Spot quiz: What’s wrong with this picture? An anonymous IT manager asked this question on Quora:
“I have a staff member who produces brilliant work but is
consistently late every single day. I can’t fire him because it will
take months to find someone to fill his position. What can I do?”
In case you haven’t arrived in the 21st century yet, the correct answer to that question is: Count your blessings. Get a clue.
Developing software is — or at least it can be, when done right — an
art. The best developer is 10 times better than the second best. In this
field, when a developer produces “brilliant work,” anybody who
understands software and programming, and anyone who values
productivity, forgets the stupid work schedule and the 10 minutes late.
In this case, however, after the initial question was answered by
hundreds of people with essentially the same answer I wrote here (but
more nicely, and in more detail than my suggested answer) the IT manager
who asked the question added more to it, defensively responding,
arguing that he has a valid complaint. