Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

I have enjoyed Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Farnamstreet’s review is perfect so I will not attempt at writing one. I will focus on one idea I found most intriguing.

I read Horowitz’ book as an account of dealing with hard decisions in general, about having to decide alone, about personal accountability, about having to pick the lesser of two evils.

The idea that stuck with me in particular is Management Debt, and Horowitz also blogged about this.

… management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence.

You accumulate Management Debt if you try to fix an organizational issue quickly by acting inconsistently. Horowitz’ example: You might give an employee a raise in order to stop her from leaving the company. But she had discussed her plans with another employee who then wonders why she stayed; so she feels pressed to explain the reason to him. Then others learn how to blackmail you in order to get a raise, etc..

From my short stint as a manager I am familiar with such situations but I rather like to extend the concept to Social or Political Debt. I believe that we, as human social animals, tend to focus on resolving the conflict right in front of you, rather than considering seemingly abstract consequences in the future.

I am thinking of the expert bombarded with all kinds of requests. As a professional it is hard to avoid them: People who to want to pick your brain and just like to have 5 minutes so you can glance over their problems. For free. Trying to help all of them – on top of working with paying clients – would be the equivalent of trying to copy a full book at the photocopier but yielding to anybody who wants to copy just a single page.

As a fallible human you might give in to the most intrusive requester just to get rid of him or her. You think that explaining your seemingly cold-hearted rationale would take more time and would be more emotionally taxing than just fulfilling the request.

But those people will return with more problems, and their acquaintances will, too. You have incurred debt, and there is interest rate. The moment of refusal might be difficult though, in particular with requests in the blurry area between business and private. How to say No to that alleged or self-declared old friend?

I am a believer in 1) Stating clearly what you don’t want and don’t do (rather than focusing on the positive) without feeling the need to explain yourself and 2) “Principles” – a short list of your values, or guiding principles you always follow. Both need need to be ingrained in your mind so that you react accordingly in case you receive those e-mails and calls out of the blue.

The paradoxical or sad thing is that explanations are most often futile. There are many good reasons – both ethical and business-wise – for not jumping onto such requests. The obvious one being limited time and treating all clients equal, but the best one in my point of view being the value of true expertise: Based on years of experience you might only need five minutes to solve a problem that requires somebody else doing days of research. That’s exactly why those first minutes might be the most valuable.

I am speaking from experience although such things fortunately did happen to me rarely. But when they did, it was freaking me out. I once got a call from an unknown lawyer who was in the middle of installing his very own Public Key Infrastructure; he started asking technical questions before introducing himself. I tried to explain that I was actually charging people for such services, and that I assumed he did not do legal counselling for free either. His response was that he was maintaining all his IT stuff by himself – just this topic was too complicated for him so he needed advice. So services should be free if a professional solves a particularly tricky problem. This defies common sense.

I also thought I had a killer argument, non-refutable. I am actually providing technical information on ‘the internet’ – the same sort of answers or materials I would charge clients for. The difference is that I am not obligated to do this, so I pick this case by case. I believe in open-source-style sharing in a community of like-minded members. I am a believer in demonstrating skills in real time instead of showing off certificates – it goes without saying this might include giving away some valuable advice for demo purposes at the start of a business relationship.

Unfortunately, this demo-for-business argument that is used too often by people who want to milk your know-how forever – just testing how far they can go – without ever really considering a ‘business relationship’. As soon as you tell them the answer to the next question will not be free of charge anymore, they suddenly stop asking.

Fortunately, I get enough feedback by providing so much detailed information for free!!. A few people who don’t get it would not shatter my confidence. Interestingly, people who still challenge me (But then you don’t have time for me??) are those whom I would not consider part of any ‘sharing’ communities or get their spirit in the slightest. I think all those issues belong in the category: Either you get it immediately and communication is based on tacit understanding what is normal and appropriate – or all explanations are in vain.

Many years ago I had been asked literally if I would like to work for free. Corporations send out request for proposals and ask for lots of free concepts and presentations – until they have gathered enough know-how from all the potential vendors invited so that finally they have learned enough from the ‘pitches’ and can do the whole project on their own. Finally I had my antennas finely tuned to all your typical manipulations methods (I have already told X you will do [unpaid honorable engagement] Y – if you don’t, this will get me into serious troubles!). Many people are driven by short-term impulses, not by malice (I have to solve this problem or my boss will kill me!) and they respond to logical arguments: What would you say if you were a paying client and find out that I do free consulting for other people at random? Some manipulators are hopeless cases though, especially if they think they provide something in return that is actually less than useless to you.

