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Buzzword Bob

Taming the Team Tyrant

8:59 AM – Buzzword Bob calmly climbs aboard his ergonomically efficient office throne.  His was special-ordered – not the standard-issue sort of desk chair found in all the other engineers’ cubicles.  He flicks on his flat-screen monitor (wouldn’t dream of leaving it on sucking power all night) and types his 10-character password to log on.  Bob was the first in the department to have a flat-screen. Since he was sure he was sensitive to something about the CRTs, he had early-adopted the LCD screen when it first hit the market (at a premium price, of course).  When the display lights up, we notice that Bob’s color palette is different from the rest of the team’s.  His is optimized for viewing by males suffering from color blindness – not that Bob is color blind, but he feels you should always be prepared.

Buzzword Bob’s cubicle is a monument to efficient austerity.  No photos of the family are anywhere to be found.  There are no Nerf guns, puzzle cubes, company-logo Frisbees from the last summer picnic, or swag coffee mugs.  Trademark trash and toys are beneath Bob.  He’s a serious individual doing an important job.  Bob shows no alliances and no hints of a personal life.  He wants the world to know he’s here for one reason only – profession.

Bob’s keyboard is set up as Dvorak, of course – QWERTY is inefficient.  Bob is proud that he spent the extra time to make the transition, and he’s confident that he gets more done every day now as a result.  From the corridor, we see the glow emanating from Bob’s cube is different from the rest of the block.  A couple of years ago he brought in a prescription for full-spectrum lighting to be installed over his work area – to stave off seasonal affective disorder.  Bob has never actually suffered from the condition, but he reasons he’ll be at peak efficiency with the threat removed.  The company had complied with the installation after squelching a bit of grumbling from the facilities manager when Bob hinted at a legal escalation.

9:55AM – Bob heads down the hallway toward the conference room for the 10AM staff meeting.  He pauses at the printer to pick up the printout of his weekly status report.  He’ll still be the first one there, scowling at each team member as they arrive at 10:01, 10:03, 10:05…  Bob wonders out loud why they don’t understand that tardiness wastes everybody’s time.  If the company could recoup all the minutes lost in any given week waiting for everybody to straggle into meeting rooms, they could probably design and launch a whole additional product line.

Bob is particularly proud of his status report today.  He had allocated an extra half-hour to its production, starting at 3:30 the afternoon before and spending all the way down to straight-up 5:00 go-home time getting it perfected.  While the report itself is never actually turned in (Bob simply reads from it when it is his turn to talk), Bob reasons that a cleanly-formatted document is important.  He feels that the other team members’ roughly scrawled notes in the margins of their notebooks and “uh”-riddled ad-lib status reporting is unprofessional and reflects an overly-casual approach to the job.  Bob seethes as he suffers through their unrehearsed “Oh, and I forgot to bring up that I finished the USB interface last week, too…” comments tagged onto the end of their turn.

Bob’s turn goes well.  He has taken over the review process for the specification document because nobody else on the team seemed to be stepping up to the responsibility.  The spec was way behind schedule when he took it over, and it’s been like pulling teeth to get everybody on the team to come up with the right level of specification detail for their part of the project.  Furthermore, the other engineers keep changing the design – each time forgetting to come to him to update the spec and never calling a review meeting to get the new version of the document approved by the change control board.  Despite the irresponsible engineering behavior and the organizational chaos, Bob feels he’s gotten the spec pretty well under control, and he’s happy to report that they’ll have everything they need for the “specification complete” milestone within a couple of weeks.  Privately, he’s annoyed that the team is actually full-fledged into the “design and implementation” phase already – working on the milestones out of order.  That lack of discipline, Bob reasons, is just another example of how the company could be doing better.  If the most successful engineering team in the organization is this lacking, how must the rest of the company be getting by?

Bob sees himself as the first hope of his engineering group.  He feels he is the prototype of the employee of the future.  If a company is to survive in today’s complex world, Bob reasons, it will have to be by careful adherence to well-conceived policies by responsible, long-term employees.  He knows that he carries an uneven share of the burden in propelling the organization into that state, but he feels that his efforts will be someday rewarded.

The rest of Bob’s team sees things a bit differently.  The hallway conversations usually begin at about 5:02 when Bob has left the building.  Bob’s nickname comes from the fact that he uses the buzzwords and acronyms for everything.  Communication is more efficient that way, you see.  As far as anyone can tell, Bob hasn’t actually designed anything in the past five years.  He’s moved from project team to project team with his reputation sometimes arriving after the fact.  Bob immerses himself in the procedural aspects of the project, cursing his peers as they evolve the design into a functional state, bad-mouthing marketing when they come in begging for that one extra feature that will really bring in the customers, and complaining to management when anybody deviates from policies. 

If you’ve been in engineering more than a couple of weeks, you’ve probably been on at least one team with a “Buzzword Bob.”  If you don’t have one on your team and can’t remember one in your experience – beware.  It may be you!  Buzzword Bob is the antithesis of the thinking engineer.  He doesn’t understand that design and problem solving are creative processes – disciplines that can’t be completely proceduralized and automated by a series of rules and policies.  While a little dose of BB may keep a highly-creative team in check, BB can be the death of team spirit in a productive engineering team.  The effect can be worst in a highly-successful organization where layoffs and re-organizations haven’t blown through to prune the Bob-like branches from the family tree.  If you’re managing a team of bright engineers, beware the Bob.  You’ll get your design done better, faster, and (maybe most important) happier if your engineers can work at the front-edge of their comfort zone rather than under the constant passive-aggressive peer oppression of spoilers like Buzzword Bob.

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