Too pretty to code

These days, if you are not a Cruise, Jolie,  Depp, Jobs, Raymond or any kind of Beautiful People, then leading a major software development project is not for you. Or if you succeed, you might have a charismatic associate, because lately it seems that you really need to add well-groomed to the long list of required talents of a project lead.

One of the most surprising aspect of Software Development, whether you’re trying to help your team make technical advances or help people use better software is how much charisma is necessary.  Nerds and computer-oriented people are still often depicted as clueless and lacking in social graces.  What else but leadership is going to motivate your team to code the next, greatest app or get angels to invest in something that can’t be seen or touched?

Let me prove it with the following completely fictional tale:

The startup is well-run. It is housed in a red brick building in the historical part of downtown, but clearly there’s no money wasted on trivialities; creaky wood floors, a receptionist surrounded by dead plants and sometimes, during winter storms, snow makes its way through gaps in the windows and drop into the back of your shirt.

The team is top-notch too; experts in their field, tons of degrees (even PhD!), an efficient management team; the only people dragging their feet are interns feasting for hours in the cafeteria.

And the project itself is perfect; the software is useful, there is a demand for it, and it has really picked up speed since you signed on. There are just enough technical challenges to make it both deliverable as planned yet interesting enough to keep the team focused. And wonders of wonders, the project is actually funded!

It’s a happy, sunny little coding shop. Until the launch. Until doomsday. Until Fate destroyed the Gods using the vilainies of bad diction, adult acne and fat.

The plan is to announce the software and wow investors into funding the marketing effort. As the software itself is spectacularly boring to look at (mostly because that’s all the graphics skills that could be mustered in the absence of real designers) there isn’t even going to be a real demo.

Picture the scene, a full team of geeks and nerds dressed in their Sunday best welcoming journalists to their seats.  Big shot investors sitting in the front row, beaming from the expected ROI. And then… No drum rolls, just an uncomfortable quiet as a bald, rotund man wallows up to the microphone.

“Heh. Greetings, huh,  everyone… Today We… hmm.. Our company and hm… We… and I, I mean… I guess…”, the speaker fumbles, hesitates, pines for the miraculous oratory abilities he dreamed of last night. (It’s the Kung Fu Panda Theory – It will be okay as long as you think you’re special!)  Less than five seconds into the speech and a pall has fallen on your future.  “Who is that idiot?” is heard from the front row.  “The CEO, the guy you wanted to fund.”

And there it is, thousands of man-hours, creativity and talent wasted because the only person who was not required to have actual software skills couldn’t be bothered to practice a speech.  And you wouldn’t or couldn’t replace him. Couldn’t afford to dress up your software in something sexy. We rarely have the option of choosing our boss, and startups don’t usually have the gumption to hire image experts.  Is it possible that now on top of being able to herd cats, hit impossible deadlines and debug code written in a language you just picked up two hours earlier, you also have to be too pretty to be a nerd for your startup to succeed?

It seems that companies have caught on to the power of star designers. Sexy nerds are still in.  But frankly if you’re in a technical management position, you practice just-in-time learning for most things, code at random hours of day and night and have a significant other so that at least one person knows you own a tie. You don’t have the time to hit the gym or check on sexy trends. And if you did, you’d be the CEO, not the code gnome.

Sexy: you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The sad truth is that if you are a software nerd, chances are that you really aren’t that great at decoding people or making them hang to your every word.

If you can’t be sexy yourself (are there classes for nerds?), can you afford not to make your software sexy instead? If you can make it sexy, will management fund it? Can ANY software be made sexier?

What is sexy software anyway?

So many questions, so much knowledge missing from the Development curriculum! But if you really intend to design insanely great software, I believe somehow you have to figure out how to look insanely great yourself.