Saturday, September 21, 2013

Work And Motivation

Yes, this is a primarily political op-ed site. And yes, knowing that that's what most Gentle Readers of Liberty's Torch come here expecting to find, I prefer to remain within that domain most of the time. But every now and then I run across something elsewhere on the Web that reminds me of topics I once addressed more often than I have these past few years. Today I found one such:

Give me the task to be done, let me do it to the best of my ability, and then let me scram. I don't need to be cajoled into it, I don't need dancing ducks and explosions on a PowerPoint presentation to tell me how it's important. I just need the guidelines of how to do it and to be turned loose to do it.

It resonates with me for several reasons, not the least of which I expressed in this swatch of a piece from Eternity Road:

The duties of any manager are twofold:
  1. Know what your subordinates need to do their jobs, and get it for them;
  2. Hold them to their promises.

To these, the front-line manager must add a third: keeping middle managers from fouling up the works. Middle managers have many ways to do this, and the front-line manager has only one defense against it: being tougher than the British Army Of The Rhine.

  • Middle managers must be prevented from directing subordinates a level or more removed from them. Either the company's authority structure means something or it doesn't -- and if it doesn't, why should a front-line manager have to face the music when things turn south?
  • Middle managers must be prevented from injecting their own preferences into technological undertakings. Requirements, though they must often remain open to revision, should be the articulated requests of a recognized customer group, not the idiosyncrasies of an uninvolved person with too much time on his hands.
  • Middle managers must be reminded, publicly if necessary, that technical authority is not theirs to wield. That authority lies with those whose responsibility it is to meet the requirements of the job at hand: the engineers doing the actual development work.

....In short: Don't be a pusillanimous marshmallow.

The folks who most often promote the "dancing ducks / exploding PowerPoint" crap are, of course, middle managers hoping to "move up." Yes, some front-line managers, more focused on their personal advancement than on their responsibilities, will attempt to emulate them. However, the middle manager who detects such an attempt usually reacts badly -- vindictively.

Not coincidentally, the folks who promote "team building" and "morale building" crap are almost always middle managers as well. Have another swatch from the recent past:

Your Curmudgeon had a strange experience this morning. His group is part of a larger, project-oriented software department which meets every Friday for general status review. Now and then, the department head will use that meeting to introduce some question or topic for general consideration and input from the troops. Today was such a day. The question was: "Do employee appreciation events (e.g., company parties and comparable special events) have a positive effect on employee morale?"

As you might expect, most of the other engineers there mumbled something ambiguous and noncommittal. Your Curmudgeon did not. Almost without intending to, he lit off on a grand and passionate tirade about how "employee appreciation events" missed the whole point of employee morale, that morale is not about time-delimited events intended to compensate for the travails of one's job, but rather about the time one spends actually doing it, and whether the holistic experience is interesting, exciting, and comfortable -- in short, whether the employee can be induced to love his work.

The reactions were mind-expanding. The department head was stunned -- wide-eyed, open-mouthed, speechless, and unable to continue. The other engineers and group leaders were distributed across a spectrum that ranged from baffled to resentful....

In some ways, this seems consistent with what your Curmudgeon knows of himself and of most other working people. As a rule, engineers are embarrassed to admit their enthusiasm for their work. Most employees of any sort would be unwilling to tell their supervisors that they love their jobs and have committed to them voluntarily; it would seem a stick to beat them with at some unspecified future time. But there's more, apparently stemming from the societal worship of "cool."

Passion of any sort is widely regarded as embarrassing. A raised voice is an unacceptable disordering of the social norm. A Juggernaut-like charge into difficulty, with the intent of smashing obstacles flat by sheer power of will, is considered disrespectful toward one's more restrained colleagues. It's "uncool."

The "cool" phenomenon is a promotion of disengagement over enthusiasm. "Be cool, man." Don't commit yourself. Don't invest your emotions. Don't let anyone know that there's something that lights your boilers, charges your condensers, or gets you greased and ready to kick ass.

If there's anything I'm not, it's "cool." I've been characterized as a hothead, a wild man, and many less complimentary things...but I'm also the top group leader in the company and have been for many years. I'm also the company's top-rated software engineer, and have been for even longer. The reasons are quite simple:

  • I love my work;
  • I maintain an environment for my subordinates in which they can love their work.

Not a lot of people love their work these days. Few persons would describe their feelings about their work as passionate, even enthusiastic. Granted that there are jobs about which it seems hard to muster love or enthusiasm. All the same, most of us in "white collar" trades chose to enter them out of preference -- and not a "this is the best of a set of bad choices" sort of preference, either. So why do so few of us love our work and attack it with passion?

If it ain't middle management and "cool," I can't imagine what it might be.


Whenever I've been in a hiring position, which is most of my forty-five years in my trade, I've looked for two things: raw intelligence and a kind of joyful aggression. You can't manufacture the former, but you can elicit the latter and embed it in conditions that will bring it to fullest flower. Those conditions require mainly that management at all levels stay the hell out of the employee's way. So I do -- and I guarantee to my people that anyone above my level who tries to interfere with them will face my wrath, which I've demonstrated several times to be a fearsome thing indeed.

In consequence, most middle managers purely hate me and wish I were dead. I'm okay with that, as I have no desire to enter middle management. (Frankly, I'd rather drive needles into my eyes than spend my time doing what they seem to do all day, every day. Meetings. Conference trips. Reports. PowerPoint presentations. Ick!) A lot of other front-line managers resent me as well, both for running a group that consistently outperforms their groups and for preventing them from stealing or meddling with my subordinates. But as they're normally the internal customers for what my group produces and maintains, they know better than to conspire at my downfall.

