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Posted on: Friday, June 5, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Observing And Understanding Genuine Builders - Part 6

“That is exactly why I decided to build it”.

Jack is this young and budding developer; I inherit him with the project where Fred suddenly disappears.

He is going around with the right guys in the culture chart, he seems to like lying low, seems to be working abnormal hours and occasionally hides in the meeting rooms and conference rooms in search of silence. 

Sometimes he even disappears out of office and works at a local cafeteria.

You can see him working in the strangest of places.

I don't see him in any meetings.

In a very healthy and positive way he does not seem to have a life outside work. He seems to love what he is doing.

Put simply, everything about him tells me he is a builder.

Having said that, there is a little problem --- I don't know what Jack is up to.

The “Project Plan” shows him assigned to “invoicing enhancements”.

He's checking in his code on time, but he's up to something mysterious.

Nah! --- I tell myself --- Changing labels on Data Entry forms; couldn’t be keeping him busy.

But then we’ve been working on firefighting multiple issues and I don’t have a lot of time to check on Jack. He could be underutilized; we could be wasting his talents or he could be genuinely up to something interesting; but I have bigger problems at hand.

The code generator that Multiplitaxion Inc, is planning on buying; for example; is a big problem needing immediate attention.

I spend a few weeks evaluating various products in the market. Nothing seems to fit our requirement.  Soon I am struggling with every single commercial code generator out there. I’m working hard and staying late.

That's when I realize that Jack and I are the only two ones usually in office past midnight.

"Labels changes on data entry forms keeping him up?" --- I wonder.


Our initial conversations start with simple interactions - “Hey you want to order something? I'm ordering food.”

Then; we talk; about the project --- and what each one of us thinks will kill the project.

Jack thinks, code migration is going to kill us; customized code generation using templates and custom code, is the only thing that can save us.

"What the… this guy knows about the code generation approach?" - I am thinking to myself.

How could he?

What does “invoicing enhancements” have to do with code generation and the most critical aspects of the project?


Not only does he know about the code generator, he knows that looking for commercial code generators is an approach that is not going to work.

More talking --- now he has my attention.

It is late night. Seriously late.

Jack in on a white board, explaining the design of this customized code generator he has been writing without talking to anyone.

Then he's running me through the code.

Then of course the weirdest thing happens --- he shows a working prototype he wrote in his last three months of spare time; without talking to anyone about it.

Everything seems ordinary till this point. However the chain-of-events take a weird turn.

Here is the creepy part – his prototype does exactly what we need.

Silence; followed by a very short conversation.

The discussion was about Fred, the PM, who decided to disappear after rubbing every single builder the wrong way.

Pops: Why didn't you tell us you had a working prototype?

Jack: I asked him if I should give it a shot and he said I should focus on my current tasks. He said I am incapable of building something this complicated.

Pops: You decided to build it anyway?

Jack:  Actually --- that is exactly why I decided to build it.

Pops: When were you planning on showing this to everyone?

Jack: I wasn't. Just wanted to see if I can build it.

Long silence.

Pops: Can you demo this to everyone tomorrow?

Jack: If you think it's good enough; I still think it needs a few days of polishing.

Pops: It's good enough. Seriously. Do you think you can demo it?

Jack: Sure. If you think it will help.

Pops: Thanks. Let's go home now.

Since then every time I witness a “builder-hibernation” in an organization, I feel sorry for the organization.

When your builders hibernate, they don't lose their consistency; neither do they stop building stuff.  That is their very nature. The behavior is hardcoded in their geans. They can’t help but build stuff.

When they hibernate, they just stop building stuff ‘for you’.

Why?  --- Because they think you don’t care one way or the other.

The next time a junior programmer tells you he has ideas do not ask him to focus on his assignments.

Do not tell him to ‘do his job’.

Shut up. Stop. Listen.

