A Rant on People, Resources, Men and Women

Rant on.

There’s a flame-fest on the scrumdevelopment list about the use of “resources” or “people” to describe the human beings on projects.

I like “humans” or “human beings” or “people.” And, I actually prefer “resources” to “man-hours.” I can live with “people-hours,” and prefer that to “resource.”

I bet you’re a little surprised. I’ve written that People are NOT FTEs. And, in A Funny Story About Manage It!, I said that I didn’t refer to people as resources.

So why would I prefer to be a resource than repository of man-hours? Because it doesn’t matter how many hours I work, dammit. I am never going to be a man. (We can all be thankful for that!) I don’t count in man-hours. And, man-hours assumes that we can tell how long a task takes. Ha! Not a new task, which are the most interesting tasks. Fuggetaboutit.

I like calling people “people” and talking about what they as a team can accomplish. People are rarely fungible. (I’ve never seen true fungibility, but I haven’t seen everything.) Resources, to me, mean machines and other hard equipment. Every so often, I think of resource as the on dictionary.com:

a source of supply, support, or aid, esp. one that can be readily drawn upon when needed.

That resource might be a human who is not a part of our team. Maybe that’s a slip and it makes me more human.

I grew up looking for jobs in high school when the classifieds were split into “men wanted” and “women wanted.” The men’s section was always at least five times larger than the women’s section, and had the interesting jobs. I thought I was over it, but I guess not. I’m still rankled by the difference. At least “resource” treats us all the same way.

A project team is composed of people. Those people, working together as a team, have a certain capacity. Let’s keep that in mind, ok? I don’t care if those people are red, white, blue, black, brown, purple, men, women, something else. I care about how well they get along and what they, as a team, can do. Team capacity, that’s the key.

Resource is a backwards way of attempting to define team capacity. So, our HR departments (I much preferred when they were called “Personnel” btw, which they were when I started to work back in the age of the dinosaurs) don’t get it. HR doesn’t get much, except how to keep the company out of court. (See I Don’t Hate HR.) We, the technical leaders, will lead HR in how to hire people, in how to manage people, and in how to compensate people who work in tight-knit teams.

In some ways, I think of HR and their policies as a resource to me, as a manager or leader. But I certainly don’t think of the people with whom I work as resources. Sometimes I call them project staff when they are a group of people. Sometimes I call them a project team, when they work as an interdependent team.

They are people. Just like me.

Rant off.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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17 Responses to A Rant on People, Resources, Men and Women

  1. Joakim Holm says:

    Hear hear! Love your rants, Johanna.

    I still remember, back in 2002 or so it was, when I finally took some kind of stand against always being called “resources”. It was a an all-hands company meeting. During yet-another-management-talk I, somewhat rudely, interrupted the speaker and said, rather angrily “We’re people, you know. Not lumps of coal!”.

    I met that guy a few years ago and he was actually great about it. He told me he had never used that term after that meeting.

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  3. I don’t like the term resources when applied to people and really discourage it. Teams ask what do do when they want/need a half QA resource. My answer is that testers are not ‘plug and play’; either they are part of the team, or they are not.

  4. Great post Johanna. I wrote a blog post about this before the flame-fest started on the mailing list, and have thus far stayed out of it.

    Long story short words are important. If we call people “resources”, we’ve placed that label on them and it changes our attitude toward them whether we know it consciously or not. These labels do not help us to accomplish our goals, and get to root causes of what’s impeding the progress we desire.

    Call people people. If they’re on a team call them team members. But we all need to stop calling people resources, human or otherwise.

  5. Yea! Rant on. I love it!

    “Resources” is an impersonal term that allows senior executives to dehumanize the people they are laying off or sending into a war zone. The distance created, and the classification with those non-human assets we used to call “plants and equipment,” makes those life-threatening decisions easier to make. That could be good, but I don’t think so.

    “Man-hours” has always bugged me, too, even long ago when I worked in Personnel. I actually preferred FTE’s to “man-hours” back then. I might still.