For those reasons among others, and despite the recognition that my years in my trade must soon come to an end, I'm a happy man. Exuberantly happy even when pressed so hard that my eyes are bulging out. The furthest thing from "cool," and utterly indifferent to the multifarious vermiculations of middle management. They can tell me what they need. They can demand that I keep my promises -- once I've made them, of course. But I forbid them to do anything beyond that; it would spoil the pleasure I take in my work, and the pleasure my people take in theirs.


One of the forgotten open secrets of the American psyche is how our pride in our freedom and independence has historically translated into creative energy and industry. That's been on the wane for a lot of years now, and I think I know why: the transition from a land of predominantly small, highly personal enterprises to a Fortune-5000-dominated realm in which the great majority of Americans draw their livings from employment in a large corporate hierarchy.

Being a small cog in a big machine doesn't go with a spirit of joyful enterprise.

There are still some great stories of individual achievement and success being written. I can't think of one that starts with employment in General Motors or Exxon-Mobil. Yet when Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber wrote The American Challenge, the tract that warned all of Europe of what it would face in its competition for a return to the tables of world power, he focused his readers' attention on what he called "the genius of the American corporate manager."

Back in the Eighties, there was a certain cachet in expressing such sentiments. Peters and Waterman turned them into a best-selling book. That was one of the poorer characteristics of an otherwise wonderful decade.

We have a lot to unlearn.


There are other threads running through all of this, each of them worthy of an exhaustive treatment, but it's early Saturday morning, I'm already tired from a long work week, and the chores beckon. So I'll end this tirade in my usual quirky fashion: with a lyric by the late, great Ellis McDaniel, better known to the musical world as Bo Diddley:

I walk forty-seven miles of barbed wire,
I got a cobra snake for a necktie
Got a brand new house by the road side,
Made out of rattlesnake hide
Got a brand new chimney up on top,
Made from a human skull
Come on take a little walk with me baby,
And tell me who do you love?
Who do you love?
Who do you love?

Around the town I use a rattlesnake whip,
Take it easy baby don't you give me no lip
Who do you love?
Who do you love?

I've got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind,
I'm just twenty-two and I don't mind dying
Who do you love?
Who do you love?
Who do you love?

Now Arlene took me by my hand,
She said "Lonesome George you don't understand,
Who do you love?"
The night were dark and the sky were blue,
Down the alley an ice wagon flew
The door flew open, and somebody screamed,
You should've heard just what I seen
Who do you love?

I walk forty-seven miles of barbed wire,
I got a cobra snake for a necktie
Got a brand new house by the road side,
And it's a-made out of rattlesnake hide
Got a brand new chimney up on top,
Made from a human skull
Come on take a little walk with me baby,
And tell me who do you love?
Who do you love?
Who do you love?

Best listened to here:

That's the spirit to which Americans must return -- and for more reasons than just their emotional health while at work.

4 comments:

  1. Anent "cool." I recall a piece I once saw on ::shudder:: 60 Minutes which followed Wynton Marsalis around his teaching day. There was one scene focused on a student -- a young black man -- who was having some issues with putting expression into his playing. Marsalis went off on him, berating him for trying to act "cool" when what he was really doing was BEING disengaged. Judgemental when he really had no basis for judgement. I've never been accused of being cool, but, ever since watching that, I don't think I'd ever WANT to be cool. I think of coolness as a sickness, a deadness of spirit, a failure of imagination and heart. Why anybody would seek that state is beyond me.

    M

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  2. Songs like these make me think of the word "mondegreen." It's always interesting to compare what I hear with what they wrote.

    Re managers: Mrs. 'Bix once worked for a manager like you. I enjoyed it vicariously.

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  3. Want to keep an engineer deliriously happy? Simple:

    1. Put them hard to work straining mightily against technical challenges pertaining directly to whatever product you're building

    2. Keep them completely isolated from ALL OTHER challenges. In most companies, these "other challenges" consist mostly of interactions with any company personnel except their own cow-orkers and their immediate supervisor. (If the intended users of the product are internal to the company, they also get an exception.)

    3. Understand, deep down in your bones, that "emergencies" do not arise from readily foreseeable events.

    3a. Understand that, when extraordinary actions are taken, whether in response to a genuine emergency (such as the crew at DirectNIC gathering with their personal firearms to defend the data center against looters during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina) or in response to some manager's poor planning (think of the tale of sabotage recovery from "On Broken Wings"...and yes, given a world demonstrably affected by men who give into evil, failing to maintain server backups reliably against sabotage constitutes "poor planning"), the people who take them are entitled to be rewarded. Preferably to include meaningful quantities of cash above and beyond their normal salaries, but more importantly _politically_. And by "politically", I mean "whatever nonsense you've still been unable to isolate your regular people from, these folks are now entitled to no longer care about".

    (Engineers under 30 are usually pretty happy with one item off this list. To keep experienced people happy enough to voluntarily stick around past 5 years, you need at least two. And to keep them as happy as the folks at those companies that actually do come off as "cool"? Yeah, all three. No way around it.)

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  4. Fran,

    Have you had a chance to read "Shop Class as Soulcraft"?

    The author hit on a couple themes I think you'd enjoy.

    We've been battling a middle manager with delusions of competency at work. Despite his Ph.D., he's shown utter ignorance in his technical field, more than once I've had to explain where and why he's wrong, more than once other members of my team have had to do the same. Yet he wields undue authority in the management structure, because he flatters those above him.

    It's a poison, it seeps into every aspect of planning, understanding the actual customer's needs, and implementing solutions to those needs.

    If dueling was still legal, I would have already challenged him.

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