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Posted on: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Observing And Understanding Genuine Builders - Part 1

Observing Builders

If you really want to understand builders and what makes them survive, tick and thrive; observe what they do.

During my professional life, this is one thing I've spent hours doing whether it is observing a young and budding engineer I might have hired for the organization I work for or observing the famous online-success-stories through their blogs and through what they ship.

Grabbing my attention is easy. All you have to do is mention a genuine builder and if I can observe him personally, through his work or through his blog; I will.

As it turns out, builders come in all shapes and sizes. They have different ways of working. Some of them prefer to lie low and ship while others thrive by selling the achievements of their team to their organizations. Some prefer talking to the compiler and shipping amazing stuff, while others weave remarkable stories and make small dents in the universe with their very own unique perspectives. 

After working with multiple genuine builders and observing countless others online, if there is one conclusion that I've arrived at, it is that each builder is different from another. Yet the fundamentals that make these individuals builders generally the same.

One of my objectives of writing this book was to turn this personal observing exercise into a coherent stream of thoughts that allow me to not just observe builders; but actually dissect their actions and arrive at my very own conclusions regarding the people who build organizations, teams or bring amazing products and services into our life.

What follows are common traits I've seen in every single genuine builder I've observed or worked with in my life.


It's not that whiners don't have amazing ideas or cannot do great stuff. It's easy to write off whiners as people who whine, bitch and waste everyone's time but that is clearly not the case. Some of the whiners that I've observed are fairly intelligent and smart people; yet they are unable to deliver anything that makes any considerable impact on the organization, the team or the project that they work on.

So, what is going on with the whiners?

Why can't whiners get to ship something that has any impact on anything or anyone's life?

The answer to this question lay in my interactions with Fred and Jane.

I met Fred and Jane back the days when I was working at Multiplitaxion Inc.

Fred like most whiners, was big time into bitching, moaning and Resume Driven Development.

After a few days of observing Fred, I realized that Fred was not a bad guy after all.

Slightly political --- definitely.

Naughty --- sure.

Stupid --- not really.

Fred often did have his share of amazing ideas which were genuinely all right.

Fred however, had a problem.

You couldn't get Fred to work on a single project for more than a couple of months. Fred was a classic parasite, that overwhelmed the project team with the list of cutting-edge technologies they aught to use and when he had made it amply clear to people sitting high up in the pecking order of the organization that he had contributed sufficiently by providing 'thought leadership' or by doing a dozen 'proof of concepts' he would jump over to another project. 

Fred was what I called the 'Idea monkey' back then.

You could allocate Fred to the most comfortable of all the projects and be rest assured things would start going wrong. You would start having communication issues, issues with timelines and issues with shipping.

Jane on the other hand, happened to be a quite builder who was slightly reserved and liked doing her work quietly in a corner cubical. You hardly ever saw her laughing or hanging out with people; not even with her own team. She was a quite, intellectual who liked to be alone and write code.

There was something strange about Jane though.

If you had a project that was stumbling or failing all you had to do was to put Jane in the project and then slowly things would start falling in the right place.

It wouldn't happen overnight though.

It would take weeks, sometimes even a few months before a late project would come back on time or a project littered with bugs and broken windows would suddenly start meeting the quality standards.

By that time Jane would have developed really strong hold on the project and would have settled down with one track focus of shipping, sprint after sprint. Ask her if she wanted to move to a different project and she would look at you with eyes which would made you feel sorry you asked.

Here is the spooky part however --- if you were to compare the years of experience, educational qualifications, designation or even genuine technical competence and talent of Fred and Jane, Fred would beat Jane hands down. Yet, Fred, somehow managed to screw up project after project when Jane led even the most screwed up ones to a successful end.

What was happening here?

It took me a couple of months to figure this one out. On the surface Both of these talented individuals were awesome guys and equally fun to interact with.

On close observation for a couple of months however, you would notice that there was one thing that separated the two however. While Fred, was seriously interested in 'proving' his abilities and chasing one successful project after another; Jane was interested in getting into a project, understanding the issues, developing firm roots on the project and then working on solving one problem after another --- consistently.  

Project after project, If there is one thing I've learnt, it is that consistency is one quality which differentiates genuine builders from whiners. Not talent, competency, caliber or anything else. Irrespective how much much talent, intelligence, competence, smartness or IQ you have if you are not consistent, chances are that you either are a whiner or will turn into one pretty soon.

Seth Godin for example, differentiates performers from ones who forever remain the realms of mediocrity using the concept of Dip. He uses the following diagram to illustrate Dip:

Seth explains:

Almost everything in Life worth doing is controlled by the Dip,

At the beginning, when you first start something, it's fun. You could be taking up golf or acupuncture or piloting a plane or doing chemistry-doesn't matter; it's interesting, and you get plenty of good feedback from the people around you.

Over the next few days and weeks, the rapid learning you experience keeps you going. Whatever your new thing is, it's easy to stay engaged in it.

And then the Dip happens.

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. A long slog that's actually a shortcut, because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.

The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving.

