Sunday, April 29, 2007

Workaholics in Consulting and Engineering

Really more about type-A personalities, or at least very driven people: An article in Fast Company on Boston Consulting group trying to get a grip on employees who work too many hours.
"A hero at BCG is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night," says Kermit King, the firm's head of recruiting for the Americas. "The emphasis should be on productivity per hour, and I think there's a point where productivity diminishes."

That's why the firm--which doesn't bill by the hour and explicitly states that hours don't figure in promotions--launched a program called the Red Zone three years ago to spot and tame chronic overworkers.

It's not quite working yet -- perhaps because the workload makes it impossible to succeed within the green zone. They have had a slight decrease in the percentage of employees who say their load is not manageable, though, up to 63% from 67%. (At one place I was salaried, 100% in my department said it was unmanageable. The hours we worked reflected this of course, which is one reason I charge by the hour now.)

A related post appears in the increasingly interesting 37signals blog, on development type A's: Don't Be a Hero. Their gist is that if you haven't finished a task in estimated time allowed, don't push on to do it in more time:

That’s where the concept of sunk cost gives us a guide on what to do. It doesn’t matter what you’ve already spent. That time and money is gone. It only matters whether spending what’s left is worth it or not. Business school 101, but one of the hardest lessons to internalize.
Unfortunately, the switching cost is often high for creatives and execution-driven folks. In morale if not attention to task measures. But in general I think their point is very good.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fractal Art

I've been playing with 2 fractal-generating applications recently, and recommend them for different reasons. If you'd like to quickly generate random beautiful 2d images, of often breath-taking beauty, use Apophysis.

If you like to play with dials and sliders and 3d imagery, and generally do a bit more work yourself, I recommend Chaoscope, a "3d strange attractors" rendering package.

Samples from both:

Thursday, April 19, 2007

12 Breeds of Client

Freelance Switch, a site for freelancers of all types, has a nice post about different types of client personalities and how to handle them. It's applicable whether you're a genuine freelancer or working in a consultative role inside a large organization -- I recognized a lot of it from traditional dealings with consumers of interface design and usability, including previous managers. Some of my favorites, in the "recognizable but not so nice" category:
  • The Hands-On Client: The hands-on client is a frustrated artist, as soon as they walk in the door they will be telling you about their skill as an artist, illustrator, photographer or writer. The hands-on client already has a very specific idea about what they want and usually has very little interest in your thoughts on the matter.... If you feel you have an ethical responsibility to point out the flaws in your hands-on client’s directions, you are headed for conflict. Hands-on client’s secretly believe that they could do their job much better than you and that there is little or no specialist knowledge you could possibly impart. One oddity about working with a hands-on client sometimes occurs when you give in your creative ambitions and agree to do it their way. All of a sudden your hands-on client may accuse you of making them do all the work or not doing your job.
  • The I’ll-Know-It -When-I-See-It Client: The I’ll-Know-It-When-I-See-It client shares much in common with the uninterested client except in a more frustrating way. Their indecisiveness and inability to articulate what they are after makes them one of the few clients that it is generally best to steer clear of.
  • The Always-Urgent Client: All their emails are ‘highest priority’ and their couriers are always red-hot. They work on weekends and late into the night and think that everyone else does too. Additionally the always-urgent client often seems to think they are your only client and that their job should therefore be your highest priority as well as theirs.
  • The Decision-By-Committee Client: Usually inhabiting the world of large corporate clients, the decision-by-committee client can still be found in smaller operations where they share their decision making with a spouse, neighbour or dog. The decision-by-committee client is one who lacks a single point of authority and for which every decision must be approved by many people.
I'm breaking in a new tag for this one, a consulting tag.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Crazy Bosses Hall of Fame

An entertaining read at CNET: the Crazy Boss Hall of Fame, featuring stories of swearing CEOs and bathroom reading that's circulated daily. Weird stuff in there, it might make you feel better if you work for a nutcase. I don't like the suggestion that I always get in these articles that because they're aggressive and nasty they succeeded in business (maybe I read it in, but it's caused by close juxtaposition of wacky antisocial story with glory story of million dollar business win).

But there are some good failures in there too, like Craig Benson of Cabletron who also failed in politics. Anyone else find irony in a guy who ran a company like a "military environment" and then ran for office on a libertarian-bent of "less government in people's lives." He had a virtual staff and virtual volunteers, with whom he had (virtual?) affairs. He ran standing meetings from behind a standing desk -- leading to a great quote from the article link above:

"It is," Peterson said, "the most efficient way to reach the wrong answer in the shortest amount of time."