Horowitz’ war stories resonated with me more than I expected. He emphasizes dealing with organizationally or psychologically difficult issues head-on. I read his advice as: Better act sooner than later, better state the ugly truth upfront. Better take some decision at all, even if it is just 55% versus 45%. Communicate clearly, don’t use fluffy phrases. Sometimes people explicitly appreciated my way of saying No immediately and unambiguously, instead of endless dithering and not trying to hurt anybody which seems to have become fashionable in times of Networking and You Will Always Meet Two Times.

wine-clarity

Searching my own images for own that would represent both mental clarity as well as difficult decisions – I zoomed in this one immediately. (Vineyards close to my home village, evening at the beginning of May.)

Although this is tagged with ‘rant’ it should not be interpreted as what I actually consider pointless and energy-draining – endless rants about common practices in your industry sector that you cannot change but have to live with. I am in the Love It, Change It, Or Leave It camp. I have also been writing about the past, and often a single annoying event of that sort had made me shift gears.

I believe the best – and most productive – way to cope with weird requests is to either: Respond clearly and immediately using a standardized I-don’t-do reply, then ignore them as an accidental, misguided question that just happened to end up in your inbox; or: to analyze if an aspect of your previous communication might have invited such inquiries, and improve your future communications. And don’t aim at being liked by anybody, anytime.

When I Did Social Engineering without Recognizing It

I planned to read something about history this summer.

Then I picked the history of hacking. My favorite was Kevin Mitnick’s autobiography – the very definition of a page-turner.

The book is free of hardcore technical jargon and written for geeks and lay audience alike. Readers are introduced to the spirit of a hacker in the older sense of the word: Mitnick’s hacks were motivated by the thrill of exploring systems but he never gained financially.

Kevin Mitnick successfully obtained the latest source code of cell phones,

reports on security vulnerabilities in operating systems, and legitimately looking birth certificates of deceased children to setup new identity – due to his combination of technical skills and mastery of social engineering. He got people to reveal corporate information they should not. Pieces of information are seemingly innocuous in their own rights – a name of server, a corporate directory of employees – but it helps the social engineer to learn the lingo and pose as a trusted insider.

Computer-police

I adhere to the conventions re hackneyed images (Wikimedia).

I often had been called way too honest – and thus not getting anywhere in life, professionally. So I was asking myself:

Could I con people into breaking rules? The intuitive answer was of course No.

But then the following anecdote emerged from a dark corner of my mind.

A long time ago I had worked as an IT Infrastructure Manager – responsible for quite a colorful IT environment run partly by subversive non-official admins. I actually transitioned into that role from supporting some of the latter. One of the less delightful duties was to keep those subversive elements from building rogue websites and circumvent the bureaucratic corporate content management system – by purchasing internet domains like super-fancy-product-name.com and hosting these services where they figured I would not find it.

I also had to clean up legacy mess.

One time we had to migrate an internet domain hosted on behalf of an Another Very Important Organization to one of their servers. Routine stuff, had the domain been under our control. But it was tied to a subversive website a department had once set up, working with an external marketing consultancy. The consulting company was – as per the whois records – the official owner of the domain.

Actually the owner listed was not even that company was a person employed by that company but not working for them anymore. I consulted with the corporate lawyers in it would have been a legal knot hard to disentangle.

However, I had to transfer the stuff right now. Internet domains have a legal owner and an administrative and a technical contact. The person able to do the transfer is the latter but he or she must not do it unless instructed to do so.

I tracked down and the technical contact and called him up. The tech-c’s phone number is public information, very easy to find back then – nowadays you might need a tiny bit of social engineering to obtain it.

I explained the whole case to him – the whole truth in all details. He was a helpful network administrator working for a small internet provider. Having to deal with a typical network admin’s predicament immediately built a kind of bond. This is one of the things that makes working in IT infrastructure management enjoyable – in a job you are only noticed if something goes wrong. (The rest of the time you are scolded for needing too much money and employing too much personnel).

The result was that the domain was technically transferred to the intended target organization’s server immediately. But: If somebody asks you how this has been done – it wasn’t me!

