The Most Annoying Habit Of A Software Manager

MineI really hate it when managers refer to people (developers) as resources! I am not sure if this is an issue in other fields, but I do know software and it is rampant. Everyone is always concerned with resources.

"We're going to need more resources"

"Are you sure we have the resources?"

It really is hard to get good resources these days. The longer I spend building software, the more I find myself annoyed when I hear this talk of resources. Hardware is a resource, so is possibly computing power, certainly crude-oil; people are not resources!

Referring to people as resources, creates an impression that developers are plug-and-play components. Worse than that it makes it seem as if there is a readily available and inexhaustible supply of these "resources". Of course, these days we all know that even real resources such as oil, gas are not inexhaustible or as readily available as they have been in the past. But the attitude fostered by using the word remains the same.

The problem with this one is that, it's quite insidious. That's how all the big boys talk, you want to play with the big boys, you gotta pick up the lingo. Any fresh-faced young manager or developer can instantly make themselves sound more "with-it" by throwing the R word around. And when everyone around you is doing it, you can't help but fall into it as well. It happens to me all the time, so I have to mentally kick myself every time I catch myself doing it.

It's about respect you see. Like calling the waiter serving you in a restaurant – "garcon". Noone likes being referred to as "boy" and they like it even less if you equate them to an inanimate carbon rod. If you're going to treat your developers as amorphous balls of goo, don't be surprised when they don't buy into your "corporate vision" and couldn't give a rat’s ass about the products you're building.

If you're a manager or even a developer with a penchant for calling people resources, please stop! If you have non-verbal references (in spreadsheets, schedules etc), go and change them all to the names that should have been there in the first place. If you hear others using it, pull them up on it. I am a believer in the fact that a lot of small changes, over time, can add up to making a big difference (more on that later) and this one small change will make a big difference all on its own – I guarantee it.

What I like to do these days, every time I hear the word "resources", is ask the question:

"You mean people, right?"

Cause you never know, they could mean gold bullion, in which case I would agree – those things are hard to come by and you can never have too much.

Image by Uncle Kick-Kick

  • Man.. don’t get me started on ‘resources’ — well you did — I used to think I was the only one – but God… ‘resources’. Oh not bad, I managed to not rant further, I must be getting wiser.

    • Hey Kamal,

      Well, all I can say is that I must not be as wise as you, considering I couldn’t keep my mouth shut :).

    • SodaJeff

      Alan can be annoyed… but the truth is: ALL employees are plug & play resources. In the industries of HR, compensation, etc we are all officially known as Human Capital. The work we do is fundamentally no different than any other piece of machinery or office equipment. We are all here to either SAVE money or MAKE money for the company. We are resources – plain and simple. The only point worth debating is if you are an asset to a liability to the company. If you create something the company can keep, consume, or re-sale – then you are an asset (most developers). If you are administrative, you are likely a liability (PM, QA, Mgmt, etc)… it’s just business.

      • catch

        I don’t like the word ‘resources’ either, but it’s a rare case where business jargon turns full circle and maps to reality. ‘Resources’ is a term that’s pretty much exchangeable with labour-power, which is pretty much exchangeable with variable-capital – which are straight out of political economy and Marx’s critique of it.

        The tendency for all work within capitalism is towards generic, easily reproducible tasks – from craft to manufacture to mass-production; from production, to assembling; from directly working on machines to monitoring of machines doing work that has been mechanized. That’s not always a bad thing – compare click through QA to automated testing, but it’s a tendency that should be recognised, and referring to people as resources is a clear part of it.

        Software development, at least in my experience of it compared to other jobs (including formerly highly-regarded professions like teaching), still retains a lot of creativity, so it’s not surprising that in this area that the use of language in relation to workers reflects the desire and tendency to equalize that work until developers really are interchangeable – which is the case with many other industries where previously high skilled workers have slowly been replaced with lower-paid, lower-skilled and easier to replace counterparts. I don’t like analogies much but the car industry in the ’60s was an area with a highly skilled workforce and a lot of growth, which was (forcibly) transformed over the subsequent four decades.