Best-selling books touting surprising management styles keep coming. First Break All The Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently has 227 positive reviews on Amazon right now. Hopefully, being a great manager isn't just about finances but includes something about work culture, too. I'd like to think you don't have to be an asshole to do good things for the company. Meanwhile, breaking the rules doesn't make you an asshole either -- a senior VP at a former company criticized a move I made as a manager for an employee of mine on the grounds that "I've never heard of anyone doing that before!" Yes, it really was intended as a criticism, and probably said more about him than me, alas.

Relevant past posts on ghostweather: Is Your Boss a Psychopath? And Past and Current Employees and Your Reputation, not to mention, Demotivation and Burnout.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Logos of Web 2.0

In case you haven't seen this -- at FontFeed, there was a nice deconstruction of the look of web 2.0 company logos. (Thanks to a graphic designer I worked with recently for the link. Same could be done on the websites with probably similar results; I feel like I've seen the 37signals look all over the place in the last couple years.) In a non-graphic designery vocabulary, I myself note a lot of blue and orange, more "soft" rounded fonts rather than angular in this selection, and greys and gradients.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Adorable Monsters

Two cute monster-related items for early April:

Daily Monster, an online growth of cool monster art. It's Stefan Bucher's site (thanks Steve): And while I was poking around on Jared Tarbell's site for a friend, I found his combinatoric monster art, which made me grin wide. I want to be Jared when I grow up.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Passionate About Your Job? Your Career? Your Company?

A while ago, Creating Passionate Users had a post about employees who are passionate about their employer versus passionate about their work. The gist was that people who are passionate for their company are like this:
  • Defends the company to anyone, anywhere that criticizes or questions its products, policies, or practices
  • The ultimate team player who goes along with the group rather than voice dissent
  • Is well-liked because they do whatever is asked, enthusiastically
  • Accepts (and uses) phrases like, "this is what corporate needs us to do."
  • Cares a lot about his career path in the company; focused on getting management recognition.
Whereas employees who are passionate about their work are recognizable because they:
  • Would spend his own money, if necessary, for better tools
  • If they were NOT doing this as their job, they would still do something related to it as a hobby
  • Works late nights when, "I'm just one-compile away from this awesome refactoring that's going to make this thing run 40% faster." In other words, they work late when they're driven by something they know they can do better on.
  • [And somewhat controversially:] May not be extremely well-liked, but is highly respected and tolerated because he's known as one who, "cares deeply about doing the best possible job, and is very good at what he does." CPU's update was: The person must be liked well enough for people to want to work with him again...
While I enjoyed the post, I had some issues with the distinction between work vs. employer, or company. In my experience the distinction is really about "career at this company" vs. "the work I do." I've rarely seen a place where loyalty to the company is a major factor anymore (although I can think of one strong candidate in my employment history). When people talk critically about employee loyalty to the company, they really mean something more sinister about "fit" and "culture" and "not making waves." Look out for this rhetoric, it's usually covering for something else that's going on. But that's not the point here right now.

Career motivated people are a hair away from appearing motivated by the work they do, but it's a really important hair. They can be recognized by some similar signs as CPU's indicators of company loyalty:

  • Excessive concern for what management thinks, or what the promoting, salary-raising decision-makers think
  • Covering their asses behavior: blame assignment, rather than taking ownership and responsibility individually for tough problems that need resolution
  • Star behavior: Taking credit and not giving it to others. Often excused by managers as "my team did it so I did it." Not quite what the team thinks...
  • Competition for the plum jobs (some may be genuinely hard, but it's notably the ones that are visible to CEOs and Senior VPs that they go for)
  • Wangling to get on the speaker list at important events attended by senior management; this may look like it's for "good" but often it's self-promotion
  • Teamplay gets sacrificed for their ambition, when it's useful to them -- less pushy voices and personalities get the uglier tasks and less interesting roles if they have something to prove.
  • Resume-building; a key distinguisher between loyalty to the company versus themselves -- they're figuring out how to make their tenure there useful to them for the next, better move.
This behavior, especially in a teamwork environment(see my old post about requirements for successful teams), can be fatal for morale of others. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to identify this behavior as different from dedication to the work itself, if no one is paying very close attention. Most of their managers probably aren't, actually, either because they have incomplete information, or aren't able to make this distinction. And some of the managers may fall into this category I've just described, which will make it even harder for them to tell that difference in their own employees or to think it important.

Sad postscript: Kathy Sierra at CPU has been receiving death threats. Her posts are always controversial to some, which is part of why she's a good read; but now she seems to be a target for it. It's hard not to read this as a response to her as an outspoken woman, rather than just an opinionated smart blogger.