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Married to the Team

July 08, 2007

Jack Ganssle-July 08, 2007

Marriage (if you're not a drunken celebrity) is usually preceded by an engagement and a period of dating that can last years. This time allows for an important ritual wherein one spends a lot of time trying on the potential spouse for size and fit, for compatibility and friendship. Outs exist at any time during this courtship, outs that are safety valves to defuse what could turn into an over-pressured boiler once the wedding is over.

Yet half of marriages end in divorce, often within a very short period of time.

Most engineers, though, marry their team after only an interview lasting an hour or two. It's more like polygamy than conventional marriage as teams are, well, teams, comprised of many members.

Extant team members are members of an arranged marriage, as many don't meet the "spouse" till the day of the marriage. Then they're expected to work in an almost intimate way, killing each other's ideas when they're bad and accepting a constant stream of intellectual criticism that is not always well-meaning or tactfully given.

CEOs sign pre-nuptial agreements, though sometimes these are, oddly, golden parachutes that enrich them even as they destroy the company.

We spend 40 to 60 hours a week working with these people, which may be far more time than spent with one's real spouse. Though divorce from a team is easier than that from real marriage, at least after a conventional divorce one can take years to re-evaluate, to figure out what went wrong, and to pursue a different tack the next time. A work "marriage" that fails leads to another hurried arrangement " a shotgun wedding, if you will " within days or weeks to avoid financial ruin.

Bankruptcy can follow. Just as it often does with real divorce.

In a romantic courtship certain rules ameliorate failure. Avoid a hasty trip to the altar. Avoid any idea that seems brilliant at the time, when the time is a party and a couple of drinks. Get to know the other, his/her friends, interests, desires and dreams. Find congruence between these and yours. Feel a deep attraction. Recognize that, while there is love at first sight, too often we men (at least) mix that up with lust at first sight.

A team marriage is always a hasty affair. There's no bachelor/bachelorette party. No toast. The only promises akin to those implied in the I Do contract are legalistic paperwork about withholding taxes and a parking space. After a whirlwind courtship lasting perhaps only a few days the company proposes; and one has a day or two to accept. The honeymoon is a half-day of health insurance and 401-K forms followed by total immersion into all of team's problems.

Anniversary flowers, romantic dinners to nourish the relationship and the occasional present out of the blue are the grease of a real marriage to help overcome inevitable differences and spats. There are virtually no analogous tools in the workplace. Grievances fester, the rumor mill buzzes, and teams either implode or work far less efficiently than they could.

Larry Constantine, one of programming's luminaries, works half time as a family therapist. I've always thought that a wonderful commentary on the nature of teams. His legendary team-building skills presumably stem, at least in part, from his understanding of the nature of human interaction. Yet in most companies leads are simply engineers who may be clueless about helping developers work efficiently, and with as little friction as possible.

What do you think? Do we bring the skills we use in marriage to the workplace? Should we?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.


You are right-on about the need to know our co-workers better. Unfortunately, those who govern our work lives do not understand the team effort that goes on at the lowest levels, and as a result our "families" are broken up too often by inadequate pay or other recognition from above. Project ends, team is disbanded, and knowledge is lost. One of the best ways to prevent this is to stop looking at engineering groups as a collection of individuals, but as a set of teams (teams of teams) that should move as a group from one project to another. If one's skills aren't necessary on a project, allow him to develop the skills that are necessary for that team to succeed on the project, or allow him to find another team with which to work - maybe one of the guys would be a great tech writer, or has aspirations in another area within the company.

By all means, just like in marriage, preserving the union is of utmost importance, and allowing growth within that framework allows for a much better, more satisfying situation for all.

Remember Data General.

OTOH, I proposed to my wife after two weeks, four weeks later we were married, and now it's been over 20 years and 7 kids (no grandkids yet, though 2 are married).

Sometimes you just "know" when the right team member comes along.

- Andy Kunz


Jack, it's my turn to take you to task gently for some things you said about how we engineers end up marrying into a development team. I went through this again for the fourth time very recently (and happily), so please let me dispel the sense of a shotgun wedding that I got from reading the article.

You said we marry our team "after only an interview lasting an hour or two." Only one place I interviewed this time around had only one interview, and that was because the owner who was supposed to do the second interview had left the building and didn't tell anyone where he was going. (I swear I am not making this up.) Most places did a phone screen, a team leader, and a manager interview. At my almost-went-there place, I also talked to the other team members and I was there from 11 to 4. Also, consider all the time they spend with your resume before deciding to bring you in, and the time you spend researching them.

