Wednesday, 31 October 2012

I Don't Believe in Gold Stars

This is going to be half rant and half blowing hot air up my own rear end, so if that's not your cup of goose, well, tough. You've been warned.

I don't like job titles.

With the exception of a few professions like midwives, pilots and doctors, where not playing it safe and forcing everyone practicing these to go through a rote learning routine can lead to adversity, I think job titles do more harm than good.

People don't use job titles to define what they do. In my humble experience, 99.9% of the time they use them to define what it's not their bloody job to do. And that goes so hard against the grain of what I perceive my role in any organisation to be that it makes me want to toss the whole titles notion away.

Your job is to make the organisation you work for do its thing. Do it good. Do it betterer. It's not to sit at a goddam desk and in meetings, or clock N hours a day in an office.
I don't care how bloody senior you are. I don't care how many gold stars people gave you. I don't care how many years you've been around, how many academic or personal development certifications you completed, or what your net worth is. NONE of these is a measure of merit. The only thing that counts is how much sense you talk, and the magnitude*quantity of the problems you succeed at solving.

My pet peeve in the IT outsourcing industry is monkeys (pardon derogatory language, technical term) who think their job is to pull a trigger rather than to hit a target, who neither know nor care to know why they were asked to press the button, and what the success criteria of the whole exercise is. Their job is to press the button.

When I'm dealing with a 3-year-old, I'll praise her/him for trying.
When I'm dealing with a 30-year-old, I'll praise her/him for succeeding (I may rarely thank her/him for trying, if resources to try were limited and she/he nevertheless took the risk and tried anyway).
If, on broader things where you get more than one go and can try and try again, you're not succeeding  when you're 30, in my book you do not deserve praise until you either bother trying, or succeed at figuring out what it is that you've doing wrong.

Harsh? Maybe. I can already hear the fingernails of some of my friends. But from my angle - if I can encourage a person to aspire to something, it will be to aspire to be somehow, in his own way, useful.

And mind you, we're not all equally crazy, and the bar I hold the person's achievements up to is not mine. I do care that it exists and has a usefulness score above zero (some people just don't care to achieve anything, which I find sad), but it is his own bar first, environment second. Walking might seem trivial to me, but may be a colossal problem to solve for someone involved in an accident. I recognise this.

I've had this realisation while re-reading my newly-overhauled resume.  I realised some interesting things. First - I didn't bother completing the final bits of my bachelors degree, my RHCE exam or my MAICD exam. Yes, only now have I connected the dots. I came. I learned. And on reflection, the reason I didn't bother with that last bit is that for each one of the above, time was scarce, and I just didn't perceive it as important enough. It didn't solve any problem I cared to solve. I genuinely couldn't give a flying toss about what the people who taught me thought about what I've learned. I didn't feel they contributed value, and in the spirit of lean, that which does not contribute value is waste. I didn't feel I needed their acclaimed gold stars for anything.

(Mind you, where there is value to be gained from a certification - access to further education, a license to practice, a hard criteria for hire, a pre-requisite to publish or the credibility of a specialist - Where tangible value is involved, I'm all for getting certification).

Here's the funny bit. So far - despite armies of people having told me how important gold stars will be in life, starting from my parents in my "You are a Russian Jew, you need to have a degree" indoctrination, I seem to have been right, and they seem to have been brainfeeding me utter shite on this one. I keep discovering every few years that my dreams of what I wanted to tick off in life were too goddam modest.

Being able to understand and apply what my official and unofficial educators and mentors taught me  has so far gotten me through every single door I've ever tried to walk through. Talking sense, critical analysis, a modicum of self-awareness and an acute disregard for the sanctity of rules, together form a magic ticket. And I've been walking through some damn interesting doors.

In some places I've worked we've had a running joke about there being two kinds of people in any organisation - everyone else, and the secret police.

The "secret police" is my home.

These are women and men of many hats, who have the capability to switch these hats more often than they change socks. They often move around an awful lot in an organisation, and often stop and stay in one place for a long time, tasked with solving a big, hairy problem others don't even know how to begin to tackle.