The next time you are stuck between doing something that needs your 'immediate attention'; for example; evaluation of a commercial code generator; or having a conversation to someone who seems like a genuine builder in hibernation, remember; the conversation is much more important.

Do not tell yourself you have other important things to address.

Chances are that the solution to the other important things that you are trying to address is lurching in your very own organization and you aren’t even aware of it.

Have you ever seen a builder being told what he cannot do?

Have you seen him go ahead and do it anyways?

What other stories of relentless stubbornness have you seen from your genuine 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, June 5, 2009 6:50:45 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [3]
Posted on: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Observing And Understanding Genuine Builders - Part 5

Hibernation Through Thanks But No Thanks.

Jane is doing an amazing job at shipping some serious backend code. She isn't doing it under the temporary fit of impressing her manager. She has been consistently shipping for the past couple of years and yet you see her working away late nights; supporting issues when things break and getting things done by silently attacking one problem at a time without breaking down.

She is passionate; she is consistent and as she runs forward she is taking the team along with her.

She isn't even burning out.

She; is a builder.

Then you realize that when she politely requests other builders to do things, things get done. Just like that.

She isn't just shipping or building stuff. She is leading. She is leading without whining or bitching. She is doing it at a time when your organizations needs builders who can lead.


You weave an amazing and remarkable story around her capabilities. The story of the quite builder being a hero spreads amongst the corridors of your organization. She can now be 'officially' promoted. More power can be vested in hands of someone who is not desperately seeking power.

Life is good.

"I prefer to do my job rather than leading a team. I like to code. Anyways, thanks so much for asking." --- she tells you.

You are hearing words all right but you can hardly understand them.

That's right --- what she is telling you, is that she does not want a promotion.

Yes; builders say that kind of things and here is the really creepy part - sometimes they mean it too.

You need to take a deep breath.

Don't Panic.

Maintain eye contact, talk; listen very intently and learn.

Very closely.

What's happening here?

Why doesn't she want to take the lead?

The entire pecking order of your organization doesn't know what is going on here. Even Jane herself is clueless. But she is telling you something she cannot put in words. She is saying it through her refusal to accept the promotion and she is giving you her reasons very articulately, maybe not through her words, but through her actions.

Can you hear it?

If you care; I'm going to help you understand what she is telling you.

Her unspoken message has both good news and bad news.

Good news is that she still loves the work she is doing in her team. Her talents are not yet getting utterly wasted in your organization. Jane, as an engineer is highly effective in your organization; and that dear reader is a good thing.

Ready for the bad news?

She knows how promotions and leaderships work in your workplace.

She is developing a disconnect with the way promotions and leaderships work in your organization.

All those whiners that were leading your team and were getting away with promotions and pats on their backs --- she was observing when that was happening.

Now she feels threatened at the idea of being promoted to her level of incompetence.

She associates leadership in your organization with whining and she in her own unique way; has figured out how she can continue to add genuine value rather than turning herself into a whiner.

What she is doing, is simple:

First, she is writing amazing code.

Second, she is avoiding anything that brings her in the limelight.

Put simply, she is lying low.

Unlike fire and motion; a technique well known the world of army; she is using a technique I like to call 'fire and duck'.

What she is telling you is that she has no political skills to match the skills being demonstrated by the whiners leading teams in your organization. She prefers to ship, then duck and hide --- like she does not even exist.

She wants to lie low and keep shipping.

This form of disconnection in builders is so common; and yet most organizations hardly understand it.

The purpose of this post, however is twofold.

First,  is to germinate the idea that most builders survive hostile environments by 'fire and duck' or by lying low. When you see whiners talking about how your 'developers' are not good at communication or how your builders need to be managed; more often than not your builders are actually spending extra effort making sure that you think that they do not exist. They might be leading your teams already; they just don't want you to find it out and make it 'official'.

It's a technique which allows them to lead teams without indulging themselves in bureaucracy.

