This post is the twenty-seventh part of a ramble-rant about the software business. The current posts in this series are:
- Goodwill, Negative and Positive
- Visions, Quests, Missions
- Right, Wrong, and Style
- Follow Me
- Balance, Part 1
- Balance, Part 2
- Definition of a Great Team
- The 15-Minute Meeting
- Metaproblems: Drama
- The Right Question
- Software is Organic, Part 1
- Metaproblem: Terror
- I Don't Work On My Car
- A Turning Point
- Human Doings
- Everything Changes
- Getting It Right The First Time
- One-Time Boosts
- Perfection vs. Precision
- Software is Organic, Part 2
- Business Losses and "I Don't Know"
- T-SQL Tuesday: Personality Clashes, Style Collisions, and Differences of Opinion
This post is about how I feel about Human Resources, which is...
Human Resources Sucks
I mean that in the best possible way. And, I don't mean the people who make their living doing Human Resources jobs. People do not suck. The idea sucks. Why do I say that? I have these reasons:
- The term "Human Resources" is dehumanizing.
- Human Resources flattens.
- Human Resources is a motivation sink.
HR is Dehumanizing
Calling a two-word phrase "dehumanizing" in which one of the words is "human" is saying something. The problem is the other word. "Resources" doesn't really belong in a two-word phrase with the word "human". People are their own category; separate and apart from resources.
Resources are things, and perhaps time. But not humans - not people. What can you do with a resource? You can replace them easily. I am married to a person who bakes. Christy (Blog | @ChristyLeonard) is an awesome cook and baker. She uses resources to bake; namely cookie-cutters, rolling pins, and fancy work-mats that keep her ingredients dry, maleable, and otherwise ingredient-ly.
She can easily replace a cookie cutter if it breaks or, hypothetically, one of the children uses it to make mud pies in the garden and leaves it there over the winter to be discovered when it's hit by a tiller blade in the spring. Hypothetically. But people are not cookie cutters. It hurts when someone leaves a team - especially if that team has reached the Kick-Butt stage. Finding another person is hard enough. Finding someone who fits? Extremely difficult.
The term "resources" is confusing at best and just plain wrong at worst. It reinforces the MBAthink that you can unplug a person when they "go bad" and plug in a new one. This is the thinking that pervades the myth of "savings" with off-
cashflowingshoring. It fuels the race to the bottom.
HR is attempting something useful: Provide business continuity.
Returning to a baking metaphor, Human Resources rolls us all out according to the same qualifications. In the strictest sense, we're all measured against a set of criteria that is itself subject to the requirements of an hour, day, week, month, quarter, or project. The qualifications don't just shift - they always shift. Add to that some mix of litmus tests - "bachelor's degree or equivalent experience" - and you have a recipe for meh.
What HR is trying to do is admirable: Apply scientific principles to human behavior to ascertain who is the best fit for a team.
HR is a Motivation Sink
Some argue reward is the goal of performance management. There are two things to consider about reward - two areas that are difficult to balance and easy to mess up (with tragic results):
Reward doesn't happen in a vacuum.
Reward isn't just about money.
Let's take those in reverse order.
Not Just Money
Some business people read that and got all excited. You think "Andy is going to tell me the magic formula to pay my folks as little as possible and still get the maximum of work out of them!" Let me stop you right here. If you had any inkling of that thought, then - just for you - reward is all about money. You need to pay your people more. How do I know this? Because if you had that reaction you're a stingy boss who has little business managing a team. That's how I know. Pay is like oxygen: it's not a problem unless there isn't enough. If you want the absolute mediocre performance out of your team, pay them the industry average. The converse applies: If you're paying the industry average (or a smidgen less because times are tough and you believe they need this job), you are getting that for which you are paying.
"But Andy, I've heard your presentation on Managing Teams and you reference all these studies that say money won't motivate people to do more." You're correct. And there are people standing outside of every business school on the planet shouting that theme before you get into class on Day One. Here's what business schools understand: The upside for motivating people with money is asymptotic. As the monetary reward increases linearly, performance increases in ever-smaller increments. That's a limit on the upside for financial reward.
Here's what business schools are missing: The downside effects of not-enough-pay are not simply the inverse - it's a pivot of the asymptote. Demotivating someone by not paying them enough is a surefire way to send them on a quest to see just how little effort they can put in each day before they hit a point management recognizes. Underpaid employees become a management nightmare - consuming the manager's time as they are forced into either constant monitoring or firing that employee and then embarking on the search for another
hapless victim to underpay employee. If you do the math, it's often less expensive to simply pay the employee who knows the business processes, holds institutional knowledge, has built relationships within the enterprise, and understands your customers than any other option.
Once pay is satisfactory, there are other ways to reward employees. But not before pay is satisfactory.
"What other ways, Andy?" I'm glad you asked! Training is one example. I saw this tweet during the PASS Summit 2010 (I wish I could find the original...):
"What if we train our people and they leave?" What if you DON'T train them and they STAY?
Salient, wouldn't you agree? Training is required for technical people to remain current. Technology is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Training your employees communicates "I care about your career." Demonstrating that will engender loyalty. Will all employees that you train stay with your company? Heck no. And that's unrealistic. But more of them will stay, and (bonus!) they'll know more and do more and better work.
Now, you wouldn't bother training resources. Resources are simply cogs that are replaceable. Not training employees communicates to them loud and clear: "We'd train you if we were going to keep you around or cared about you as an individual." A good friend just changed jobs because the new company guaranteed he could attend the PASS Summit each year. He was at his old job several years, was available to support deployments and production all hours of the night, and is as honest as they come. Losing him will cost his old company a lot more than the $2,000 or so bucks it would've cost to send him to the Summit each year. But it's no biggee right? He's just a Resource.
Flex-time and working remotely are other ways to reward employees. Both require management trust and respect their teams. For some, this is asking too much. Resources don't have lives outside of work. People have lives. And families. And hobbies. And just other stuff that they would enjoy doing. Shocking, but also true.
Reward Isn't Isolated
Wouldn't it be nice if we could silo life? If every action didn't have an equal and opposite reaction? I have to admit, that would come in handy sometimes. But the universe isn't wired that way. Decisions and policies may start with the intent of surgical precision, but nature abhors a vacuum and many become the foundation of institutionalization.
Perhaps in an ideal world performance drives pay, which in turn drives more performance, which drives more pay. We simply don't live in that world. The world we inhabit is one where people "play" for the love of the game - especially in technology. the best we can do as technical managers is simply get out of their way.
Technical management should not graph like square waves - it should be a low-frequency, minimal-amplitude sine wave. Management should not jerk the tiller this way and that, there should be a steady hand making gentle corrections to the course as they steer.
Management is an art.