Friday, 22 December 2006

Always With the Coal Face

(Metaphors I'm sick of -- part 1)

Management types love telling me that, as a software developer, I "work at the coal face." Here's an example: "diversity will equally welcome ideas from middle management and from the coal face." I find this comparison patronising and disrespectful and I'm all for seeing it on your next business meeting bingo card.

In the interest of killing off dodgy metaphors and ruffling feathers, let's explore the differences between the a coal miner and, say, an information worker...

The information worker goes to work in an office building, generally one built above ground
The miner goes to work deep, deep underground

The information worker wears business/business-casual/casual attire
The miner wears protective clothing and a headlamp

The information worker sits at a desk and has the occasional opportunity for creativity
The miner stands or squats or drives and performs manual labour

The information worker uses computers, telephones, and photocopiers
The miner uses heavy machinery and possibly explosives

The information worker holds one or more tertiary degrees (or at least a high school diploma)
The miner has completed a training program related to his duties at the coal face

If the information worker screws up, his life is not at risk (restarting his computer might fix the problem)
If the miner screws up, he might die and his coworkers might die

The information worker probably looks a bit this guy (note the sweater):

The miner probably looks a bit like this guy (note the coal dust):

As a software developer, I'm the connection between management and the raw code just as the miner is the connection between his managers and the coal face. However I don't work in a mine. In telling me I'm working at the coal face, are you implying this project caries significant risks ( probably does but I doubt management has taken any steps to mitigate those risks or even evaluate them)? Are you comparing my seven years of tertiary education to, at most, a trade qualification--and if so, why did you hire me? Are you willing to state, for the record, there is no room for creativity in my position? Are you going to change my tech lead's title to "Software Foreman"? Should I bring a lunch box and thermos to work tomorrow and can I wear overalls?

I'm not as important as a government minister or an astronaut but does the prime minister talk about his minister of foreign affairs working at the "coal face" of international relations and does the head of NASA talk about his astronauts working the "coal face" of space?

Let's start thinking up metaphors for bad managers with so little respect for their employees they're willing to compare their duties to "working at the coal face."