free html hit counter
 
 
 
Posted on: Friday, May 22, 2009

Nine AM.

There is something about Nine AM.

It's the time of the day when something amazing happens.

A time when any organization is vulnerable to someone like me, who is trying to study it and get loads of information about the organization, the people who work there and the culture chart that prevails in the organization.

Seriously.

"But Pops, why is Nine AM so important?" --- you ask.

OK, do this --- walk into any organization you want to examine at nine AM sharp and observe.

Watch everything that goes on; closely.

Chances are; here's what you see --- tons of people dressed in formals, getting in, grabbing coffee and settling down to work. If you are in a larger organization and have a good imagination you'll be able to draw your very own personal parallels.

Now, here's the secret --- rare exceptions apart, that crowd that you are watching as it gets in to work, dressed in all formals, is exactly that --- 'a crowd'.

Remember the Pereto Principal they taught you in management schools when you were a young and budding student?

It was the little lesson where they taught you how only twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the job in any organization.

Remember that? 

This 'crowd' rushing in to office at Nine AM with ironed shirts, ties and suits; is that other eighty percent of the people the Pereto Principal did not explicitly mention just for the sake of being nice to them.

A very few exceptions apart, they are the boring mediocrity and potential-current-or-future-whiners.

The Nine AM observation is one quick and easy way to spot whiners.

On the other hand, here's how you spot potential genuine builders:

  1. Drop in to office at five in the morning and you'll see a couple of heads popped up in the vacant cubical farm; deeply immersed in serious work. You have a few genuine builders who are showing up early to get some real work done.
  2. Drop in to office at eight evening and you'll see a couple of heads popped up in the vacant cubical farm; deeply immersed in serious work.  You have a few genuine builders who are staying back late to get some real work done. 
  3. Of the Nine-AM-Crowd, try to spot the slightly strange guys; the strangeness can manifest itself in subtle ways - for example, some of these guys might be coming in with slippers, others with undone hair; some might be wearing jeans; some T-Shirts or some even shorts. You would find clear violations of organizational rules conducted with absentmindedness and humility. These guys will not even realize they are violating your organizational policies and rules.

If you can't find any of the above three in your organization, it's bad news.

Seriously.

My point?

Real builders are not just ugly; they are often slightly weird and lack respect for rules.

Of all the things that describe genuine builders 'normal' is one word which does not even come close to describing what genuine builders are or what they do.  

Here is the ironic part, however --- Most organizations out there seem to have a serious passion for hiring 'normal' people who do 'normal' things, including following 'normal' office timings, adhering to 'normal' office dress code and organizing 'normal' meetings for having 'normal' discussions.

Guess what?

These 'normal' employees, indulging in 'normal' activities; results in --- 'normal' products --- and unfortunately 'normal' products are utterly boring.

'Normal' is not remarkable.

'Normal' doesn't work.

When it comes to genuine creativity --- it is the weird and ugly that often do the job.

Yet, most organizations out there continue to chase the 'normal'.

Scott Berkrun, describes this organizational mistake in his excellent essay on why ugly teams win. He explains:

We love the simple idea that only a beautiful person, or a beautiful team, can make something beautiful. As if Picasso wasn't a misogynistic sociopath, van Gogh wasn't manic-depressive, or Jackson Pollock (and dozens of other well-known creative and legendary athletes) didn't abuse alcohol or other drugs. Beauty is overrated, as many of their works weren't considered beautiful until long after they were made, or their creators were dead (if the work didn't change, what did?). Most of us suffer from a warped, artificial, and oversimplified aesthetic, where beauty is good and ugly is bad, without ever exploring the alternatives.

Scott takes the concept of our leaning towards the safe and beautiful and attacks it heads on:

Pop quiz: given the choice between two job candidates, one a prodigy with a perfect 4.0 GPA and the other a possibly brilliant but "selectively motivated" 2.7 GPA candidate (two As and four Cs), who would you hire?

All other considerations being equal, we'd all pick the "beautiful," perfect candidate.

No one gets fired for hiring the beautiful candidate. What could be better, or more beautiful, than perfect scores? If we go beneath the superficial, perfect grades often mean the perfect following of someone else's rules.