The Dip is the difference between the easy "beginner" technique and the mare useful "ex-pert" approach in skiing or fashion design. The Dip is the long stretch between beginner's luck and real accomplishment. The Dip is the set of artificial screens set up to keep people like you out.

The Dip, according to Seth is the point where excitement of doing something new dies down. If you are a blogger, Dip is the point where you realize that no-one cares about your blog and that your blog with three entries about your cat will not make you the most popular blogger on planet earth. If you are a software developer writing an open source application, Dip is the point where you realize that you are just not getting more than ten downloads a month.

If you are a young and budding entrepreneur trying to build a business around an idea which you once thought will change the world, Dip is the point when just ten unique visitors show up on your website on the launch day and no-one is willing to buy your universe changing product for just ten dollars.

Long story short, Dip is the point where the excitement of starting something new dies down and the realization that you are not going to change the world with whatever it is that you are doing, as easily as you had expected you would, sets in.

That's when most whiners jump on to something else.

That's when a whining blogger starts a new blog; a whining entrepreneur thinks of a new idea; and a whining programmer hops over to a new project or a new job. Genuine builders however, ask themselves if they genuinely love and believe what they are doing.

They ask themselves if they can spend rest of their life doing it.

If the answer is no, they surrender shamelessly and then then learn to work hard to avoid things they do not genuinely enjoy doing.

if the answer is yes, however; they continue working at what-ever-it-is-that-they-were-working-on.


The same ruthless consistency holds true even with genuine story teller Elizabeth Gilbert. In her PowerPoint-less-presentation about the 'Genius' at TED, which is one of my favorite talks ever, she talks about her life as an author, the reason behind her success and how she continues to overcome her fears:

If we think about it this way it starts to change everything. You know, this is how I've started to think and this is certainly how I've been thinking about in the last few months, as I have been working on the book that will soon be published as the dangerously, frightenly, over anticipated follow up to my freakish success and what I have to sort-of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that is "don't be afraid", "don't be daunted", just do your job.

Continue to show up for your piece of it; whatever that might be.

If your job is to dance, do your dance.

If the divine cockied genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your effort, then Ole! And If not, do your dance anyhow and ole to you none the less. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. Ole to you none the less just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

Jeff Atwood from coding-horror is no different. He describes the success behind his amazing blog and gives sound advice on how to ahieve ultimate blog success in one easy step:

When people ask me for advice on blogging, I always respond with yet another form of the same advice: pick a schedule you can live with, and stick to it.

Until you do that, none of the other advice I could give you will matter. I don't care if you suck at writing. I don't care if nobody reads your blog. I don't care if you have nothing interesting to say. If you can demonstrate a willingness to write, and a desire to keep continually improving your writing, you will eventually be successful.

But success takes time --- a lot of time. I'd say a year at minimum. That's the element that weeds out so many impatient people. I wrote this blog for a year in utter obscurity, but I kept at it because I enjoyed it. I made a commitment to myself, under the banner of personal development, and I planned to meet that goal. My schedule was six posts per week, and I kept jabbing, kept shipping, kept firing. Not every post was that great, but I invested a reasonable effort in each one. Every time I wrote, I got a little better at writing. Every time I wrote, I learned a little more about the topic, how to research topics effectively, where the best sources of information were. Every time I wrote, I was slightly more plugged in to the rich software development community all around me. Every time I wrote, I'd get a morsel of feedback or comments that I kept rolling up into future posts. Every time I wrote, I tried to write something just the tiniest bit better than I did last time.

If there is one thing that connects every single genuine builder that I have studied, observed, looked up to, seen or worked with, it is relentless consistency to keep showing up.

Your girl-friend dumped you?

Feeling low?

Having problems at work?

Guess what --- no-body cares.

Unless of-course you have a something remarkable in it for them which makes them care.

To add to that, neither of these are reason enough not to ship on your own self picked schedule. 

If you haven't picked one thing that you absolutely love doing, and are not giving it your consistent focused attention day-after-day relentlessly; for years; you probably are just wasting your time, whining away to glory.

If you are going to stop reading this book, right now, right here, remember this before you do - builders ship; consistently.

Oh and that product that your organization might be shipping out successfully --- it is *not* shipping because your young and budding managers who are awesome at organizing meetings and talking big are going on a white-board or brainstorming about cutting-edge ideas.

Chances are, that it is shipping because, a few builders in your organization, who you may not even know have been slogging away, quietly; for years; without looking for a new opportunity, a new project to jump on to or something new and exiting to hop on to. It's shipping because of tremendous amount of commitment, hard work and the will to 'show up' day-after-day which is often characteristic of genuine builders.  

That's consistency.

Of all the traits of genuine builders, this is one that all genuine builders I have seen so far; demonstrate; consistently.

posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 9:41:56 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]
Posted on: Friday, May 15, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 7

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.



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.



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?


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.

posted on Friday, May 15, 2009 9:37:47 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 6

Your Organization Is Seeking Whiners.

