Demosthenes on Software Projects

Demosthenes (probably)

One great thing about working where I do is the continual surprise of what my coworkers know and are keen to share and enthuse about.  Kudos to my colleague, Rob Day, who courtesy of his history (ancient and modern) degree recently distracted me with his favorite “thing to read when the project is going south”.

The context for this speech: it’s basically a pep-talk from Demosthenes to the Athenians getting them to rise up against Philip of Macedonia.  The section Rob pointed me to that resonated is as follows:

“For though the state of our affairs is in every way deplorable, and though much has been sacrificed, nevertheless it is possible, if you choose to do your duty, that all may yet be repaired.  And what I am going to say may perhaps seem a paradox, but it is true. The worst feature of the past is our best hope for the future. What, then, is that feature? It is that your affairs go wrong because you neglect every duty, great or small; since surely, if they were in this plight in spite of your doing all that was required, there would not be even a hope of improvement. But in fact it is your indifference and carelessness that Philip has conquered; your city he has not conquered.”

That’s quite a powerful message – and useful on any project.   When things aren’t going well, we have a tendency to (a) feel bad and (b) double-down and work harder on what we’re doing.  Demosthenes points out that if things really aren’t going well, that’s (probably) because we’re not doing the right things – and that’s a good thing and we should feel good about it, because if we were doing our best and we were in this position we’d be screwed.  So lets enthusiastically find out what we’re not doing well, and sort it out(tm).  That’s not an easy message to swallow, but the way Demosthenes puts it, it’s suprisingly positive, and his rhetoric rams it home in a rather uplifiting way.

For reference, translation of the whole text is here (or here if you prefer bite-sized chunks).  Go read some great oration!



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