I wrote, in October, about what programmers want from their work, and one of the most immediate concerns is a state of consciousness called flow: a state of engagement, focus, and high productivity. Flow rarely occurs in the workplace, and one inherent problem with it is that its behavioral byproducts are often not office-appropriate. People in flow tend to lose their self-monitoring capability and exhibit behaviors (humming, tapping, even whistling) that are undesirable in such a setting. In these hideous open-plan offices that are increasingly common in technology, that’s a real issue, because one person’s state of flow will drive N-1 office workers from typical, benign office boredom into crippling, distracted anger. It becomes a morale problem, and this person needs to stop doing that. People who want to keep their jobs in such an environment will never go 100-percent into flow, unless they’re the only person there.
The lack of flow is acceptable in most office environments because they aren’t really built around optimizing productivity, but availability of the workers. Subordinate employees are, in essence, excess capacity to be tapped in a crisis, but otherwise there just to be there, preferably arriving before and leaving after their bosses. They’re not supposed to actually matter. The work they do often isn’t construed as important to the business (even if it is) but as a supportive “nice-to-have”. They might work tirelessly to build a platform for data-driven decisions, but the real players are the ones who read the reports and make the calls (usually, selectively comprehending the data to support decisions they’ve already made). Subordinates are kept around in a years-long evaluative period so that, if needs grow in the future, the ones who have proven themselves (read: succeeded politically) can be picked.
A low-level, subordinate role in a business organization involves low expectations and minimal responsibility. The job is: (a) keep your boss happy, and (b) manage your image and, over time, develop a reputation for being reliable and steady. It’s not difficult but, in the long term, it’s unfulfilling, which is one of the reasons why people have a hard time with the slow progress of the typical corporate track. A lot of people lack the patience to deal with the “dues-paying” years required to gain credibility in the typical lethargic, risk-averse environments that characterize Corporate America. The subordinate life is one of low expectations, but also one of little real accomplishment, which means that a person rarely becomes indispensable and can therefore be let go quite easily. It’s an uneasy existence, because a person in such a state often feels like an underachiever, based on a comparison between what is produced and what is possible. That said, one of the most important corporate survival skills is making sure this gnawing sense of guilt does not manifest itself in a visible or socially inappropriate way. Everyone ambitious feels this way. Let it go, and do not take it personally. Corporations are mere patterns of coming and going, devoid of real substance and unworthy of emotional attachment.
This experience is especially painful for top-tier software engineers and technologists, because our natural inclination is to improve things. What we do isn’t just “programming”. It’s process improvement. Programming is just a means of automating a problem that used to require human labor, or that wasn’t possible by humans (in a timely fashion, without mistakes) before. We like to make things better and, not only to solve hard problems, but to solve them so well as to make them easy. It’s what we do. When we see a ghastly inefficiency, we try to fix it, politics and sensitivities be damned. When the inefficiency being attacked is the enforced underperformance of new members of a group due to that group’s lack of willingness to trust the newcomers, our campaigns will seem ugly to people who don’t understand the technological impulse. As we see it, it’s an earnest attempt to improve processes, but the appearance it creates is that of an entitled youngster trying to jump the queue. It appears insubordinate, and perhaps it is.
Anything that attempts to improve the productivity of subordinate players is inherently subversive because, while it may improve the aggregate productivity of the organization, it also represents a shift in power that the entrenched leadership often does not want.
In addition to the subversive nature of high productivity, the state of flow is itself insubordinate. One Spolsky snippet that has stuck with me for a long time is from his “Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing” wherein he describes an ideal interviewee:
A really good sign that a candidate is passionate about something is that when they are talking about it, they will forget for a moment that they are in an interview. Sometimes a candidate comes in who is very nervous about being in an interview situation—this is normal, of course, and I always ignore it. But then when you get them talking about Computational Monochromatic Art they will get extremely excited and lose all signs of nervousness. Good. I like passionate people who really care. (To see an example of Computational Monochromatic Art try unplugging your monitor.) You can challenge them on something (try it—wait for them to say something that’s probably true and say “that couldn’t be true”) and they will defend themselves, even if they were sweating five minutes ago, because they care so much they forget that you are going to be making Major Decisions About Their Life soon.
What Spolsky is talking about, here, is flow. The job candidate forgets that this person is a prospective boss and might even decide not to hire her at all. The subordinate context has disappeared. There’s something more important– more intellectually interesting– than the potential for an economic relationship. She just dives into a topic she finds intellectually interesting. This is an attractive trait– in this context. She shows that there are intellectual and creative disciplines that she cares too much about to play the status-optimization game of most working adults. Certainly, having this passion is a way to stand apart from the crowd.