This is the same concluding remark uttered by an admin in another telco later – whom I had convinced to provide me some password of a company. Also that inquiry of mine and reasons given were true and legitimate as I was doing it on behalf of a client – the password owner.

In both cases there was a third party, a client or colleague or employer, who was quite happy with the results.

But there weren’t any formal checks involved – people did not ask me for a verifiable phone number to call me back or wanted to talk to my boss or to the client. If I just had fabricated the stories I would have managed to get a domain transferred and obtain a hosting customer’s password.

Rusty and Crusty PadlockThe psychologically interesting part of my job was that I didn’t have real power to tell departments what they must or must not do. I could just persuade them.

I think this is an aspect very common to many corporate jobs today – jobs with with grand titles but just a bunch of feeble dotted lines to the rest of the corporate universe and its peripheral contractors’ satellites – some of which you never meet face-to-face.

Combine that with an intricate tangle of corporate guidelines and rules – many of them set up to enforce security and compliance. In some environments people hardly get their jobs done without breaking or bending a subset of those rules.

Social engineering in some sense is probably what makes companies still being able to function at all.

I Picked the Right Blogging Platform! (Book Review: The Year without Pants)

Before starting this blog I compared blogging tools in 2011. These two facts about WordPress and Automattic did win me over:

Now I have read the book on Automattic’s corporate culture:

The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

Scott is a former Microsoft manager and long-term author and speaker. He has been hired my Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg to help introducing the first tier of middle-managers ever to Automattic’s so far flat hierarchy. Scott accepted, provided he can write a book about his experience. For him it was a test: Will he still be able to do the work of management and not only write and speak about it?

The book is a blend of personal essay and reflection of work and management in the tech world, and palpable anecdotes from a very peculiar workplace.

He did his duty in the trenches as a Happiness Engineer:

You get access to real tools and work on real things. If you do well, you’re offered a job. If you don’t, you’re not. The many phony parts of hiring, from inflated résumés to trying to say what you think the other party wants to hear, disappear.

At the end of this stint in support Scott admits how much easier work of a writer is – in contrast to the relentless never-ending flow of clients’ tickets:

This pressure made me feel like a wimp for complaining about writing deadlines or tough lecture audiences.

I guess skeptics would say a venture such as WordPress can hardly work – hadn’t they been successful for years now:

The business is firmly grounded in Open Source software. In 2002 18-year old Matt Mullenweg forked the copylefted software used for his own photoblog as its lead developer had left. In August 2003 there were over 10.000 blogs running on WordPress. For an extensive account of WP’s history see this.

The central values of the organically growing WP culture were: Transparency of discussions, meritocracy of authority earned – not granted, and the longevity of the project – which should live forever even if Matt himself would once give it up.

There is free WordPress.org for self-hosters, the service WordPress.com and other products by Automattic – according to Scott the business model was difficult to explain at times.

Based even on my own anecdotal experience of using WordPress.com I can say that it works – I pay for the Custom Design Upgrade for two blogs and think it is a fair deal.

Employees are fiercely independent, curious, and funny individuals, working at locations all over the world.

Many of them are former independent WordPress designers and developers – so probably people who don’t like to be (micro-)managed, who are fine with being paid for results and not for office face time or hours put in.

They do meet in person occasionally, and costs of meetings in real live compensate for savings due to lack of offices.

Matt Mullenweg – whom Scott describes as a renaissance mind with an epicurean desire to understand basically anything – has written down a creed:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

Using colorful anecdotes and funny screenshots of WP-internal communications Scott demonstrates which key factors are important to make this work:

Mastery of asynchronous, written communication

Chat-like message exchange is preferred over audio or video calls, and tracking and discussion of work items is done using a blog called P2 (named after the theme used).

The reason for the first is probably surprising – and it might even sound discomforting to those who are stressed out by the constant stream of popups brought up by corporate instant communication tools: WP employees’ communications is based on the assumption that anybody else is working on some items in parallel or having some Windows open. It is not expected that people respond instantly to chat requests and some lag is allowed for – in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of calls.

Everyone understands it’s just a window on the screen and that you may be focusing on other things.

You could discuss pro’s and con’s of online meetings endlessly but I think Scott perfectly nails it:

Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.

