Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Over on Silk-list, Kragen Sitaker forwarded an article by Kevin Barnes titled Finding coders on the subcontinent, about the shortage of tech talent in India. It’s a well written piece that describes a real problem without being condescending about it. It sparked an interesting discussion. However, at some point I couldn’t help but feel that it was rather one-sided, finding fault with the people seeking jobs without saying anything about the companies that seek to hire them.
Here is my rant:
Sure, demand outstrips supply, and there’s a vast pool of unqualified people trying their best to get their foot in the door, but surely this doesn’t mean there are no qualified people?
If you’re a company seeking to hire and retain talent, you’ve got to know how to hire and retain talent. You can’t blame the supply for your shortcomings. You can’t just turn up in a new place, setup camp, and expect the best to gather in your tent, because, after all, you’re cool and they want jobs. In my experience, well qualified people are not hard to find if the job deserves a well qualified person. The myth of talent shortage needs reversal.
First, the startups.
Sturgeon’s law applies here. 95% of all startups will fail. There’s no escaping it. If you’re seeking to work with a startup because you’ve heard the stories of valiant struggle before success, of glorious riches, of the freedom and responsibility and growth such a job affords... you’re likely totally unqualified to tell if the company you’re associating with will be one of those stories.
In other words, your company will fail. Cut and run before it takes you down.
Before you join, demand to be explained the business plan. If it doesn’t make sense, leave. They don’t know what they’re doing.
If the company declares it confidential, leave. They don’t have a plan.
If you tell them it doesn’t make sense and they tell you that you don’t understand and they know what they’re doing, leave. They’re pompous assholes.
If they try to impress you by making you feel small and promising great heights if you associate with them, leave. They’re condescending assholes.
If they tell you that your expected take is more than you deserve, leave. They have no respect for your abilities.
If they offer you stock without giving you decision making responsibility, leave. The stock is worthless and you’ll be signing away the rights to your career.
If they’re offering a decision making responsibility but no stock, leave. They’re control freaks and you’ll get shafted when they realise how dependent they are on you.
If you send them a referral and they pitch to that person singing paeans to the wonderful things they’ve heard about them, raise the alarm. They’re desperate and think nothing of lying in their pitch.
If they say anything about how they’re in your part of the world because the costs work out better here, run like hell. They only want you because you’re cheap. There are few things worse than a job where your most attractive feature is your price tag. Do not ever work for a company that is in your area while the market is elsewhere because it’s cheaper here. Globalisation wasn’t meant to be to your advantage. You’ll get walloped by the glass ceiling before you know it, and then they’ll toss your burnt out body on the road.
In summary, working for a startup is generally a very bad idea. It’s no wonder most startups only find the most desperate candidates, or the brilliant but naive ones who will inevitably burn out. Stop whining that people have no risk taking appetite. They’re being sensible, you’re not.
I didn’t make up any of this list. They’re from actual experiences I’ve had.
For a far simpler but 100% effective test, ask to see the founder’s working space (if the founder has a fancy title like “CEO” or “CTO”, laugh at them before you run, for a fancy title invariably means they have no key staff). If it bears any sign of being superior to the spaces of ordinary employees, any sign at all, whether glass cabin, better furniture, even view from the window, say thanks and walk away. You won’t regret it. The only admissible difference is that they have vacant space around them to accommodate people for meetings. Startups are expected to be disorganised, but not to have visible hierarchies. (The successful startups I’ve worked with invariably had egalitarian working spaces even after having grown several hundred strong.)
Not that established companies are generally any better. When you treat your employees as replaceable unit labour, what better can you expect but to fill your vacancies with replaceable unit labour?
Look at the HR policies most companies have. The big shops all treat their “fresher” recruits as bonded labour. (The contracts are worded to pass the bond off as training fees.) These aren’t mere formalities. I once had a person come running out of a BigCo, three months into the training period, to work with me at a startup. About the most brilliant person I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and a good friend since. He couldn’t stand the place for the way it treated folks, by policy. He told his HR manager as such before leaving. She said she would have to file him as absconding, because otherwise it would be a hassle for her to explain. BigCo sent a lawyergram, threatening a civil suit for violating the bond unless he paid up. (They didn’t follow up, suggesting it made no economic sense.) In the same period, that same company was all over the press as among the best performing companies and one of the best places to work. The press detailed what was most repulsive about the place (“deskilling labour”, aka “leave your brain at the door”) and celebrated it as its unique strength, the engine of its growth. It was disgusting.
As for the startup? The team did some brilliant work that’s caused lasting ripples around the world (as measured by a Google Alert on the name of the product, which continues to turn up new results every few weeks), but the place didn’t escape Sturgeon’s law. Their HR policies were so insane, the best ran for cover at first opportunity, while the brave fought until they burnt out. How bad could it be? Consider this: they had a single phone in the premises, which the “director” personally answered to screen all calls. He’d refuse to pass the call if he thought someone was getting too much phone time. When he left for the day, he locked the instrument in his drawer. This was at a time before cell phones were ubiquitous. The startup had this very expensive, large, open space for an office, one whole side of which was a glass wall with a glorious view. Two thirds of the floor was unoccupied, reserved for future expansion, while everyone got packed into the other third with approximately two and a half feet of personal space, without even cubicle walls. The only place to keep a backpack was to hang it off the back of the chair, or on a designated shelf at the other end of the floor. All this, despite that they paid excellent salaries. Management didn’t think better conditions were needed given the kind of work they did.