  • Steve

    This has been bothering me for about a year; using the term “resources” is very demeaning.
    Also annoying is the phrase “Industry Thought Leaders”.
    “Going forward”, I say we work on creating a word/phrase for thoughtless leaders who regurgitate this crap.

    • There are quite a few phrases that are buzzwordy and should probably not be used, but “resources” is a pet peeve of mine, since it devalues people directly.

      • Samecoin

        Not “Industry thought leaders” but “Chief Resources” :-)

        • Aaa rated resources ;-)

          Seriously, its the world of HR, get use to it.

  • remi bourgarel

    About “garcon”, it’s strange that you feel this way ’cause in france there is no problem in calling the waiter “garcon”, it’s pretty common and there is nothing behind it, it’s just is job “garcon de café”.
    But you’re right about “resources”, we are not gasoline. Maybe our problem is that we feel like we are like scientist or artists and manager see us as hand worker.

    • Yes that is true, but the thing is, most people aren’t in france (except for french people of course :)), you wouldn’t call a waiter “boy” in the US, you could of course but you’d be a bit of a douche if you did :).

      I believe that how we verbalise affects what we actually think, one may not mean to be demeaning but that doesn’t make it alright.

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  • Reminds me of this quote I came across and stuck in my Quote for the Day blog:

    It amazes me that the same people that consider “developers” fungible are upset when the resources consider them equally exchangeable.

    “Resources” is a very “big company” term, thus you have “Human Resource” departments. Likewise it’s a term I try avoid, although I will use it in a context that does not just mean man-power (people-power? staffing?) but talking about materials and/or other things as well.

    Regarding the interchangeability of developers, I’ll never forget the project I was on that was under-scoped and under-resourced from the get go, and 60% of the way through the project manager decided to double the size of the development team to try and get it in on time. I’d asked him if he’d read “The Mythical Man Month” and he said, “Yeah, but I’ll make it work…”.

    He didn’t.

    Good read as always. Where do you get all your ideas for blog articles?

    • Hi Evan,

      It is a bit of a big company term (also a bit of a consulting company term as well), I guess I feel like every big company could use a bit of small company mentality.

      Yeah it’s funny how we all tend to often think that we can do better no matter what the prevalent wisdom is, sometimes people really DO need to get burnt before they realise what’s what, you just hope they don’ t burn a bunch of other people in the process.

      Ah, ideas for blog posts, ideas are funny beasts, infact you just gave me an idea for a blog post :). Seriously though I’ll probably write up something about getting ideas, it’s difficult to explain before I have ordered my thoughts, leave it with me, I’ll write it soon.

  • I must say.. you are absolutely correct. We developers do have value….

  • av

    That’s why the turnover is as high as it is in software….nearly disrespectful attitude towards developers and you’re right, it is rampant!

    • Quite right, people will go to great length to remain in a place where they are treated like human beings and feel like they are valued.

  • Al

    I never use “resources” to refer to people, but I really don’t think it’s as bad as you make it sound.

    You say, “Referring to people as resources, creates an impression that developers are plug-and-play components.” I disagree. That is how you are interpreting it. The person saying it usually does not mean it that way. They mean there are things required to complete this project, and people with specific skills and the ability to work together are some of those things.

    And let’s remember we’re talking about business results here. My value to a project is not that I’m a unique and beautiful snowflake. My value is that I have specific skills and knowledge. People are not plug-and-play components, but their skills *should be* replaceable on a mature, self-aware team.

    In other words, I am not a resource, but my expertise with our chosen development platform, my experience mentoring and leading technical people, my understanding of our business domain — those are resources.

    As a developer, I understand that project managers have a million things to juggle, and I don’t need them to refer to me as a person instead of a resource. I just need them to treat me like a person.