P2 communications is reminiscent of those legendary nested e-mail threads – I answer inline in redI answer in greenI answer again in blue… I praise collaborators to the skies who are capable of following and processing such nested communications – you can literally do whole projects by asynchronous e-mails.

Everybody at Automattic can on principle read every P2 conversation. This, I guess, provides for self-regulation, and it limits the tactical use of communication tool, such as subtle hints by picking CC recipients etc.

WordPress people compensate for lack of cues in face-to-face communications by letting personality shine through written communications. Scott says that WP internal communications is refreshingly free of corporate world jargon:

No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.

From my few but pleasant encounters with WP’s support team I can attest to that.

WordPress’ culture seems to be positively self-selecting for people who fit in.

Insider humor

Sharing a common sense of humor is in my opinion the single best indicator of how well you will get along – and work! – with somebody. It is even more indispensable in this distant working environment.

Laughter leads to running jokes, and running jokes lead to a shared history, and a shared history is culture. What is a friend, a brother or sister, or a partner but someone you share important stories with?

Also the title of the book is a running joke. For a reason no one could explain later the prompt above the comment box on Scott’s teams’ P2 site turned from What’s on your mind? into

Do you know where your pants are?

No incentives

It was my conviction ever since that any sort of company-internal competition and incentives for individuals or teams will not do overall goals any good. The dissipation of energy invested in facing competition will outweigh the benefits of challenging individuals to go for stretch goals.

So I was delighted to read this:

How do you know if you’re doing a good job? They all shrugged simultaneously and I laughed. Unlike most corporations that emphasize performance evaluations, none of them were particularly concerned. … It seemed to them like an odd question to even ask. … It was not a promotion-oriented culture. Instead they cared mostly about how much value they were getting out of the work.

Frequent shipping of features

Against mantras of quality control and change management new features are rolled out all the time. I believe the reason why this has worked great so far is that risk management best practices are applied in an intuitive way: Features to be shipped are small, or their dependence on other features can be cut down. The overall risk of breaking anything major is negligible – and glitches be fixed quickly based on feedback in the production environment.

I think that all those controls in larger organizations rather prevent people from taking personal accountability – and Scott confirms this:

A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy. People drive faster, not more slowly, in cars with antilock brakes. American football players take more risks, not fewer, because of their padding.

Geeky, but end-user-centric

Probably my impression is due to the fact that Scott has led Team Social that dealt with building features like WordPress JetPack that adds WP.com features on top of the self-hosted version.The team used some funny ‘socialist’ hammer and sickle symbols for their internal site.

His team put in many hours in trying to understand the experience of normal users WordPress wanted to serve – and I think this spirit and the idea to democratize internet publishing can be felt when working with WP. They tried to feel what a user feel who struggles with getting his or her first posting done – as astonishingly:

50 percent of all blogs never publish a single post.

A tricks that help are writing an internal launch announcement for a feature long before it had been launched – forcing you to focus on the value of this feature.

Tame the bureaucrats and policy enforcers

Another pet peeve of mine – I remember myself in a job role that theoretically had demanded of me to chide entrepreneurial small departments that they don’t adhere to corporate standard IT hardware procurement guidelines or that their website they didn’t comply with ‘CI rules’.

The volunteer culture Automattic inherited from WordPress, where contributors were under no obligation to participate, defined a landscape that granted wide autonomy to employees. Schneider and Mullenweg went to great lengths to keep support roles, like legal, human resources, and even IT, from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.

T-shaped employees

This means having some very deep skills in a specific area but in addition the abilities to quickly become fairly knowledgeable in other fields – and applying that skills hands-on as needed, just as any in sort of start-up environment.

This is counter the culture (in ‘mature’ corporation) of denying to do X because you are not qualified, it is beneath you, it has not been included in your shop description, or nobody commanded you to do it.

Caveats

The book provides is a much needed real-live positive example of a company who has ‘got it’ – among cheerful analyses of a New World of Work and gloomy critique of debatable implementations (The documentary Work Hard – Play Hard having being one of the finest).

But Scott  warns against trying to copy WP’s culture and tack it on an existing one – e.g. by scheduling company meetings in open space style without and agenda, hoping that employees will simple start working together spontaneously – as they did in Seaside, the artificial settlement that served as the set of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. It was a company meeting that

looked more like a party at a very nice but geeky college dorm.

Chances are that in a different culture such experiments would be loathed just as other team morale events or the casual Friday, or any socializing event moderated by external psychologically trained moderators with a questionable agenda.

