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.


Anonymous said...

I believe the term for people displaying the first 2 sets of behaviour you describe are 'suckers'.

Lynn said...

I dunno -- I've definitely bought my own software when I couldn't get someone to understand how important it was for me to have a good tool (surprisingly common issue). In UI design, you find a lot of people who are passionate about the work to that degree -- same with graphic designers (all of them seem to do consulting on the side).

Anonymous said...

The problem with attempts to work around corporate stupidity is that the corporate stupidity will always win in the end.

I suppose the concept of tools is different for software developers, there are adequate free (as in source, or as in beer as they say) tools, but if a company wasn't prepared to buy me a copy of Visual Studio Professional and an MSDN subscription it would be a signal to leave.

The 'consulting on the side' issue is an interesting one, I think one of the most pernicious developments over the last 20 or so years is the way people feel the need to have 'side projects'. Whatever happened to leisure time?