    • I do know where you’re coming from, but as I mentioned, how we verbalise things often affects how we think, especially if we do it often, every day. Consider that many people who are being sexist or racist, don’t really mean their remarks that way, but does it make it any more right?

      I wish we could leave people out of the equation and just deal with skills, but skills come attached to people, who have feelings etc. But I will go as far as to say if you specifically refer to skills as resources that’s fine, as long as you don’t shortcut it to people.

      One time when I was really sick for a long time, I was listed as a project risk in the schedule, because I was a knowledge silo. Not my skills, me personally, how do you think that made me feel?

      • Al

        What you’re saying makes sense to me, and honestly, I also used to get annoyed hearing phrases like “human resources.”

        I suppose that, as with most interactions, a lot of it depends on your corporate & team culture. I work on a team in a company where I can trust that most people have a basic level of respect for each other. So, if someone calls me a resource, I don’t feel that they are diminishing me; they are just trying to communicate ideas more efficiently.

        However, if my past interactions with a manager made me feel that he or she thought developers were all exchangeable cogs or didn’t value my contributions, then I might get very annoyed being referred to as a resource.

  • Absolutely. I’ve noticed that the fashion is now to say “resource” and not even use the plural. Which implies that people aren’t even units, but just quantities of a liquid commodity. This is just not a healthy or realistic way to talk.

    • Yeah i’ve noticed this one as well, “I’ll have one liter of developers thanks” :), not good.

  • I hate hearing ‘resources’ almost as much as I hate being referred to as a ‘consumer.’

    • Haha, I was once referred to as a prosumer, because the con in consumer implies negativity :).

  • David

    “I am not sure if this is an issue in other fields”
    I think it’s a pretty standard term now. Hence the “Human Resource” Department.

    I always thought it was a pretty horribe term as well.

  • Where do you hear managers calling people resources?

    The name Human Resources has always begged the question of why there were not departments for the various types of non-human resources. It does not seem like a taxonomy that helps any reasonable organisation achieve any reasonable goals.

    • Hi Peter,

      I’ve heard it just about everywhere I’ve worked, it often seems like the more you try to eradicate it the faster it spreads (to other people using it), like some kind of zombie locust infestation :).

  • Ben

    Ha Ha … I’m totally gonna use that “you mean people”. I agree with your point, I think dehumanising everything makes folks feel better (like their organisations are some sort of well oiled money making machine).

    The danger there is at least two fold.

    i) Like you said people don’t like being refered to machine parts.
    ii) People are, in fact, not machine parts and expecting them to behave so is likely to lead to disappointment somewhere down the line.

    • I do believe that you’re right, maybe they think that if we sound like we should be making money, we will infact start making more money. I think the opposite is true, an inverse relationship.

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  • Perhaps I should re-think my use of ‘cost-center’ and ‘factory’ too.

    • Those are ok depending on your audience, talk about ‘cost-center’ to accountants and you will be ‘on the same page’ :).

  • yes, absolutely right and agree with you. Now a days we need to ask “you mean people right?” Even in day to day life software engineer use “resource” as the synonym for the same thing which they want to start with their family.

    Though sometime they take meaning of Resource as the physical things but its very hard to treat people as “Resource”

  • Hi Alan and thanks for the perspective.
    In our company, we spend a lot of time & energy in creating and sustaining “warmth” as one of the core values and an important part of our culture. Firstly, we recruit people who share our thoughts about how human warmth plays an important role in creating good and lasting relationships to our clients, and in building a good culture and community in our company. We need people to care. Secondly, we prioritise common activities so we can spend time together (most consultants work with external clients). Not much point caring for eachother through Jabber alone. Thirdly, we spend some time reflecting on who we are, how we interact and what we would like to do together. Acknowlegding that language is an important part of the culture in the company, the words we use can be quite revealing. “Resources” is cold and business-like. People, colleagues, consultants, developers, even co-worker is better. A developer is a person, a resource is a finance sheet of income/cost.

