Monday, February 12, 2007

All The Worst

"My company must be the worst."

I've worked with folks from several different telephone companies in my tenure with ECG. And, without fail, every time I meet someone who is convinced that they have the worst company of them all. Only rarely do they point to specific problems. Of course, a problem always seems worse when it's amorphous, poorly defined, and completely frustrating.

It's made me appreciate my own gig, for one thing. I'm sure I'd be doomed to a lot of the same skepticism anywhere I went. And it's made me realize my own tendency to do the same thing about my current job. It's helped me to try to be more specific about my grievances.

The annoying thing is that when I'm specific about my grievances, they're actually tractable. And, in several cases, we've been able to get them fixed.

I remember in November of 2004, I had just gotten married. I was spending way too much time away from home on a project. For me, "too much time away from home" meant more than 25% travel; but I'll admit that nonzero travel was annoying. Every time I'm away for very long, I tend to get grumbly and start thinking about monster. But in that case, I made a list of some specific things that were really bugging me.

One of them was just the noise. I felt like a wuss. The general work environment was just noisy, but they guys I worked with seemed to be getting plenty done. But I admitted to myself, and later to my boss, that it just wasn't working out. It was frustrating. I had a hard time not focusing on the loud conversation around me. And another thing! I needed some private space -- this was related to the noise, but, dernit, I just wanted some space.

My boss grumped a bit about it, said there wasn't a lot he could do, but in small ways started to help me find a better arrangement. Before long, I actually had a little bathroom-sized office to my self, complete with a door! It was an odd feeling -- I had actually complained about something, and the situation had improved. It was downright amazing.

I visited another telephone company today. Like most of my customers, the guys I work with (and believe me: there are almost no women in my meetings) are very technical, have lots of transferrable skills, and are "getting" to do interesting and innovative things with next-generation IP services like VoIP and IP Television. But there are always things that bug them, that get under their skin. The things make them want to leave. They want to go somewhere where they'll be respected. I wonder -- if they made a list, and made some noise, and really tried to make it better, could they?

A related thought is this -- what is it that makes a person feel like his own company is so bad? In their great book about Software Developers, PeopleWare Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister say that a programmer is satisfied only when his system is as good as the best he's ever made. I.e., a personal minimum standard of quality for software is to match his own personal maximum of quality. That rings true.

I wonder if I apply the same standard to the organizations where I work. And further, I do it in a fine-grained way, picking-and-choosing bests from different past experiences, and evaluating the current situation against a fruit-salad of favorites. And more damning still, I tend to compare my situation against ideas and ideals -- things I've seen elsewhere, and even my ideals for how it ought to be.

But then, it's good to remember that, as Fred Brooks teaches and Kenneth Barnard wrote, organization itself is an unnatural thing. That my current situation provides any efficiencies over independent effort is something to be thankful for.




MetaSwitch, an equipment vendor, is making many friends. They are highly respected, and they're known for sending out smart folks. I've recently heard from a couple of my clients that several other vendors, such as Cisco, are willing to send out sales-guy-who's-been-through-product-training (a.k.a., "sales engineer") when a person with actual experience and expertise is expected.

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