Seeing ourselves in world events

When I listen to, or read, the news—the really big events that are going on in the world—I always find myself bringing things home to my much smaller world. Have my colleagues and I faced that situation? What would I have done in that situation? Could they have planned that better if they’d used sticky notes? And so on. (I hope that’s somewhat normal.)

Most recently I’ve been hearing a lot about SAGE, the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and how they interact with ministers. In the middle of the Covid-19 crisis we hear much about that group of scientists, and occasionally hear directly from some of its members. And the press is often fascinated by the dynamic. Ministers say they are “being led by the science.” Does that mean the scientists are leading the politicians? Are politicians transferring their responsibilities? Can the politicians blame the scientists in any particular event? Who leads who? Who has the power?

To me, all the media discussion is slightly amusing, because I keep drawing an analogy to the relationship between development teams (developers, devops people, QAs, and so on) and product managers. Development teams are the technical experts on what it means to take a particular course of action: this feature will take that long; that change may have these consequences; if we move that it will be this much effort. The product manager identifies a direction to go in; the developers advise on the impact. But ultimately it is the product manager’s decision, having listened to the advice. Just as ministers make value judgements that balance the health of nation against its economic capability, so product managers make value judgements balancing, say, meeting more needs of one type of user against alienating other types.

Or, as Margaret Thatcher absolutely didn’t say, “development teams advise, product managers decide”.

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