They are indulging in fire and duck; because they don't trust your organization and leadership to come out in the open and take charge. They are afraid you'll promote them to their level of incompetence and that they will rot in meeting-hell.

The second purpose of this post; is to bring to your notice; dear reader; that the disconnect that your builders have with the promotion and leadership; has probably transformed into disconnect for the entire organization. If not, it will; soon; especially if you leave it unattended.

It is important that the next time you talk to Jane you get her to accept that promotion you are trying to give her. 

Getting her to accept that promotion is important; because by doing that you are sending out a very clear and honest message to your builders. You are telling your genuine leaders that it's OK to get noticed. You're telling them that it is OK to lead and that it is OK to drive the organization; because if they don't; your whiners will.

What examples of builders indulging in fire and duck or lying low have you seen?

Have you ever seen genuine builders in your organization refuse leadership roles and promotions?

Why do you think they refused the leadership roles when they did, 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, June 3, 2009 10:07:10 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]
Posted on: Friday, May 29, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Observing And Understanding Genuine Builders - Part 4

Getting Genuine Builders To De-Hibernate.

When Fred, the young and budding manager disappears, and when you have spent your first few days trying to replace Fred fully and undo the crap he littered all over the place, you realize that it is already too late. The 'builder hibernation' has already begun.

Most of your genuine builders have left.

The ones who are capable of fixing things, don't care.

They've moved to a I'll-Follow-Orders mode.

They've gone silent and the whiners in your organization have taken over.

You can here them loud and clear through the silence and the sounds of crickets chirping.

Hollywood style inspirational speeches will not work here.

When this happens you are left with only two things do so.

The First Thing To Do --- “Listen”

If we were to take three most important things that you should know about hibernation here is what they would be.

One, there is a possibility that your system is being screwed big time right now as you read this.  There could be a dozen things that could be messing things up; Artificial deadlines, monkeys, mitigated speech --- the list is endless but if the builders don't speak up, chances are, you'll never find out.

If your builders are in hibernation they don't care enough to gate crash into your office with a big fat red light in their hand to have a fight with you to save the project, the team or the organization from absolute stupidity.

They've had it.

It basically means, you've been cut off from the sound-non-whining-genuine-feedback-loop of your organization or team.

Two, most builders are still going to give in reasonable effort to try and fix things even after they have moved into hibernation; the only difference here is that their opinions are going to be very soft whispers; not the loud shouts that they once used to be.


Because they have lost their 'attachment' with the organization, team or project.

There's a lot to be said about attachment; but the bottom-line is simple --- If you can't get them to feel the attachment again, you are going to lose your builders.

The third fact is most interesting however --- If you genuinely want them to feel attached to the project, the team or the organization again, they will.


All you need to do really is illustrate one simple quality consistently --- empathy.

Jack, is in hibernation. He hasn't quit.

Hibernation is Jack's way of telling you that you need to stop and listen.

When I say stop and listen I do not mean Lets-Have-A-Project-Status-Meeting approach to stopping and listening.

I mean Lets-Go-Out-For-A-Cup-Of-Coffee-And-Talk-Openly approach to listening.

If you are facing a hibernation and your organization, team or project is struggling through problems; chances are that every single problem that your organization, team and project is facing right now, has been solved.

There is a fully-working solution, or an individual fully capable of providing you one, lurching somewhere in your corridors. Solutions to the so called huge organizational problems your senior management is so worried about right now; have long been found and are being discussed in your cafeteria.

The questions you need to ask yourself are simple:

One, are you listening?

Two, do you have the power and the intention to do anything, even if a genuine builder was to tell you the solution?

The two questions are important; because here is the tragic part --- in most cases only one of the answers is a 'yes'.

That is what screws up most projects, teams and organizations out there.

