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.
Recently I have seen a lot of leaders put up policies on their linkedin walls saying they respect sane working hours, weekend holidays, encouraging personal time off and many more. This is a case of giving back what was taken from others but disguised as a perk. Working late and on the weekends had been baked into as a given thing for a lot of leaders. It gets equated to more effort which was presumed to end up in more productivity.
The mindset is infectious, a person who comes into the workforce gets subjected to late working hours and weekend work, it becomes imbibed into their minds and they repeat for other new comers. The idea continued to grow stronger by Lindy effect, with people promoting workaholics and thereby creating more workaholics.
There is a change in workforce dynamics. Two decades ago, knowledge work boom brought in jobs that elevated the standards of living. The upgrade in lifestyle was so big that people were ready to do what was asked at the workplace. Leaders who were used to manufacturing mindset jumped on the opportunity and took it towards a downward spiral. Eventually people who worked insanely long hours and weekends were seen as committed irrespective of the outcome they bring.
What changed now is the workforce that is entering the market, a good chunk of the workforce has a pretty decent standard of living and what they look for is quality of life. The long working hours immediately removes the quality of life aspect and hence a lot of leaders are scrambling to understand how to improve productivity without stretching the people.
It was never fruitful to prolong the working hours to get more done in a knowledge work situation, yet a lot of leaders held on to that opinion strongly and rewarded hustle culture. Now that there is not much option to hold on to the hours of working, people are forced to return what was never theirs and look for different ways to engage and improve effectiveness.
In the software world, focussing on developer experience will attract and retain talent while helping achieve goals in a sane and sustainable pace. This involves balancing standardisation vs freehand, homogenous vs fragmented tech, governed vs federated ownership along with information symmetry and clean communication.