The Labors of Code

Corporate culture has a lot to do in shaping successful dev teams

The year of 1886 was a pivotal moment for the global labor movement. Two years earlier in Chicago, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”

When the day arrived, over 300,000 workers across 13,000 US businesses walked off the job. Chicago alone had 40,000 laborers strike. As peaceful as the protests had been, tensions were rising to a boiling point between police and protesters.

In response to an incident a day earlier at McCormick Reaper Works, a hastily arranged gathering was organized at Haymarket Square. As the speeches wound down and police came to disperse the crowd, someone threw a bomb into the crowd. The police responded with gunfire, resulting in 8 police and 7 civilians killed.

Many know May 1st better as May Day, a day off in most countries. Behind this date however is a rally cry for worker’s rights and a remembrance to the innocent lives lost in the Haymarket Affair.

In the US and Canada, we celebrate this officially as Labor Day on the first Monday of September. US President Grover Cleveland changed the date so as to not conflate the date commemorating labor with the actions of subversive political movements.

For the developed world, the sweatshops and abusive labor practices are mostly a thing of the past. There are extensive labor regulations, minimum salary laws, and a legal system to hear the concerns of the aggrieved worker. Disputes still arise, but there is at least a modicum of fairness. 

In other parts of the world, worker rights are not as equitable. It is not just the sweatshops however that fall short on the scales of justice. The abuses occur even among knowledge workers, including Alibaba where Jack Ma defended the culture of long hours:

“It’s a huge blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity to have…do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honor to boast about?”

The ethos of working from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week has contributed to the rapid rise of Chinese Internet giants. On the other hand, it has also led to stories of burnout, turnover, poor health, depression, and even suicide.

What we do all day long…

A common term for programmers in China is 码农, loosely translated as “code peasant” or “code farmer”. It’s often used as a self-deprecating phrase used among developers.

The term also has an undercurrent of disrespect as a derogatory way to describe the lack of recognition and value given to the profession. Despite the high levels of education and skill needed, developers are still viewed as interchangeable cogs in the software machine.

No one would confuse software engineering with blue collar jobs. There are still IT organizations however that take their orders from accountants. Lines of code are more valued as a metric than the value of business outcomes. Quality of code is not as useful a metric as developer cost per hour. According to the Jack Ma philosophy, the more hours you work, the more code you can produce:

“If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why do you come to Alibaba? We do not need those who comfortably work 8 hours.”

This reasoning has led companies to offload as much IT cost as possible thinking that technology is not a core competency. In the 2000’s, that was perhaps true. In the 2020’s, not having a high degree of in-house technical competency is a death sentence.

When I initially meet with a company, one of the first things I try to determine is the state of the developer culture. Getting a handle on the culture enables me to understand whether or not the organization is ready to accept change.

Great cultures are generative, meaning that they invest in their people. They have mature software delivery practices, hire and retain talent more easily, exhibit less burnout, and deliver higher quality code on a more regular basis. They are seen as true partners to the business and recognized for their contributions. Developers are paid fairly and are provided opportunities to build their skills and work on interesting problems.

Poor cultures are either bureaucratic or, in extreme cases, pathological. Developers have no decision making authority nor are valued as partners in achieving business outcomes. Agile and scrum are used as control mechanisms to force developers into unrealistic delivery promises. They cannot hire or retain talent, so they rely on outsourcing and contractors to get work done. Developers are “code peasants” in the most literal sense.

Organizations on the pathological end of the scale cannot benefit from outside help and value change simply as a means of political gain. Real change only occurs through a seismic externality that shakes the foundation of the company. Whether shareholder revolt, market share loss, disastrous financial performance, regulatory or legal challenges, reputational damage, or all of the above, only a major shock will initiate change.

For companies more towards the generative end of the scale, change is a positive force that supports the core values of the organization. In the most well regarded companies, developers are at the forefront in delivering change through technology innovation. Learning replaces blame as the operating model for management. Respect for the employee and value for customers overrides short term financial gains.

There is one telltale sign though that signals where on the Westrum scale an organization sits. When you talk to employees from front line employees to managers, do they take ownership for their work and exhibit pride of craft? If the organization is towards the pathological end of the scale, then why would they take ownership when any mistake could be used to sabotage the career of themselves and others?

This is why culture matters. Without the innate sense of ownership, nothing can actually change. This is ultimately why efforts such as Agile fail and digital transformation fall flat. Change is something to fear rather than something to embrace. This is the biggest difference between the high and low performing engineering teams. Change the culture and the fruits of change will blossom, something l share in a follow on post.

Where would you place your organization on the Westrum scale? What are tangible ways you have shifted the culture to become more open to change?

What is club soda and how do I make it?

I just assumed soda water, club soda, seltzer & sparkling water were the same…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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