Monday, February 21, 2011

Looking for the buzz

A long, long time ago, when I worked for a small start-up in London, I came into work one Monday morning and read a strange email.

(Most emails received while working for start-ups are alarmingly prosaic, concerned with sour milk in the fridge, smoking bans, and ever-so-occasionally everyone-clear-your-desk-you're-fired. I suppose variety is nice.)

The Chief Technology Officer had been into the office on a Saturday afternoon, and was aghast to find only one man (brother of the bassist of a British rock band who were big in the 21st century, funnily enough) working. Well, it had been a sunny weekend and this was London, not Shenzhen. But dismayed, he emailed all the developers, telling them that they had to learn to strive, like bees in a hive, in order to thrive.

That's right. The CTO thought the best way to motivate his staff was to tell them weekends were cancelled until further notice, and also point out the one guy who'd been in the office, as if they'd see him as a paragon of industriousness rather than the man who was showing them all up. For, er, not showing up.

And he did this via rhyme. I recently went over the inappropriateness of verse for certain situations, and I think this was another of them.

Perhaps he was right to be affronted that not all the developers were beavering away. Like insects. But as well as a man unafraid of mixing metaphors, he was a highly paid consultant, and American, and bearded, which provoked such mistrust from his staff that he only succeeded in driving a larger wedge between himself and all the others, rather than spurring them to make honey while the sun shines.

And to be fair, if you'd worked a sixty hour week in five days, you might feel entitled to Saturday and Sunday off.

The bearded beekeeper didn't last long. After the site was relaunched seven months late1, and was then so appallingly bad they had to turn it off and it took another six months before it even began to work, he vanished.

He wasn't the only one. Not being part of the technical staff, just an onlooker into the miasma of notionally clever people sweating through stupid things, I got used to the revolving door recruitment policy we used for our CTOs. Once I took the Friday off to visit one European capital or other, and returned on the Monday to find the CTO who had started on the Friday had resigned/been fired in the intervening 96 hours. It began to seem quite normal. This was the first company I had ever worked for, after all.

There was a man from Disney who really did seem to want to run a Mickey Mouse operation. He left under a cloud. There was a guy the developers all hated for his unreasonable demands, until he was sacked by the CEO because he wasn't demanding enough, and only then the developers realised that he'd been on their side all along, trying to temper the mad schemes of the chief just a little. But it was too late by then.

One CTO was much beloved of the developers. He told them they were special, he defended them to the bosses, he even purchased a Krupps coffee machine for them to use. Krupps! If you liked coffee, and you had to like coffee, for no intellectual activity has ever not been improved by a caffeine overdose, then this was a gift from heaven. Krupps, who used to make giant guns to shell men in muddy trenches, and now constructed devices to strain water through ground coffee beans!

That CTO, beloved of his men (and by now two women, conspicuous in the BO-scented environment) proved a great negotiator, extracting rational deadlines from the bosses, clear work schedules for his workers, and never spoke in insect-related couplets.

And then he fractured his pelvis in a motorcycle accident, and never came back.

* * *

It's awful to think bad things about your fellow man. I realised I'd sunk to a new low on September 11, 2001 when I went to see the developers all staring at a television, and found myself thinking they were probably quite pleased to have a new reason to avoid being productive for the next day. But by then it seemed quite natural: anyone who could write Java thought they were God's gift, and anyone else was a feckless idiot, while anyone whose job didn't consist of writing ostensibly clever code that never actually worked properly viewed the developers as a bunch of workshy eggheads. We had achieved apartheid in less than two years.

I'm not sure what I was. I could program, but only in languages looked down on by the proper developers, and I'd been to a venerable educational institution that had given me an enormous chip on my shoulder, an extraordinary sense of entitlement and a desire to never work hard again. None of these are necessarily bad things.

But this left me in a strange no man's land, a Mr Fix-It, running dog of the imperialist bosses, or half-arsed dimwit who couldn't construct a global object in an integrated development environment. And so it goes. Or rather, so I went.

I wish there was a happy ending to this story. That one day both sides realised their differences were far less than their similarities, united in a common goal to make something really cool and then retire before we were thirty. That we all learned to play nice, or at least achieve something together.

I suppose in a way there is a happy ending. We got bought out by an American competitor and subsumed into a greater whole, and all those days and nights of striving like bees in a hive were probably a total waste, and thrown on the technological garbage heap, less valuable than yesterday's newspaper. You can't wrap battered cod in an unreliable voice-recognition system, and believe me, I've tried.

I was long gone by then, although our ill-thought-out and tax-inefficient stock options meant I still took something from the experience, enough for a painting of my face and a few holidays.

Come to think of it, I stuffed most of the money in the bank and forgot about it, which is either sensible, boring, or should have shown me by now that my interests may have lain elsewhere.

* * *

But as I consider things since then, I realise some commonality to my working experiences has existed. In the heartbreaking lack of anything in common between the everyday workers, who, if developers, delude themselves into thinking they're artists, with the appropriate temperament to boot, and the bosses, driven by the need to achieve above all else, and never will the two meet. Time and again one will talk about the share price, or profits, or a management buy-out and not understand why their underlings act so unaffected, as if their time at the office was just a job.

And comparing people to insects, or soldiers fighting in a war, when all they are is people with lives and possibly families and an ambition to sit peacefully at a desk in an air conditioned office for eight hours a day, rather than turn the world upside down ... Well, maybe they're talking at cross purposes, or not hearing each other at all.

Big companies need bureaucracy, they thrive on it, but that's what takes away your ability to achieve something special, something that you can truly feel a part of. And maybe that's why its hard to find people who really care about a large company.

On the other hand, working for a start-up can be like having your hair set alight and only having hammers to put out the fire - sure, it's exciting, but it's not always something people want to repeat.

1 The original deadline had been my twenty-third birthday, funnily enough.


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