Elephants in the room
In the slosh of the recent tech downturns, a lot of unspoken truths are left to hash out.
My writing has been less frequent for the last few months. Like many of us, I’ve been experiencing my own personal version of the reductions going on across the tech industry. This isn’t new or unprecedented. In fact, it’s actually really boring, in that old familiar capitalism sense. Read to the end, to hear what I believe are elephants in the room for these downturns and the questions you can ask your next employer to hopefully avoid those rooms.
First: saying this is all “boring” is a terrible way to phrase this for those of us impacted by it. It is not boring, rather it is life impacting. What I mean to say is there is nothing about what’s happening now that can’t be explained by the unwritten laws of capitalism and the incessant repeat of those laws being thrashed and abondoned in the name of itself. And why would a newsletter about “healthy software development” expound on capitalism? Because without it, we can’t really talk about our industry in wholistic terms. Instead we might call our work artistic ventures. Creative corporations. I really like the sound of that. In a more perfect world I could live off of, and support my family with my artistic and creative ventures.
venture | ˈven(t)SHər |
a risky or daring journey or undertaking: pioneering ventures into little-known waters.
A quick definition to support my phrase “artistic venture” for those who might read this from the puritanical capitalism viewpoint, and might scoff at the word “artistic”. Check yourself. Don’t be flippant about what constitutes capitalism. Remind yourself that it is made up mostly of art and in nearly all legal sense everything bought/sold in any market is a form of art. If not, how do we have such institutions like the U.S. Patent Office, and mechanisms to identify “prior art”? And in all of this there is underlying risk. No difference.
Lest we get lost in an argument of art vs. capitalism, let’s get into the current turmoil in the industry by following a quick estuary towards truth.
Here are a few things to keep in mind for those of us impacted, a list I guess (which I really promised myself I wouldn’t do in this newsletter). Maybe it’s just 5 things, but they are still really important, and I would add controversial, because when cut-from-the-cloth capital-C capitialists read this they might snicker and cringe at both the emotional reality of it all, and the cynical, corrupt, and cavalier truth behind what I’m saying.
It’s not your fault.
You dear software developer did not make the decision for hyper-growth. You weren’t at the board meeting when it was decided to take on more financing. It’s not your fault interest rates rose and made all that financing a profit margin machete. And it is very likely you were not involved in the contract discussions with customers buying your software, or as it turns out, when your company was giving it away in order to acquire logos.
The only thing that is your fault is that you have a talent, and that talent is valuable for creating software that others can sell. You are necessary. But also disposable. It does not make this relationship easier, but if you can swallow this pill, the rest of your professional career becomes more clear.
You are not an “expense” you are a value.
The most insidious thing you could take away from all of this is to consider the thousands of folks who were let go, as an expense that must be removed. Even in the best framing it is terribly inconsiderate to view people (humans) as expense. The truth is each and every one of those folks are a value. Whether that value produces bottom-line returns is really on the shoulders of those who lead people and businesses.
You are a value. And in a capitalistic environment, you can take your value elsewhwere. Turn this particular table in your favor.
Capitalism does not protect people.
Look I’m not interested in arguing this one. Just show me where it has in any of the past 100 hundred years. I’ll wait. Captialism purports that it is an open competition, and that it’s not a zero-sum game. This is not addressed to those who were recently let go, but it’s critical you explore this topic so you understand company cultures. So let’s dig in.
If your product is not worth the money to some folks, then maybe it’s worth it to others, so why chase down those that are unwilling to pay? Or worse can be true, and maybe your software just isn’t valuable to anyone. Why finance more in order to further prove that? If there are incumbents in the market, do you really need to topple them? Why must you be number one? What’s wrong with number two’s profit margins around 75% with a single digit percentile of customers?
Please show me where you’re protecting people whose craft you used in order to answer these questions. Show me where the buybacks or hyper-growth now turned into hyper-cost-savings helps your employees that you let go? Again, I’ll wait.
Software is not a warehouse-like conveyor belt of productivity.
I almost want to say “show me” for this topic too, but I’ll dive in a little bit here. First and foremost we must agree that unlike any other form of craft or trade, software is a complicated medium and there are very few physical analogies to use in order to even capitalize the value of the endeavor. If you don’t agree with me on this then you might just stop reading. We won’t agree on much after this.
Now if that is all out of the way, let’s also address the truth about business value and outcomes from software development. Such as, in the absurdly positive case, you can build a software product with very little rigor or sophistication and make millions of dollars. Fart jokes aside. And the opposite is true: You can develop very sophisticated software and no one buys it (some of us find ourselves here).
So square that round hole for a moment. If we still don’t have ways to account for software, and it’s also provable to make money on the worst of the drab efforts, how then would we be able to argue there is a mechanical, repeatable, and scalable mechanism for software endeavours to turn into fiscal returns?
We are all measuring the wrong things.
And here is the truth, and it’s not that complicated: We are simply measuring the wrong things. Developer productivity, timelines, velocity, deadlines, revenue-per-employee, churn-rate, and anything not related to the fundamental capitalistic truth: People pay for things they need/want.
If you are looking at measurements like those to drive your software product development, you might ask yourself if it’s working out. Be honest. Are you even measuring what people are willing to use and pay for? Or are you too busy making sure your sprint is “full”?
How valuable is it to put together a business plan, then throw a bunch of people at it, measure their work efforts, deliver something, and then not measure anything after that - except developer productivity? In other words, how’s that deadline working out for you? Was it really that critical to deliver that feature way ahead of your plan for the “chance” to sign a new customer?
Our craft needs to make an immediate turn away from developer productivity tools and move towards product outcome tools. Measure the product. Not the developer. (this is even more capitalistic than anything else I’ve said in this article)
There will be more to come on this particular topic of measurements, and Attainable will be pivoting soon, specifically towards improving our software development experiences by improving our measurements. Please stay tuned.
There are more unspoken truths we could discuss. This list is clearly not exhaustive. And that would be the take-away for you. Consider unspoken truths when your craft is met with capitalism. Sometimes those elephants take up all the space, leaving you with no room to escape.
The 5 questions you should ask.
Let’s wrap this up with actionable advice. We could spend all day on the topics of capitalism and accountability, but instead I’m going to unfortunately make this a “listicle” and I’m Ok with that. Here are questions you should ask during your next interviews. These are in order, and purposefully designed to tease out how the company behaves towards it’s people with regard to measurements.
Notice that these are all asking the same thing: How do you measure your product? In other words, stop asking what tech stack the company uses or whether there is unlimited PTO or not, and instead ask the questions that force the rubber to meet the road.
If you find yourself not getting comfortable answers from any of these questions, you might be interviewing at the wrong place.
How is the product success measured by the company?
How does the product roadmap influence or react to those measurements?
If I asked your users what is most important measurement to them from your product what would they say?
Who is accountable for the measurements?
When measurements show negative results, what happens?
These questions will hopefully draw out whether the company is actively working on a product wherein your software craft can bring value, or it may reveal the company cares very little about your craft and simply cares about money.
I wish you the best. I also wish for you a place where your craft is met with the rewards from capitalism, and that you’re no longer the fodder for shareholders cannons. Hang in there.