In March, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sent a company wide memo announcing a change to a flatter organizational structure called Holacracy. Tony also offered a severance package for those that were not interested in The New Way. 210 Zappos employees took the package and will be leaving.
Zappos began making changes to have a flatter organizational structure over a year ago. It looks like they are getting serious now.
Gender and diversity issues in tech is a difficult thing to talk about. People are understandably sensitive. As a white male, I’ve never dealt with any kind of disadvantage related to diversity. Me giving an opinion on the topic, is skewed at best.
When we look in most tech companies there is a clear majority of white males between the ages of 25 to 35. Especially when we look in the programming departments. Some people look around and see the work getting done by (mostly) skilled people and say “what’s the problem?”.
Others look around and note that there are many under represented groups — people of color, and women for example.
It might be easy to say that because you don’t participate or haven’t observed people being mistreated, that it doesn’t happen. That would be completely untrue though.
I would like to talk about the issue a little bit.
In a recent episode of Silicon Valley, the team hires a young programmer to write their Cloud Implementation. And I do mean young; much closer to ten than twenty. When “The Carver” asks the age of the CEO of Pied Piper, and is told “twenty-seven”, he winces, sucks in his breath, and says “yikes.”
While the ages are exaggerated (the show is a comedy) these sorts of problems really do happen; we’ve covered it here in the past. Members of the technical staff who are over forty seem like rare birds. Complaints that old programmers won’t learn new tricks seems legitimate, and too many of my older technical friends are more interested in escape and survival than in reinventing themselves.
I don’t think the problem is entirely them – it is not a freewill issue. Nor is it ageism (though that does happen) — it might be more accurate to say that there is a system force that makes it hard for older technical staff to adapt to changes in the way work is done. Today I’ll explore that, along with what you can do about it if you want to stay in the game.
It’s been with me now for about three years. It was a gift from my friend Elisabeth Hendrickson when I participated in an Agile event she was hosting. Since then, it’s been a talisman of sorts, and today, it goes with me everywhere I can take it.
I’m not referring to the NERF gun ;).
One argument for choosing a full time day job over independent work or running your own business is stability. Having a full time job means you aren’t in the wilderness hunting new clients every few months, and you will get a paycheck every couple of weeks even when work slows down a little bit. There is also psychological comfort in having someone help you with the tax burden, contributing to health insurance costs, and maybe even retirement plan contributions.
My decade of experience tells me that every bit of that is an illusion.
I’m talking too dumb to believe. Professionally dumb.
There was, for example, the time I became a project manager, promoted from pay grade 220 to 240, and my supervisor wasn’t sure it was actually a promotion. (It was, I looked it up.) Or the time we bid to take over from another company, and the hiring manager didn’t know how much he was paying the other company. (“It’s on retainer, it’s complicated, I don’t know.”) Or the time we bid to subcontract, and the vendor in the middle forgot every single detail, from rate to who-is-the-end-client.
Perhaps, in some of these cases, they really did forget; they really did not know. It seems an interesting coincidence, though, that every time the information might be to my advantage, the other person did not know. If it was to their advantage, if our rate was too high, they would suddenly remember.
Discussing this with my wife, she was not surprised at all. “Look, Matt”, she said “You get power by giving information away. That’s fine. You have to remember that some people gain it by controlling the flow of information.”
Information Control At Work
Some things do require discretion. Reorganizations, layoffs, promotions, these things need to be planned by a small group and contained.
The issue is not keeping things to yourself. It is instead trying to gain advantage through the control of information. Bring a few people into your inner circle, and not only will they appreciate it, but they will fight to stay in the circle. Gather your army of political players, and use your gossip to gain advantage over the other side. In The Gervais Principle, Venkat Rao calls this “powertalk”, and it consists of trading information.
Now think of two managers, peers at the same company. One knows every project coming down the pike, who the key players are, who their enemies are, what their goals are to reach their bonus, and what the personnel moves will be over the next six months or so. The other is busy trying to build software. Which of the two will be more effective in getting themselves promoted?
The main reason people control the flow of information is probably because it works.
In his book To Sell Is Human, author Dan Pink compares two car dealerships, one that control access to information and use aggressive negotiation techniques with another that provides one single price, printouts of the Kelly Blue Book suggested prices, as well as computers with internet access for customers do do their own research. Even today, Secret Societies operate with special, hidden knowledge, while some charities, religions, and even movements push for power through transparency. I couldn’t help but notice in the 2004 presidential election, both the democratic and the republican candidates were members of Skull and Bones – a secret fraternity at Yale University that admits only fifteen new members per year.
If you’ve read much Uncharted Waters, or met me, you probably see my strategy – to give away as much value as I possibly can. On the web I explore good work and how to pursue it, but it can never speak to your exact situation. That’s where phone calls and conferences come in where, again, I try to provide so much value that people say “gee, if we got that out of a lunch, imagine what we would get out of bringing him on-site!”
In the life of an organization, there is the inevitable changes; people come and go, products get updated and old products get phased out. It’s a common occurrence, and one that usually can be dealt with in a reasonable manner. Often, we have someone in a position, typically because they have done it for a long time, that we feel it just makes sense to let them do their thing. They are effective, they are productive, and really, we can get what we need when we need it. Days go by and we let those people do whatever it is they do.
The problem with this is that there are situations where someone who is key to a role may be here today, gone tomorrow, and no one can do anything about it. It’s one thing when that person leaves to find a new job, but they are able to be reached for troubleshooting or as a resource to figure something out. There’s also the possibility that someone who has to leave suddenly will not be available to speak (think medical emergencies and situations where communication is not possible any longer). What do we do then?
Last Friday marked my second full week of working as a contracting software tester from my house. A while ago, I worked from my home office for 2 years while working for a completely distributed company. We had an office space where the VCs were located, but that was really for show. No one wanted to work out of that space.
Instead, we had people working from their house in Boston, Dallas, Nashville, and Nebraska.
It’s a little different this time around.
One of the last things I did before departing my last full time position was helping out with interviews of potential candidates to fill my shoes when I was gone. There was only one real candidate, getting testers in Nashville, or anywhere really, can be difficult.
A few of us spoke with the candidate and we all came to our respective decisions, but in the end, the boss didn’t like how I made my decision.
Today is the second day of my life as a full-time independent (contracting / consulting) software tester. There has been about 4 years of build up to this that involved getting better at what I do and expanding that skill set to other marketable areas, reading about sales, finance and marketing, and meeting people and developing relationships.
Little bits of this was mentioned in a blog series called ‘Starting Freelance’ that I wrote here on ITKE. Maybe in a few months I’ll have to start a new series called Doing Freelance.