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Posted on: Friday, 15 May 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Let's Strike A Deal

For the sake of story telling; we're going to strike a deal; you and me dear reader. The deal is simple --- from this point on unless I say otherwise every time I refer to 'builders' I mean 'builders' of stuff and people who 'build' remarkable stories.

You; are going to humor me; and I; drear reader am going to try and convince you that people who build and ship; irrespective of whether they build stuff or stories pretty much use the same techniques for survival, growth and getting things done at work.

Everyone else whines.

During my software development career if there is one thing I've studied rather closely it is the mind of all three kinds. Builders of stuff and genuine story tellers have striking similarities in the way they work, think, behave and connect to one another. From this point on, because of these similarities I'm going to put them in the bucket with a label 'builders'. 

Whiners get their very own special bucket though.

Long story short, builders equals builders of stuff and stories; whiners are whiners. You are supposed to remember this for the rest of the book as you read along.

Deal? 

Good.

Let's get on with the post.

The Whiner Recruitment Plan

The point I intent to make with this post is rather creepy. I, dear reader, with this post, am going to suggest that your organization has a concrete 'recruitment plan'; but this is not the conventional recruitment plan that you were taught to write up in management school. This is a special recruitment plan where your organization works really hard to maintain the constant ratio of whiners in your organization.

I like to call this the 'whiner recruitment plan' and the best way to explain this is through a story.

Ready?

Flashback.

I'm a young and budding engineer at Multiplitaxion Inc, learning my first lessons of software development.

Unless you got lucky somewhere and were suddenly born in programmer heaven, each one of you reading this; may have learnt this lesson the hard way.

I am sure you have your very own interesting stories surrounding this but this is probably the one thing that you learnt after your first six months into your first job --- most organizations out there have way too many assholes.

The number is much larger than what you anticipated when you walked into the office on the very first day of your first job.

Of course your school had its share of stupid teachers, and your college was swamped with professors some of whom some were hardcore idiots but nothing beats your first six months in a typical software development shop.

The first week usually begins well. You develop a decent amount of respect for your managers as they introduce you to the organization and paint a picture the HR wants them to paint. Then you see them work; take stupid decisions and do funny things.

Unless your managers are genuine builders or story tellers; three weeks down the line the question starts to take shape.

You still can't state the question articulately though.

It takes about three months for the questions to take concrete existence in your brain when you suddenly realize that you can now express the questions rather articulately in your mind. Then all of a sudden; you find yourself asking these questions in the deep corners of your mind --- How did these idiots get here? Who hired them?

For all those of you who are in this incubation period, it takes you about a year to come to an answer. Before I continue with the story, I'll do my good deed for the day and make your life easy by giving you the answer.

Ready for the answer?

Other whiners who preceded them hired them.

The whiners who hired them have been now hired by other whiners in other organizations and they have moved on; because that's what they do; they hop jobs. Most organizations out there pretty much replace all their whiners with fresh new whiners every three years. Only a few of these whiners who are very high up in the pecking order manage to stick around.

Only a few of these organizations manage to reduce the number of whiners while replacing them with new ones. Most others pretty much maintain a steady ratio of whiners is to builders --- it is almost like there is a  'whiner recruitment plan' at the organizational level. Seriously. Study a standard software development shop out there for three years and you realize that ratio of whiners to builders pretty much remains the same; year after year.

Do you know what makes the 'whiner recruitment plan' tick at an organizational level?

In my very first job, in a company I shall call Multiplitaxion Inc, we had meetings every-time a couple of 'big' projects failed. Lots of ugly finger pointing happened --- back then the blame game was played under the name of 'root cause analysis'.

Then we picked a couple of whiners who could be let go.

Six months down the line, the whiner count would be the same.

For almost two years, this little ten person startup was under a constant layoff mode.

But Pops, that was just a small startup; you say.

Guess what, it usually takes you another five years to figure the real answer --- the 'whiner recruitment plan' works pretty much the same way even in the biggest of the organizations that you'll see.

What makes it tick is simple.

The board. The Investors. The Vice Presidents. The Directors. The Senior Managers.

Any one of these guys can make it tick.

In order for the 'whiner recruitment plan' to work all you need is a couple of very senior individuals who often wake up after two years of hibernation and realize - 'We are fu@#ked. Nothing is getting done. If we don't do something about nothing getting done we are screwed.'

Then a master 'clean up plan' is devised; things are made difficult for the whiners and whiners hop. If they don't ugly layoffs occur. Usually they do. Automatically. Most whiners are surprisingly good at the art.

The new environment, changes and development suddenly starts making other whiners who are high up in the pecking order really uncomfortable and they go out and start recruiting fresh whiners for their teams.

They do this relentlessly of course; till the exact same 'homely' cozy environment of mediocrity returns.

The 'whiner recruitment plan' isn't an excel file.

You will not find it attached to any mails that blaze through your mail server; but it doesn't matter where you work; I am here, dear reader to tell you, that your organization has an implicit, sub-conscious 'whiner recruitment plan' which has targets for the numbers of whiners your recruiters need to find and the number of whiners your interviewers will be letting through.

It's a flawless piece of machinery; requiring no lengthy meetings; no discussions; no mail trails --- it doesn't even require management approvals.

Watch closely. If you are recruiting, the 'whiner recruitment plan' is at work; in your very own organization; right under your eyes.

The numbers are different, the specifics might be different, but the machinery is at work --- with the silent precision of an unspoken agile process which never fails to achieve it's objective, which in this case is to keep the ratio of whiners and builders constant across time. 

Of-course, if your projects followed the flawless perfection with which the 'whiner recruitment plan' works, you organization would be the perfect programmer hangout place --- but then successful projects mean more work, more change and things which makes organizations nervous. The 'whiner recruitment plan' on the other hand; offers no such threat. It's one of the riskiest safe things most organizations out there indulge in. 

Do you find your organization changing policies every year?

Do you feel that a few things "will never change" in your organization?

Do you find your organization hiring a lot of 'senior managers' or 'top level leadership' every year?

Do you find your organization undertaking serious restructuring activity every year?

How has your builder or story teller to whiner ration changed over the last five years, dear reader?

Discuss.

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog.