Clue is a renewable resource

Congratulations! You’ve hired a fantastic open source developer. You know she’s fantastic because you were able to check out her commits on public projects, you’ve read the mailing list archives to learn how she communicates, and you know before she starts that she’s a passionate self-motivated detail-oriented coder and that she’s not an asshole. She’s clueful and she’s perfect!

Now, what are you going to do with her? If you’re like most employers, you’ll systematically destroy her value to your organization by exploiting her current skills and failing to build future skills.

Does this sound like your organization? She’ll be buried her deep in the organization, and the only time she talks to external people is with customers on callouts. She knew a lot about the open source project you hired her from, but she won’t be incentivized, allocated, or encouraged to work on that project because you want her developing your (proprietary) product and not something that’s free. She is welcome to submit patches, though of course they’re the ones she had to develop during her Real Work. She may get one conference a year if she’s lucky, but that’s the first thing to get cut in “tough times” and if the event is in town then you’ll badge-share so she only goes for part of the event.

On the one hand, this makes sound business sense: we’re all working towards a goal, and activity that doesn’t get us closer to that goal is wasted and so discouraged. I argue, though, that this is short-sighted. It’s short-sighted because you’re pretending that your developers aren’t people, that they are happily free of human needs. The longer you ignore the human inside your coder, the less happy they’ll be.

Yes, humanity. When someone works in a successful open source project, they feed their human needs. Open source developers get to choose what they work on. They get to choose how they solve the problem. They get frequent feedback from her peers and from her users. They build up social standing and reputation in the eyes of people they respect. They are part of a team that experiences frequent wins. They learn new things constantly. These are basic preconditions for a happy human, although there are others.

Very few of these human needs are well-met in the typical organization: someone else chooses your projects, someone else tells you how to do it, you rarely interact with anyone or get praise from someone you respect, and your public reputation goes straight down the toilet as you vanish behind the firewall. The work inside the firewall can, sometimes, rarely, be interesting and humanly-rewarding, but the emphasis is on “rarely”.

This is why some companies give employees 10% or 20% time to work on projects they choose. It keeps their skills up, it keeps them happy, and this means you’re not recruiting to fill their position after they leave within a few years. Others make some or all of their projects open source, because then you’ve got developers who are getting the rewards of open source but from a project that benefits the business.

These approaches acknowledge that clue is a renewable resource: those who harvest without planting are stupidly short-sighted at best and downright evil at worst. What’s your company’s plan for sustainable clue harvesting?

  • Roger Weeks

    SELECT ALL from USER where CLUE = 1;

    No results found.

  • Scott Berkun

    There’s a whole pile of good observations like the ones you’re making here that seem to fall into the same pile of short term vs. long term management.

    The short term results driven manager will see contributing on something outside the immediate project as a waste of time. Their ROI horizon is very short.

    But someone thinking longer term is thinking about what their employee will be like .5, 2 or even 10 years in the future, and will be willing to make short term sacrifices to achieve those long term goals.

    Managers willing to think long term are rare, and I think this is why good management in general is rare. Short term rewards are always easier to see than the long term ones. They want to make use of all the clue now, instead of allowing some clue to grow on the side, gaining interest in the clue bank, for use later.

  • Paul Ramsey

    That’s a pretty bleak assessment, Nat. Work in general is so bleak that 20% time is required to take the rough edges off and keep the employee from turning into an empty shell? Why not just go all the way and institute a year-round 3-day weekend?

    If things are that bleak, maybe it’s time to figure out ways to make the work itself more rewarding, rather than bringing open source into the equation.

  • Josef Dietl

    “There is always a bigger fish”. I hate to admit it, but managers are people, too. Possibly, one day the manager sketched above was clueful and perfect herself. A passionate self-motivated people-oriented manager and not an asshole.

    I’ve observed the interactions between IT management with their teams now for ~15 years now on a variety of levels, and have watched some of the best and brightest turn into empty shells or assholes. The effect appears to be strongest in the largest corporations.
    I believe it’s not anybody in particular, it’s the group dynamics of our industry one can’t escape – unless you yourself are exceptionally gifted (–> Scott and many other friends of O’Reilly).

