A Soft Touch

I was having dinner last month in San Francisco with an IT manager at a midsize law firm in the area. He was telling tales about his IT chief.

"His style is unbelievable," the IT manager told me. "He yells or mocks you if you're not doing exactly what he wants you to do. He screams, 'You're not asking questions the right way. You're not thinking the right way. You have to change the way you're thinking.' "

The fellow looked at me across the table, cursed his boss, then said, "Change my thinking? I wouldn't change my socks for that guy."

Stinky feet aside, my dinner companion's comments bring to mind how management style -- what some people call the "soft skills" of running an IT shop -- is critical when you want to impose a sea change in the way work gets done. And in IT these days, the biggest change is happening in application development with the arrival of reusable Web services.

As Heather Havenstein reports (see Adapting to SOA), IT managers are challenged to get programmers to revise their attitudes about writing application code. I think the foot-dragging among programmers stems from two intangible forces. The first is the pleasure developers derive from their work. The second is a long-held cynicism about the long-term success of software interoperability standards.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

People who write code simply like the process of creating software. It's challenging and personally rewarding. That's why you get top executives like Microsoft's Bill Gates and SAS Institute's CEO, Jim Goodnight, who still can't resist the fun of unraveling the complexity of a tough programming problem and continue to write code for their respective companies' commercial products. There's something wonderfully gratifying about doing it right. And it's difficult for people like this to give up the control of building an application from scratch.

Also, Web services isn't the first effort to bring code reuse to the world of developers. Those past experiences make many developers suspicious about the prospects for success this time around. They remember the failed promise of object-oriented programming in the 1980s. Back then, the goal was to create a bunch of objects in C++ or Smalltalk and toss them together with standard middleware to create applications. More than 20 years later, we're doing the same thing, although instead of calling the bits of code "objects" we now call them "services."

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