For a related note, one frustration that upper managers and business owners experience is that their underlings don’t “own”. What is ownership, in this context? For a first scratch, I’d say that an owner perceives the interests of the group as being more important than immediate personal comfort or benefit. It’s not that owners selflessly prioritize the group’s objectives over personal ones, so much as there’s a well-understood alignment of incentives. Literal owners (stockholders) often benefit directly, in a measurable financial way, from the success of the business, so they’re willing to make sacrifices (at least in theory) that typical employees wouldn’t make on behalf of the organization’s health. An owner will drive an organization to improve, despite personal exertion and risk, and take responsibility if it fails.
Of course, financial investment is not the only form of ownership. For example, financial ownership doesn’t apply to all organizations, because the concept doesn’t exist the non-profit sector, but people still take responsibility for causes they believe in. I would say that ownership derives from two related factors: (a) differential social status, and (b) emotional commitment. For the first, people are inclined to be invested in an organization if it affords them higher social status (which may or may not manifest itself in financial wealth) than they would otherwise have. Differential social status (DSS) exists when a person has a substantially better role (higher pay, more autonomy, interesting projects) at that company than would be available anywhere else. CEOs and owners and founders have it, because they’d be applying for more subordinate positions if their companies vanished, but most corporate employees’ DSS begins at zero (what they get is no better or worse than is available on the market) and becomes negative as time goes on (because external promotions are often easier to get than internal ones). People on whom an organization confers DSS will fight to keep it alive, while people with zero or negative DSS, if rational, are only interested in their personal careers. The second element, of emotional commitment, pertains to a genuine belief that what the organization does is good for the world, which will also motivate a person to participate in its upkeep.
When executives complain about a lack of an “ownership mentality” in their subordinates, they recognize that most people don’t really care about the health of the companies where they work. It’s an acknowledgment that most people are idiots, in the original (ancient Greek) sense of the word whereby “idiot” meant not a stupid person but, literally, private individual. The idiot, in the original Athenian context, was a self-centered person with little interest in public, global, or historical affairs. Idiots are not necessarily stupid, but small-minded. They only care about issues that directly affect them.
Is there anything wrong with being an idiot, in this sense of the word? I would say that, in the corporate context, it’s a survival skill. People who stand up for unjustly fired interns, or who criticize unethical practices in the open, are not likely to remain employed for much longer. The opposite of idiot is citizen, but corporations are not designed for citizenship. In fact, there is a major difference (in governance) between the ownership and citizenship models. In the first, voting power is allocated in proportion to financial investment and the common outcome is oligarchy; in the second, all people who are deemed to be voting citizens all have the same amount of power: one vote. Private corporations are clearly not in the second category (citizenship) but even their commitment to the first (ownership) is limited. At the board level, they are ownership-weighted republics that put a great deal of effort into appearing stately and refined. However, with regard to internal employee affairs and day-to-day management, they’re dictatorships in which most people can be unilaterally banished by a single superior officer for any reason. What point is there in pretending to “own” one’s work when one can be unilaterally divorced from it at will?
When executives complain about a lack of “ownership” in their subordinates, what they really want to see is more akin to a “citizenship” mentality. Owners assert power and call shots; citizens serve and clean up messes. That said, citizenship makes no sense when very few of these organizations have the desire to implement the political structure that would make it a reasonable behavior. If you want citizens instead of denizen workers, you have to cede power to them. They need to have a say in their working conditions. (Compared to typical corporate serfdom, this would be positive differential social status.) Almost no company is willing to do that. They create a world in which self-interested idiocy (in the non-pejorative sense above) is the fittest strategy.
Companies have tried to rectify this through stock sharing programs, but the amounts they allocate to mere employees are so low as not to have an appreciable effect. A 100-person startup might offer 0.05% of the stock, vesting over 4 years, to new hires. (Actually, it’s more likely that there will be an options program, for tax reasons, but I’m avoiding that for now.) A 0.05% slice of a company worth $100 million is worth $50,000. Vesting over 4 years, that’s $12,500 per year. That’s just not enough of a stake to convince anyone credible to subordinate his career goals to the corporate interest. If anything, it makes people more self-serving, because subordinate employees who think the company is a “rocket ship” are going to do everything they can to get an executive position with real equity (although their odds are terrible) while the more pessimistic, realistic or agnostic employees will just view it as regular compensation. These token slices don’t turn people into conscientious owners, and they’re often inadequate to cover the differential between what the employee would earn in a more stable job at a “blue chip” company.