Scott Berkun describes this inability to 'listen' in his classic post on fighting management incompetence. He explains:

The big incompetence crime committed by VPs is leaving incompetent managers in place for too long. My theory: by the time the CEO knows a VP stinks, the whole org has known about it for months. The smart people have been making plans to leave or are working to cover their assses. By the time the CEO gets around to taking action, it’s way too late. And often the action taken is whitewashed: no mention is made of how the VP or middle manager utterly failed (e.g. “Fred has decided it’s time for something new.”) The denial lives on, the lie propagates, making it easier for more denials and lies the next time around

If you genuinely want to do something about your organization, team or project, learn to talk a walk down the corridors and when people look like they want to have a talk with you, strike a conversation; and listen.

Then either gather enough power to do something about it; or you weave a remarkable story of how important it is to fix the situation and convince the big bosses in your organization to help.

Listening is the first thing you can do to de-hibernate your builder.

Ready for the second thing?

The Second Thing To Do --- Act.

“Dude, we have seriously cramped cubicals around here in the new office.” - Jack tells you.

“Half the time Fred doesn't know what he is talking about.” - Jane describes her current manager.

Jack and Jane are seriously kick ass builders.

You cringe.

You're sorry you even asked for then genuine authentic blatantly honest feedback.

This is a serious nightmare.


Because you know you're not going to be able to do anything. You're going to try your best to fix things. You're going to take it up with your Office Administration department and your senior management. Then you're going to die in the meeting hell.

You know deep down inside, that neither are the cubical going to change, nor is Fred going to be replaced.

That's how organizations handle feedbacks from builders.

Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister describes this so much more articulately. The book explains this through a real life incident:

A California company that I consult for is very much concerned about being responsive  to its people.  Last year,  the company's management conducted a survey in which all programmers (more than a thousand) were asked to list the best and the worst aspects of their jobs.  The manager who ran the survey was very excited about the changes the company had undertaken. 

He  told me  that the number two problem was poor communication with upper management.  Having learned that from the survey,  the company set up quality circles, gripe sessions, and other communication programs.

I listened politely as he described them in detail.  When he was done,  I asked what the number one problem was.  "The environment,"  he replied. "People were upset about the noise."  I asked what steps the company had taken to remedy that problem. "Oh, we couldn't do anything about that," he said. "That's outside our control,"

Which is why when you have organizational meetings to discuss the direction and the vision statement of the organization, no genuine builder ever has a question or a feedback. Which is why when you do a meeting to talk about a project that's failing you hear the absolute silence.

The next time no-one emails you their feedback after a meeting, the next time no-one has a question after a presentation, the next time no-one in your team files in their feedback on the corporate intranet, the next time you hear the sound of the chirping crickets and “something” doesn't seem right, you know what's happening.

Your genuine builders are hibernating and you are either not listening or you don't care enough to act.

The next time you see a genuine builder-hibernation, avoiding the problem will only make it worse.

Listen. Act.

Get them to De-Hibernate.

Because if you can't --- you are screwed.

Have you ever worked with a team of hibernating builders and got them to connect back to the organization, the project and the team?

Did genuinely listening and acting on what they told you help?

Do you have a story to tell about your experiences on this front, 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 29, 2009 9:14:13 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Observing And Understanding Genuine Builders - Part 3

The Hibernation

You join Multiplitaxion Inc as a young and budding manager who is consulting for them.

Here's the story so far: The team you are being asked to lead was being led by a a certain Fred. Half way through the project Fred decides that the project is officially screwed. Then one fine sunny morning when the sky was clear Fred decides to disappear and does.  He doesn't disappear completely though. He leaves some part of his culture behind.

You are called in.

"He was making stupid mistakes" – you tell yourself - You can do better.

Then when you spend a couple of days at the client's office you realize something else.

He was the last one to leave.

Before he left he had ego tussles and power struggles with any genuine builder who could have fixed anything. Most of them left before he did. Others have been rubbed the wrong way and have gone into what I call the builder's-hibernation.

None of the genuine builders at Multiplitaxion Inc, care anymore.