    • That’s certainly a good philosophy and if a company can stick by this through thick and thin, I bet they will be rewarded for it in multiple different ways, not the least of which being awesome retention rates.

  • The resource is skilled labour hours, not people.

    If you task a project by the duration it will take then it is obvious to use the number of labour hours at your disposal to exact that. As such, the time available is a resource to achieve the task at hand.

    If your project manager thinks people are resources they are narcissistic and are certainly untrained in their profession.

    • I see what you’re saying, but somehow I don’t think managers are referring to hours when they say, “we need more resources”. It always directly translates into, “we need more people”. And anyway, since people supply the labour hours, it really becomes synonymous does it not?

      I don’t know about narcissistic or untrained, but I do know that many managers certainly think of people as resources, maybe not consciously, but it is a fact, the turnover rate in this industry attests to this.

      • Matt C. Wilson

        It’s not synonymous if, as you point out here, a person can only reasonably be expected to produce a finite number of skilled labor hours per day (say, 8?)

        In that case, maybe your project manager is doing you a favor by asking for more “resources” (e.g. people) and not more hours. :)

        It’s also not synonymous if, in the context of the request, the types of skilled labor are numerous. If a project needs more business analysis, more quality assurance, more usability research, more technical writing… and LESS code creation, would you enumerate all of the types of labor needed or would you use a catch all? What if the net number of people needed wouldn’t change? What if it’s all the same person?

  • Cristian

    I am sorry, but I really do not think the term ‘resources’ is as bad as you are saying. I think you probably just have a personal dislike for the word itself. We all are resources, human resources. It does not matter if you are a programmer or not here. Human resources is a, I would say, globally used term to describe the workforce. It is indeed a modern term but it’s been around for a while and there is nothing demeaning about it. Have a look on wikipedia for a nice description of the term. Would have been more worried if you had been called something else like: cattle, sheep, herd, stock, etc.

    • I don’t think of myself as a human resource :). This term has been around a while and it most certainly has negative connotations, we have just grown up with it, and consider it part of the zeitgeist, so are mostly desensitized to it. If you’re called a resource to your face, you might as well be called cattle or stock, because the implication is that there are a bunch of you and you’re all interchangeable.

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  • Will Rogers
    • Haha, perhaps I am, but as I said I am a believer in little things making all the difference. Little things like how people refer to each other, the tone of voice you use, asking for other peoples opinions and a slew of others. And this doesn’t mean everyone tiptoes around everyone else, quite the opposite, if you build a foundation of respect and trust through doing the little things you’ll find that you’re able to be yourself and completely open at work without worrying about someone taking offense. That’s how I like to approach it anyway. Ask anyone who knows me, I have the same personality at work and out of work and I am by no means a quiet and inoffensive person :).

  • I used to consider it annoying, but now I consider it a really bad practice.
    Is not even a matter of respect (although that’s a problem too)
    Using “resource” creates the illusion that you can interchange or rearrange the team as long as “the resources numbers” are the same, but developers say Alice, Bob and Charlie have a different mix of productivity, experience, and area of expertise, and ignoring that means your’e not doing your job as project manager.
    “Some guy” wrote about that *35 years* ago: “The mythical man-month”… lot of companies didn’t got the memo yet

    • Hi Gabriel,

      It really amazes me sometimes how many software managers (or infact developers) haven’t actually read “The mythical man-month”, doesn’t stop people from referring to it though :).

  • Totally agree, Alan. Here’s my perspective as someone who has managed a lot of people who nonetheless hates the word “resource”.

    In manger-speak, the word “resource” is used because it is broader and more technically correct in many cases than “people.” For example, you can say “I don’t think we can accomplish that with the resources we have” might mean that you need more time, people, money, software, training, etc.