They are not good indicators of passionate, free-thinking, risk-taking minds. More important is that a team comprising only 4.0 GPA prodigies will never get ugly. They will never take big risks, never make big mistakes, and therefore never pull one another out of a fire. Without risks, mistakes, and mutual rescue, the chemical bonds of deep personal trust cannot grow.

For a team to make something beautiful there must be some ugliness along the way. The tragedy of a team of perfect people is that they will all be so desperate to maintain their sense of perfection, their 4.0 in life, that when faced with the pressure of an important project their selfish drives will tear the team apart. Beautiful people are afraid of scars: they don't have the imagination to see how beautiful scars can be.

Most genuine builders are nowhere close to 'normal' or 'safe'.

Amongst all the other things they are ugly, shameless, loud and weird; they have beautiful scars which they carry with elegance and humility. They take risks, bend the rules, fail and continue consistently even after being told countless times they should consider stopping or changing their path. 

Fred; gets in by Nine AM sharp; he's out at six; always adheres to the official dress code; always fills his timesheet on time; never has a fight with his manager; never goes around the official company policies; never breaks rules; never fails and is one hundred percent professional.  Even your HR department loves Fred. You should not be having Fred in your team and if you can influence the decision, you should not be hiring Fred in your organization.

"But Pops, the guy is just following the rules. What is the problem here?" --- you ask.

That dear reader, is precisely the problem.

Chances are, that Fred plays equally safe when it comes to his work.

"It's not my fault. The use-cases aren't clear about that" --- ever heard that?

Chances are, that, this is exactly what you might hear from Mr. Fred.

Chances are, that Fred; dear reader; is not a builder.

He is yet another boring employee and a whiner; at least a potential one.

While your organization might be busy looking at time registers to see who is coming early or late; if you are looking for genuine builders in your organization; all you need to do is be careful of is the Nine AM employees; who wear a tie to office and get everything right.

They are your whiners.

A few others troublemakers that remain contains all your builders.

If you want to genuinely monitor how well your organization is doing, how many whiners and how many genuine builders you have --- observe your organization at Nine AM.

What is the number of Nine AM Employees compared to the early comers and late goers in your organization?

How many individuals can you think of who break your organizational rules like timing and dress code without even realizing they are breaking rules?

How many weird and scarred employees does your organization have, 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.

Monday, May 25, 2009 7:35:05 AM UTC
Just to point out, there are a few Whiners too, who do at least one of the things in the "...how you spot potential genuine builders" list. One has to take a little bit of care there when separating the wolves from the sheep. I think nowadays there are a lot of sheep in wolves' clothing... (I don't like referring to Builders as sheep)
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 9:10:53 PM UTC
I agree to the fact that “being normal” also means “being safe” and most of the extra-ordinary works are done by people who are not “normal”. I also agree to the Pareto theory of 80-20 but there’s a catch. Everybody can’t be an extra ordinary doer. When we build a team or when an organization hires people they can’t always go for extra-ordinary. They are rare species and more than that a “normal” human being can also be turned into doing “extra-ordinary” things. If we look at the rule of nature, “diamond is a byproduct of coal – in a given circumstances”. The difference here is circumstance. The point I want to make is, “in a given circumstances a normal person can also do wonders”.

When I look at the difference between people following strict rules / processes and people who falls under remarkable category, I do remember the incident happened between Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Rudolf Hitler. It goes like this. Once when Radhakrishan was in Germany he refused to meet Hitler because the time Hitler wanted to meet was his study time.

Also, when we look at software industry or when we look at standards and processes available in software industry, they all are well structured. Does that mean they are there to do “normal” things only?

Cheers,
Ambuj
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 9:13:50 PM UTC
Gogula; you make a valid point.

> Just to point out, there are a few Whiners too, who do at least one of the things in the "...how you spot potential genuine builders" list.

Absolutely; this is why I mentioned this as a test which can help you find ‘potential’ genuine builders.

You might have to narrow the list further as you move along because some whiners might slip in.

I was talking about gathering a genuine idea about a workplace and the kind of people who work there. For that the 9-AM-observation often works fine.