Conclusion

It is not only possible but beneficial to work on serious and sensitive stuff in remotely dispersed teams of self-motivated individuals. Scott’s account is convincing – he often emphasizes that he had been skeptical: He had considered his earlier success as a manager critically dependent on being in the same room with people and looking them into the eye.

The importance on a common culture and humor cannot be overstated. The most daunting crisis morphs into legends soon to be told by the fireside, if you are still able throw on some Douglas Adams’ or Monty Python quotes or give your test servers funny names such as panic.com.

I don’t think this is an IT / geek thing only – geekiness might help as there is this globally available template of a culture (42!) that fosters common humor. But I don’t see a reason it cannot be applied to other work that is in essence based on shuffling data – and communicating in an asynchronous way already:

The very idea of working remotely seems strange to most people until they consider how much time at traditional workplaces is spent working purely through computers. If 50 percent of your interaction with coworkers is online, perhaps through e-mail and web browsers, you’re not far from what WordPress.com does.

Many stories about famous start-ups are written when they have grown up – when they have scaled.

I am a small business owner by choice and I often ask myself – probably based on bias – does anything good have to scale? Scott answers this question confidently with No:

…greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.

So in summary I consider it a great book, highly recommended if you use Automattic’s products are are just curious, or if you are an ‘office worker’ or a manager of those and thinking about the best way to work as a team.

It is an honest and entertaining manifesto:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.

Communist heart

Honoring ‘Team Social’ (Wikimedia)

Work Hard – Play Hard

There is indeed a ‘corporate culture’ named like this. Trusting Wikipedia on this:

In their 1984  [sic!] book, Corporate Cultures, Deal and Kennedy identified a particular corporate culture which they called the ‘work hard/play hard culture’:

“Fun and action are the rule here, and employees take few risks, all with quick feedback; to succeed, the culture encourages them to maintain a high level of relatively low-risk activity.

The book is called a classic in business literature by an amazon reviewer; so I am not surprised Work Hard/Play Hard  is one of four quadrants – based on the combination of risk and feedback. If you really want to know: The high risk / intense feedback culture is called the Tough-Guy Macho Culture.

Why I am really interested in this: Work Hard – Play Hard is also a sublime German documentary I have just watched accidentally.

Here is the trailer, with English subtitles, that captures the atmosphere quite well. I could only find the full video  in German or French although the links to film festivals (below) imply that a version with English subtitles does exist.

It is not a Michael Moore movie. There is no voice from the off that will explain anything. It is people and buildings, speaking for themselves. Aesthetic buildings and sleek design, however not as vibrant and colored as you might expect from articles on Google’s offices.

If this were a fictional movie, you would expect it to be set in a parallel world with a dark secret tied to technology:

All alleged human beings would be artificial life forms or clones created by the last survivors of a cyberpunk apocalypse – who happened to haven’t saved anything but their MBA courses’ lecture notes before their embarked on their lifeboat-spaceship and left the earth to found a new civilization. Or the protagonists might also be ants that have acquired some level of intelligence – so we see The Fly in a reversed version – but they struggle to find a real narrative or myth for their culture, just as Data wants to become a human being by tinkering with the emotion chip.

Their world remains grayed out and a diluted holodeck-like copy, and as a disengaged observer you tried to find the fault in the matrix. At least you believe you are disengaged – watching TV in your minimalistic concrete-and-glass hotel, relaxing during your business trip and checking your smartphone.

I found the role of background sounds most intriguing – low and perfectly normal sounds like phones and keyboards, but disturbing like HAL’s voice and the phone at the agency in 24 – all mixed with slightly unpleasant ‘music’ that sounds what I expect tinnitus to be like.

But I better leave it to the professionals – the following reviews are spot-on:

Work Hard – Play Hard is a well-conceived and aesthetically refined contribution to the debate about the future of work in postindustrial society: Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ meets psychological science fiction in a reality where many spend half of their waking lives [Copenhagen International Documentary Festival 2011]

A measured and brilliantly crafted documentary, Work Hard, Play Hard is a remarkably assured debut film from Carmen Losmann. Focusing on changing perceptions of the workplace the film mixes a clinically precise tone with a social conscience and some dark satire. [Helsinki International Film Festival 2012, quoting Laurence Boyce, Screen Daily]