All this said, the argument can be made that corporations are powered by “silent”, conscientious workers who expect little in the way of formal recognition or outsized compensation, but take an attitude of ownership anyway, because they care. Here’s an interesting question: what happens when a person who is not high in the social hierarchy (e.g. not a real owner) takes on this “ownership mentality”? He wakes up one unseasonably warm February morning and says, “Starting today, I’m going to give a shit.” What happens to him after that?
Flow is the immediate-term state of being engaged. It’s a second-by-second trait. I think there’s a long-term analogue of it, which I’m going to call DFA: Done Fucking Around. This occurs when a person suddenly “turns on” to an effort or cause and starts dedicating a lot of focus, energy, and time to it. People refer to it as “stepping up” or (for a leader) “taking charge”. The 9-to-5er is suddenly working till 8:00 and on weekends, even though no one asked her to do so. The previously unengaged programmer is now spending slack time at work on Coursera. When someone is DFA, as with flow, any power relationships and subordinate contexts become almost irrelevant. DFA means doing the right thing, regardless of the power structure and the consequences. It means working hard even if recognition will come late and scarcely. It means actually caring about doing whatever you’re doing extremely well. Kaizen, bitch. It means you’re not just playing subordinate and waiting to be “discovered” by upper management like it’s some kind of movie where The Right Thing happens by chance in a hundred and seven minutes, because the real world isn’t like that. No no no no, sir. You’re Done Fucking Around.
Cinematically, DFA is attractive, even in subordinate workers. He was once an Average Joe, but some event occurred to change his attitude, and now he’s dedicated. He’s going to win. Cue the Rocky music. In the movies, once the DFA light turns on, the path to success opens itself up. There might be a small amount of resistance, but the hero’s only adversary is (possibly) his own discouragement and (intermittent, spanning only one or two scenes) paresse. That’s how the movies show it: the adversaries are too complacent and haughty to put up a fight, until the hero is strong and ready and it’s too late for them. The bad guys are too hubristic to fear him, so they don’t try to abort him while he’s in his cocoon of industrious, heroic exertion.
What actually happens to a subordinate employee when the DFA light turns on? My experience is that, within 6 months, there’s about a 4-in-5 chance that he won’t be working there anymore. If you go DFA, you had better be getting a couple lines on your resume out of the excess work, because you’ll probably be using it soon. Some get fired, some resign out of frustration, and some just seem to disappear at the height of their energy and prominence. As in the movies, an employee who goes DFA gets noticed quickly. Something’s happening. There’s an HSTG (“Holy Shit, This Guy”) moment. Unlike in the movies, he’s rarely well received. His co-workers are upset at him for making them look bad, and his superiors see him as a credible threat to their authority.
The fantasy is that the DFA subordinate will be “discovered” and find a mentor– someone who says, “You’re better than the role that you’re in, and I’ll help you skip a grade or few”– and they work together at accomplishing what the DFA employee wants to do. The mentor clears political obstacles, and the protege does the legwork. I think it’s very rare that this actually happens. With the employer-employee social contract imploded and corporate loyalty bilaterally abandoned, I think that faith in such eventualities is generally misplaced. It can happen, but it’s rare and one shouldn’t bet one’s entire career on it. What is a mentorship arrangement to the protege is “playing favorites” to everyone else. It’s rare that the benefits of taking a protege outweigh the loss of morale observed in the less fortunate.
In school, gifted students are allowed to skip grades and take advanced courses with little objection, because (a) over-smart, bored students become disruptive, and public schools can’t fire them, and (b) the other students are not likely to be resentful because, in their view, the poor sucker is just getting more and harder homework (“who’s smart now?”) Yet in the corporate world, grade-skipping is so politically touchy, and so contrary to the “we hire only the best” profession that corporations routinely make, that it very rarely happens. Corporations refuse to track their best people in order to keep consistency with an “all our courses are honors courses” mentality that is inconsistent with most of the work that white-collar, subordinate workers actually do.