If you have an organization or work for one; you are going to a have few whiners who slip in through the cracks of your recruitment process.

"I don't know about that one Pops. He seemed to have some skills but I am not sure if he will be able to deliver. Overall he is really smart; good communication; good educational background. I think we should go ahead."  --- Fred who has conducted a smart whiner's first round of interview, tells you. Fred as it turns out, has a huge collection of stupid puzzles and math questions which forms his selection criteria of excellence.

The same set of funny puzzles and questions constitutes Fred's criteria of who you should hire in your organization.

That is how it begins --- you listen to Fred and hire your first whiner.

Then before you know it you have an army of whiners being interviewed and getting in your organization.

I've seen dozens of whiners getting recruited in dozens of organizations around the world and there is one conclusion I have personally come to. It is the darkest secret most organizations do not have the spine or the audacity to admit. Whiners know this secret. All of them do. As a matter of fact, whiners en-cash on this dirty little secret every time they interview. It's insanely weird but true.

I'm going to do my good deed for the day and break this dirty little secret to you.


Organizations are looking for whiners.

Believe it or your, your organization might be spending a whole deal of time, effort and money looking for whiners.

In fact, most organizations out there love whiners.

That's right. You heard me.

Organizations want  whiners so badly that they go out of their way to recruit them.

Of course you are knitting your brows.

"Pops; why would anyone want whiners?" --- you ask.

Simple. Because whining is safe. It's easy; and it's also fun.


Try it.

Go to your friend across your cabin and talk about how overworked and underpaid you are. Go talk about what an asshole your boss is. It is fun. Do it a couple of times and you'll realize it's actually more fun than slogging away at a piece of code or writing your own blog post. Actually, it's not just more fun; but it is also much more easier than doing anything else.

Here is how it works --- 'everyone loves whining' --- you do; your boss does; his boss does; the whole pecking order in your organization does.

Builders and story tellers realize the perils of whining and make a conscious effort to stay away from it; but what about the good old Fred who just cannot seem to connect to the team of builders and who has just been promoted to the designation of a manager? What about your Vice President of Marketing who is a road warrior and on the move for most of the month?

Whining employees give these individuals an opportunity to catch up with events that happen in the corridors of the organizations. It lets them figure out what the builders are working on or what they are up to. It allows them to know about every insignificant ripple that takes form in the organizational pond.

Do me a favor; read this:

Three developers go in a meeting room; they argue; they fight; they kill each other and they come up with an amicable solution which is best for the product.

I'm sure at-least one young and budding manager yawned somewhere as he read this.

Now read this:

An official meeting request went out. Joe couldn't make it to the meeting because he had another meeting. A long meeting was organized. Wilma and Smith completely disagreed on the various approaches discussed in the meeting.

Two approaches were selected during the meeting out of which one would be finalized. A mail thread followed the meeting. Senior members across the organization were copied on the mail trail. Some of them responded expressing their concerns around both the approaches.

Three of these senior members proposed their ideas and each one of them thought the other two ideas would not work.

The mail thread continued for two weeks.

Now we're talking!

You now have all the interest of the young and budding manager you just hired to 'manage' the project and the team. He is not yawing any more.

See what is happening here? Your boss, his boss and the whole pecking order of your organization is feeling the pulse of the pseudo-work. They are getting involved.

Now they suddenly feel that the young and budding manager they hired last month to 'manage the project' is doing an amazing job. He is helping your developers who were incapable of communicating.

Very soon your organization realizes that it needs more young and budding managers who can initiate discussions; put simply your organization feels a strong need for whiners. 

See the point?

Most organizations out there want more whiners; and they want them desperately.

'Some discussions are important' - you are told - really important. Planning, Organizing, Architecture, Scalability and Brainstorming are words words which are often used to disguise the time that is getting wasted in pseudo work where nothing is getting done. Most organizations love wasting time behind these words because it gives them a warm and cozy feeling inside.

It makes them feel safe.

It makes them feel like they are in control.

Whiners know this fully well.

They are aware of the power of whining fully well.

They also know the dark little secret that everyone wants to whine.

Maybe this is why most employees in any organization get away with 'discussions'; 'giving ideas' that die in the walls of a meeting room; or make it their profession to come in the way of genuine builders; while only a small number indulge in the act of doing some real work and shipping stuff or remarkable stories.

Unless you are one lucky son of a gun who happened to find the rare breed of organizations that understand innovation inside out, chances are high that your organization is looking for whiners. Even now as you read this whiners are getting interviewed; and they are getting selected.

Whiners with years of whining experience behind them. Whiners with solid educational background. Whiners who can solve virtually any puzzle or funny math question out there; and yet the fact remains that they are whiners --- incapable on building stuff, weaving stories or shipping anything consistently.

What questions do interviewers in your organization ask the candidates?

Do you depend on Math puzzles and IQ tests for selecting candidates?

How much time are you encouraged to do real work and ship?

How much time does your organization and your managers expect you to be talking and updating them with the status?

Are you being giving reasons to indulge in the acts of bitching and whining even if you do not want to?

