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The most important word a project manager can ever learn

There is an amazing, near magical word that can save projects, hit deadlines, prevent burnout, and gain the respect of your team. Sadly, few project managers seem to know it. What’s this magical word? “No.”

Really, it’s that simple. Just saying no (respectfully, in the right situation) can do all of the amazing stuff I listed. It’s not a guarantee of success, but it will give you a fighting chance.

How does “No” save projects? If you don’t commit to more than your team can actually do, your project’s odds of success skyrocket (this isn’t news, is it?). If you say “No” when someone tries to add features without taking other features out or pushing out the deadline, again, that can only be good for your odds of success. If someone tries to change a feature repeatedly, say no until they figure out what they actually want.

How does “No” hit deadlines? If you have too much work for the time you have left, say no to some of it or say no to the deadline. Developers are not magicians, we can’t fit infinite amounts of work into a fixed time period. Say no to some features planned for the next release if you know they aren’t going to fit. Say no if you can only hit the deadline if everything goes perfectly.

How does “No” prevent burnout? One of the biggest causes of burnout is working excessive hours. If you say no to unreasonable deadlines, like magic your team will be able to get everything done on time without living at their desks. They’ll also be happier because they’re being treated like people instead of cogs that can be replaced when they wear out.

How does “No” gain you the respect of your team? Developers actually aren’t idiots. We can tell when you’re sacrificing our time to make yourself look good or because you’re scared to stand up to your boss. We can also tell when you got us the best deal you could in the face of political pressure to manage the project incorrectly, and we will respect you for that.

So if “No” is so awesome, why won’t people say it? Because they want to be nice, because they want to be seen as a go-getter, not a downer, because they’re afraid they’ll never get promoted if they say no, because they’re afraid to stand up to their boss, etc etc. Those are all compelling reasons, but here’s the problem: refusing to say no doesn’t work.

Sure, you look good in the moment, but when it’s time to deliver and the product is buggy or doesn’t have all the features everyone was expecting, you’re in much bigger trouble than you would have been if you had just said no in the first place. If you do that repeatedly, all you get is a reputation for not delivering. If you don’t want people to trust you that’s your call, but you’d better be amazingly charming (or related to the CEO) if you can’t actually get things done.

Just say no to clever code

I was reading John Sonmetz’s post 11 Rules All Programmers Should Live By and I wanted to expand on 2: Clever is the enemy of clear.

In some cases, you do need to write clever code. If you’re working on something that absolutely must be optimized as much as possible, fine, get clever. If you’re working on something that’s actually hard, like cache invalidation, knock yourself out. But if you’re working on plain old business software like probably 99% of coders out there, knock it off! In almost all cases clever code is just so much mental masturbation: all it accomplishes is making the coder feel good about how very clever they are. Except that writing clever code is actually stupid.

Why? Because the point of writing code is to solve a problem. Clever code, on the other hand, is a problem. Remember, the vast majority of development is maintenance, not greenfield development. It’s much, much more important for other people to be able to understand and modify your code than for you to gain whatever performance or flexibility you think your unmaintainable code is going to get you.

Your job is not to congratulate yourself on how clever you are, it’s to add features so the company can make money, fix bugs so the company can make money, pay down technical debt so that adding features and fixing bugs is easier and the company can make money, automate tedious stuff so humans can do more interesting things that make the company money, etc, etc. And yes, this advice obviously applies to open source as well. At a company, you can make people work on code they hate by paying them. In open source, not so much. If people don’t want that bugfix/new feature badly enough to tolerate the mess you made when you decided to be clever, they’ll remember they could also be doing literally anything else, and then go do that instead. I’ve seen code that made scrubbing the floor sound like a good time in comparison, and if I didn’t have to work on it I most certainly would not have.

Not only that, but clever code doesn’t even make you look clever. Anyone who can see the bigger picture or has ever done any maintenance thinks you’re a jerk and probably a dumb jerk at that. Like Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If you can’t code it simply, either you don’t understand it well enough or you’re not a good enough designer to make it simple. Do you really want to convince the next people who work on your code that you don’t know what you’re doing?

Clever code actively harms your codebase, slows development, and makes the people who maintain your code want to throw chairs at you. Just say no to clever code.