June 02, 2003

The buckstopper: or why it’s not always a good idea to pass the shit downwards

If you’re a developer, or a designer, you’ll probably know exactly what I’m about to write about. But don’t, for the love of clicks, let that stop you reading. Prepare to nod your head sagely as I relate a tale of woe, gnashing of teeth, and breakdown in communication.

Are you ready? Then I’ll begin.

Developers and designers are the very cogs of most of the IT industry. They build stuff. They don’t write documents on how to build stuff (in fact most developers/coders are renowned for never documenting what they do). They’re usually crap at selling stuff. God knows they don’t test stuff. And if there’s any management going on in their part of the multiverse, they will try to remain blissfully unaware of it. What they do is build. They create. They get their hands dirty, they push buttons, scan pictures, shove pixels, and recompile all day long. And they generally like being surrounded by like-minded creators (cf. management, above).

They’re often referred to as resources. Wait a minute. Let me rephrase that: we’re often referred to as resources. See? I’m one. I’m guessing, you’re one. Or perhaps you were one, and now you’re middle-management. That’s OK. There’s a little creator in all of us, struggling to get out (there’s some thought that accountants have managed to completely restrain theirs with leather strap, but no conclusive proof).

Right. Resources. That’s a really cool word to describe us. And it’s also, if you think about it, somewhat derogatory. So don’t think about it too much. Think creators instead.

And here lies the rub. Actually, it’s not so much a rub, as a shit cascade. It doesn’t always happen, but I’ve seen it happen often enough that I’ve spoken about it to other creators on occasion, and mulled it over in my head. Now I’m writing it down.

In the beginning there was the client. And the client saw the project. And the client became unhappy.

Despite what you may have been led to believe, somehow the world continues to exist when this happens. The reasons for the client’s unhappiness can range from the very genuine lack of delivery of a product or service, all the way up to simple, universal incompetence on the client’s part. But wads of cash (or even wads of promised cash) seem to act as eau de capable. They mask the stench of insecurity masquerading as righteous indignation, and waft the cascade on its way.

The client will communicate their unhappiness to the person in the account liaison position. This person is usually someone who is just like a salesperson – with the distinction that he hasn’t sold his soul to Satan, he’s leased it out. Also, they tend to be good looking. Clients don’t like dealing with ugly people.

Now, the account liaison person will communicate the client’s concerns to the project manager. Note the delicate use of the euphemism communicate. In reality, this communication will be of the sort used by Chicken Little. Panic will set in. Not, however, in the resource’s world. They’re creating. But above them, storm clouds of client management angst have begun to gather.

The project manager will now approach the appropriate resource or resources, and the problem will be… communicated to them.

At this point, let us freeze-frame, step back from the scene some may find all to familiar, and consider the trousers of possibility.

On the one hand (or leg?) the client’s unhappiness could stem from non-delivery. Or a genuine fuckup by the creator. That’s OK – that happens.

On the other hand (and this is likely to be the hand that was caught in a meat grinder at a young age, and still frightens young children), the problem could be something that was:

  • the result of a miscommunication,
  • a bad project specification,
  • the client reviewing the project suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia,
  • the client’s wife not liking the colour blue,
  • or (and this is the one that really bites), this client, who has no technical training, nor design training, and is in fact handing over cash to you because you and your colleagues do indeed have this training, suddenly decides that they’re the expert (“Change the font!” “Move the graphic!” “Why can’t it do this all automatically without my help?” “What do you mean if I enter bad data it doesn’t give the right results?!”)

So now, you’ve had the client shit cascade on account liaison, account liaison shit cascade on the project manager, and the project manager deliver the final coup de merde on the resource, who’s only crime is that they applied their training and skill to the task. You’ll notice that I’m conveniently ignoring the case where the resource made a mistake on the delivery. Or maybe you won’t – that’s not the point of this article.

Unfreeze frame. We return to our resource - nay, creator. As they glance, post-communication, disconsolately at the floor, they realise that the, um, buck stops here. Once again they begin mentally reviewing their plans for their future, all of which start with an air-ticket to London. They browse to a travel site.

And inside? The muse has been wounded. While above them, people have done their job, mission accomplished, situation under control, the client is happy, sir. Which is ironic, because that client has just, indirectly, lessened the efficiency of their resource, and probably won’t get work of such creative calibre again. Not, it would seem, that they wanted it, in the first place. Sadly, money has never been an adequate substitute for taste.

Yes, resources make mistakes. But it’s incredibly demoralising when you are always the final one in the chain (whether it’s your fault or not), the last to be blamed: the buckstopper.

It doesn’t always happen like this. There are many examples of superb organisations, with fantastic account liaisons and project managers, that protect their resources from the vagaries of client whims. Keep the client happy, and keep the product-service-builder happy. Hey – even the odd reasonable client has been known to exist.

I just wish to create without having to constantly swab out my environment.

Note to my current employers, who I know avidly follow The Rites: this article is not about you. Note to my previous employers: this article is not about you either.

Note to all employers prior to that: you’re on your own.

  :::  a Written ritual performed at 04:46 PM   :::   ritual observers [1]   :::  


You could always let your cat have it a little bit. That way your not baring the full brunt of the buckstopper (joke). However, being a resource also has it's advantages in these situations. The ability to change passwords and user names can be fun. Even swapping mouse buttons around can be enjoyable. I personally like to put people's machine in a perpetual state of rebooting.

Posted by: Ryan at June 2, 2003 08:31 PM
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