Stories about Software


The Beggar CEO and Sucker Culture

The other day, I was doing something on LinkedIn, when I noticed a post title that somehow made its way into my feed: “Why Don’t My Employees Work Harder?”  I clicked through out of curiosity and found that this was a corporate Dear Abby sort of thing.  A CEO identifying herself as “Victoria” submitted the following as a question to Liz Ryan, who serves as Abby.

Dear Liz,

I know that leadership is all about trust and I do trust my employees, but I wish they would show a little more effort. They come in on time and they get their work done and that’s it.

I leave my office around 6:15 p.m. most nights and I don’t think that’s an especially long workday. But the parking lot is nearly empty every night when I leave. Why am I always one of the last half-dozen people out the door?

When I started this company six years ago there was a lot more team spirit. Now I have to come up with incentives to get people to put in extra effort.

I haven’t threatened anyone or threatened to cut the bottom ten percent of the team or any of that but I did tell my managers that I want them to incorporate not only output but also effort into their performance review rankings.

I want to reward the people who work the hardest here and make it clear that anyone who wants a ‘dial-it-in’ type job is not a good fit. I don’t think a growing, $10M company should be a place where people work from nine to five and then go home. What do you advise?




I tweeted my gut reaction to this off the cuff, and it got a lot of traction for a random tweet on a holiday morning.

I then read through Liz’s response, which was patient, well-reasoned, and it brought up something called “weenie management,” so that alone is sort of oddly awesome. It also pretty resoundingly dressed Victoria down, which, I think was warranted.  And yet, in spite of expressing my disgust on twitter and seeing a somewhat satisfactory response to Victoria, I still felt sort of bleak and depressed about the whole thing.  I stewed on it further and realized what my response would have been, had I been Liz. Read More


Office Politics 101 for Recovering Idealists

In writing my book, I find that I wind up with these thoughts, paragraphs and mini-essays that may or may not find their way into the book. I’m adding to Leanpub sequentially, but writing relevant things as they occur to me, so there are bits floating around, waiting to have a home. I’m going to appropriate one of those bits today, as a blog post, since this is on the fringe of “maybe it will fit, maybe not.”

You almost certainly play the game of office politics, whether you do so deliberately or not. If there are more than two people involved in something, there are politics, so if you work for a company or project of more than two people, you’re involved. Saying, “I stay out of office politics and just work,” is like saying, “I don’t vote or follow elections, so I’m not really involved in laws and policies.” You can certainly opt out of participation in the process, but you can’t opt out of the consequences of that process.

Becoming good at office politics is a messy endeavor, involving a lot of intuition, trial and error, and real life, career consequences. It’s also unpleasant for a lot of people. But if you take away one piece of advice on how to navigate the minefield, let it be this: stop giving away information for free because information is leverage. Read More


Appeasers, Crusaders, and Why Meetings Usually Suck

I think this is about to get weird, but bear with me, if you’re so inclined.  This is going to be another one of those posts in which I try to explain myself by way of a vague apology for my abnormality.  But maybe if enough of you are similarly abnormal, it’ll gain a little steam.  I’d like to talk today about my odd, intuitive approach to disagreements over the rightness of opinions or beliefs. (For epistemological purposes, consider anything that you’d think of as a “fact” to fall into the belief category.)

So, let’s say that Alice and Bob are sitting on a bench, and Alice proclaims that blue is the best color.  Bob might agree that Alice is right.  He might disagree with her on the basis that red is actually the best color, or he might disagree with her on the basis that this is a purely subjective consideration, so the idea of a “best” color is absurd.  In short, Bob thinks that Alice is wrong.

Perception of rightness affects different people differently, it appears to me.  There are a lot of people out there for whom rightness is extremely important, and the idea that someone might be wrong and not corrected offends them deeply (as shown here, ably, by xkcd).  I am not one of those people.  I might be baited into the occasional back and forth online (or in any asynchronous form) when someone directly accuses me of wrongness, but that’s pretty much it.  I almost never seek out people to correct general wrongness, and I certainly don’t do it in person — with the exception of very close friends and family, and only then in casual conversation.  By and large, other people being wrong about things doesn’t matter to me.  If I’m sitting in the bar, having a beer, and some drunk is yammering political opinions that get increasingly moronic with each boilermaker, I have an innate gift for quietly enjoying the free spectacle.

But there are situations that require cooperation, often professional ones.  Working with another person, there may be some debate or disagreement over the course of action that ought to be taken, and, in such cases, the moment happens when I’m convinced that someone is wrong, and they’re equally convinced that I’m wrong.  The first thing that I do is evaluate whether or not the wrongness negatively impacts me.  If not…meh, whatever. Read More


Defining The Corporate Hierarchy

Think back to being a kid, and you can probably remember a rather dubious rite of passage that occurred when you figured out that you weren’t going to be a sports player, lead singer, or Hollywood star.  You probably felt sad, but your parents and older siblings likely breathed sighs of relief that you’d never be explaining to people that a manual labor gig was your “day job.”

State lotteries notwithstanding, giving up on improbable dreams is considered by adults to be a sign of maturity in budding adults.

