Business 101

Recently I was working with a team that was having trouble getting testing tasks done, because some of the developers did not like testing; they wanted to write code, because if was more fun.

At the risk of preaching to the choir, let me explain how business works:

  1. A business employs people and asks them to make stuff. The employees would rather be doing something they would like to do, so the business pays them in order to give them an incentive to come to work.
  2. The business sells the stuff that its employees make. Customers exchange money for the stuff, because they don’t have the time or the expertise to make it themselves.
  3. The business takes the money from the sales of the stuff, invests some of it in the business, pays some of it as dividends to shareholders, and pays some of it to the employees from step 1.

As long as the employees are making stuff, and the customers are buying stuff, we have a continuous cycle and a successful business.

Notably absent in the above description is “The business pays employees to come to work and only work on fun stuff.”

Elbert Hubbard, a 19th century American writer and philosopher said:

If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him. If he pays you wages which supply you bread and butter, work for him; speak well of him; stand by him, and stand by the institution he represents. If put to a pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If you must vilify, condemn, and eternally disparage, resign your position, and when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content, but as long as you are part of the institution do not condemn it. If you do that, you are loosening the tendrils that are holding you to the institution, and at the first high wind that comes along, you will be uprooted and blown away, and will probably never know the reason why.

Now that may sound terribly old-school. The social contract of loyalty between employers and employees is much weaker than it was even 50 years ago, when working hard your whole career almost guaranteed that the company would take care of you. (This is the social contract Billy Joel sang about in Allentown.) Today you can get laid off at a moment’s notice, or your can give your two-weeks notice, and nobody raises an eyebrow.

No, this is not about being loyal to your company because it is the noble thing to do, but because if the company is paying your wages, it is in your best interest for the company to stay afloat.

There is an old story called A Tale of Three Bricklayers. (Josh Allan Dykstra has a good article about this.) It goes something like this:

A man came upon a construction site where three bricklayers were busy at work. As he meandered through the site, he asked each bricklayer what he was doing.

The first one said “I’m laying bricks.”

The second one said “I’m building a wall.”

The third one proudly proclaimed “I’m building a cathedral.”

Developers who do not want to perform testing tasks because they are not as fun as coding are like the first bricklayer. They may be excellent coders, but they are not looking at the big picture of what the company needs in order to survive.

They are frequently long-time employees, and they are like the mice in Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson (one of the great agile development books, in my opinion).  For as long as they could remember, there was a big pile of cheese next to their home, and when it finally ran out, some of them could not believe that their world had changed so radically, and just sat there, waiting for the cheese to come back.

There was a time, in the days of old, when being a hotshot coder was enough, and if one didn’t want to help with testing or documentation, there were other departments for that. And anyway, being a hotshot coder made one close to god-like.

But the times have changed: agile development is the industry standard, and customers are beginning to expect faster response to their requests than the once-every-18-months cycle that used to be the norm.

Developers who consider themselves above tasks like coding, or ones who don’t want to work on anything that isn’t fun, will eventually face one of two things:

  • the company will realize that they are impeding progress and will let them go, or
  • the company will let them continue to be a spanner in the works and demoralize the developers who are trying to do agile development, and eventually they will take the company down.

Either way, they will be out of a job.

 

 

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