Monday, September 22, 2008

meditation: on mastery

Hey all.  Long time no see.

Looking back over the last few weeks - few months, actually - it's plain to me that ack/nak has been teetering precipitously on the edge of becoming uninteresting.  Granted, I thought the mash-up of the Declaration of Independence with More Cowbell was a bit of meme-bending fun.  And gosh, all those posts on the current election certainly felt good when I wrote them.

Oh well.  We all go through seasons.

As the days grow shorter, I wanted to return to a topic that I've been thinking about more and more lately.  No, not moose.  But first, a few background bits for context:

From the Middle Ages or earlier, many trades in France and other European countries organized themselves into communities which came to be known as corporations or guilds. The guild system was characterized by the creation among craftsmen of a hierarchy comprising apprentices, journeymen and masters. (source)

Software development is creative. Like a wood carver who creates a sculpture, we must create the application out of raw material. In our case that material is in an electronic form, but it is still a material. On new projects we start with nothing and we begin to chip away at the material until we have a rough shape. We don't do this willy-nilly. Now you can claim that what I just said points to a mechanical and orderly process and this is true, but only to a certain extent. Like a craftsman, we will encounter situations that we have to react to. What if, after a few days of carving, the block of wood begins to show a knot? What if, after a couple of weeks, the system no longer responds to the infrastructure? This is when software development becomes a craft. We (software development practitioners) must now use our instinct, intuition, experience and skill to determine what the best course of action is. Maybe we will design an innovative solution, but we also may determine that the issue that has arisen is a fundamental flaw. In addition to being able to solving problems with skill and experience, software development includes a component of passion. If you've ever talked to a glassblower or an artistic blacksmith about their vocation, you will be met with an endless and inspiring conversation. Although it is not as common in software development, there are practitioners that exude this same excitement and energy. (source)

I really liked the second excerpt above, but I needed to add the first one to put it into context.

You guessed it, I've been thinking about how product managers "become" product managers.  More to the point, I've been thinking about how they become good at it, then how they become really good, then what happens when they master it.

After some reflection, I think that product management follows the same apprentice-journeyman-master training vector as medieval craftsmen, but without the benefit of any explicit structure, standard training, or agreed-upon criteria for evaluating mastery.  

At the beginning of our careers, if we're lucky, we find a "master" who is generous and patient - even if the products we do our learning on are neither.  Everything is a live-fire exercise in product management.  All the more reason why having someone to show you the ropes is so essential.  Book-learnin' just won't do.

Ultimately the apprentice moves on and gets a product of his own, becoming a journeyman.  And here's a bit of irony in the comparison - a journeyman product manager's meisterwerk, if successful, will always be attributed to the work of others.  So how can you evaluate whether or not the journeyman is prepared to be a master, to take on apprentices, and teach?  In a craft where you can't take credit for the output, what do you have to show for yourself?

But this is as it should be.  The product manager is the catalyst for excellence, not the source.   The craftsmanship we bring to the job, and the passion that animates that craftsmanship, is wholly focused on giving energy and focus to the people who build. . . whatever it is that you build.  

Here's something for you to think about - if you've been doing any job long enough, the surest measure of success is not having to do it anymore. The same way that Tony Bourdain the chef can't work a line anymore, I bet the masters of the product management craft can't write requirements to save their lives. Both have mastered the gestalt of their craft, and have moved on. Did medieval masters cash it in and go on book tours? I don't think so. But I bet they wished they could have.

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