You also said, "After a whirlwind courtship lasting perhaps only a few days the company proposes; and one has a day or two to accept." Again, this has not been my experience, except for the company that gave me my first offer. I had never seen anyone move as fast as they did. And they were rather reasonable in allowing me time to go through the other interviews. Most places wanted to know in about 2 weeks. Extensions were easy to get when I explained where I was with the others.

Let's face it, the folks on the other side of the table know how it feels to be looking for a job, and in the end everyone wants the match to be a good one for both parties. So I think your overall analogy may be a little better than you gave it credit for. Also consider that I was looking from October until March; I had to resist the temptation to take the offer I got in January.

The thing that got me to writing, by the way, was the comment about getting a parking place. In 23 years, I've never had one assigned. The only people I've ever seen get those are managers at some companies; it's always been first come, first served down here in the trenches.

- Bob Dowling


"What do you think? Do we bring the skills we use in marriage to the workplace? Should we?" - Jack

Although, I am not yet married, I think that I am somehow at the different end of this article. Most of the people I know would have wished to be in your position too. People who have better family lives than their professional ones, so as to make the initial statement possible. In this day and age, where comptetition is fierce and aggressive, most people go to the office spending more hours than usual and going home tired to some wife and kid.

As for my side, I feel that it should be the other way around. More engineers should bring their skills into their family lives. Continuous improvement, trouble-shooting, debugging, testing, and thinking the most cut-throat solutions to the most insane problem might come in handy in making our family lives a tad better. Plainly put, more engineers should put their best into their family lives.

As for the team, I think keeping it professional and friendly would be better than marriage.

- Gauvin Repuspolo


You take a spouse for life and a job while it is mutually convenient.

Too many people get it backwards.

- Don Herres


I find the statement, " We spend 40 to 60 hours a week working with these people, which may be far more time than spent with one's real spouse.", arguable. Are we not counting sleeping time? Even if we aren't, weekends tend to close the gap quite a bit with the possibility of up to 32 hours for family. 5 evening hours (40 hour work week) + 32 weekend hours equals 62 hours. A 60 hour work week inverts this.

Of course if the average engineer were to spend 2-3 hours away from both job and family during the week and 12-16 on the weekend, then your statement would ring true.

- Lee Riemenschneider


In my experience many of the same skills are necessary for both a successful marriage and a successful work team. Careful selection is of course the preferred beginning, but beyond that there is no substitute for putting in time and effort. However, the nourishing of the relationship (marriage or work) in my mind comes from the everyday positive interactions (large and small) between the members. I very much agree with Andy above on the importance of keeping a good team together.

I perhaps have a unique situation (at least in this field) where the marriage partner is the other team member. It has its advantages (we're always together) and disadvantages (we're always together), but it is working for us, I think, because we bring together the same core values whether it's the elegance of the GUI for a product or the importance of quality ingredients and preparation of a meal. Marriage provides the basis for taking a longer view of things and provides lots of practice for patience and compromise (especially as a parent). However, we probably treat each other better in the marriage because we are work partners - you don't want to have a major disagreement at home if you need to work with the other person to meet a deadline. For us it probably helps that we don't overlap much in our capabilties and responsibilities (a situation hard to achieve in larger work teams). I handle the electronics and software and he handles the case design, business planning, and marketing. There is obviously a lot of interaction to create a product, but we have a mutual respect for what the other does and a clear incentive to work things out for the long term. And unlike most marriages where at least one is an engineer, we can understand and support each other while working those long hours. The other key ingredient for this team is our 16 year old daughter who keeps us sane, keeps us from working all the time, and keeps us laughing.

- Elizabeth Russell


I completely agree with Gauvin. I feel, we need to use our problem solving/innovative skills for the betterment of married life and to face the challenges in marriage. As far as team is concerned, a friendly relation might be better than marriage

- Pavithra Eswaran


Yes, I think my real-life domestic situation mirrors my work team well. I am polygamous and I have a large extended family. Being in a relationship with more than one person builds my communication skills. Also, my relationship has dynamics that are not paralleled on most monogamous marriages. Most specifically, we don't have the "I put my foot down and you have to agree with me" metric. It doesn't work. If they want to do something that I don't, I have to either go along with it (after all, I'm clearly out-voted), or I have to abstain and let them do what they want. There can be no stubborn pig-headedness (at least not effectively).

Unlike an engineering team though--we don't have a boss. There is no appointed executor. Instead, we have limits of what one person can do indepenently, what two can do together. For everything else, we must all agree. It works very well for us.

My engineering team is much like this. While we have an overall boss, we don't have a chief engineer and we all chip in. Therefore, responsibility is spread around and everyone has as much (or as little) freedom to make our own mistakes.

- Badillo Michael

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