Is the overall environment of your organization in general and your team in particular giving you reasons to become a builder or a whiner?

Is your organization actually looking for more whiners right now as you read this dear reader?


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.

posted on Wednesday, May 13, 2009 8:36:55 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]
Posted on: Friday, May 8, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 5

Your Organization Is (Not) Hiring Story Tellers

Storytellers build remarkable stories about awesome products built by genuine builders. Stories which change the world. Stories which build tribes. Stories which add a soul to a product; stories which add a purpose to the team's effort and meaning to an 'organization'.  

They are mavens, leaders of tribes and masters at the art of remarkable story telling.

Much like builders realize that their every existence depends on the awesomeness of products that they build; story tellers realize their their very existence depends on their stories being built on the foundations of genuine truth. Strong foundations of honest stories is what storytellers often stand on.

This of course; means that an amazing storytellers usually ends up doing three things:

First - they weave remarkable stories with strong foundations.

Second - they work hard to turn those stories into realities.

Third - they build even more remarkable stories based on strong foundations of their older stories.

It's the second item that makes story-tellers the official trouble makers of the organization and a pain in the ass for the more traditional departments in the organization.

Here's how it works.

Your vice president addresses the entire organization in an 'all staff' meeting. Here he gives a rather motivational speech --- he goes ahead and says that yours is a company with a difference. It is an organization which trusts people to take calculated decisions and judgment calls rather than relying on stringent policies.

He goes ahead and says rather clearly that each one of you is a talented mind who is better than the best available out there. You are not just a 'resource' --- but an innovator. The organization believes in you.

Now if you've ever been to one of these meetings --- here is what happens --- people listen, people wonder how all this impacts them. People yawn. People doze off with open eyes wondering when the speech will end.

But the story tellers in your organization are listening. Listening to every words. Once the meeting ends they get down to the work of weaving remarkable stories around each word. Stories which can add cause and meaning to your organization. Stories that your team genuinely 'wants' to listen and care about. Stories that they themselves genuinely believe in.

Then something remarkable happens. Something that very few organizations understand.

What started with a boring all employee meeting; turns into small yet remarkable stories. Then these stories that are told by story tellers start spreading within the corridors of the organization. People genuinely start making small judgment calls and start taking decisions pertaining to their projects.   

A small tribe of proud employees is formed. Employees who genuinely want to believe that they work for an organization with a difference --- an organization that trusts individuals to make decisions and judgment calls for the best interest of the organization.

What started off as a boring speech, turns into a way of life.

The story tellers aren't lying. They aren't cheating your team. All they are doing is adding purpose, meaning and passion to a story that was told in the speech. That and they are working on turning the story into reality.

This is where you start seeing issues though.

Before you know it, there is someone who is talking to the office administration staff about making office timings flexible or buying a few X-Box consoles and the guys at administration department are freaking out. They are looking at him like he has a third eye.

That's when the new-flash happens.

Of course the Vice President said those things and of-course he meant it. But he didn't "absolutely-mean-it-mean-it". He didn't want you to 'act' on it. He didn't intend to start a tribe of employees who are 'proud to belong' --- it was just a speech.

Then the bunch of whiners flow in with ideas about discipline, threat to the corporate culture, employees not being mature enough and what started as a remarkable vision from your chief executing office or vice president turns into dirty war of 'everyone trying to do their job' and a joke where everyone pretends to be working for the 'best interest of the organization'.

Whiners whine. Mail threads are started. Meetings are organized --- and nothing happens.

If change is something organizations in general and whiners in particular are scared of, remarkable visions or stories with concrete actions to turn them into reality are much like nightmares to organizations.

These are exactly the moments that a small number of really smart organizations often grab. They hold on to these moments. They give the story tellers every tool to turn the vice president's speech into a reality that is exciting and a culture that is full of fun. These are organizations that give story tellers every tool they need to weave genuine and remarkable stories. These are organizations that give their builders every reason to belong.

These are the organizations that become remarkable.

Other organizations; however; are just shit scared of story tellers and their stories --- much like they are scared of builders and what their remarkable 'stuff' does --- primarily because all of these things result in 'change'

After all it is easy to organize a meeting with inspirational speeches. As long as the general mediocrity of the organizations aren't threatened with concrete change no-one will have a problem with it. Storytellers are trouble makers because they weave remarkable stories and then work on making them real. They threaten the comfortable mediocrity most organizations are so used to.

Which remarkable stories have you heard in your organization?

Which one of them were killed by whiners who claimed that they were trying to work for the "best interest of the organization"?

Does your organization have flexible timings, work from home and x-box consoles?

Do you have tribes of employees who feel proud to belong?

Do you have whiners in your organization who believe that your employees aren't mature enough to be trusted with work hours and video games in offce?

How many times do you hear the words 'maturity' and 'discipline' at work, dear reader? 


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.

posted on Friday, May 8, 2009 9:02:14 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]
Posted on: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 4

Your Organization Is (Not) Hiring Builders.

When builders indulge in the act of building stuff what they are actually doing is building foundations of the organizations in which they work.