If you have everyone coming in at nine, dressed in formals and following all the rules, it says volumes about the level of ‘mediocrity’ the workplace is all about. Personally, it just tells me that the place would hardly be a place where any innovation or creative work happens.

I agree to the fact that just coming in early, working late, bending rules or creating problems doesn’t make you a genuine builder; which is why I mentioned the fact that most builders break rules without realizing they are breaking rules. It just comes naturally to them. It’s a byproduct. Just because someone is creating problems, doesn’t mean he is a builder by default.

Having said that, if you don’t do any breaking or bending of rules and agree to everything that happens in your workplace, life or even a relationship I seriously have to question your commitment to that organization, yourself and that specific relationship.

Again, I know I am generalizing here, but rule-followers are often not the people who make dents in the universe.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 10:21:53 PM UTC
Nitesh; interesting points. My thoughts below.

> I agree to the fact that “being normal” also means “being safe” and most of the extra-ordinary works are done by people who are not “normal”. I also agree to the Pareto theory of 80-20

Good. We’re starting out in agreement. :)

> But there’s a catch.

There’s a concept in the branch of philosophy called objectivism which says – “contradictions do not exist” – every time you see yourself agreeing to two contradicting thought streams you should “check your premise” – chances are you’ll agree to just one in the long term. :)

> Everybody can’t be an extra ordinary doer. When we build a team or when an organization hires people they can’t always go for extra-ordinary.

Honestly, I like to believe that everyone has something remarkable in them. It’s not always intelligence, IQ and the like. But the ‘extra-ordinariness’ manifest itself in multiple forms – persistence, perspectives, wildness, humor, brute-force, hard-work, ability to see things differently, communication; the list can go on; the point being that there are a huge number of things which makes a person remarkable and if someone doesn’t have any ‘super-powers’ I’m not sure if I want him in my team.

I’m not saying I want ‘extra-ordinary’ super humans; just ordinary human beings with certain aspects of their personality which are remarkable.

Again, saying that everyone can’t be an extra ordinary doer and settling for mediocre doesn’t work. Not doing this is that sets the Indian body shops from 37Signals and Google. Your organization is only going to be as remarkable as the people you have.

> They are rare species

Are they? I look at the people I work with directly or the people I connect to at work and I see them all around me. I like to think that, anyone you see me hanging out with in the cafeteria of spending more than an hour with, falls in this range.

I’m not exaggerating here but I think there are plenty of them around. I’m not talking about people who are “extra-ordinary” – just remarkable or different in evident ways.

Yes, they are not as readily available as ‘normal’ human beings are but then that’s the whole point. Your ability to look for them, spot them, understand them, work with them and interact with them is what is going to set you apart. For every hundred candidates we interview we hire one in our team. Obviously they are rare. That is what makes it all the more fun to find them and then work with them.

One of the reasons why I write this blog is because I love having a focused audience of this ‘rare species’ who cares to read, subscribe and exchange ideas in discussions like this one.

It’s also one of the reasons why I took up the task of writing this book. Their being rare makes them so exciting to observe and work with.

> More than that a “normal” human being can also be turned into doing “extra-ordinary” things.

Don’t agree. If there’s one thing modern management has taught me, it is that ‘human beings do not change’; at-least as far as basic character traits are concerned.

They definitely do not change as easily as most managers like to think they do.

You might be able to take a “normal” Nine-To-Five-Coding-For-Salary programmer and turn him into a very efficient human-code-generator.

Having said that; you cannot make him, think out of the box and genuinely innovate; or for that matter make him stick around when he gets slightly higher paying job.

No-one can be turned into anything. People chose to turn themselves into extra-ordinary and the first step is moving away from the safety of “normal”.

The second step is consistency.

The third is not listening to the ‘crowd’ who tends to grind you down and tells you normal-is-OK.

It’s obviously not.

It’s just safe; mediocre and as you mentioned, a little easier to find or stumble upon.

> If we look at the rule of nature, “diamond is a byproduct of coal – in a given circumstances”. The difference here is circumstance.

That’s because both coal and diamond are relatively simple objects that do not have a mind of their own. Human beings on the other hand have preferences.

If coal had a mind of its own and decided that it likes the idea of being coal I am not so sure if would be easy to turn it to diamond.