    It’s not that anybody’s personal ROI horizon is too short, it’s that the boss of a manager does reward today’s code, but not the clue bank account of manager and team. His boss does the same, ad nauseam. At least, manager have a choice: resist or comply and sell themselves under the pretense of “inherent necessities”.

    And why should they resist? The reorganization rate in IT is high, and churn is even higher. Being reorganized, changing companies, being fired – soon enough, the clue bank account is still there, but it belongs to somebody else. Managers could loose their perks if they kept people’s spirits up.

    But… there is that happy-human-being thing you mentioned. Happy human beings. Have we sold our sense of compassion to the shareholders of the big corporations?

    Before my mental eye, I see “purpose, mastery and autonomy” written all over this article. In his TED talk on the surprising science of motivation, I’ve seen Daniel Pink make the best case along these lines so far. Particularly because he points at the flaw and offers a route to salvation: Purpose, autonomy and mastery are not just compassion, they actually make pretty short-term business sense, too.

  • James

    I can see this happening in larger organizations. Haven’t worked for larger organizations though.

    It is a real crime when it happens in smaller organizations however. Small teams need both industrious growth and personal growth for all the team members. Whether they are committing to an open source project or tweaking their own code is sort of irrelevant.

    In either event… if you haven’t seen it, you will most certainly enjoy this video where Linux developers address a larger organization like Google. If you skip to about 25-45 minutes in you will see who the major contributors are… shocking really. I see it as a small death to open source and a rise of the corporate methodology of crush, crush win… but I’m sure I am over exaggerating.

    In any event… there is HUGE imbalance as to where the productivity goes in relation to profits. Jmo…

    Something doesn’t seem right.

  • Nat Torkington

    @Scott – your distinction between long-term and short-term is so true. My friend Courtney (@auchmill) just tweeted a great comment: “I’ve worked with some great managers, the best ones understand what makes you want to come to work”.

    I’ve seen an organisation stuffed full of short-term managers and scratched my head wondering how to change that short-term management. Is it purely that they’re being driven by short-term goals? Is there any way to measure and reward in the short-term based on long-term success?

  • Nat Torkington

    @Josef – “purpose, mastery and autonomy”. Yes! Daniel Pink’s story resonates from my open source experience, and the most miserable people I see in companies are those who aren’t given those things.

    It’s not that anybody’s personal ROI horizon is too short, it’s that the boss of a manager does reward today’s code, but not the clue bank account of manager and team. Everything I’ve seen also points to short-term incentives as the reason that we don’t get long-term behaviour. What are examples of good long-term incentives?

  • Michael Galloway

    To chime in, I would say that this is a very accurate assessment of the current situation for most engineers.

    Unfortunately ROI is typically very poorly measured, as a productive developer does not always mean a good developer. Most managers have a hard time recognizing the difference, or in some cases, even understanding the difference. This is often the reason you end up with mountains of unmaintainable code which perform terribly, yet are critical to the core of the product.

    Real ROI is entirely dependent on the quality of the development. Quality can only be improved through continual growth of the developer. That requires exposure to other people, concepts, and projects which are challenging. The best thought a developer can have is “wow, that is a much better way to do X”. This usually only happens after they see someone else do it first.

  • Bill Houle

    RT @Paul_Ramsey… maybe it’s not just about open source. I think its about “fun” and sharpening interests, which for some people just happens to be working on open source.

    Exceeding objectives, making measurable contributions to corporate goals, and satisfying KRAs can sometimes only go so far. Other things might be needed to stimulate, motivate, and reward. Maybe there’s an open source project that is beckoning as Nat alludes. Or maybe it’s a strictly proprietary corporate intranet app that you’ve dying to write but hasn’t been elevated on the team objectives’ radar yet… Or perhaps you’ve been thinking about tackling that SQL report that everyone thought was impossible… Or working with a non-sanctioned team exploring the latest technologies… These diversions could be considered ‘fun’ by certain geekified types.

    Fun is often discounted in the workplace. I saw one management job posting that talked about the responsibility to maintain a “convivial” work environment. I was willing to bet that some insightful employee started that job description with the word “fun”, but a stuffed-shirt changed it because it did not offer a “satisfactory portrayal representative of the company culture”. For those companies that *think* they know all about fun in the workplace, to many it is limited to something gastronomic and/or socially-oriented.