Given the fact, that remarkable products and services are the very basis of a successful organization you would think that most organizations out there would be going out of their way to hire the best builders that they can get hold of much like tea pickers pick the best tea leaves they can find.

Most organizations however, are not looking for the best of the builders.

The "not" in the above sentence is intentional. It is not a typo.

It is a rather important fact. A fact that you must know and understand fully well --- particularly if you are a builder, someone responsible for hiring others or an entrepreneur starting your own organization.

As a part of my professional and personal life, I talk to countless engineers and managers around the world. Strike a conversation around their recruitment drive and any budding manager will tell you that his organization is on the lookout for the 'best talent' that is available out there. Put simply, he will tell you that his organization is looking for some seriously talented, kickass builders.

This post is about shattering the dreams of that young and budding manager.

Irrespective of what your organization announces in those weekly newsletters --- Your organization is *not* looking for seriously kickass builders.

Knitting your brows already?

Ok, story-time!


Let's have a quick flashback.

As young and budding builder at heart when I am asked to lead a team it seems like a simple task.

Leadership, I tell myself, means that you work harder; you take up bigger problems and if people are stuck they come to you for help. If they are not stuck; they go about doing their work and you go about doing yours.  If you're leading a team of seriously kick ass developers; every once in a while, your team also expects you to build something which inspires them. That's pretty much it --- leading smart engineers is simple --- all you need to do is help and inspire.

At-least that is what I tell myself.

Two weeks down the line I find myself looking back and reflecting on just how wrong my definition of leadership had been.

As it turns out, organizational definition of leadership, is different. Very different. 

In the real world where 'shit happens' --- leadership; has a completely different meaning than the meaning it has in your very own personal world.

Your being promoted to a leadership role means you will now be sending weekly documents called 'reports' to people who have no direct involvement in the project and are often referred to with fancy names like 'senior management' or 'stake holders'. People who can do nothing other than making things worse when your project starts failing.

In my case, leadership came with it's baggage of 'weekly status reports' which I was expected to send to my immediate manager who happened to be a part of the 'senior management'.

Week 1 --- I am excited about this whole leadership thing. I send out a neatly formatted, status report which takes me more than a couple of hours to write. 

Week 2 --- More formatting, more words, lesser real work; yet another status report goes out. 

Week 3 --- The status reporting thing starts sounding boring. Downright boring. I find other important things to do; like helping team members who are stuck and making sure that a fully functional build gets uploaded to a test environment so that everyone in the organization can try it out.

A day later I get an email from the 'Senior management' telling me that I had missed sending out my status report and that it was unacceptable for someone as senior as me to just miss sending out reports.

Week 4 --- I'm back to boring status reports again. The status report ships on time.

Week 5 --- I am stuck by a realization; a question and a curiosity all rolled into one. A couple of subtle questions are gnawing away at the back of my head. 'Do they really read this crap?' --- 'what do they understand about the project health by reading this crap?' --- Then a personal tiny little experiment is devised.

Before I describe the experiment may I suggest that you do not try this at your workplace. It is clearly an experiment which can get you fired if it fails. Ok, ready for the experiment? Here's what the experiment I decide to try out after five weeks of boring status reporting.  

On the fifth week I take a copy of the report I had sent the week before that. I attach it to the email; cross my fingers; and hit the send button.

The next day is fairly interesting. I look at my mail box, only to find out that life is good. No-one complains. No-one even realizes that it is the exact same file as the week before. No-one, is reading those status reports.

Week 6- The same document that was sent for the last to weeks is taken; the file name is changed; the file is sent. No complains.

Week 7 - Status reporting is now suddenly becomes really easy for me.

Sending a weekly status report from then on is easier than most young and budding managers can think. For as long as the project lasts, I send the exact same status report and no-one even notices.

Then the project ends. We ship the build, everyone loves it; the project is a success --- and the reports?

Question: Do you think this manager of mine wanted me to send the reports because he was going to read those reports or do anything with them?

End of flashback.

Let's snap back to life.

A simple dissection of the story and picking up the nuggets of lessons learnt of it will help. After all, if we don't do that, we are just as guilty of whining as professional whiners.

If there was one thing I learnt from the event; it was that most of the people from the so-called 'senior management' are often afraid of change. Change that threatens their existence. A team of three young and budding developers self sufficient at shipping is every whiners nightmare. It is in fact every organization's nightmare.


The reasons are two fold.

Firstly, because the pecking order has been genuinely made to believe that whiners have a specific function in defining the existence of the organization; that 'developers are not very good at communication' --- that builders need to be 'managed'. When a couple of genuine builders show up and challenge the conventional beliefs not by empty meetings and discussions but by consistently shipping concrete deliverable results; it is natural for whiners to feel threatened.

This highly respected project manager of mine for example, liked to believe that the project was on track because the team was aware of the fact that he 'might' be tracking the project through the status reports. He genuinely believed that the status reports were keeping us on track when in reality all these status reports were doing was wasting a lot of my time.