Rank to them is a meaningless, interchangeable means to an end, like a username to some software application. Their rank is what military rank is to a CIA operative. You need to be a corporal for what you need to do today? Pin the corporal badge on. Need to be a general? Just pin four stars on your lapel before you leave home. Low or high, it doesn't matter. It's just a gold star.

Their job is everywhere and everything. It has no clear boundaries, only clear objectives, and clear problems on the way to these objectives. They follow process when it makes sense, but challenge their way through it and fix it when it doesn't. They have one mandate: Understand what's happening, and fix what's broken. A key way to spot them: These guys can't sit on their hands. Literally, cannot.
On their first day of work, before you gave them a laptop, they're already working out what needs their attention, if not already outright fixing it.

One organisation I often lionise is Valve Software. Yes, the guys who make Steam. Valve is a company with a 10-figure revenue. Big shit. The unique thing is how Valve is run. People at valve have no job titles or rank (except on some unique occasions when facing the outside world requires them to pin something to their shirt). No, really. These guys, in essense, only ever hire secret police people. And it works.

Artificial boundaries on what one should care about, set by a narrow definition of what your "job" is, set by what your rank allows you to do, set by longevity, set by someone with rank who cannot defend his views with common sense, these make my brain explode. Twice in my life I've worked in such places, and twice I passionately despised every moment of being there.

Looking at my new resume, I've made a few more interesting observations that tell me how aligned with this view I was even years and years ago, long before I had the ability or desire to articulate any of it. Almost anywhere I worked, from the very start, my work resulted in something tangible that I built or a real problem that I solved. I did not get educated to be an engineer. I just solved problems, someone noticed, called me engineer and threw money at me. And so did the guy after him.

My resume keeps saying not "I was a part of a team that did _", but "I identified a problem, architected a solution, convinced people it's worth the resources by hook or by cook, with what people I harnessed around me, got that bloody shit sorted".
In many positions, I listed many hats that I wore, many unofficial positions whose responsibilities I carried.
More interestingly, if I play at "hide the job title and read the paragraph about that job", an intriguing game ensues. Is this guy the executive, the architect or the most junior operational guy at the bottom rung? Is he the Project Manager? It becomes very hard to work out. Looking at what I got done, and ignoring what I remember and know, I can't always tell.

It wasn't just stuff getting done. It was the blatant nonconformism. Mind you, I play by the rules within sense. I'm not an anarchist. I understand the role of rules or processes, understand how in many cases we're better off with them than without, I understand the adverse affects of people ignoring them and respect rules to a sensible limit.

But I'm the one who draws that limit. And then I don't care what people think. I don't care about the negative opinions, and I don't care about the good. For years, my line to my colleagues above, below and beside me was the same. This is me. This is the problem. Come join me if fixing it, it'll be awesome. That, or get the fuck out of my way. Bad managers fired me for it. Good ones gave me a machine gun and a crateful of ammunition, and promptly proceeded to hunker down.
I didn't feel compelled to get a gold star, a pat on the shoulder or even official recognition. I didn't have a vision of a raise in front of me. I just wanted to go home knowing I made something broken better.

Some people told me they found behaving this way scary. I usually reply that I'm not scared of a moving train that's 50cm away from me when I'm on a platform, because I can predict its behavior - it won't move sideways (a good analogy, because usually, they don't fear the train hitting them either).  That works equally well with being afraid of government, a policeman, your boss, your CEO, corporate culture or "the system" for any definition thereof. When you understand the fundamental physics that make something tick and can stay out of its way, it simply stops being a threat.

So what is it I see? Is it "An Engineer"? "An Executive"? "An Entrepreneur?" "Secret Police?" "An obnoxious meritocrat?" "A guy who just really gives a shit?" "A crazy guy?" "An asshole?" "A guy with a borderline ENTP/ENFP personality type?"

Does the label we give it matter?

I don't think so.

I don't care what you call it, or the cursing or the praise that may ensue. I don't need the compliment, except maybe one specific type.

The one that I try and give, as often as can be justified, to my team.
One that makes them want to drop their other tasks and join whatever cause the next day. One that makes them genuinely believe they're part of the glue that holds the universe together.
I'll take that one any day myself.

It's the one that says, in the words of my business partner:

"We fixed the shit out of that shit."

Yeah. I'll take that.

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