Friday, April 19, 2024

Dealing with a Slacker Developer

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“You have got to be kidding me!”

I was actually surprised I said it out loud. But there it was: my true feelings.

My teammates and manager were staring back at me. Some of them sat there, mouths agape. My friend John had a Cheshire grin a mile wide, obviously finding great humor in my embarrassment.

And Jerry, the object of my ire, was looking indignant yet smug.

What got me all up in arms? Let’s rewind one week.

I was happily coding away in my cubicle – as happy as one can be in a cubicle.My buddy John popped up over the cubicle wall and made a “pssst” sound.

I looked up and he was motioning for me to look over the wall. Reluctantly I stood up. Normally I hate being disturbed when I’m knee deep in root cause analysis.

But John didn’t usually bug me unless he had something worthwhile to see. And even before I stood up, I had a feeling what this was about.

That’s because our teammate Jerry was a real piece of work. And I mean Jerry was the epitome of the opposite of actually doing work. He was the ultimate slacker who found a way to skate by while doing the absolute minimum amount of work.John and I always marveled at his ability to fly under the radar of our manager Chuck.

Jerry’s teammates would see him surfing web gaming sites most of the day. He was addicted to Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (the predecessor to World of Warcraft) and would spend time not just playing, but research how to find hidden spells and secret quests.

This was before IT departments were smart enough to track usage or block sites. And Jerry took full advantage of it.

I’d ask Jerry what he was up to and he would – with surprising honesty – say something like, “I’m trying to find out the best way to kill Orcs.” Yet, it never failed: whenever Chuck strolled by his cube, somehow someway Jerry would adopt the working stance of a developer who was feverishly writing code.

He’d have his nose practically pressed up against his screen furiously pounding the keyboard. And Chuck would make some comment like “man you are really attacking that code – keep at it.”

John and I would exchange the “Oh, I want to vomit” look and go back to writing real code – not playing games.

Why Not Me?

Maybe part of me was jealous. Wouldn’t it be great to goof off doing what you liked most of the day without getting busted?

I, on the other hand, couldn’t get away with anything. My manager scolded me once for being on the phone too long because the IT department was smart enough to track phone usage. At the time I was building a house and admittedly spent a lot of time on the phone with contractors. But it was a one-time event, whereas Jerry was always gaming or researching gaming.

Well, that day when John asked me to look over the cube wall, I knew it had to do with Jerry. And sure enough, there he was, not doing work. This time he was literally dancing around his cube.

I said, “Jerry, what are you doing?”

Jerry said, “Oh man, I’m so excited! I just discovered the cheat code for God mode.”

I said, “Good for you.”

What was I supposed to say? John and I just shook our heads and went back to work.

You may ask: what does it matter as long as Jerry was getting his work done? Fair question – and I’m a big believer in letting people work in their own way as long as it leads to positive results.

I believe software development is the type of job that benefits from employers providing the freedom to work in whatever way or whichever place individuals are at their creative best.A “Big Brother” approach to management is totally counterintuitive in the world of software development.

So what was my problem with Jerry? It was that his work was crap. And our manager Chuck was oblivious.

The kicker was that Jerry may have been a slacker, but he was a conniving slacker. When he first joined the team we were all oblivious and felt we were just helping the new guy. He would work his way around the team, asking for help – but never successively asking the same person.

Plus, Jerry was charming in a weird way – like a lost puppy type of charm. The one lady on the team took a real liking to him and would actually write code for him and troubleshoot his sloppy code. I even found myself writing code for him because it was faster than explaining everything.

Taking Action

Eventually, though, John and I had enough. When Jerry would saunter into either one of our cubes he would receive the same cold shoulder answer.

“Sorry man, I’m swamped. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.”

Jerry, however, would still find other developers to help him. This frustrated me to no end.

The day before the fateful team meeting, I plopped down in his cube.He took off his headphones and smiled.

“Glad you stopped by, I need help fixing this bug.”But there was no code on his screen, only some Orc battle in progress.

I said, “Doesn’t look like you are debugging Jerry.”

“Oh, I was just taking a break trying to clear my head.” He started to switch his screen over to the code editor and I stopped him.

“Jerry, I’m not here to do your work for you. I think you are wasting people’s time because your attention is on gaming and not on work.”

Then I felt bad. Because he had a hurt look on his face.

He said, “I only ask for help because I need it. I don’t pick up things as fast as you and John. And I don’t play games all day long, only when I need to give my mind some down time.”

“But Jerry,” I said, “You spend more time than you realize on gaming. Did you ever think if you put less effort into slaying Orcs and spent more time writing code it wouldn’t be so difficult?”

He looked down and said, “Yeah, you are probably right. I appreciate your honesty.”

I must say, I felt pretty good about myself. Here I thought I was helping a wayward developer get back on track.

Later that afternoon I saw Jerry in the sympathetic lady’s cube where she was helping fix his bug. The little rat had just been playing me – telling me what I wanted to hear so I’d leave his cube.

This is all how I ended up in the team meeting, blurting out exactly how I felt about Jerry. I lost control of the difference between verbalizing and thinking right when Chuck announced that Jerry was being promoted to senior developer.

I did my best to recover. “Uh, I was just thinking out loud about something else….Congratulations Jerry.”

But everyone was either thinking the same thing or just didn’t care. And I can tell you that the work ethic of the team just imploded after Jerry was rewarded for being a slacker.

Was Chuck really that blind? I dropped by his office that evening to confront him. He had his back turned to me when I walked in and my jaw dropped when I saw his computer screen.


I turned around, walked out and began my job search.

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