His role and function in the project was redundant. Removing him from the project would have helped us ship faster; and yet this dear manager of ours believed that he has a definite function and a concrete role in the project. He was the self proclaimed, 'project policeman'. 

Secondly, organizations like to believe that the whole 'organizational' arrangement of things is what causes projects to 'tick'. 'Always think of the team first' - 'you can hardly do anything alone' - 'team achievement is much more important than individual contribution' - 'we need to document stuff so that people are replaceable; after all someone might fall sick; decide to leave or might get his by a bus' ---  ever heard these statements in management meetings?

Organizations like to believe that it is the organizational structure that is hugely responsible for innovation; not individuals that they hire; while in reality the reverse is often true. We like to refer to our most remarkable builders as 'resources' and then we like to go out and prepare 'project plans' and 'resource management reports'. We like to naively believe that it is these reports and processes that make the organization tick.  

A couple of builders, shipping successfully without any organizational intervention feels scary to organizations which do not believe in the idea of individual contribution. Most organizations and managers alike; find it difficult to leave a team of builders alone.

This; dear reader; is why most organizations and even the so-called-managers out there are *not* looking for genuine builders who can build remarkable stuff silently; this is why most organizations out there are looking for professionals who can be programmed to follow processes and believe that they are just a tiny drop in the larger 'organizational' scheme of things.

If you work in one of these organizations; irrespective of what your Human Resource department tells you, chances are high that your organization is not looking for genuine builders. In fact, in all probabilities, your organization is shit scared of builders or anything that brings about any form of change. Chances are high that you organization is in fact, looking forward to hiring whiners and maintaining the whiner recruitment plan.

How many genuinely deserving candidates have you seen getting rejected in the interview process?

Why did these candidates get rejected? What reasons were sited by the whiners who rejected them?

How many genuine builders or story tellers are leading teams in your organization?

How many whiners that have been promoted to their level of incompetence?

Is your organization letting the builders take the back-bench and letting the whiners drive the organization, dear reader?


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.

posted on Wednesday, May 6, 2009 9:05:06 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [5]
Posted on: Friday, May 1, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 3

Ok, soul searching time.

Are you a builder?

Are you a story-teller?

If you are neither a builder; nor a story teller --- you are a whiner.

It is really that simple.

You can defend yourself with a piece of paper called your business card and claim that you 'manage projects'; that you are good at 'client interaction'; that you are a 'people person' and that you have fifteen years of experience in building enterprise applications but none of that changes the fact that you are a whiner.

Maybe a very powerful whiner sitting high up on the pecking order of your organization. So high up that you will never be reminded of the fact that you are a whiner and you might have blissfully forgotten it; but you are a whiner none the less.

In the world of software development, there are pretty much only three things you can be doing and I'm going to tell them to you. Ready?

One, you could be helping build stuff, through your skills of a programming language; through your testing skills; creative skills or whatever 'concrete' skills you have. Two, you could be helping people who build stuff in the first place by building remarkable stories.

Three --- you could be whining.

Whiners are interesting individuals though. They are what can be referred to as thermometers in an organization. Seth Godin in his book, the Tribes describes the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. According to Seth while thermometers; tell you what is wrong; they are use-less primarily because they are incapable of changing things. Thermostats on the other hand, change things, silently --- and almost automatically.

Whiners feel they are in control. They often have 'revolutionary' ideas to change the organization. They indulge in a lot of meetings to that effect. They get very excited when you invite them to meetings and ask them their opinions. Whiners neither connect to story tellers nor do they connect to builders and you will often here them pass remarks on the lines of - 'developers are not very good at communication'.

Whiners love sophisticated tools and systems. Tell them of an organizational problem and they will start talking in terms of systems you are going to need.

Whiners are also hugely insecure about their jobs and will hardly ever take independent decisions or judgment calls. Whiners are notoriously famous for organizing meetings and inviting huge audiences in them; to take everyone's opinion. Having said that you will see no decisions emerging out of those meetings.

If you have heard yourself or someone complain about the lack of process, lack of documentation or lack of discipline in your organization, the individual; in all probabilities, is indulging in the act of --- whining.

Builders don't bitch. They fix things. Sometimes they do it so silently, it's creepy.  

As we move on through the book you will meet a few whiners and learn techniques of avoiding them. Having said that, this is not their book --- so let's keep their introduction as short as possible. Let's just wrap up for the time being by stating a general fact.

Builders make organizations, whiners break them.

How many whiners do you see around you?

Are there interesting, funny stories about whiners that you know of, dear reader?


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.

posted on Friday, May 1, 2009 8:09:20 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [5]
Posted on: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 2

Builders are guys who build stuff.

Software. Bridges. Cars. Roads --- Stuff.

For the early part of my engineering career this is the only kind I respected.

Then I met the other kind who are just as good at building and shipping. These individuals however, do not ship 'stuff'.

Storytellers, build, ship and spread --- stories.

Remarkable stories.

Stories built on strong honest foundations of truth.

'But Pops, you're talking about marketers' --- you say.

No I am not.

