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.
It just never turns out to be quite the profit center I’d hoped.
In theory I should make so many euros per trip, plus travel. With an exchange rate of 1.08 euros per dollar right now, that means I should come home with 1.08*rate in dollars, right?
If only things were that easy.
A Cautionary Tale
Flying out of Grand Rapids, I get to the airport hours early, order a meal … and I can’t find the receipt. In Philly, I have a decent layover and want to use the Delta Lounge, which is usually free for me, but I’m not on a delta flight. As I won’t ask for reimbursement for the lounge fee, it ends up costing me twenty-nine dollars of my own money, I also get some cash, which has a fee, and not-great exchange rate both ways.
Then there are tips, offerings at Church, gifts for the kids. A soda here, a pretzel there. I just ordered a coffee at the hotel and realized it was three euro — I thought they were complimentary! For part of my trip, only hotel and airfare is covered (no food)—and then there are wire transfer fees to get the money, and the not-great exchange rate I will get. And the tips.
All told, for these kind of trips, I plan on a 20% difference between potential and actual pay.
Add up all trips all year, and that is a lot of money.
The trick of the lost 20% is gradualism. It starts out at one beer. I mean, really, what is the big deal about 3 euro for a beer? Compared to the total fee it is nothing. Travel, after all, is a hardship; a drink is a small compensation.
“c’mon, you earned it”, and so on.
After I’ve used cash on trips like this I wonder how it is possible to drink that much beer, or whatever it was, because I don’t remember all those little things.
My goodness, though, they sure do add up to a lot.
Above: The pancake boat restaurant in Groningen, Netherlands. (Keep your receipt!)
The story here is not about my money – though by paying attention to it I have learned to manage it a little bit better.
The story here is about your time.
The Time Thief
The greatest real wealth is your time. Because time can not be saved, we are all spending it constantly. Sadly, like my money on a trip, we tend to spend time gradually, in little bits at a time. What starts as a two-minute funny youtube clip turns into an hour; what starts as watching a show on Netlix turns into an evening binge. Twitter and Skype can be helpful and wonderful … but have you analyzed how much time you spend on them?
RescueTime can analyze what you spend your time on at the computer. It’s also free; give it a try. Then, perhaps, consider what you could do it if you took that time back, if you chose to do something else. Perhaps a single day, or a Tuesday/Thursday website fast.
Looking at my time online I have come to realize something a little more sinister. When I don’t want to do a distasteful task, I tend to cycle through Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and a forum or two. Once I’ve finished reviewing the forum there will be something new on twitter — all because my brain does not want to make a tough decision, do a piece of work, or make a call. As a great deal of my work these days is piece-rate, I am not stealing hourly from someone else; it is more like I am stealing from myself, both opportunity to work and time that could have been spent with the family.
As I write this I am in a town car, on the way to the Amsterdam Airport. You could argue that I should stop and just look out the window, and I understand. I do take a little comfort in one thing.
When the driver asked if I needed wifi, I did say “no thanks.”
You see …
I’d rather be productive.
When I look through local software company lists and job advertisements, it’s easy to make a few generalizations. There are big companies that have been around a long time; they are stable and the people working there don’t have much to worry about. And then on the other side, there are very small, very new companies, start-ups. Working at a start up is a bit of a roller coaster, projects change faster that we can keep up with and the jobs are unstable.
The reality is that there is a spectrum. Where you land in the spectrum will effect your pay, the technology you’re working with, the culture, and what you get out of the deal.
Lets take a closer look.