Why is it this way? Why is grade-skipping and tracking acceptable in education but not at work? I have a guess. In school, the work is structured and sometimes contrived but it’s not supposed to be boring. Some classes are boring, but that’s a sign of an incompetent teacher rather than an accepted, much less intentional, trait of the work. The difficulty that most people experience in school is supposed to come from the intellectual challenge of the material itself. In the corporate world, the boring nature of the work is a fundamental, landscape feature of the challenge. What makes corporate work difficult isn’t the intellectual or creative difficulty of the work itself, but the combination of boredom and the need to maintain social poise while performing it.
In education, grade skipping means that a gifted student faces more challenging work, thus allaying boredom. However, students of average ability would find this treatment undesirable, because they’d face a more demanding environment. What’s different about the corporate world is that, because boredom is the central nature of the challenge, gifted employees who get special treatment are actually being skipped over the nasty, difficult years of dues-paying, low recognition, and subordinate bullshit. The reaction is that others will have is of indignation: “If I have to keep fucking around like this, why shouldn’t he? Who decided that he gets to be done fucking around and that I don’t?”
Corporations are, in addition to having these inherent structural problems when it comes to talent discovery, information-poor. Any information they get about individual personnel performance is so biased and tainted by politics as to be effectively useless. They might be “drowning in data” when it comes to performance reviews (key-log mining!) but the data is all garbage. What this means is that, regardless of what personnel structure a corporation might want invent in order to discover and develop talent, its integrity will be corroded faster than the system can reach implementation. In this anarchic environment where no one really knows if anyone else is good at their jobs, much less capable of something better, the power vacuum is filled by a self-promotion system: the DFA light. When you start to care, you turn it on, put your neck out there, and sometimes get tapped for leadership roles but usually get “nicked”.
To turn one’s DFA light on– to truly care about the quality and impact of your work– is to make a challenge. It’s a way of saying, “No, I am not mere excess capacity.” It’s a way of showing that one is no longer willing to sleepwalk from workday to the next. It can be an immensely powerful statement, but a personally dangerous one to make. One thing I have learned through observation is that, for a person wishing to maximize job security and career continuity, overperformance is more dangerous than its maligned counterpart.
Without much of a transition because I’m running out of time for this post, I should answer a related question: Why am I writing this kind of stuff? I’d have to be a moron not to know that I’m taking a severe personal risk by doing so. (Not a lot of people read my blog, but it’s easily Googleable.) Over the past year, I’ve given people advice (in public and in private) on how to beat performance improvement plans, why various office-political degeneracies exist, and how to build a reasonable HR system (thereby indicting the HR systems that 99 percent of companies have). Part of it is that I’m a competitive person and I like showing up powerful people, even when I’ve never met them. I’m better at their jobs than they are. But that’s not all of it. At least in the public, I’m D.F.A. as well. My first campaign has been to generate the vocabulary. Valve’s innovative internal structure is open allocation. I’ve given it a name. We can now discuss it. This is just one move out of millions that the world will require from its most progressive thinkers. I am hardly alone in this, and it’s not clear (yet) whether I’m even an important player.
The truth is that I perceive weakness in the Corporate System. These institutions will be around for a hundred more years, just as Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin didn’t kill off large religious organizations (nor was it their desire; their objective was simply to end political religion). That’s fine. My job is not to kill them. That’s not even desirable. However, I’d like to end Corporate Dominion. Its time is ending, and my generation might be the one to drive in the stake. Or, possibly not. No one can predict the future, and certainly not me. It is, however, worth it to try to take the world back. Our job isn’t to eliminate business corporations (which will always exist, and which perform good functions when their power is curtailed) but to wrest from them the power that they abuse: the ability to ruin a hard-working person’s career with a bad reference, the legal “right” to pollute the environment, et cetera.
I’ve had some illnesses and deaths in the family over the past few years. Some were surprising, others were not. But I think it’s hard to get to my age (which is not that old; I’m only 29) and not realize that time is not only finite, but that the remaining quantity of it is truly unknown. I might have over 1000 years left of life, if technological trends play out a certain way. I might have less than 1000 seconds. Who knows?
The Corporate System is predicated on Fucking Around. That’s its lifeblood. It turns democracy into oligarchy by finding efficient ways to corral the cheap votes of people who don’t give a shit. That’s how it works. That’s what it does. In the old-style system, most people fucked around, being digested for 40 years in the vain hope of being “discovered” and made substantial, and that never happened for the vast majority of them. Once fully digested, they were shat out with a gold watch except, in most cases, without the gold watch. The problem is that, for the individual, there isn’t time for fucking around. We don’t know how much we have. It might be nothing. The correct time for fucking around is… the null set.
Ok, I’m done (with this post, that is).