On Legos (Part One)

Some of the earliest memories of my childhood were building legos. Like all children, I started by following the instructions, and then branched out into designing and building my own creations. I still proudly remember building a gigantic model of the Argo from Star Blazers, complete with an opening Wave Motion Gun.

In high school, I learned how to program computers. I began with simple collections of BASIC Print statements to make pictures on the screen with asterisks. But it wasn’t long before I was writing complex Infocom-style text adventure games- all written in BASIC on my TI-99/4A. I continued to expand my programming skills through college and into my career as a software engineer.

Software development always felt like building legos out of… the aether. The shape and number of the blocks was often limited only by imagination, endurance, and your skill at combining them together.

Building legos (or software) by yourself can be gratifying, but there are limits- constraints of “imagination and endurance” can be more easily overcome with a group than by yourself. Wanting to build larger and more complicated programs sparked an interest in software development processes, methodologies, project management, and related topics.

Just over a decade ago, I joined a small, family-owned software company called Miner & Miner. I started as a technical lead, but soon grew in responsibilities. No longer just managing projects, I started to manage the developers doing the work. I only spent part of my time building legos. I spent the rest of the time helping others build legos, and designing the projects we would build.

The company grew, and I grew with it. The company was sold, then sold again. No longer a 60-person company, we became a small part of a 140,000-person company. I stopped building legos entirely, but continued to design them. Then I spent less time on designing, focusing more on deciding which lego sets we would build. A new product management group took over the process of deciding which kits to build, and I then spent an increasing amount of time doing things like allocating money for buying lego kits, and deciding who should build each kit.

It was a slow and gradual process, and one day I woke up in surprise to note that I hadn’t built a lego kit in over five years.

This is where my career stands today. No longer building or even designing lego kits, I’m watching groups of people go off to build legos. They’re building wonderful things- no question. I enjoy managing people- it’s a noble and interesting challenge. But…

I want to build legos again.