If you are working for a software development shop; look around.


Chances are that you will find them in all walks of software development. Some of the best story tellers I have seen have played absurd roles --- project managers, team leaders, catalysts and even evangelists. 

Honest, genuine, good story telling, done even at simple levels can make or break projects. 

Flashback time --- here is one example.

At Multiplitaxion Inc., two projects are over budget with similar variances from the initially budgeted timelines.

Fred is leading Project 'A' - a few of us in innocent fun; decide to name it Project Rocket Science.

Fred, after flexing all his management mussels, his state of art 'resource management' techniques and his proven 'processes' is not being able to keep the project from falling apart.

Weeks into the project the team has lost faith and has started shipping crap.

Months later the management looses faith and pulls the plug.

"Funding" --- we are told. We run out of funding. 

Project Rocket Science is officially dead.

Project 'B' on the other hand has similar issues of bad estimations.

The project however had more than one story tellers involved and connected with the project.

Project B's team does not embark on a project. They embark on a story which they have been told. A story built on truth with larger than life elements to it.

As the ramp up for the project is happening, every single member of Project 'B' is hand picked. They are told in clear teams that they are being picked because the project is special and that they are the best. They are told that they have been picked, to create meaning; to shape the future of an organization. To build a remarkable product that will change not just an organization but an entire industry.

It takes time, but the story is told remarkably; from one story teller to another; until it spreads through the corridors of the warfront where the development is done.  Everyone; including the story tellers themselves; believe the story.

When we slip deadlines we are told that we were making history; we could not ship crap. We're told not to lose patience. Not to panic.

Half way down the project we are convinced that there is no reason to panic.

Then as the project proceeds; something creepy happens --- the story slowly and steadily starts to turn into reality.

We start shipping stuff that was genuinely remarkable. Stuff that very slowly and steadily starts making it's slight dents in the overall industry.

Flashback over.

Ok, here's the million dollar question --- where did we go right with Project 'B'.

First thing where we went right was of-course the fact that we had amazing builders. To add to that, what we had was an amazing story. A cause. A meaning. A purpose. The project wasn't something we shipped to get our job done or to get our salaries. We connected to the project. We connected to the story around the project.

The outcome? 

No-one stopped the project.

We shipped a product which was not just profitable; but remarkable in it's own way.

True, we were as over budget just like Project Rocket Science; but if there is one thing that you can take from this story; it is this:

No-one; I repeat --- No-one cares about the budget.

Neither your team, nor your management, nor your client.

One way to look at your budget and deadlines, is to see these as commandments you absolutely must follow.

But, in the long run, that does not get you anywhere.

If that is your line of thought, you will continue to build mediocre products that can be otherwise defined as 'successful failures'.

Story tellers have a slightly different way to look at budgets and deadlines. They see them as mundane numbers; nothing but boring facts. Story tellers know that people who sign the paychecks and the clients; look at these boring numbers 'only' when they have nothing more interesting to look at.

In the case of Project 'B'; the 'story' was larger than the boring facts. It was much more interesting, exciting, evolving, fun filled and remarkable.

The outcome of the story, the product itself, was even more remarkable.

Obviously, no-one looked at the boring facts.

We shipped. We made a dent in the universe; in our very own small way.

We were successful.

Story tellers, as it turns know that a lot of their story telling depends on stuff the builders ship. This is why genuine story tellers show a lot of honest respect for builders. They use their art of story telling to get the crap out of the teams way. They use their art to glamorize projects; products and even team members who deserve to be glamorized. They use their stories as bullshit busters; and to change stuff; for the better.

Story tellers, besides respecting builders and hanging out with them connect to them; genuinely; and naturally. They stick their neck out for people who build stuff. This is because genuine story tellers know fully well that without remarkable products and remarkable stuff there can be no remarkable stories which are built on foundations of honesty.

Without amazing builders, the role of an amazing story teller does not exist.

Good story tellers know this fact and aren't ashamed to admit it. Openly.

Story telling is hard.

What is in-fact not hard, is wearing the badge of a pseudo-storyteller.

Now, that's easy.

To do this you go around building a lot of political relationships with people high up the pecking order in your organization. Then you play the nice guy with your team and when hell breaks lose or when you get pecked on by the peckers high up in the pecking order you peck on your team.

Here's another way to pseudo-storytelling.

Go to a client meeting --- when the client questions you about a feature you don't have and they are wondering if you can build it by the trade show which is going to happen next month; nod your head and say yes to everything; hoping your development team will build it by 'staying back a little late' or by 'pushing harder'.

Remarkable Story Telling as it turns out, is much harder than being a pseudo-story teller or a whiner.

Are you a manager --- Weave a remarkable story around your teams; get a few genuine builders promoted and a few whiners removed from the project. Weave a remarkable story to calm down a panic stricken client, director or vice-president.

Are you a Vice President --- Weave a story to add meaning to a product or an entire organization.

Marketer --- Get just a hundred mavens who are genuinely interested and will spread the word to sign up for an awesome service your builders have built.

