By Adam Fisher
Technology has improved at an incredible pace, and yet we still live an industrial nightmare. We sacrifice our youth to make more money than we know what to do with, to be used in a future that’s completely unknown. It’s absurd! And for those who don’t make it as far as that distant future, a pathetic waste. There must be a balance between future concerns and present living, between one’s profession and one’s personal growth. In our post-modern hi-tech world, we no longer suffer such outmoded concepts as “career” and “company loyalty”, in the traditional sense, even if we haven’t realized it yet. We are an extreme capitalist society and must adapt our methodologies to this reality.
We all know that a happy worker is more productive, and we all know about “burn-out”. For some reason, the engineering and hi-tech industries (“problem-solving industries”), are still working 9 – 5 with expected (and usually unpaid) overtime. I stress here that I am specifically referring to the types of employment that require these “problem solving” characteristics. This work ethic does harm to both the employee (most people don’t want to spend such a large percentage of their lives stuck in the same place with the same people) and the employer (who has counted his employee’s hours but not his employee’s effective productivity).This is factory mentality, and it’s misplaced.
Another primary cause of bad direction is the global capitalist attitude, which lets “marketing” hold the reins. It appears that only those who have studied Business Management know that marketing and promotion is not the same thing, and most of these “educated” types seem to have forgotten this lesson. Instead of focusing on creating quality products, we set up workhouses to produce whatever can “sort of” match the requirements as quickly and cheaply as possible.
The other issue, of course, is education. We don’t stop complaining about the degradation of our society and the lack of education that influences it, but we simultaneously demand that our children only learn things that will help them increase their potential for employment, as opposed to increase their understanding of the world they live in. This is a direct attack on our culture and future, and it must be stopped. The question – “What will you get out of it?” – has poisoned our well.
The following are a list of changes that need to be made, as a part of a correction to the system that runs not only our lives but our futures. We can fix things, but not incrementally. It’s time to turn the ship around!
The biggest obstacle in today’s job market is the HR companies. The companies employ people to “filter” applicants according to criteria that they are simply not qualified to understand. In order to get around this, applicants must learn to tweak their resumes to “hack” these filtering companies just to get a fair shot.
Don’t force applicants to lie! It might cost you a few more interviews, but you could be missing out on a star employee that simply doesn’t want to fight with you in order to work for you. Check applicant CVs personally – or at the very least ensure that the requirements are properly understood by the relevant HR. Standard catchphrases such as “looking for 2nd year students” doesn’t tell anyone why that’s the requirement.
Length of employment
Do you want someone who’ll stay with you through thick and thin, for at least a couple of years? Keep dreaming. The market’s a dirty place, and we’re as far from being Japanese as can be. Employees will remain with you as long as they don’t think they’ll be better off anywhere else. Motivate loyalty, don’t demand it. And don’t expect it. When you ask an interviewee where he sees himself in five years, they’re either going to lie or tell you something that won’t match your criteria. Neither is relevant – if they’re good, hire them!
And no less important – your employees should be replaceable. Anyone who does a job “nobody else can do” is unprofessional and most likely dragging your product or your environment off course. Either that, or they’re a “linchpin” (Seth Godin), and they’re not irreplaceable in the traditional sense.
Another thing is to know when to let bad employees go. Make use of mutual trial periods to ensure that you know how to perform knowledge transfers effectively.
The greatest use of technology in improving workflows and methodologies that we’ve seen in the last decade is the internal wiki. Wiki’s provide easy to use, easy to update standardized information from “who to call when the UPS dies” to “which product parts exhibit strange behavior that needs to be checked” (and of course, how to check them). We have seen Wiki techniques employed in anything from sensitive RealTime embedded projects to call center functions, and it’s obvious that this is the best way to store and transfer knowledge. When applied correctly. Between wikis, ready internet access, good documentation practices and a culture of satellite applications, no employee should need more than the basics of the relevant field in order to find his feet quickly.
Another problem, specifically in the programming industry, is that it is not clear to employers that once one has a firm grasp of basic programming paradigms and algorithm development one should have no difficulty learning a new syntax and simply getting on with it. As an employer, one should differentiate between those employees who’ll be doing the “thinking” (the engineers and scientists) and those who’ll be doing the “implementing” (the self-taught, usually). It’s a sad state of affairs that an industry primarily consisting of Computer Science graduates doesn’t understand that software development and programming are only tentatively related to mathematical thinking and algorithm production.
Get out of the factory
“Problem solvers” are always working: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can’t escape work by locking their screens and going out for a cup of coffee, because their subconscious minds are constantly on the alert. They certainly aren’t being paid for the wonderful ideas they have in the middle of the night. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need to come in to work, only that we’re living in an ADHD world and you can’t measure creative productivity by how much time a person spends attached to their keyboard.
For maximum effectiveness, “spacing out” should be focused on educational extras from outside of the industrial sphere. Of course, one cannot direct any employee to do this but it would be wise to suggest these options and make them available. Motivating your employees to get out and get some exercise is also a great practice that I’ve been fortunate to see some employers making use of.
Another aspect of this is that everybody has their preferred work hours. Not only are some people far more productive in the evening hours, but having flexible hours allows people who need to take care of homes and families to do so without these issues distracting them from their work. Of course, company face time is important. There are many possible methods for arranging work hours that are flexible enough for everyone (or the majority, at least) while still enforcing enough hours for meetings and cooperation.
Of all the factory behavior we need to rid ourselves of, setting reasonable deadlines is the trickiest of the lot. It’s not so easy to do, and every organization should invest time in figuring out a fair solution. As I’ve mentioned before, let marketing control your production, not promotion. The all-nighter has become the norm instead of the exception, and it is expected for workers to pour their hearts and souls into their work without sufficient compensation. Lots of money is not compensation. Human beings need to spend time with their families, play sport, read books, watch movies, participate in politics, save the world and otherwise enjoy the fruits of their parents’ labours.
If we modify our hiring practices, keep perspective about length of employment, upgrade our work standards, and escape factory mentality, we can streamline our economy’s engine and free up enough of our time to enjoy living again. All of this leads me to the following conclusion: Hire students. Students can learn. And encourage studying for your employees who don’t. Only a culture of education can get us working smarter, not harder. We have the tools, we have the manpower, now all we need is the attitude.
It’s 2011, and we don’t have robot slaves. Instead, we’ve found a way to make human ones legitimate again. Let’s stop working so hard.
Adam Fisher is an accomplished software engineer. He holds a B.A. in Computer Science and Business Management from the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzeliya. He is currently studying towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Tel Aviv while struggling to find part-time employment.
There’s nothing more ridiculous in the software industry than employees who perform tedious, repetitive tasks because they forget that they can simply build applications to do them instead. I’m sure that a bureaucratic attitude towards approval is to blame for preventing anyone spending time on something that saves time.
“A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight”, by Robert Lee Hotz, Wallstreet Journal, June 19th, 2009 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124535297048828601.html
“Night owls are more creative:” by Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News.- http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/2006/1810399.htm
 We’ve discussed collaboration: how can employers be blind to all the benefits of employing two good minds for the price of one? There’s certainly no guarantee that they’re good minds: you have to pay attention when hiring and use trial periods to figure that out. The principles of extreme programming, however, indicate that by and large you’d get better quality out of more, and less taxed, workers attacking the same problems.