It’s his job

Perhaps it is. But does he know it? Have you told him? In teamwork, as in marriage, implicit expectations create tension that’s bound to explode at some point. Disarming that bomb is as easy as saying “could you?”

Some jobs have tighter-defined responsibilities than others. Across the spectrum of employment that’s obvious—if you’re, say, a train driver your job is to safely steer a few thousand tons of steel, carrying a few hundred human lives to their desired destinations. If you’re an artist, there’s much less specificity.

Even within the IT industry there are vast differences in job descriptions. A DBA is tasked with maintaining dabatase servers, often including developing data models and optimizing queries for efficiency. For a developer, things get a bit more blurry, being expected not just to write code, but these days often also setting up server infrastructure, configuring deployments, monitoring service health and, perhaps hardest of all, understanding and catering for user needs.

Then there are the managers, whose job descriptions are becoming increasingly confusing. Ensuring timely delivery, supervising quality, motivating their reports and caring for their career development. Everybody nods their heads in agreement on those, but what do these mean in practice?

In the (inherent) absence of specifics in one’s listing of responsibilities, both the manager in question as well as everyone around them will develop their own image of what these should be. In particular, their reports will have varying expectations. Some will want them to be a communications bridge, others will prefer communicating directly. Some will want vision and guidance, others will want to have their own say. (I’m singling out managers here because of the evidence of the problem here, but the same concerns every job with a blurry description.)

The issue? Nobody tells them! The manager have their own view on responsibilities, obviously, and will execute against those. (Plus there are the manager’s managers to cater for.) They will, regretably, often not sit down for a frank conversation with their team to talk out what everybody’s role is. The result is frustration buildup. Reports holding watercooler conversations, complaining about their manager not leading this, not reacting to that, not talking to someone, etc. And they won’t tell the manager because they feel it’s inappropriate or for fear of retaliation.

I made a sport of calling out these situations. My lovely wife had thaught me from the outset of our relationship that if either of us wants the other to do (or not to do) something, we better voice it. Otherwise it’ll pile up over time, explode at the least opportune moment, causing irreparable damage.

It’s the same at work.

Take your manager out for coffee (if it’s your first time, the setting should help loosen up everybody), then tell them: “Bob/Kathleen, could you ask our CTO for help with resolving the issue we’re having with this vendor? Could you tell me how you see our priorities for the next three months?” No “I expect you…”, “it’s your job to…” crap. Just a human to human request—firm, direct, but very much considerate. You’ll be well on your way to deflating the baloon of unmet expectations that would’ve blown you both away when (not “if”) it popped.

Searching for geek heaven

We’d love to love our jobs. To the point where we can’t stand how long a weekend is, before we may go back to work on Monday. Utopia? Not at all. I know people who genuinely love their jobs, who found their geek and non-geek heavens. And I have my own criteria for evaluating companies I would consider joining.

There are three qualities that combined would make a company a Geek Heaven:

  1. IT is central to business,
  2. everybody has someone else to learn from, and
  3. there’s a non-monetary reason for the company to do what it does.

IT is central to business

Has your department ever been called a “cost center”? That’s another way of saying “we will outsource your work to <insert cheap labor country> as soon as you start asking too much money.” You are disposable. A cog in the machine. But the ramifications here are so much broader, because if IT isn’t the driver of business, then all IT decisions will be monetary decisions.

  • there’s no point replacing a stone-age era technology, as long as it works,
  • there’s no point speaking at a conference, because that’s a cost that doesn’t contribute to business,
  • there’s no point contributing to open-source projects, because again it’s a cost with no return (oh, but we’re happy to use free, open-source software),
  • and so on.

On the other hand, we can easily name companies that heavily rely on their IT for business success. Google, GitHub, Etsy, Netflix, Spotify… We know them, because they’re very active members of our community. They speak, share, collaborate, contribute, while internally, each one of them is pushing the boundaries of their technology.