Writer --- Try to get a thousand unique returning visitors per day on your blog.

Indulge and aim at either of these and you will learn first hand how hard story telling really is.

It's hard.

Really hard.

It is in fact as hard  building stuff; because when you weave a story, you are in fact, indulging in the act of 'building'; even if it is not 'stuff' that you are building.

If you are a pseudo-story-teller you are just another whiner.

If you are a genuine story teller; you are important. We need you.

Are you a story teller?

What are some examples of story tellers you have worked with dear reader?

How have storytellers improved your work-life, dear reader?


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.

posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2009 5:10:42 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Friday, April 24, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Builders, Story Tellers And Whiners - Part 1

Of all the people I've worked with in my software development career; every single one of them; in terms of what they do; can be grouped into one or more of these three categories:

Irrespective of where you work, what you do, what your business card reads, what your designation is or what your role is --- you fall in one of these three categories: builders, story tellers, whiners.

After years of analyzing people; especially people who work in software development; that is the conclusion I have arrived at. 

Everyone is one of these three.

It is that simple.

You may have traits of one or more of the three but overall you are one of the three.  If you are going to read through this book, it is important that you understand these three personalities well; really well.

Learning from builders and story tellers is what this book is all about; so it makes sense to introduce you builders first.


Read on.


Builders build stuff. Amazing stuff. They ship.

They are the ones who might be making your life interesting with remarkable and innovative products or services and you may not even know it.

Christopher Baus learnt the importance of being a doer while making a career choice. He explains:

Software isn't about methodologies, languages, or even operating systems. It is about working applications. At Adobe I would have learned the art of building massive applications that generate millions of dollars in revenue.

Sure, PostScript wasn't the sexiest application, and it was written in old school C, but it performed a significant and useful task that thousands (if not millions) of people relied on to do their job.  There could hardly be a better place to learn the skills of building commercial applications, no matter the tools that were employed at the time. I did learn an important lesson at ObjectSpace. A UML diagram can't push 500 pages per minute through a RIP.

There are two types of people in this industry. Talkers and Doers. ObjectSpace was a company of talkers. Adobe is a company of doers. Adobe took in $430 million in revenue last quarter. ObjectSpace is long bankrupt.

That is exactly what builders do to organizations.

They build stuff; which invariably ends up building organizations.

They change crappy organizations into productive ones.

Silently. Innocently. Sometimes, even unknowingly.

If you've ever stumbled upon a team of genuine builders and you are a smart individual, there are a few things about builders you tend to learn rather quickly.

Most builders as it turns out, are quiet; very quiet --- at-least that's what most 'managers' will tell you. The notion of the introverted programmer who is so busy talking to the compiler that he loses touch with reality and stops talking to human beings is the stupidest stereotype painted by classical managers who for reasons more than one cannot seem to connect to builders.  You will of-course find builders to be incredibly quiet; but only till the time you connect to them.

If you've ever stumbled upon a team of genuine builders and have connected to them you probably know rather well that there are exactly two ways of connecting to builders.

The first one is so simple; it almost sounds stupid to write it down; and yet it is so important that I am going to indulge in the act of stupidity and write it down.

To connect to builders, you need to be a builder yourself.

That is correct. Builders, as it turns out, can smell stuff getting built from a ten mile radius. If the stuff that's getting built is genuinely remarkable they can sense it from a different planet or even a whole different universe. Your best chance of connecting to a team of builders in your organization, while you work with them, is to indulge yourself in the act of building and work with them; hand in hand.

Put simply, roll your sleeves and do some real work if you can.

The second way to connect to builders, is easier and harder that the first approach. Easier because you can walk into office tomorrow morning and do it; just like that. No special technical training required; no classes required; no special sixteen hours a day of slogging required. Harder because you won't do it. It is in fact so darn simple, I can spell it out in two small sentence for you; which is exactly what I'm going to do.


Get out of their way.

Then when you have learnt how to do that get the bullshit out of their way and let them build stuff; even if it gets you fired. 

Doing both of these things is hard and they don't even teach you how to do these in management schools.

Actually, it is as hard as being a builder. It involves putting yourself in the line and taking all the crap that is redirected to them with one isolated focus - that the builders in your organization do not lose their focus. If you can genuinely and honestly do this, and can continue to exist in your organization, without actually getting fired; the builders will connect to you.

Once you connect to genuine builders in your organization though; either by the virtue of the fact that you are yourself a builder or by the virtue of the fact that you are a bullshit buster there are things you will learn about building stuff; about innovation; about how a builder's mind works and about how things get done.

Things most organizations and individuals do not care to know about. Things that are often not published by the articles that tend to talk about the labor and toiling of builders as a glamorous overnight success stories. Besides trying to study builders at work, this book will attempt to describe, as articulately as it can, some of these things, that I and others were able to learn by connecting to genuine builders and watching them in action.

Are you a builder?

Do you work with a team of builders?

What have you learnt by connecting to and working closely with a team of builders; dear reader?


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.

posted on Friday, April 24, 2009 10:30:45 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]