Monday, November 24, 2003

Write as clearly as you think (I'll take what I can get).

I have found my new Style Bible.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Mother, brother, sisters, and me

(Cross-posted to Applied Laziness. Look there for more.)

Every company is, in essence, an extended family. We have the parental figures, the sibling rivalries, and the uncle no one likes to talk about. We also have all of the emotional connections that people used to form only with family and neighbors. Some companies embrace this fact, creating an “Us against the world” mentality, or welcoming their new employees into “the Globalcorp family.” Other companies try to “keep things on a professional level,” maintaining that employment is nothing more than a fiscal contract to provide labor in return for wages, and it’s never personal.

The fact is, it’s impossible for work to not be personal. People are emotional creatures, instinctively seeking connections with everyone we meet. It is impossible to spend 8 (or more) hours per day with a group of people and not form a bond with them, which is why it is ludicrous to me to see managers and human resource professionals try to deny this basic fact: we are family.

50 years ago, companies still acted like families, with all of the positive and negative results that you would expect. Workers felt a sense of belonging, of commitment, of brotherhood with their employers and fellow employees. The overriding career goal was to find a company where you could spend your whole working life, working your way up through the ranks until it was time to take your gold watch and retire. This was a direct descendant of the family trades of the previous centuries, where the son either learned his father’s trade or apprenticed in another trade and likely married into his master’s family. There was both emotional and financial security in this model, and people mixed work and family much more freely than they do today.

Of course, not every family gets along, and the bitterest feuds are among blood relations. These same expectations for a stable career and a lifelong commitment to a corporate parent were the fuel behind the union riots and other violent management/labor clashes of the early and mid-1900s. Had the arrangement been merely a financial one, perhaps tempers wouldn’t have flared so brightly.

Recent trends of the last two decades -- job-hopping, a highly skilled technical work force, exaggerated boom/bust cycles in business -- have reduced the sense of family at work and have encouraged the notion that “it’s nothing personal.” Now we think that it’s best to go where the money is, exchanging one job or one work force for another when the price is right. While this attitude is financially convenient for both sides of the employment contract, I would argue that the hidden cost is much greater than the financial benefit.

Whether or not it is logical, people need to feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow workers. They need to feel that they are working for something bigger than themselves, be it a greater cause or a larger group. They work harder and feel more satisfaction from their work when they see others benefiting from it. If you take that away from them, make it all about me, my job, my paycheck -- essentially reducing them to numbers on a balance sheet -- they quickly lose motivation and their work suffers.

It is considered common knowledge in HR circles that you can’t motivate someone with a paycheck. Money is a necessary part of the equation (a man’s got to eat), but it should be treated as a reward for work well done, not the reason for doing the work in the first place. People have even been willing to forgo their paychecks during tough times when they believed in their company. Why, then, do we so quickly reduce people to cost centers when times are tight? Why do we make it so easy for them to jump ship the moment that a slightly better offer comes along?

I believe that we need to recapture that sense of family in our workplaces. We need to stop trying to draw the line between “work” and “home,” as though there were some way to bifurcate our personalities into “Work Joe” and “Home Joe.” We need to take the same principles that we rely upon to build strong families and use them to build strong companies. If we do that, we can recapture that sense of dedication that leads to such great leaps in creativity and productivity. We can build an atmosphere where, even when things go wrong, everyone pulls together to make them right. We can harness all that energy that is currently being wasted in 8-, 10-, or 12-hour days and give people their lives back, without sacrificing excellence.

This isn’t a dream: I’ve seen it happen, albeit on a small scale. It is possible to build relationships and products at the same time, if we are willing to make the effort to hire the whole person, not just the skill set.

Unfortunately, this is no grass roots movement. The attitudes and practices that make this possible must start at the top and trickle down. Unless the leaders of a company are willing to also be the heads of the family, any mid-level effort at building the family/team will eventually be sabotaged by rapid growth, reorganization, layoffs, or just plain poor management. It has to be a family affair.

More to come…


Friday, November 14, 2003

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.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Thought for the Day:

"Common wisdom" is occasionally the former, rarely the latter, and often neither.