We are People not Resources; The poisonous ‘R’ word

Factory workers on a production line

Disclaimer: The slightly vitriolic parts of this post are not aimed at anyone in particular! 🙂

What is a ‘resource’

Where I work many of the staff have a habit of referring to people who ‘do’ stuff (like software developers, testers, web designers etc) as ‘resources’. They don’t use it as some benign collective noun, it is used to refer to individual people explicitly! Here are some examples of usage that I hear daily:

  • How many resources are working on that?
  • We need some more design resource for that project.
  • I have a spare resource this week, what should he work on?
  • Which resource is picking up this bug?
  • I need to refer to my resource plan

These sorts of phrases are uttered by people as though it were perfectly normal. The terminology is so conventional they might as well be asking what you had for breakfast. As much as I would like to remain professional, my response to people who talk like this is F**K YOU! Quite frankly to refer to people who are educated, qualified, intelligent, experienced and passionate as ‘resources’ is incredibly offensive to say the least. This demeaning term implies that we are:

  • On a par with ‘materials’
  • As disposable as paper clips
  • All the same
  • Infinitely interchangeable and replaceable
  • Little more than numbers on a balance sheet

Clearly this is not the case.

There is much literature written about the sociological aspects of software development teams which is beyond the scope of this post but it is immediately apparent to anyone who has worked in a software development team that none of the above statements are true. So why does this offensive practice continue?

My view is that the term is a symptom of a fundamentally broken but deep rooted approach to managing projects and people. The approach is an attempt to simplify software development and model it as though it were a factory production line. You’ve got your business analysts shoving requirements in at one end, the developers in the middle making the ‘goods’ which are then passed to the testers (or should I say test resources?) who allow a production quality product out the other end. Laughably my department was even once re-branded as a ‘Software Factory’. It’s enough to make you weep!

In this model the developers and testers are simply ‘resources’; generic units of man-power. The more you assign to a project, the faster the backlog of work is completed. With the factory model this is probably correct. If you have 5 people packing fudge and they can pack 500 boxes per hour between them, you would reasonably expect 10 fudge packers to be able to do 1000 boxes per hour. Same with software development right? We aren’t getting through the work quick enough, so let’s shove another 5 development resources on it, problem solved. Or not. In 1975 Fred Brooks published a book called “The Mythical Man Month” that discussed the fallacy inherent in this ideology, yet nearly 40 years later this is still going on and appears to be rife among companies that are household names.

Poisonous

The ‘R’ word is also poisonous because it seeks to widen the gap between the shop floor drones (i.e. the highly skilled software developers) and the ‘management’. Managers discuss what their resources are working on behind closed doors, shuffling people around on their ‘resource plans’ and hopelessly trying to make sense of the scheduling mess they have created with their flawed ideology. To me the usage of the word resource implies a certain ignorance of the fine art of scheduling software development projects.

At one point I got so sick of this that I launched a fight back against the ‘R’ word. I raised awareness of the word’s implicit evilness and explained that quite simply:

We are people not resources!

I put the word ‘resource’ on a par with the worst swear words and made people cough up a pound every time they uttered it. I’m not sure how much was collected in the end but it certainly got people thinking and the team had a nice bit of cash to spend at the Xmas party!

So please join me in the fight against this most disgusting of terms and tell your management that you’re a person not a resource! Correct them when they use the term in your presence. Tell them that Dilbert is satire, not an instruction manual. Ask them to read Brooks’ book and step out of the 1970s.

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9 thoughts on “We are People not Resources; The poisonous ‘R’ word

  1. Timbobs says:

    Hear, hear!

    Although, I did once hear an IT manager claim that as it’s possible for one pregnancy-resource to produce one baby in 9 months, and for nine pregnancy-resources to produce 9 babies also in 9 months, it should therefore be possible for nine pregnancy-resources to produce one baby, in one month, simples.

    Of course as an IT manager, I doubt he had much personal experience with pregnancy-resources…

    • He he, your maths is infallible! I guess it would also be possible for a pregnancy resource to produce 2 babies in parallel, delivering 2 complete babies after 18 months. Right?

      • Right!

        The worst thing, though, is when one of the pregnancy-resources leaves for another man, er, I mean impregnation-resource and you end up with 1.9 babies…

  2. Hi,

    I don’t think any manager (or Project Manager) refers to his employees as resources in front of them, however, technically, they are considered as resources through the “Resource Management Plan” as well as other PM documentation.

    • M$ Project certainly perpetuates this hideous nomenclature with its definition of ‘resources’ and assigning them to tasks.

      BTW I have definitely heard people being referred to as ‘resources’ in front of their face. It has happened to me many times! 😦

  3. I witnessed a situation where two IT managers complained about business “thinking nine women could deliver a baby in one month” and the other minute put more “resources” to an “apparently-understaffed” team to finish their job more quickly. The people in the team were already in each other’s way. Guess what happened when 10 more resources showed up.

  4. Ahh I’ve seen this too many time, esp. working at banks. Treat your people like people, with a bit of human decency, and you’ll get a lot more out of them.

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