    It’s kind of like the term “offering”. Because “offering” is a more general term than “product”, it ends up being a better catchall phrase in many cases, even though it sounds pointy-haired manager-ish. Otherwise, you end up confusing people by calling a “service” a “product” or whatever. If you use the word “offering” it generally works for everything.

    So I understand the manager’s instinct to use words like “resource”. But I also understand that 95% of the time, when managers say “resources” they mean “people”. And I know that as a person, I hate being thought of as a line on a spreadsheet or whatever. I’m a person dammit!

    As a rule, I never use the word “resource” when talking to the “resources” themselves. (e.g., when talking to the team about the status of a project, use the word “people” or “team”)

    And even when talking among managers, I think the use of the word “resource” is harmful, because it feeds into this mentality that engineering is governed by a big equation (more resources = faster output). It’s not. Bringing new people on board may or may not help a particular situation.

    Which begs the question: If it’s not useful when talking to the team, and it’s not useful when talking among managers, what is the word “resource” useful for, then?

    • I also understand the instinct, and like you I still don’t like the word, and believe everyone should watch their usage of it. And you’re particularly right regarding managers not using it when talking amongst themselves otherwise it pervades the mentality.

  • Deepak

    I agree 110% with you. Calling people resources is de-grading. I created a group to voice this opinion. Join the group if you are in favor of using the term “talent” rather than “resource” for people.

  • Sam

    “Resource” certainly shouldn’t be used to refer to people, but I don’t think that it should simply be replaced by some other generic descriptor when it comes to planning. Instead, managers should be more specific about their needs. Rather than saying “I need 4 resources” or “I need 4 people”, how about “I need 2 developers, a DBA and a coffee making specialist to complete this project”?

    Even if you don’t refer to people as resources, it needs to be followed up by actually treating them as people. My previous employer renamed its HR department to People under the guise of actually caring for the staff. I never really felt that the organisation treated me (or indeed, anyone else) as a person, but rather as a cost to be kept down. I felt much better when our consultants called me a resource to my face, because even on the few occasions when they actually meant it, it at least had positive connotations of being something of value.

  • Michael

    Nonsense = “get used to it is HR…” HR needs a lot of improving. Not referring to people as things and seeing them as replaceable parts would be a step in the right direction. Just because something is common does not make it ok.

  • Lloyd Cotten

    Don’t need to say much: you hit the nail on the head this time!

  • Ken Liu

    While I have sometimes felt somewhat degraded by being referred to as a “resource”, the term is very commonly used in large corporate environments and the usage is certainly not limited to referring to software developers. Get over it. There are more important problems to fix. If you spend enough time working in a large corporation, you’ll come to realize that people really are treated as resources at some level. It’s just something you have to accept when you take a corporate job.

    Good managers know that people aren’t interchangeable whether you’re talking about software developers or other kinds of workers. However, from a management standpoint it makes sense to think of people as a KIND of resource. Suppose you are an IT manager and need a new system for counting cogs. You could buy it from Cogsoft for $300k or you could have your team of 5 developers (aka “resources”) that are paid $100k/year including benefits to build it. If you’re a manager, which is the better choice?

    BTW, if you are a knowledge silo, then you ARE a risk to a project. It doesn’t feel good to be called a “risk”, but if you leave your company, get sick, or “hit by a bus”, then the knowledge in your head could cause the project to be delayed or to fail. It’s not something you have to take personally. If you want to minimize risk on a project, then it’s a good idea to start sharing your knowledge.

    • Hi Ken,

      I would argue that there are no more important issues to fix. Everyone wants to focus on fixing some massive problems that will immediately have immesurable benefit. Such issues do exist, but you have basically zero chance of having any meaningful effect on them unless you’re CEO and even then it’s not easy. But small issues everyone has control over so what’s worse, no fixing an issue which is almost impossible to fix anyway, or not fixing something that you easily can without any effort?

