Gardening is a good way of spending some quality me time and also in the process get used to accept things that take time, observe effects over weeks and months on our actions. As much as we like to see benefits of what we have sown immediately in the literal sense, nature’s template has its own way of doing things and it takes time. The harder you push by chemicals and interventions, you get nice blooms and fruits in a quick turnaround time but it prevents subsequent blooms forcing you to start again from scratch. We have to become a gardener if we want to grow a garden and know ways of sustaining a beautiful one, there are no shortcuts, just good practices and know hows.
If I look outside of software engineering, leaders grow from being an individual contributor in that field. I have met engineering managers who are so strong in their fundamentals that they would get back on the field and do a great job. In contrast, software engineering is plagued with leaders who cannot code. Adding more salt to the injury is the 3 day certifications that empower an individual to become a manager and deliver software projects without an idea of what it is to build a good software. These type of managers have no leverage other than compensations and brow beating to push people hard to the breaking point to get things delivered.
Proliferation of computing means every company is becoming a software company. What was purely electronics and mechanical is getting software driven. This means that managers in those companies are managing teams without knowing what is going on. The worldwide infamous example is crashing of airplanes due to software’s decision without pilot knowledge. In recent times a lot of electric vehicles catch fire and started making headlines, it has also resulted in loss of lives. We have been using battery powered devices in our pockets for so long, they don’t catch fire, why should these vehicles catch fire. The answer lies in pushing hard on the engineers, when the managers don’t know what is going on resulting in severe defects in engineering.
Leadership is hard, it takes years of practice on a field to become a leader. Software engineering leaders have to be in such a way that they are able to understand the implications of decisions on tech debt, design and architectural tradeoffs, quality assurance etc instead of blindly going behind an arbitrary deadline laced with fat bonuses.
When hiring from campus for the last many years, I had noticed a pattern that is useful to keep in mind when choosing the college to go for recruiting depending on the slots you get. The earlier prime slots mean you get good performers and is a steady decline in the overall quality of the talent pool. People who do well in college irrespective of their school performance is something indicative of how they may do in office as well. School is largely structured and has a fixed week by week milestone to go along. College on the other hand throws in some subjectivity and derails a lot of people in the initial days when they move from structured to semi structured environment.
As life moves on subjectivity creeps in and structure to lean on to disappears. This is especially true for knowledge workers. When hiring, the biggest mistake people do is to look at the present state but not the trajectory of people’s growth and performance across different situations. Graduate talent pool can be represented as below.
Do not confuse the word ‘good’ with ‘topper’. Though subjective ‘good’ just means that comfortably cruising across the semesters without repeated failures or consistent low grades in college or in the top 25th percentile at school. Hiring the top right quadrant is the most desired and in demand. I have observed the next pool of candidates whom the hiring manager target are the top left quadrant where they are just doing ok in college but had done well in school. By default, those who did well in school will always be associated with bigger & elite brands in education so there is a lure to these brands.
My experience has been different, I prefer to concentrate on the bottom right straight away during the hiring season. This pool of candidates had a bigger growth trajectory compared to other cohorts and have realistic expectations in terms of what future has to offer and often are eager to prove themselves in a more unstructured environment. Hire for the growth mindset, not the association to a big brand.
A restaurant manager gets bored of restaurant work and decides to be a facilities manager for a company in a small town in Japan, leaving a well known business and the country to newer experiences. The Japanese company always hosts a banquet for its executives on every Friday. Tempura is one of the delicacies ordered in large numbers along with other Japanese delicacies. The majority of the food is prepared before in the kitchen and served on the table except tempura and a few other dishes which is prepared in a live counter and left to self serve.
The manager observes at the end of the banquet that there is a shrimp tempura left, instinctively thinks about the cost because of recent shrimp shortages and how much do they have to pay for high quality ones. So the manager orders lesser number of tempuras to be prepared for the next dinner. Surprisingly one tempura remains and the cycle continues until tempura is removed from the menu.
This goes on for a few months with the other live counter dishes until the live counter itself is removed because of non usage. The cost savings when seen from an individual’s point of view was big. The proud feeling of being able to prove one’s ability to bring in efficiency was giving a high. At the end of the quarter, the facilities manager gets a notice period from the boss to leave the position as a lot of executives have complained about missing the live counter and poor quality of banquet experience.
No one told the manager anything, but what was progressing as a great cost savings plan ended up costing the job. Why did it happen that way? In the group of people who dined, they have a common agreement that it is rude to take the last piece in a buffet, how hungry you are or how tasty it is, it does not matter. For an outsider it looks like wastage, but for the diners it was part of their communication.
Another angle to this is, feedback does not come directly in many cultures. It will often be hidden or wrapped in euphemisms. In this story, one of the diners would have expressed that they need more tempuras but never picked the one on the plate thereby confusing an outsider with mixed messages. Cross cultural work which is a given for knowledge workers nowadays is full of these problems. One book that is helping me is ‘The Culture Map’. I keep rereading a few chapters before getting exposed to a new culture so that I can be well prepared to understand the style of working. It is not foolproof, but it helps you to be better prepared.