As a manager, the 'builder-hibernation' is a phenomenon difficult to explain.

You know what it is when you see one in action

How do you know when it happens?

You know when Jack, a seriously kick-ass builder who used to gate crash into your office and shout at you, asking you to get the monkeys out of his way, stops showing up.

Or when Jane, who was working on your other branch office, stops giving you the direct-to-the-point brief calls when she feels something isn't going right.

Genuine builders will usually take a lot of abuse and continue to work silently. Incompetent managers, loud work environments, unreal schedules --- genuine builder tend to notice this details rather well but they are too busy to react to take any of this seriously.

Then the stupidity keeps piling up.


To a point where something happens and the thin thread snaps.

To be honest, beyond a certain point; where a lot of organizations and so-called-managers go; a lot of things can make the thread snap.

For example, this young and budding manager you hired last month rubs a few of your genuine builders in the wrong way; or says something that is intimidating and down right insulting.


The thread breaks.

And then there is silence.

Followed by chirping of crickets.

You continue to get the long-winded status reports; that say nothing; by your so-called-managers. But you suddenly stop seeing Jack; your core engineer.

Jack is the guy who used to gate crash your cabin with one single sentence - “we need more time to ship quality; we are delaying the sprint by a week; can talk later if you want or I can give you more details in an email if you need that but we can't ship crap.” - and then he used to leave without wasting a whole lot of your time.

When Jack does not gate-crash anymore and you have to turn to that status report to see what the team is up to;  it might be an indication of Jack moving to a hibernation.

The builders slowly switch to a mode where they do exactly what they are told to do. They cover their ass and become disinterested to even care or give a rat's ass about the project or the organization that they once felt so very passionately about.

They start 'doing their job'.

Put simply, they go into a full fledged 'hibernation'.  The feedback loop snaps and all you are left with is cries from whining employees.

“Do you want the system to remember the last time the user logged in” - specific questions of this sort, by Jack and Jane; as they build; stop.

Suddenly Fred is telling your clients and stake-owner what the problem is - “The requirements of the login use-case aren't yet clear and they are constantly changing; we need to have a meeting to freeze the requirement because if we don't it's going to be really hard to start construction”. 

When that happens, you know you've lost it.

When that happens, Dot-com companies wind up.

Your job as a builder, story teller, manager, vice president, director, chief executive officer, board manager, entrepreneur or whatever it is that you are, is to avoid this hibernation from a ten mile radius.

If you don't understand how lethal it is you should.

It's lethal for three reasons.

First, the chances of any builder quitting and joining another company are huge during his hibernation period when compared to his chances of leaving when he is genuinely connected to the pond, feeling the ripples and taking corrective action. Genuine builders usually do not quit for factors like a small hike in salary; but make them feel disconnected and you've just multiplied their chances of quitting.

Second, it contagious. Builders usually work in closely knit team. The young and budding manager may have rubbed one genuine builder the wrong way; but  chances are high that others that work closely with him are going to disconnect and hibernate sooner or later.

Third, it stops genuine complains by genuine builders and amplifies the voice of the whiners. Those meetings where 'requirements are frozen' and 'use cases are finalized' suddenly become important. Processes and rules become important. Deadlines become important. Then slowly, showing up at nine in the morning becomes important.

Jack and Jane go from loud warnings, to whispers, to silence.

They are hibernating.

When you start losing touch with Jack or Jane and when they stop showing up, it's time to react like the life of your project, team and organization depends on it --- because to a large extent, it genuinely does.

When was the first time you witnessed a genuine builder or a team of builders go into hibernation?

What caused the hibernation?

Did they come back and feel connected again or did you just lose them?

What brought them back?

Have you ever disconnected or hibernated, 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 27, 2009 8:48:44 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [3]
Posted on: Friday, May 22, 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Observing And Understanding Genuine Builders - Part 2

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.


"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.


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?


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 22, 2009 10:20:43 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [8]
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]