.

Pretty soon, if you take some time with him, he gets why the widget was there, why “left” and “rear” and “blue” were important and meaningful. He learns as he goes. But it’s a long distance between the Page of Wands and the Magician.

Is he set up to fail? Maybe. To mean that means that there was some diabolical plot to make PoW’s life miserable specifically. Seriously? I doubt anyone has done that. Stalkers and sociopaths might do this, but generally people in business situations have a “nothing personal” thing going on. In fact, to PoW’s dismay, they may not be thinking of him at all. After all, no one cares about your career, working conditions and personal comfort like you do, so no one is likewise looking to upset those things. The bosses are likely thinking about their own career, working conditions and personal comfort, right? PoW’s situation may have just wandered into their path nearly by accident. I say nearly, because management is supposed to pay some attention to employees. The attention isn’t always what you’d like, of course.

The upshot is of course that PoW is in over his head and he’s not the only one who suffers for it. We all have to pull together to make up for the gap in his experience and confidence. Often the business users, the people with their hands on the keyboard or other user interface of a system, are not particularly skilled at software analysis. If they were, they might be doing software analysis instead of whatever the topic of the system is. And yet, without some grounding in the business topic, it’s hard to ask the right questions to get at the right answer.

As much as today’s business leaders would like to think that one business analyst is much like another, that just isn’t the case. People aren’t interchangeable parts. As much as business wants it to be true, you can’t trade a “60” in for a “30” and get the same productivity. The loss of productivity is often greater than the salary cost savings of a less-experienced person. The problem with this is that the people who made the decision to hire the junior guy and make him do a senior job are the people least likely to be burdened with the gap in ability. It’s the other people in the group who are charged in different roles with making a project successful that carry the burden of the less experienced Deer in the Headlights like my buddy PoW.

Don’t call PoW stupid or untalented. That’s not fair. He meant to be junior. His big mistake was saying yes to the job offer. The stupid or untalented tag is apt for the people who were not paying enough attention to the true skillset needed to do the job and, dutifully following directions, hired someone with the right salary range, period.

Don’t ask me either why software development costs are not reduced when underqualified candidates are charged with doing the job of a senior resource. In the meantime, I’m helping my buddy be the person his boss wishes he magically were. There's only so much I can do.

Best wishes.

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