Oct 182010

Why CEOs Shouldn’t Mess with Engineers

Why CEOs Shouldn’t Mess with Engineers

I went to the Vasa Royal Warship Museum in Stockholm the other day, which was amazing – it had a breathtakingly massive 17th century wooden warship, which had been submerged for over 300 years, nearly intact as its centerpiece.  It’s worth a visit if you’re ever there.

The sad story of its sinking seems to have several potential causes, but one is noteworthy both in terms of engineering and leadership.  The ship set sail in 1628 as the pride of the Swedish navy during a war with Poland.  It was the pride of King Gustavus Adolphus II, who took a keen personal interest in it.  But the ship sank literally minutes after setting sail.

How could that be?  While the king was quick to blame the architect and shipbuilder, later forensics proved both to be mostly blameless.

Likely cause #1:  after the ship was designed and construction was under way, the King overruled the engineers and added much heavier cannons on the upper armament deck.  The ship became top-heavy and much less stable as a result, and while the engineers tried to compensate with more ballast below, it wasn’t enough.

Likely cause #2:  the King cut short the captain’s usual stability testing routines because he wanted to get the ship sailing towards the enemy sooner.

Let’s translate these two causes of failure into Internet-speak.  #1:  In the middle of product development, CEO rewrites the specs (no doubt verbally), overruling the product managers and the engineers, and forces mid-stream changes in code architecture.  #2:  In order to get to market sooner, the CEO orders short-cuts on QA.  I’m sure you’ll agree the results here aren’t likely to be pretty.

So product-oriented leaders everywhere…remember the tale of Gustavus Adolphus and the Vasa Royal Warship and mind the meddling with the engineers!

  • http://www.BizTechTalk.com/ Dan Keldsen

    Matt – Well-engineered ships seem to come to no good end terribly often, eh?

    "It's unsinkable!" (bonk) "Whoops!" (glug glug glug)

    Great post – and whether it's the captain or the CEO, ego and over-riding the team/design can certainly cause disasters…

    Any bets as to how much of this 300+ year old wisdom is paid attention to these days?

    Here's to the enlightened CEOs – may we make/find/train/create/clone far more of them…


    • Matt Blumberg

      Not enough, and the smaller the company, the worse it is!

  • Brian H.

    Executive meddling in software might actually be worse because the product never takes off, but engineers have to maintain it for years to come (not to mention justify the cost of subsequent refactoring and QA). At least the ship sinks and that's the end of it.

    • Matt Blumberg

      CEOs (companies in general) also have to be more disciplined about shutting down products that limp along and don’t really work.

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  • http://www.cynthiakocialski.com cynthia kocialski

    As the saying goes, history repeats itself.

    As far a cutting short QA, I was involved in a start-up once where the management created a schedule without the input of the developmentr staff but with the input of the customer. The end result was a schedule where the software and QA tasks were scheduled for a one day event. They presented their schedule to the staff, which smurked because not only was it one day, but the day was the 31st of a month, which did not have 31 days. The task actually took 18 months!

    • Matt Blumberg

      The team should have committed in blood that the product would absolutely be delivered on the 31st!


  • paramendra

    A great story. A great point made.

  • http://www.gentlerainmarketing.com/guerilla-marketing-ideas/guerilla-marketing/ Guerilla Marketing

    CEO always order to make some thing or implemt some thing and the engineers have to think and find the solution for that work.So let the enginners do their work easily for the better results.