    If I can be so emboldened as to re-position Nat’s point, I believe that fun is occasionally satisfied solely between one’s ears, and a bit of open source sidework might be something that can scratch the itch.

  • Vincent Roman

    A nice post that echos sentiments I have been feeling and thinking about for a very long time, and especially highlighted after a recent change of jobs.

    I think it is easy for employers to forget why people work and to not always focus on the bottom line profit margin.

    A sense of structure of good organisation can give you as much in a job as being able to flourish, learn, grow, have input and drive things forward. Nothing destroys you more than a place where you work way to much, have zero appreciation and there isn’t even any free beer after work!

    oManagers shouldn’t run things unless they have people skills, and the problem is that plenty don;t especially those focused on their own salary and the bottom line of the company.

  • Stephen Collins

    Nat, what you’ve written is as true of workers in any role as it is of devs. Having been, in my time, a dev, a comms guy, a researcher/writer and other things, the scenario you sketch is all too common.

    What organisations need to do is focus on the humanity of everyone in the org and all their customers/clients/whatevers too. Treating people as humans, allowing for cluefulness.

    When bottom line and bureaucracy become the driving force for an organisation rather than doing amazing work with amazing people, humanity goes out the window. And it happens too much.

  • Courtney Johnston

    Hey Nat

    Another observation, which didn’t quite fit into a tweet:)

    The best advice I’ve been given about being a manager was to think of your role as preparing the people you look after for their next job. Encouraging your people to get better and better at what they do, to get themselves out in front of others in their sector, to learn the new skills they need to step upwards or outwards – you as their current employer benefit as much from this as their next employer does. And if you can be big-hearted about it and be glad that you’re helping out the profession, so much the better.

    Setting your staff up to leave you might sound contradictory to the idea of sustaining cluefulness inside your organisation, but the interesting thing I’ve observed is that when your staff are out there, doing stuff that makes them happy, feeling good about who they work for, the quality of job applicants goes up too. It’s a different take on sustainability, but an equally fruitful one.

  • Nathanael Boehm


    For a place like Canberra where I work where a large majority of jobs are in Federal Government your observation makes so much sense because project-based government employees like myself will move from one Federal Government department or agency to another. We’re all on the same team, so it’s in my employer’s best interests to adopt that attitude.

    It’d be more difficult justifying that stance outside such a closed employment ecosystem as the public sector, but that doesn’t at all diminish the fact it’s a bloody good point. Pay it forward I say.

  • Dave

    Regarding motivation: every time I see something on “what really motivates people,” I get depressed. It’s not because of the message, mind you, it’s a wonderful idea to incorporate purpose, mastery, and autonomy into the working world.

    But it’s also only a short time until some dingbat sees Daniel Pink’s talk and thinks “Money isn’t a real motivator, therefore we don’t have to pay our people well!” I’m starting to think we might want to keep these discoveries under wraps.

  • SI Hawakaya

    Editing problem: “She’ll be buried her deep in the organization”. Maybe “her” should be deleted.

  • Josef Dietl

    I’ve seen your finding “Money isn’t a real motivator, therefore we don’t have to pay our people well!” occasionally, but only rarely. The point is: Money is a DEmotivator (well… lack of …), and that is sufficiently widely known.

    By the way, with respect to pay I follow the example my bosses set. If my boss leads by example and replaces his own (!) pay with his own motivation based on purpose, mastery and autonomy, we’re in business.

  • Janet Swisher

    Let’s not forget a sustainable work pace. “Giving” employees 10-20% of a 50- or 60-hour work week to be self-directed is no gift at all. It means they work 40 or more hours a week on the company’s needs, and “get” to spend some of their free time on projects of their choosing (which may still benefit the company if they turn out to have commercial value). You could also frame that as working 40 hours a week, and encouraging employees to spend some free time on professional development. Talented people are going to do that anyway. Don’t make it sound like the company is doing them a favor, when the company is just refraining from sucking up all their available energy.

  • This story is often heard. Successfull companies do better. I know people from 3M, who do reflect their work different. They work 90% on their own projects. In result this company produces every month new inventions that keep the profit raising.

    They founded an inner culture of growing and expanding. The curiosity of inventors with the technical background of a big company merge in a positiv results.

    That brings personal satisfaction under business circumstances.