Steve McMenamin 1955 – 2019
Our dear friend and valued colleague, Steve McMenamin died on November 20th. Steve was a Principal of The Atlantic Systems Guild from its founding in 1982. He died hard at work on a new book about Organizational Culture. And — this is so characteristic of Steve — he only left the project when his part was fully and elegantly complete. We, his remaining co-authors, will endeavor to bring that work to fruition over the next months. We’ll miss him terribly.
Remembering Steve McMenamin (by Suzanne Robertson)
Steve could listen like no other human I know. This is not just hearing which we all do, but listening as only Steve could do it. One time (of many) I was explaining a project as I wanted his advice (which was always amazingly good advice). While struggling to explain a complex situation, I knew that Steve was listening. Never once did I feel he was wanting to interrupt, or had zoned out and was waiting for me to get it over with. When I finished, his questions and comments were those that proved he had not only been listening, but had insights into the situation that could only come from wrapping a significant intellect around the problem, and from listening.
Apart from his listening skills, Steve was just wonderful company. He loved food, movies, music, travel, curious things and enjoyed sharing them and making us laugh. I miss him.
– SQR, London, England
Remembering Steve McMenamin (by Tom DeMarco)
Many of the best thinkers in our field were plagued with poor communication skills. Consider, for example, the seminal work by Dahl, Dijkstra, and Hoare: Three fine minds, three sets of important insights, but a gold sovereign to anyone who can get those insights from anything they wrote.
Steve McMenamin was a striking exception to this rule. He was both a startlingly original thinker and a brilliant communicator. He told me once that we were “in the business of abstraction.” Our job, he said, was to observe a pattern, give it a great name to make it accessible to others and then help those others see how the pattern fit their own practice and where it ought to guide them. He did this again and again, and we are all the richer for it.
After the Challenger disaster, Steve observed that some very alarming risk factors were known widely at the bottom of NASA’s org chart, but those same risk factors were considered much less alarming, or not understood at all by people at the top of the chart. He speculated that this was not so much a failure of top management to know what it needed to know, but rather a perverse communication tendency that tends to instill itself in all hierarchical organizations: bad stuff becomes less bad each time it passes up one level. If there are enough levels, even the worst bad news can be more or less good news by the time it propagates up to the ultimate boss. Steve dubbed this phenomenon News Improvement. If you’ve ever seen it in action you know the damage it can do.
I was one of the original referees of the McMenamin/Palmer book, Essential Systems Analysis. I was immediately charmed by the text’s use of images and metaphors, great war stories, and thoughtful progressions from tease to aha! to solid abstraction. But most of all I was astounded by half a dozen of those ahas that came to change profoundly my own practice of software systems analysis. Steve had been my student, but I had never taught him as much as that book taught me.
Today, the book’s concept of Event Modeling is old hat. Of course everything that happens inside a system is a response to something that’s happened outside, an event. Of course. It’s obvious. But — and here is the essential of any great thinker’s gift to us — it only became obvious after Steve had pointed it out. From that moment on it was almost impossible to remember that we hadn’t always known what he just taught us. Of course the system’s response to that event can be modeled in isolation, why not? And of course a model of the entire system could be arrived at incrementally by a simple accumulation of the models of all the events that the system needed to respond to. So obvious. If you’re having trouble remembering a time when you didn’t already know that, you, like me, are in the debt of Steve McMenamin.
Steve died as he lived, working hard, thinking hard, and coming up with new and charming abstractions every day. In our Guild conference call barely a week before his death, he was the old Steve that we’d known and respected and loved for more than four decades. If he had an inkling that his end was near, he never betrayed a single moment of self-pity. I’m not that strong. I’m feeling self-pity at this very moment that I’ve lost a dear friend and colleague, poor me, my bad luck. But what phenomenal good luck it was to know Steve over all those years! I thank my lucky stars for that.