Rites of Passage

If you think about this, the easy message to hear is “you’re not going to be great, so give up.”  It’s depressing and oft-lamented by college kids having mini crises of identity, but it’s actually a more nuanced and pragmatic message, if a poorly communicated one.

It’s that the expected value of these vocations is horrendous.  For baseball players, actresses, and rock stars, there’s a one in a million chance that you’ll make ridiculous sums of money and a 999,999 in a million chance that you’ll make $4,000 per year and have half of it paid to you in beer nuts.

So the expected value of going into these positions is about a $4,200 per year salary and a handful of beer nuts.  Thus the message isn’t really “give up because you’ll never make it” but rather “steer clear because anything but meteoric success is impoverishing.”

The better play, we tell our children, is to head for the corporate world where the salaries range from minimum wage in the mailroom to tens of millions per year for CEOs of companies that create stock market volatility. Most importantly, you can find every salary in between.

So if you aim for the heights of CEO and fall short, mid-level manager making $140K per year isn’t a bad consolation prize.

And so a funny thing happens. We consider it to be a rite of passage to abandon the delusion that you’ll be Michael Jordan, but we encourage the delusion that you’ll be Bill Gates until people are well into middle age.

That’s right, “the delusion that you’ll be Bill Gates.” You won’t be him. You won’t be a CEO, either, unless you pop for your state’s incorporation fee and give yourself that title.

You’re about as likely to “work your way up” to the CEO’s office over the course of your career as any given child is to luck into being the next multi-platinum pop star. So, it’s a rather strange thing that we tsk-tsk children for indulging pie-in-the-sky fantasies past a certain age while we use nearly identical fantasies as the blueprint for modern industry.

Kid wants to be Justin Bieber? Pff.

Thirty-year-old wants to be Mark Zuckerburg? Keep working hard, kicking butt, and acing those performance reviews, and someday you’ll get there!

Pff. Read More


Aggregation of Indignities

I’m about to head off for a small vacation, so I’ll leave you with a relatively short post until I pick things up, probably a week from now.

If one were to track the small indignities of life that add up to serious grievances, it’s temping to think that these would be expressed in terms of, “things I have to do but don’t want to.” If you listen to someone talk about quitting a job, you’d hear about the rolled up grievances and imagine the small indignities. “I can’t stand my boss” would really be a series of things like, “have to go to his status meeting” and “have to respond to emails at all hours of the night.” You can imagine the exercise with other things that fill up the occasional exit interview that’s honest.

But at its core, I don’t think it’s “things we don’t want to do but have to do anyway” that create the important grievances, but rather, “things we think are stupid but have to do anyway.” There are plenty of things that I don’t really want to do, but know make sense, and so I do them anyway. Going to the dentist, working out for the most part, getting up in time to go to a meeting even after sleeping for only 4 hours come to mind. I make the best of the situation because I know these things make sense, and any resultant unhappiness is fleeting.

It’s the things that I think are stupid that result in unhappiness that is more than fleeting. If I have to get up to go to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned, I suffer through and then, after, think, “well, my teeth feel great, and I don’t have to do that again for six months, so, alright, onto the rest of my day.” If I have to go to the DMV because Illinois randomly decided that I owe them $200 for some new tax and the ‘convenience fee’ for online payment is $45, I’ll be in a seriously bad mood while I do it and then still residually salty for the rest of the day.

Back in the exit interview, “I can’t stand my boss” doesn’t actually expand do “I didn’t like being in the status meeting” but rather, “I hate attending those pointless status meetings.” It doesn’t expand to “have to respond to emails at all hours of the night” but rather “have to respond to emails at all hours of the night when there’s no reason it couldn’t wait until morning.” Most people are basically diligent and will do the unpleasant stuff… if they feel it carries forward some purpose.

When it comes to sources of perceived stupidity or pointlessness, I can think of three loose categories:

  1. Institutional/Bureaucratic
  2. Inadvertent/Earnest Disagreement
  3. Posturing/Malicious


The first category exists at most institutions to varying degrees and is straightforward enough: it’s your TPS reports and other infantilizing things that you have to do because someone, somewhere once got sued for something.  The second category boils down to “team lead pulls rank on you about a course of action and you have to go along with what she says, even though you think it’s stupid.”  The third category is “mid level manager shows up 10 minutes late to meeting because he can’t bother to be on time and then dispatches someone to get coffee for him, even though that person is a professional engineer.”  It’s a uniquely aggressive action in that both parties are completely aware that the aggressor is manufacturing stupidity, but the message is essentially, “I have the power to make you do stupid things, and I enjoy using it.”

These things aggregate and fester over the course of time, probably roughly in the numbered ordered above.  People will usually tolerate a maze of bureaucracy more easily than semi-regular demeaning interactions, all other things being equal.  But everyone has some kind of aggregated stupidity score that, when hit, triggers them to quit.  Actual ‘scores’ will vary widely depending on situation and individual personality.

The moral of the story is this.  By and large, people aren’t going to burn out and be driven away by hard or unpleasant work alone.  They’ll burn out and be driven away by work that they think is stupid.  So if you’re focused on retention and morale, pay specific attention not so much to whether people are doing grunt work but rather the value (or lack thereof) they perceive in the work.