      Of course you’re a project risk, but there is no need to refer to me as such to my face, and infact no need to for that phrase to exist at all, by that terminology everyone is always a project risk as they might leave the company at some point in the future. It is often not up to you to share your knowledge, if there are no other people to share with for example, or the company won’t give you time to do it. The point here is to treat people with a little empathy and more like a human being and less like a “thing”.

      • Ken Liu

        re: resources
        By “more important problems” I meant project issues or other team/culture issues. I personally think that trying to change ubiquitous business jargon like “resource” in a big company is like fighting the wind.

        Don’t get me wrong – I definitely always try to treat people with respect at work. Maybe they problem has more to do with the person doing the talking, and not the word “resource” itself. I know my manager doesn’t think of me as interchangeable, so I’m not offended if he refers to me as a “resource.”

        re: project risk
        No one is saying that YOU are a risk, are they? The risk is the fact that you have some knowledge that could potentially be lost and that might harm the project. You don’t need another person to share knowledge; you could at least document critical things that are only in your head. If the company/project manager doesn’t give you time to do knowledge sharing, it doesn’t mean it’s not a risk, it just means that they chose not to mitigate the risk, or the cost of mitigating the risk outweighs the potential impact. (e.g. it’s not a big enough deal to do something about it.)

        Suppose you had some kind of personality or laziness problem that might keep you from completing your work – then you actually might be a risk. (not saying you have any personality problems, I can tell from your blog that you are a thoughtful and careful person.) But if that were the case, you would probably not show up on anyone’s risk list, because then HR would probably have to get involved :)

        • Ken Liu

          I just reread what you wrote up above about being personally called a project risk…yeah, that’s pretty bad.

          • Yeah I didn’t really have an issue with my knowledge being a risk, it was being personally referred to as a risk that annoyed me a little :). And you’re right, once you have developed trust and good working relationship you don’t really mind how people refer to you, since you’re aware of what they really think. But, it goes to forming a pattern, people get so used to using particular words that they keep using them even when the people they are talking to are new and don’t have the same relationship with them and that’s no a good thing. It is much better to get used to calling people by their name for example and/or referring to them as people, produces good vibes for a generally happier workplace regardless of how new people are to the environment :).

  • Unfortunately, developers are the only resorces that software managers can plug-in and play. This is truth, crazy annoying worst habit of all software managers also I observed in my professional career. Many deal with programmers just as they need them for the ongoing project and they only deal with things that are related with the project. How a professional approach :) I think this is somehow a result of globalization. Managers can outsource a project, or hire :) programmers for the project period.
    So even what are you coding is not important. Most deals with man-hour calculations…

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  • Dhruv

    I totally agree with you — I’ve felt the same anguish myself — multiple times — in the past.

  • Jim

    Just wanted to chime in and let you know “resources” is not just in software developement. Any company that does project based work, I’ve seen, calls employees “Resources”. People just isn’t a professional enough term it seems

  • “Resources” bugs me, too. Another one lately I have been hearing is the use of the word “solution” as a verb. “I don’t want to solution this now. This meeting isn’t the right forum…”

    Another one is “parking lot”, which apparently is a purgatory for good ideas that have not been conceived by the highly paid consultants moderating the meeting. Ideas remain in the parking lot until sufficient time has passed that no one can remember who conceived the idea, thereby allowing the consultant to pose the idea as their own. Parking Lot is quite versatile; it has been used as both noun and verb.

    • Solution – really? Haha, nice one, that’s horrible :).

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  • Manveru

    People at companies are asset, valuable asset, at least it should be valuable. However, while they are not probably resource, the manhours are resources in fact. This is a valuable amount of work to be put in the job to be done. Sad truth, truest reality.

  • Joaquin Valdez

    I think most annoying is when they constantly ask you to fill progress reports, interrupt you with emails, schedule progress meeting, etc…. while you are in a rush to deliver something. They can make you waste valuable time.

  • Chintan

    I have been constantly stopping people from calling everyone resource. Whenever I hear the R word.. I say dude I am a living creature and not a printer..