(I won’t bother to describe the power politics, aka mutual backstabbing, that characterised the place. This startup wasn’t even the worst disaster I’ve seen.)
I’ve been expelled from an organisation for incompetence on more than one occasion. In moments of self examination, I’ve wondered: was I really that incompetent, or was there something about the place that was so inhibiting? It’s been painful acknowledging one over the other, but with the passing years, I’m increasingly convinced that most companies are really lousy places to work at. They make glorious statements about what their people mean to them, but they usually don’t know what those statements mean.
In the last half decade, not one company has managed to convince me to become a full time employee. I’ve remained a consultant even when heading their tech departments, choosing to work with no job security, no perks, all-work-related-expenses-are-my-own,-please-just-pay-me-this-lump-sum,-thank-you-very-much, because, guess what? It actually works out better than to be an employee, given their policies. Have you seen the employee contracts most companies have?
What’s that? You have an entrepreneurial streak and would like to make the most of it? Well, screw you. You’re the company’s property and you do what you’re told. Don’t you dare be good at anything else. (Don’t believe me? Read the fine print on your contract.)
What’s that? You’ve some errands this morning and will be in late? But you said the same thing yesterday. Well, yes, we have flexitime, but we’d like it if you were in office 9.30 to 6 each day. Please don’t compel us to review our policies.
Heck, most companies don’t even know how to make a consultant’s contract. I’ve worked with companies for years without one and it doesn’t bother me anymore. There’s a standard pattern to how this plays out that is comforting. The working relationship survives without a contract on the basis of trust. Or more accurately, on the basis that if I quit, they’re in deep shit, so the pay cheques had better keep flowing. The contract invariably comes out in a hurry when one shows signs of disillusionment.
Last year, a startup tried to convince me to sign one that said if they had a successful sale of their product, I’d refrain from indulging in that line of work for the next two years, in addition to the 18 months I was going to stay off such work should I dare quit. They saw nothing wrong with it. Just protecting their interests. A non-compete clause, you see. Would they agree to a clause specifying that they pay me a stipend for the period I was mandatorily off work? Hell, no. Not in their interests.
A few months later, that startup folded.
As for those who accept the muzzle of the contract, look at how they’re treated. “Spec it till there’s no room for creativity”. Lower level staff are menial labour. Their ability to think is an inconvenience. How do you upgrade their responsibilities? That’s easy. Give them a simple task, one they can’t possibly fail at, then make congratulatory noises about how they’re so valuable to the company and taking on such important work. If the employee isn’t insulted and manages to complete it without panicking over how they’ve utterly failed to understand the task because surely it can’t be as trivial as this, throw another task at them. If they’re failing to cope, take the task away. The task has to be done on time within budget. That is most important. Work is worship and customer is king, you see. Don’t waste time on fiddly thoughts like how demoralising such a demotion can be. On second thoughts, don’t even bother telling them they’re no longer in charge. There’s no time. They’ll figure it out eventually and understand that it’s all good. The explanations can wait for the performance review. Let HR do it. We’ll give the person some responsibility again when they seem ready for it. Can’t risk them screwing things up.
Performance review? What’s that? Not once in all my working life have I had a performance review, except when being reprimanded for failing to deliver on responsibilities flung at me. Performance reviews are these mysterious events that only happen to other people, never yourself.
Take a person who’s been through this cycle enough times, put them in a decent work environment where they’re treated well, give them responsibilities commensurate with their experience, and ... what? You don’t know how to do this because you never actually got to this part of the job before? In all these years?
Well, is it any surprise when you find yourself interviewing such a candidate? That you find yourself strangely lacking what ought to have been standard experience?
Companies think they’re doing employees a favour by giving them work. They think employees have no business questioning the nature of the work when they’re getting paid for it. They don’t understand that employees have resumes to fill, and if you’re making a habit of giving them bit jobs that are hard to explain, they’ll go elsewhere seeking a better job description.
They think nothing of stuffing people into cramped workplaces with standard issue computers (ugh!) and really bad ergonomics. I’m yet to see a workplace anywhere in this country that understands ergonomics. The table is always too high, hurting your shoulders when you reach for the keyboard, leaving your feet dangling, and the chair is never the right size for you. There’s always some kind of supporting structure under the table that smashes into your knee two times a day. Bad back from the posture? Well, you really ought to take better care of your health, you know. The company can’t oversee your personal life.
And then they don’t understand why you prefer to work from home, where you’re in charge of the environment. Shirking duty. Hanging out with your girlfriend while claiming to work. If you pull this stunt again, we’re marking it as your day off.
Or force them to fill a timesheet that takes half an hour each day and demands details that no one can possibly provide, except by fabrication (“how much time did you spend on each task?”). Cut off their distractions. Filter their Internet access. Don’t let them visit sites that are unrelated to their work. Send them a list each week and demand explanations for what they were doing on those sites. Structure their workplace such that they have no privacy. They shouldn’t be able to tell if someone is staring at their screen from across the room. That’ll keep them focused.
(All real experiences.)
You know what? Enough with this bullshit.
We’re in a booming economy now. This is an employee’s market. Don’t be held down by companies that can’t respect you. There’s always someone else out there who will treat you better. Companies that actually treat their people well are few and far between. If a company doesn’t go out of its way to prove it to you, don’t waste your time with them. Move on.
For companies that claim people are their most valuable assets, ask yourselves this: are you willing to treat HR as the most important function of your company, far more important than the actual line of business you indulge in? If not, screw you. You deserve the rabble you whine about. You are the very source of what you despise.