I was speaking to a tech lead who was inspired by Dan Pink’s drive and motivation video. This person was speaking great lengths about how to motivate team members, how to set them goals etc and also went on to say that only if this person’s managers showed same consideration and handover more autonomy, then there are so many more things that can be done.

Below is the link for the nice presentation by Dan Pink, about his work on Drive

I asked a few questions to understand what kind of autonomy was working for this tech lead. The team size was around 8 with a mix of Developers, QA and BA. The team members were given a free hand on when to take a day off, go on vacation, flexible timings etc. The flexibility in working and taking a time off is not directly related to autonomy so I asked my favourite question next.

Given your team size is small, what is your version control process? The answer was that everyone works on their own branches, they will then raise a pull request to the tech lead, the tech lead will review the piece of work, some back and forth happens before it can be merged to the master. The tech lead controls the merge to master and it is a privilege to commit to master.

Where is the autonomy in this process? Code for developers is like a habitat, they should feel connected and own the place they are considering it as their habitat. By putting a very strong gated process that too in a small team is removing the autonomy away from the members. Will members be connected and own the code they are developing or is it just that they are following their tech lead says?

Then the question arises on ‘how to ensure quality’; in our teams we never gate someone’s commits as a merge request/pull request is not the only safety check we have in place. We have a huddle every morning and people demonstrate what they have coded & committed to main along with any observations they have on other’s code. This is repeated every day and this mob review works a lot better than a gating PR review because the learning as a group is much stronger and less hierarchical. This activity also enforces the collective ownership and every individual takes up the challenge of living upto the expectations. The only catch is, it has to be moderated well in the initial days before the new found inertia can take over and run without the chaperone.

I started following this style after reading the chapter “Habitability and Piecemeal Growth” in the book Patterns of software architecture by Richard Gabriel. Autonomy is not just about working from home, flexible timings or casual holidays, it is about the ability to own things at grass roots level.

In some professional settings, when I had to meet new people; often during the greeting people say “Hi, I am ABC and I am the <<insert fancy title>>” and look back at me, while my responsibilities were at similar level I did not have a fancy title. I have always been associated with companies which did not go for fancy titles and it has been a downhill when there needs to be a peer to peer conversation but it ends up in a hierarchical communication.

This has a big domino effect and people want bigger and fancier titles much earlier in their life. My dad retired as an engineer and when I looked into his career path, he was not called an engineer until he spent 5-6 years as a technical assistant to the engineer, another 5 years as deputy engineer and finally an engineer when he had enough experience and wisdom to handle a lot of things. Now we started calling people who connect cables to the modem as service engineers.

Different people are motivated by different things, for a few people status is one of them but by succumbing to that need we put a lot of others at a disadvantage because; now every one has to play the game to make sure there is proper titles associated to them based on the years of experience or the volume of things they are handling.

Looking forward to a future where titles do not matter that much and we stick only the basic ones. We should not have inflated titles to the point where people are judging someone’s worth by the title they carry.

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A zen monk was watering a plant, a follower was puzzled as the monk was watering the plant which was full of thorns, people have been injured regularly from the pricks. The disciple went to the monk and quizzed about why a plant which harms others is being nurtured. The monk replied, I am watering the plants for the beautiful roses that will bloom, it is the roses I care for and nurture it.

As many of us are not monks, I think most of the rules and regulations are centered around preventing something from happening than making things easy. It is evident in the corporate world, in simple things like office libraries. It defeats the purpose of having a library if a user cannot browse through books. I had a habit of going to the library after lunch and browse through a few books, if interested read for 15-20 minutes and then get back to work.

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I was able to read a lot of books during my breaks, it is when I changed jobs and went to a new office that I realised people can lock libraries. We had to stir up a movement to get the administration to open up the library for casual reading instead of lending only policy which was put in place to prevent book theft.

Most of the systems are designed to be like this, in order to reduce the undesirable activity by a small margin, we tend to impact good behaviour on a larger scale. It is also the result of measuring the wrong things, like an admin being measured on reducing bad debts. There are some initiatives of coming up with designs that promote good behaviour like smart speed bumps but it does not gain traction as people in charge don’t have any incentive to design it that way. So everyone of us will have to go over that nasty speed bump in the neighbourhood for years to come because some random idiot will speed through.