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Thu, 13 Jul 2006:

It has always been Us vs Them, only the definitions of either group have varied for mankind. The fact that we are "We" isn't due to "Me", it has always been because of "Them". The phenomena is not restricted to the world outside, but into the air conditioned world of the software industry. Rather than just poke the sordid underbelly of my chosen profession, I wanted to understand how exactly this came to be.

The polarization evolves from a geographical split. An indian wing of a US MNC or an offshore ODC of one could serve as a sufficient model. The cultural and timezone differences aside, the system functions smoothly when the wing is small, yet doing really important things. But somewhere during the latter phase of its growth, things start to go wrong. Work that could have been done by "Us" (yes, it begins...) is kept for "Them", even though they are understaffed or overworked. Suddenly a log jam starts to appear in the smooth flow and you can literally feel the disparity in treatment.

The problem has its roots in communication. While the communication channels remain person to person, as is common with a small outpost of a company elsewhere, the problems, if any, remain purely personal and has none of the communal hatred of the Us vs Them. Then arrives the manager who, for lack of other tasks, takes up the job of communication. Well intentioned maybe, but the moment an engineer has to send a mail to a manager who has to communicate it elsewhere, the seeds of disparity are sown. Information shouldn't need to go up levels to traverse teams. Hierarchies get in the way of information and the barriers start to rise as growth pushes the pyramid upwards.

But there are some managers who seem to have avoided this problem by being so transparent that they seem to be hardly there. My career so far has been short and uneventful (mostly), but it has been my pleasure to work with two individuals who, in my opinion, have discovered the zen of management. To be completely frank with their reportees and extremely diplomatic with their superiors is how they function. Compared to the fold like umbrellas attitudes others have shown towards authority, I have found the other strategy to be better at motivating me. Transparency means that you know why you have to work harder and what's on the line here. Consequences of a boss's displeasure isn't enough to make me work hard, but a real failure of the project is.

But back to the original problem, beyond communication and onto competition. The moment a manager starts collating his bug reports and TPS sheets, it becomes a game of numbers. Now, if you haven't read How to lie with statistics, you should. So some team will have done a bit more or a bit less and the obvious comparisons between the two teams will be made. Unwanted parallels drawn to the disadvantage of the team lagging behind. Once this has been dragged out into the open by somebody, it becomes an open contest for next year.

Competition works. Margaret Thatcher was a great fan of the concept. But a software firm is more of a non-zero sum game than the free market, especially since the customer (who wins) isn't playing the game at all. Like the old game of prisoner's dilemma, the teams draw up their perceived benefits of co-operation or defection (more accurately, delaying or denying help). But as the game suggests, it should easily fall into a cycle of co-operation, if communication was open and clear.

That is where the next tragedy of the software industry comes in. Attrition rates and job hopping essentially means that the shadow of the future is rather short. For the average employee, he'll not be here to play the next round. So as in the one-off version of the game, his obvious choice is to always defect.

In this race to be the one first up with a product, to make the most money, to get the most kudos for their product, a silo of thinking develops. People start reinventing the wheels merely because the other team doing the same thing elsewhere is not co-operating (also because they stand to lose a chunk of the credit). Time and money wasted. Important products slip merely because a manager doesn't want to ask for help.

The lack of communication explodes into a cycle of non-productivity and credit grabbing which are short term benefits paid for by somebody else in the long term. But in reality, you merely end up paying for somebody else's mistakes of the past and merely passing on new burdens to your successors. Unburdened by any past sins, the first generation which indulges in these seem to come out winning.

What could have been a peaceful working environment is now wracked by underground politics which cuts through the basic helplines of the employees - other employees. The command structures demand no creativity, a task which is solidly obeyed in levels below ("the easiest thing to do is to never have good ideas"). Thus a hierarchy has divided and ruled for its own benefit and paved way for its ultimate downfall, merely by replacing the individual with a collective Us in constant conflict with Them ("We'd always been at war with Eurasia").

I've seen the disease and I haven't found a cure yet. Prevention yes, but a cure no.

"Don't worry about the mule. Just load the wagon."
                                -- Project Management Simplified

posted at: 04:01 | path: /observations | permalink | Tags: ,