–TDM, Camden, Maine
Remembering Steve McMenamin (by James Robertson)
Steve and I had regular Sunday FaceTime calls. The purpose was to talk about the book we were working on, but usually we wandered into talking about movies. Steve loved movies and watched them like no other person I know. He could see messages in movies that were not at all obvious to us lesser mortals. He would notice actors doing things that I (and I am very exacting about acting) had missed. He would see directorial touches that went by everybody else.
Moreover, he had an encyclopaedic memory: whatever movie came up in discussion, Steve knew who had directed it, he knew the actors and what other movies they had acted in, and probably also knew the cinematographer.
I shall miss our Sunday calls and rambling movie conversations. I shall miss the comprehensive reviews he would post from time to time. I shall miss his recommendations of movies to watch. Mostly, I shall miss Steve being Steve.
–JSR, London, England
Remembering Steve McMenamin (by Peter Hruschka)
When Carl-Hanser Publishing asked me for a translation of a book on systems analysis in 1985 I recommended Steve’s Essential Systems Analysis. I was fascinated by the idea that analysts should strive to discover the essence, i.e. what the business really needs, not what they tell you. In the following decades IT-folks have changed their terminology – from talking about essential processes to searching essential use cases or – today – essential user stories. But the idea of discovering the essence is as valid today as it was 35 years ago.
Steve was the born project manager. His empathy for his teams, his soft and quiet way to lead always impressed me. I will never forget Steve’s presentation at one of our conferences in Bonn. As a movie enthusiast he had chosen “I love the smell of projects in the morning” as a title. Steve showed many examples of balancing acts for managers, the subtle transitions that could turn a originally good idea like optimism or the quest for quality either into success or into total disaster when you don’t read the hidden messages well.
Steve’s wit and insights in our weekly teleconferences have always been a highlight for me, and I shall sorely miss them.
–PH, Aachen, Germany
Remembering Steve McMenamin (by Tim Lister)
I first met Steve in 1978. He came to Yourdon, Inc., for a job interview, and I was the head of the instructors/consultants group. I still remember the striking first impression he made. It was one of confidence: not bravado, but calm, clear, relaxed, confidence. He made eye contact, and we talked. It was an experience that would repeat itself hundreds of times over many years.
As part of the hiring process, I asked candidates to prepare a 10-20 minute talk on a technical or project topic. The talk would be given to everyone in my group who was in the New York office that day. I don’t remember what Steve talked about, but when he left the room, the audience’s response was quick and unanimous, “Make him an offer.”
I became Steve’s boss. Ha! Steve has only had one boss ever, Steve. People are sometimes called self-motivated; Steve was self-propelled. Once he was intrigued by a problem or an idea, he was off. When Steve and John Palmer decided they had a book in them, eventually titled Essential Systems Analysis, all that work happened without a stop in their other responsibilities.
In 1983, six of us formed The Atlantic Systems Guild, and the passé notion of “boss” dissolved. Steve moved toward long-term, in-depth gigs as a project manager of large, risky projects. He typically had a team of team leaders directly reporting to him, as the project team size was in the several hundreds. I got to consult on several of these multi-year monsters, and got to observe Steve in his new natural habitat. His approach was rooted in complete honesty. It was never brutal honesty; it was always civil, kind honesty.
I remember sitting in on a meeting with Steve and the team leads on a pressure-packed project. A contractor specialist was in the meeting for the first time, and he started painting the rosiest of all pictures for his area of responsibility. The team leads began to stare at the table because they all knew Steve could smell bullshit when it was one part per million, let alone this. Steve interjected, “I want to hear how you can draw these conclusions so early, so let’s talk together after this meeting, just the two of us.” No public humiliation, and no more BS from the contractor, ever.
Steve died a few days ago, and I am sad, but I am greatly comforted that he left his bullshit meter in good hands: mine.
–TRL, New York
Suzanne and James Robertson’s Requirements: The Masterclass LiveLessons-Traditional, Agile, Outsourcing. 15+ Hours of Video Instruction
Tom DeMarco’s 2018 sci-fi novel, The One-Way Time Traveler, now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a Handmaid’s Tale in reverse: Welcome to a world where women have all the power.