My favorite quote
It’s about time for a new blog, seeing that the last one was more than a month ago, and this time it’s going to be as non-technical as I can make it.
“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.” – attributed to Grace Hopper
has become one of my favorite quotes during my years working in the software industry, to the extent that it has become something of a personal mantra. I’ve used it a fair number of times in the face of managers or processes that only had short-term incentives or optimizing measurable-but-less-than-sensible metrics in mind, rather than long-term actual goals. In fact, the end result usually was forgiveness being extended rather than retaliation being dealt.
In each of the cases where I decided on not obtaining permission, I went with what I genuinely considered to be the most sensible approach to a real hard problem but which was met by the usual counter-“arguments” like “too much risk and not enough short-term Return-On-Investment” – these particularly crop up when trying to introduce model-driven development, obviously. One such situation I described in my first blog (which in hindsight was much too long).
My conviction to stand up to superiors (and sometimes peers as well) was fueled in part by my Frisian genes -which tend to provide a propensity for mule-headed stubbornness- but more so by the realization that people with MBAs are generally the people with the least suitable background (in terms of education and experience relevant to software engineering) to weigh the pros and cons lying on the table and come up with the Right Decision™.
It’s interesting to note that Grace Hopper was an officer in the US Navy. To me this proves that even in an organization as hierarchical as the military, it is sometimes possible or even required to do something that’s not actually approved or sanctioned by the powers that be in order to answer the call of duty and achieve the important goals. In her case it certainly did lead to forgiveness -at least in the sense that it outweighed the severity of the retaliation that did occur- and even recommendation: Hopper eventually rose up to the lofty rank of Rear Admiral.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that Hopper had a large hand in coming up with the first COBOL language implementation. I’m sure she must have thought at the time that COBOL was A Good Thing™. I’d wonder what she would think of our present IT world which apparently runs for a good 80% on good’ole COBOL, with millions of new lines of code of it being written every day (maybe even on weekend days!). Maybe we need some more boldness-without-permission to go and rid the world of it.