The other day, I heard this quote from the new VP of Product Development at a software company:

"I fully expect that 75% of the engineers working here today will leave, because this place isn't a country club anymore."

And this man is in charge of software development!

Now, I will grant you that the company where he now works once had a reputation for having achieved the pinnacle of "work hard, play hard" existence, with flexible hours, foosball tables, and an emphasis on having fun at work. During the gloriously excessive dot-com boom, this company prided itself on throwing the best parties around (“Not the most expensive, just the best”).

The thing is, though, all those flexible hours usually added up to far more than 40 per week, and this company’s engineers built the most innovative software products in their space. They also managed to fend off bigger and richer rivals and stay six months to a year ahead of fierce competition for more than five years. The company had a cockiness about it that said to the competition, “We’re smarter than you and we can prove it.” To its customers, though, this company was a best friend, and its people bent over backwards to make sure they were happy.

The thing that set this company apart from its competition -- as is often the case in technology -- was the quality of its staff. Not only were they incredibly smart, but they also took pride in the practical value of their work. No monuments to technology here, no contests to see who could write the longest command statement without a break. These folks wanted to build something that worked, and they did it. Now, many of those people are being shown the door, either through layoffs or through the not-so-subtle proddings of a management team that sees them as expensive factory workers.

I am always shocked by the sheer ignorance of people who fail to recognize the fact that -- in every industry -- a happy employee is a productive employee. Even people who want to squeeze every cent of productivity out of the people in their company should realize by now that they can get more effort from someone who feels that he and his work are valued. This "be grateful you even have a job" attitude only works when the job market is slow, and even then only on the surface.

When people are treated as "resources" and shuffled at will, the best, most creative workers will usually leave at the first opportunity, and those that don't will lose focus and, hence, reduce productivity. Even the most conscientious workers will eventually start mailing it in when it's clear that management believes anyone could do their jobs.

You can't feed a one-way relationship like that forever. As a friend of mine pointed out, “If you believe that everyone working for you is lucky to have a job, you will soon have a company full of people who are lucky to have a job.”

The manufacturing industry learned this the hard way when they started seeking the lowest common denominator in staffing their assembly lines. When workers knew they were essentially replaceable parts in management’s eyes, they started acting like it. Quality dropped, and with it sales. It took a major threat from Japan, where workers were treated like family, to break the trend. Remember Gung Ho?

If this is true in manufacturing, where the labor is both physical and routine, then it is especially true in an industry like software development, where the work is primarily mental and ever-changing. There, a loss of focus can kill days’ or even weeks’ worth of effort. When you are solving complex problems every day, you have to be motivated and committed to do it well, because it's hard. These are abstract, challenging puzzles that take creativity and tenacity to solve. If the developer corps cares about what they are doing, the product shows it. If they are working for a paycheck, the product shows that too. The primary reason that large software companies have fallen behind their smaller rivals is because they lost sight of this fact and started treating software development like manufacturing.

This isn’t about treating top programmers like prima donnas. My rallying cry is not, “Aeron chairs for everyone!!!” In fact, I think that the crazy money that was spent in the software sector during the dot-com boom actually hurt the quality of the products that were developed then. This is about being intelligent enough to recognize how to get the best from everyone in your employ without letting prejudices about what constitutes “real work” get in the way.

A flexible and fun environment encourages creative thinking and entrepreneurialism, while a tense and pressure-filled one encourages taking shortcuts to meet demands (think USSR and five-year plans). A successful software company isn't a country club, it's a think tank.

People like this VP made companies like Microsoft possible, by being at IBM at the time.
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