The Art of Who Does What

Jacob Duck, Dividing the Spoils, 1635, Wikimedia Commons
Jacob Duck, Dividing the Spoils, 1635, Wikimedia Commons

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Novelist Erich Maria Remarque claimed in one of his novels that civilization is a thin veneer, covering the primal urges of savages ready to grab each others’ throats at a moment’s notice. You can attest to that at times of temporary breakdowns such as power outages, elevator malfunctions, or heated sports events. In the relatively rational and orderly corridors of corporate life, nothing brings the primitive reptilian brain to the forefront like the activity of divvying up the work.

There are perfectly rational explanations for why this happens. Work is a big part of our identity. It is now spilling out into our personal brand as well – your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles say what you do for living. You will go great lengths and exert a lot of effort in order to move that needle from ‘Something’ to ‘Architect Something’ to ‘Senior Architect Something’. You want these changes to reflect on your LinkedIn profile as an upward progression, a well managed and deliberate career narrative.

Titles aside, most people want to do meaningful work, and want to grow their career by kicking ass, not by marking the time. A precondition for this is to be assigned a great and meaningful task that you can crush, being amazing as you are.

Divvy up

In corporations large and small, there comes a time where in one part of the room, you have a few nervous people, and in another, a pile of stuff to be done. Call it a work pie – it has to be cut and divided among them. Now remember the ‘civilization as a thin veneer’ and you can imagine the emotional undercurrents of such a situation.

Divvying up the work is tightly connected to hiring, and those two activities may act like the chicken and the egg in many situations. The amount of work is also very important. If this is the only pie to divide, tensions will be much higher than if the pies keep coming – people who didn’t get their piece will be much more relaxed if a new one will arrive in 5 minutes.

In my professional life, I have observed several situations I will try to enumerate here.

Grow with work

What is more fitting to start with than, well, a startup. When you have two starry-eyed founders and a lofty vision (according to HBO’s Silicon Valley, which must include a desire to ‘make the world a better place’), there is this infinite pie that never gets smaller no matter how much you cut it. Founders work day and night and ‘who does what’ discussion is very short and efficient. Nothing will matter if work is not done before the VC money runs out, so getting it done is primary consideration.

According to the guys of 37signals, most startups are careful with hiring and really only hire when they reach practical limits.

The right time to hire is when there’s more work than you can handle for a sustained period of time.

Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, ‘Rework’

In this mode, dividing the work is a low ceremony affair – everybody wears many hats, and there is a sense of ‘we are all in this together’. This is a good phase.

Lions eat first

When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in.

Google’s Erich Schmidt to Sheryl Sandberg

When Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg got this advice from Google CEO Erich Schmidt, it highlighted the moment when the pendulum swings and there is more people than work. In most real world organizations, the amount of things to do grows and shrinks faster than the teams do. After all, you cannot be hiring and firing people all the time – it is expensive and bad for morale.

In those situations, politics goes into full swing, and managers closer to the executives in control of the pie get the choicest pieces, leaving the scraps for the less connected and less savvy. This was and still is a reality in many big corporations to one degree or another, but things are changing there as well. New organizational trends already brought us flatter structures. Matrixed organizations with feature teams are more often the norm, with models like the one used by Spotify being all the rage recently.

There are varying reasons why certain teams tend to run away with key pieces of the mission. They can have a track record of delivery, which is fair. They can also have a critical mass required to take on an important mission. They can also be tapped to own the technical area (say, compilers) and have the expertise. But sometimes there is the inertia that crosses over into politics. A team that traditionally owned an area may be a bad choice to take that technology to the cloud because of the skills mismatch. In many of these discussions, the results will not seem fair to the outside observer not in on the subtle political undercurrents of the situation.

Second wind

A comical side-effect of the ‘lions eat first’ model is that eventually lions get stuffed silly and cannot take another bite. In my time, I was often far from the main power centres, so I developed the art of the second wind to perfection. Here how it is plaid:

  1. The first pie arrives to the table
  2. Lions eat first, stuff themselves until they cannot breathe
  3. After a while, an unexpected pie arrives. Lions watch it with sad eyes, unable to do anything.
  4. You jump in and run away with the whole new pie.

As I said before, this all depends on the availability of the new pie. But even in the olden days it was possible. The first division of ‘who does what’ is normally based on the very imprecise ideas of what the new project is all about. After a while, reality sets in, holes are identified, new requirements emerge, and this is where you can jump in and get that work.

Or you can invent a whole new pie. You can actively look for gaps in the vision, notice the opportunity, prototype something and demo it to the executives. When there is not enough pie on the table, create more by innovating.

Note that this model is becoming more of a norm lately. Everything is speeding up, cycles are getting shorter, feature teams (or should I say ‘squads’) are formed and dissolved at a faster rate. This is good news, because there is nothing like office politics to sap enthusiasm and energy from bright and starry-eyed new hires. I am happy we are slowly moving away from politics-ledden job partition, if only out of necessity brought on by the tectonic shifts in the industry.

Getting ahead of the HR curve

Alas, where there are people, there will always be some amount of politics. The corporation does not even have to be that big to get into the bizarre game of req tickets:

Reqs vanish randomly, often without notice, without reason, and at the least convenient time.

Rands in Repose

First of all, if you have hiring tickets, congratulations – it means you are on a project that is growing (assuming these are not backfills). You may even be in the coveted ‘startup in a large organization’ situation, where you are trying to grow a 1.0 project and are staffing like crazy.

This is an often comical situation because you are trying to be two things at the same time. You are trying to move fast, build a team and be nimble, while at the same time dealing with a corporate machine that is not designed for that. You are growing against a fluid plans and visions that change daily (or should I say ‘pivot’). And you never know when the executives championing the new startup culture will succumb to bean counters’ nagging and rein in the mad hiring sprout.

You could say that true startups grow with concrete work, and that this is not a very startup-like behaviour, and you would be right. However, there is logic to it:

  1. You are growing a team with a general skill set, kind of like a local competency centre, or to use the Spotify parlour, a ‘chapter’. You can form guilds as needed, but your chapter will be more stable and build an enviable track record that will attract new work in the future.
  2. You are building a centre of gravity that will assist you in the upcoming ‘who does what’ discussions. You want to be the path of least resistance for tasks that look related and up your team’s skill alley.
  3. And of course, a req ticket unused is a req ticket lost.

Be the baker

Based on everything I said so far, it appears that in order to change the conversation, it is better to ensure that pies are coming than to entangle in the ugly politics of wrestling over a scarce resource. Build a team of great skilled developers, preferably able to do full-stack development and do many things with aplomb, and then unleash the innovation that creates new pies out of thin air. It is better to be the one creating the new work than fighting over it.

Now if you excuse me, all this talk about pie made me hungry. Mmmm, pie.

© Dejan Glozic, 2015

One thought on “The Art of Who Does What

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  1. Things get ugly when PM first tells you you are in an autonomous squad with decoupled releases and a few weeks later remind you that your fancy release must be shipped in some fixpack due in four weeks. De-coupled my a$$.
    It seems big organizations like ours are in a very unhealthy state between the high speed start-up ways of development and the process-heavy waterfall world they are trying to get away from. This is made even worse by an entire army of product managers and executives who need a purpose and will go out of their way to make sure everybody follows due process, no matter how much actual code gets written. I often noticed that real progress was made when people ignored the process for a while (a so-called “hack week”) and just coded what they felt was right. Why can’t we do that all the time!?

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