    The flaw I’ve always seen in “man hours” as a measurment is my (sexist) assumption that it would take a woman LESS time, since a woman would be more apt to ask for help (a.k.a. “directions”) if she needed them. Wonder if those man-hour studies ever looked into that?

  6. Phil Ruse says:

    On the other hand there may be something in knowing your value to the world. I think I’m worth slightly less than the office photocopier. But hey, it does do colour and unlike me, it has a stapler that works…

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  8. Gabriela Martinez says:

    Definitely I agree with you Johanna.. and I go on this concept too. I wonder how much time executives need to stop using all the impersonal terms that now, much more people see that doesn’t help to measure the value people has inside any IT company. At the end of the day computers without people doesn’t seem to value at all.

  9. Jason little says:

    Agreed. Could be worse tho, around here people are often referred to as bodies.

  10. t doesn’t matter how many hours I work, dammit. I am never going to be a man.


    Go, Johanna! :-)

    Very freaky on the “men wanted” vs. “women wanted” though. Glad we’re past THAT!

  11. jon hagar says:

    Interesting observation about HR…. HR and some managers believe people are interchangeable, hence, a “resource”. Many of us believe only aspects of a person are interchangeable (I can do some parts of the job Tom does, but I am not TOM). The human person is not interchangeable. It is interesting, I saw a job posting for a mid level HR person in the news media, the salary was equal (more?) than a mid level engineer/tester. Hmmmm…..

  12. Eugene Nizker says:

    Wow, Johanna,

    It looks like i’m gonna disagree with you for the first time! :-)

    I learnt that “Resources” is a more or less neutral term that economists use to name everything related to… well, RESOURCES that are required to affect a material change. It can be hardware or funds or… well, people! There is nothing derogatory about it to me! This has nothing to do with HR or disrespect. I don’t feel upset considering myself a resource either. To me it’s just a convenient economic term.

    Similarly, man-hours, woman-hours… who cares? Yes, i know, some people do. But let me tell you, these people aren’t gonna change no matter how we call these X-hours. And believe me, there are less and less of these people.

    (Disclaimer on.

    Of course, God didn’t make men and women equal, and i hate the extent to which our political correctness goes, to me this is insanity. I’m going to continue to open a door in front of a woman and i’m going to continue to give her a hand when she steps out of a bus. I’m not going to give a hand to a man, unless i think he’s sick or too old and can hurt himself. And no, i don’t think all women are sick or weak :-).

    However, this has nothing to do with the discussion in question.

    Disclaimer off.)

    So, I think we overplay this matter a bit…

    With this, all the best to you and yours in 2010. I hope to enjoy your wonderful presentations and your posts. I always do.

    Eugene Nizker

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  14. Then there’s my favorite, Human Capital; the subtext is the reducibility of people to financial metrics.

    A bit more on the subject at

    Charles H. Green

  15. M.E. says:

    “I don’t care if those people are red, white, blue, black, brown, purple, men, women, something else.”

    I don’t want to derail this discussion, this is just a small hint: http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2009/03/invoke-strangely-colored-people.html

  16. Maia says:

    Heh, I get sick of that language too.

    My development team is predominantly female and I’ve been using ‘people’ for a long time. Yesterday they suggested ‘people’ potentially wasn’t inclusive enough and proposed , aliens and pot plants.

    I’m now trialling addressing the team as ‘sentient beings and cacti’ :p

  17. Jon Ingham says:

    I think it depends upon how the language is used and interpreted. I use the terms ‘human resources’ and ‘human capital’ very frequently – but to refer to very specific things. HR is about using people to achieve business ends. Sorry, it doesn’t sound very nice, but this is what companies have to do. Blame capitalism, not me! HC is about people acting as the basis for achieving and doing new things. And HC needs to be invested in for this to happen. It’s a very enabling and empowering perspective – I don’t agree with Charles’ subtext. But the main point of my comment is to agree with you. I still call people people.

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