Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Symptoms of an Unhealthy Workforce #1: Caring about Stupid Stuff

March 23rd, 2009 · 6 Comments

Once upon a time I worked in a little fabric box on a team that was bitterly divided over who should be in charge. You see, we were all consultants (from competing companies) working on the same project. The rates were good, but the team was eventually going to shrink when we went to production and the client chose a few of the consultants to stay on in support roles.

Most of us were independents. I had myself and two other consultants. Another group also had three guys there, and then there were two or three loners. I was younger then, more aggressive and less critical of myself (a reasonably nice way of saying I was stupid, don’t you think?).

The client brought in a team lead, who we’ll call Bill, and asked him to manage the contentiousness between us. A difficult task, since it was rooted in each of us competing for our financial well-beings. Bill decided that contention would be reduced by changing our seating arrangements and forcing competitors to sit nearer each other. He created an optimal seating designed and asked us to move.

Until that moment, I had always had a corner cubicle that was slightly larger than the others. Nice right? Not really, because that extra space had been used for years as a place to store extra manuals. Every license of the software we were using came with about 2 1/2 feet of manuals, of which only 1 1/2 inches were useful. Every time the software was updated, we got a new set of manuals, and nobody ever threw them away (This is state property we’re talking about!). So, everybody stacked them in my corner. They were there when I inherited the cubicle, and they were there when I left. I didn’t think anything about it.

I left that cubicle as part of the brilliant seating re-arrangement, and George moved in. I did a reasonable job of cleaning the cube, but I left the old books. When I found even more manuals in my new cube, I did what everyone else did: I put them in the corner.

This infuriated George. I’m not exaggerating when I say this – George wanted to go outside and have a fist fight. Seriously. It didn’t matter that he and the others had been putting those books there for years. It was his cube now, and he cared. I had some nerve dumping my crap on him like that.

I was astounded at the anger that boiled out of George at this moment. It was insane.

But that’s what happens in an unhealthy workforce. People start to care about crazy stuff, like where they sit, how big their cubicle is, who’s better pals with the boss, who gets dual monitors, and who’s cubicle location is “best”.

It’s an artificial economy of status built on the lack of a clear method of establishing pecking order. Humans, just like chickens, have a need to “know where they stand” in an organization, so they create fake ways of figuring it out. Chickens resolve this by fighting, humans in corporate IT do it with social shadow-boxing where meaningless factors like cubicle size and lunch with the boss establish who is “better”.

I’d tell you not to play this game, not to get caught in the petty feuds of who’s the better employee, but I’m not sure it would help. I’m not sure people can rise above this very primal need to know where they stand in the social order. It starts when we are very young (I was only moderately cool in high school) and I don’t think it ever goes away.

Instead, I think organizations ought to embrace this need for social structure and use it to their advantage. If you can make it based on things that are easily measured, like popularity and pay, it might less unhealthy. If everyone knew what everyone made, everyone would know where they stand. There would be other problems of course, but there would be no need for wondering who was most valuable.

Another method for establishing pecking order that I’ve always favored is an NBA styled draft and trade system. Every year, managers get to bid on project managers they want to work for them, and likewise project managers bid on their teams. Throughout the year, they can trade with other teams as suits them. All the trades and bids are public, and they translate into income for the players. Highly productive people with good social skills would be valuable and sought after – less productive people and angry misfits would find their options more limited until they improved themselves.

I think it’s ironic that the methods most useful for establishing a pecking order, pay and performance, are also the most protected in terms of personal privacy. I don’t think it’s a good thing – in fact I think it is very unhealthy. I wish it were all public.

Or at least I used to. I don’t work in a cube anymore, and I find I’m not concerned about where I stand in the pecking order. It feels healthy to me – I guess it’s true that on a good team even the punter is happy.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ash Gorun // Mar 23, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    I've read your blog, which is really interesting. I've got a question for you. In this recession, I think its pretty good to have a job. But what if your co-workers are frankly brats and decide not to talk to you? This is a mature financial company in which the IT group I am in are children, so it suprises me that they will act this way even in a resession.

  • 2 davidray // Mar 23, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Hi Ash,
    Well, that's kind of what an unhealthy workplace does to people – it makes them lose track of what matters and obsess about things that don't.

    I'm not sure how you get people to act in a way you see as mature. I'm not convinced you even want to try to get your co-workers to behave the way you'd like them to. Instead of focusing on them, I suggest you focus on you. What can you do to make things better? How can you model appropriate behavior? I think you'll find the situation better if you worry about the things you can influence and don't sweat the stuff you can't.


  • 3 The Corporate IT politics game « Leaning towards java // Mar 23, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    […] Christiansen, author of the superb Technology Darkside blog tells this story, and I can see great similarities with corporate IT. In this case David talks about a […]

  • 4 Ash Gorun // Mar 24, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for replying. Yes, I've been focusing on them but if I turn to myself I've done a good deal of work because it frees me from correcting their mistakes, especially of one project manager. I've turned towards myself and I just focus on the work without the politics that are so common in the office setting. I'll take your advice and improve myself more and focus more on what I can do. Suffice it to say, I'll stop focusing on them and their infantile things.

    Thanks alot for your help!

  • 5 Umm..."John" :-) // Mar 24, 2009 at 11:43 pm


    I stumbled on your blog while reading an article on "5 Things To Do If You Lose Your IT Job." The article said you knew the writing was on the wall because there was literally nothing to do. I can relate to that, because that's the situtation I'm in right now. I manage the IT Department and the projects we're working on are meaningless as we continue to lose sales and profitability. My wife told me it would be better if I didn't go down with this sinking ship. She's right, I need to get out of here.

  • 6 davidray // Mar 25, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Hi John,
    Good luck getting out. I hope you're able to choose your own path and not have it chosen for you.


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