The simple problem I have with analogies like these is that they often end up being superficial. It’s often all about playing with words and although I love doing it, it leads to no-where.

Circumstances make people; is one stream of thoughts.

But then people make circumstances is another.

Both might be true and I don’t claim to know the answer but the bottom line is when I see someone who likes to play it ‘safe’ by being ‘normal’ and following rules – I see mediocrity.

Will he change given exceptional circumstances?

Based on my reading and personal experiences, I like to think that basic character traits of human beings don’t change.

Chances are high that if you have a fascination for rules, you will find it difficult turning into a trouble maker or a misfit. If you are a trouble maker, rules will make you uncomfortable.

People who are normal seek “normal” solutions out of abnormal circumstances.

People, who are different, seek out abnormal circumstances and then grow amidst those. They come out with most remarkable answers to the simplest of circumstances and problems. Project path is one example; there are countless others out there.

> The point I want to make is, “in a given circumstances a normal person can also do wonders”.

Of course; a normal person can do amazing stuff --- at normal tasks and projects. Put a dead-line on a normal developer and see him do wonders with more lines of code.

The sorry part of that is, unless the guy himself decides that he wants to do something remarkable; is not “normal” and wants pamper his laziness and not work that hard, he is not going to write that code generator that writes most of the repetitive code for him.

The circumstances remaining the same, while one decides to fight it with conventional wisdom other thinks out of the box.

My problem with nine-to-six guys is that they tend to take the more-lines-of-code approach. I’d rather have the lazy guy who comes in at eleven and write a code-generator in my team.

Yes, you can teach the Nine-To-Five guy how to write a code generator but give him a different situation and he will lean towards a conventional answer.

> When I look at the difference between people following strict rules / processes and people who falls under remarkable category, I do remember the incident happened between Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Rudolf Hitler. It goes like this. Once when Radhakrishan was in Germany he refused to meet Hitler because the time Hitler wanted to meet was his study time.

To me this looks more like an example of persistence, consistency and self discipline. Not someone following the rules. In fact it is a classic example of someone breaking a rule. Allow me to illustrate.

The core here is that he did something that was “not normal”. Given his situation most others would have met Hitler. Even though it wasn’t a written “rule” it was conventional wisdom which was almost as strong as a rule.

He took an unconventional path that wasn’t “normal”. The fact is, that the incident in its own way was “remarkable” and not “normal” which is why it was publicized, you know it and you are mentioning it.

Like I said, “check-your-premise” – and you usually tend to lean towards only one side of two contradicting ones. :)

> Also, when we look at software industry or when we look at standards and processes available in software industry, they all are well structured. Does that mean they are there to do “normal” things only?

Standards are created so that ‘standard things’ which can interoperate are created.

Quality standards are a joke. They tend to encourage mediocrity. We’re all been through Service level agreements where more than 3 critical bugs aren’t acceptable where the definition of ‘critical’ is subjective. I’m not saying don’t have standards; but by no means should they be considered a measure of ‘success’.

Just because your product meets all the interoperability standards it doesn’t mean it is bound to be successful. On the other hand something as closed as iPod goes out there becomes a major hit.

If we’re talking about quality, meeting quality standards is not enough. Everyone is meeting them. We’re starting to see this already where people expect genuine innovation out of the applications not just quality; this is something that no standard and process can create.

Processes are created as guidelines by people who have good intent and then these processes get bastardize.

Processes alone do “normal” things. It’s the people that make “remarkable” things happen. I never saw “RUP” or “CMM” alone create awesome products.

What is ironic is that most development that has happened in software development has not come out of these so-called well structured processes.

Everything from Linux to Page Rank seems like it has people behind it, not standards and process.

I wrote a dedicated post on this.

http://www.thousandtyone.com/blog/CMMRUPAndGanttChartsDontBuildSuccessfulSoftwareKickAssProgrammersDo.aspx.

Again, I’ve never said I have a problem with something that is “well structured”. A team of five seriously kickass programmers following no process can have a structured way of working.

If they want to pick a process and tweak it, so be it. If they want to work without any “Formal Process” (with a capital F and a capital P) that’s fine too.

