Lessons from Robert Moses

by breeve 8. May 2011 15:34

When the incumbent Mayor of New York John Mitchel lost the election in 1917 by a wide margin nobody was more shocked than Robert Moses. For the last 4 years Moses toiled on the mayor’s Municipal Civil Service Commission working on a report recommending salary and performance reforms for public city employees. Now Moses was out of a job.

Despite these bad circumstances he had a lot going for him. He worked hard and was passionate about civil service. His two years at Oxford convinced him of the superior efficiency of the British civil service system. His thesis: The Civil Service of Great Britain was widely respected.

But if the civil servants were hard working and efficient in England they were notoriously corrupt and slow in New York. Instead of focusing on better ways to do their jobs most spent their energy buttering up the Tammany political machine. After returning from England—the taste of Yorkshire Pudding still clinging to his tongue—he applied to The Bureau of Municipal Research.

Of all the places an aspiring government reformer could begin his career in the early 1900’s none was better than The Bureau of Municipal Research. Founded in New York by William Allen, Henry Bruere, and Frederick Cleveland in 1907, the Bureau focused on eliminating government corruption through hard core journalism. If the citizens knew how much the government was paying for bags of cement, for example, they would be more inclined to induce change.

The Bureau and Moses’ mission couldn’t have been better aligned. At first, Moses took to the work. He researched, wrote memos, but before long the slow pace began to nag at him. But it wasn’t only the slow pace; Moses was beginning to realize that the only way to get things done was not to publish research reports but to be in government itself.

His chance came with the election of John Mitchel to Mayor of New York. Mitchel, a lawyer, had connections to the Bureau of Research where he assisted in the investigation of well known corrupt Manhattan Borough President John Ahearn. Mitchel, running on the progressive platform, was intent on replacing the existing Municipal Civil Service Commission which had a reputation for handouts and issuing inflated salaries. Moses—well known at the Bureau—landed a job on the new Civil Service Commission.

From the beginning at the commission, Moses was intent on grading performance of all public employees from the executive to the custodian. He came up with a complex grading process whose numbers were plugged into an algebraic equation giving each employee an overall grade. Moses not only pushed his performance scale but also salary cuts in a number of divisions. Moses was confident in his plan but what he didn’t understand at the time was that the 50,000 public employees, who owed their paychecks to the Tammany machine, were not interested in limited salaries. Although Moses plan may have been misguided, his bosses at the Service Commission applauded his work.

But what happened next in Moses’ career would launch him on a path of successes. After a year of working humbling jobs after Mayor Mitchel’s loss, he got a call from Henry Moskowitz’s wife Belle. Henry Moskowitz had been the chairman of the Municipal Civil Service Commission and worked closely with Moses. No doubt he mentioned the quality of Moses’ work to his wife for she was now a close advisor to Alfred Smith—the new Governor of New York. Smith, a Tammany man, wanted to reorganize the state’s social welfare programs and turned to Belle to make it happen. Moses, Belle thought, would be perfect.

But the most impressive thing about Robert Moses is not that he went on to build much of New York’s roads and parks but how effortlessly he secured future work in those early years. Unlike bad rumors which spread through the streets of New York on a daily basis, the rumors spread about Moses were good ones. While many of his peers were looking for work, Moses’ past bosses were busy securing his work.

It is easy to dismiss this story as not relevant to software developers today but to do so is a serious mistake. Every day you show up to work is a day your reputation is defined. Like the government sector in Moses’ time, the software industry is closely connected.
 
Showing up to work you can fake, passion you can’t.

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About Me

I am a Principal Engineer with 11 years experience developing and releasing software products. I started developing in C/C++ then moved into .NET and C# for the last 9 years and have tech lead multiple projects. I have developed products in Windows Forms, ASP.NET/MVC, Silverlight, and WPF. I currently reside in Austin, Texas.

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