You want to be at one of those places, where each and every day IT people ask themselves “how can we make this better?“, and the business people answer by asking “how can we help you?

Everybody has someone else to learn from

I was never the smartest guy in the room. From the first person I hired, I was never the smartest guy in the room. And that’s a big deal. And if you’re going to be a leader – if you’re a leader and you’re the smartest guy in the world – in the room, you’ve got real problems.

Jack Welch, interview at Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN, June 2011

Jack’s right, and his words apply to everyone – not only “leaders”. You always want to be around people who are better than you. If you dig through the stories of most successful people, they always reference somebody who inspired them, who they learned tons from.

You want to work for a company that has a diverse set of top-notch specialists. People passionate about their work, who continuously pursue mastery. People who’s contributions will inspire and motivate you to develop your own skills. People who will be happy to share their knowledge.

Non-monetary reason for the company to do what it does

The “why are we doing this?” is perhaps the single most important question that is barely ever asked in a work environment. And when the answer mentions “shareholder value” or “sales increase”, it’s a dead end. Money is very uninspiring. Sure, it’s motivating, but for all the wrong reasons:

The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that, you know, if you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears. [emphasis mine]

Simon Sinek, TED Talk: How great leaders inspire action

Simon’s talk is well worth watching to understand how much the “why” we do things matters. You should also grab his book “Start with Why” to dive deeper into the matter.

Too many times important initiatives are explained in monetary terms, which don’t mean anything to most people working on them. If the company makes an extra million, are we actually going to receive any of it? Not likely.

What you want instead is a business pursuit you can believe in – big or small, like getting the world rid of malaria, or making awesome tools for developers. You want to be part of something good being done for others, where money comes back almost as a side effect.

If you look at Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the three qualities above align precisely with the top two layers of Esteem and Self-actualization:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

It goes without saying, that in order for a company to become a Geek Heaven, the bottom layers need already to be catered for. You certainly won’t feel any good working at a place, where you may get fired any minute, you’re getting peanuts for your work or which is physically unsafe.

A lot of companies these days do very good on the bottom layers of the pyramid, but very few succeed in the upper ones.

Why does it all matter?

Our work as geeks relies on creativity – finding novel ways of tackling problems in a world that’s impossible to describe in ones and zeros. Every single day we’re fitting square pegs into round holes. Creativity is a shy creature though, that only shows up when we’re comfortable and content, at what psychology calls “cognitive ease”:

[G]ood mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 [intuitive, automated thinking] form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together. A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 [analytic, logical thinking] over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors. (…) A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates that things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required. Cognitive ease is both a cause and a consequence of a pleasant feeling. [emphasis, explanations mine]

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

There’s a clear business case for building companies, where geeks are happy.

You’re a geek. You’re doing a job that’s highly in demand these days and will remain so for the nearest future. Use that to your advantage and “vote with your feet” for companies that you truly feel great working for. Find the criteria for what makes your very own Geek Heaven, and if you haven’t found it yet, move on.

(Maslov’s pyramid image by J. Finkelstein on Wikipedia)

A person is not a ‘resource’

Human resources they call them. The drones that keep typing on their keyboards producing lines of text that make monitors light up in different colors, depending on what other drones type. They’re characterized by output, productivity, typing speed, number of bugs introduced to code, days taken off for holidays or sick leave, availability as percentage of time. Those pesky employees.

People are not machines. A machine is something built in a cumulative output of human knowledge. An expression of human potential. For any machine there is a constructor, who

  • knows how it was built,

  • understands how it works,

  • can construct it anew.

Can someone construct a person? Does anyone understand how each and every part of the human body works?

We are creative, surprising, non-deterministic, self-repairing and irreplaceable. If we were easy to replace, why would we have cemeteries?

Do you really think you can move your employees around, from desk to desk, from office to office, from city to city, from project to project, from task to task, without taking their opinion into account and without any loss of their creativity, productivity, devotion and thus quality of results they deliver to the company?