When you talk about process I think there are really two kinds. One with a capital P and the other is when a bunch of people agree on doing stuff without making a big noise about it.

It’s when we start thinking that the structure of the “Formal Process” (with the capital P) is creating success that we start making stupid mistakes.

The same team of five can come up with a set of rules that they agree to. For example, in our team at one point we agreed on a fun rule often followed at Microsoft --- whoever break the build, baby sits it.

We didn’t need an organizational document and policing to follow the rule though. We got in a room, decided it would be a fun rule to follow and went ahead with it. While we followed it we had loads of fun following it; there were bets on who was going to break the build next and then one fine morning people just stopped breaking builds.

So we took the rule and we threw it out of the window. Either ways, it wasn’t a big deal. That was our build process while it lasted and then we didn’t need it.

If you read up a process and like aspects of it, adapt those aspects by all means.

It’s when you start following the “Process” (notice the case of the p) and start doing things just because the “Process” tells you to do them, even when your team doesn’t need to do those specific things; you start screwing up big time. That’s when a manager dies and an asshole is born.

It’s a thin line and most managers do not even know when they cross it.

It’s a fairly interesting discussion though.

Do keep the ideas coming.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 10:52:03 PM UTC
I also got a couple casual verbal reactions connected to some of these topics and I may not have been blatantly honest in my verbal discussions regarding this and connected topics so far so here it goes.

If this post or any of my past discussions made it sound like I was suggested that “following the rules” and taking the “normal” approach to problem solving, software development and life means that you are mediocre and boring that is not what I meant.

Actually --- heck yes.

That’s exactly what I meant.

There. I finally came out and said it in writing.

Now you’re just going to have Deal with it. :)

Go do something remarkable now and bend a few rules.

I wish you good luck.
Thursday, May 28, 2009 6:39:47 PM UTC
"What is the number of Nine AM Employees compared to the early comers and late goers in your organization?"

This bit I think you are over hyping. Some of the worst developers I have ever worked with worked verrry long hours and some of the best builders were 9-5ers, but between 9 and 5 they concentrated on building great software/teams.
Friday, May 29, 2009 9:36:07 PM UTC
Colin; adding my response to your comment.

> This bit I think you are over hyping. Some of the worst developers I have ever worked with worked very long hours and some of the best builders were 9-5ers, but between 9 and 5 they concentrated on building great software/teams.

Yes, you make a valid point.

Agreed.

What I meant here was the number of “rule benders” or “rule breaker” vs. “rule following sheep” that can be made to follow all the rules from office timing to dress code.

Most genuine builders I’ve worked with are fairly passionate and do dedicate time to personal projects, hobby projects or even open source projects or components either early mornings or late nights.

Having said that; Nine to five clearly is not the only test of finding whiners; I didn’t intend to mean that anyone who does 9 to 5 is a whiner.

I did clarify that there are aspects to a builder’s personality which show even if he is getting in at nine. E.g. Dress-code, the way he carries himself, the way he reacts, the way he does his work done etc.

Clearly the time you spend in office is not a direct indicator of your efficiency. I wrote a post on this topic and I agree to your point.

http://www.thousandtyone.com/blog/AreEightHoursADayEnoughForSoftwareProgrammers.aspx

I also agree to you that the question - “What is the number of Nine AM Employees compared to the early comers and late goers in your organization?” – is not very articulate at making the point I wanted to make.

I might go ahead and change it to “What is the number of Rule Benders or Rule Breakers in your organization compared to the rule followers?” --- That is really what I meant.

Thanks for pointing this out.
Saturday, May 30, 2009 8:07:19 AM UTC
"What I meant here was the number of “rule benders” or “rule breaker” vs. “rule following sheep” that can be made to follow all the rules from office timing to dress code.

Most genuine builders I’ve worked with are fairly passionate and do dedicate time to personal projects, hobby projects or even open source projects or components either early mornings or late nights."

Totally true, I have also worked with a % of builders who haven't done that outside of work either (bit older, have a families) and yet were able to keep contributing to improving the software/team.

Anyway its great stuff to read, really enjoying in.
Name
E-mail
Home page

Comment (HTML not allowed)  

Live Comment Preview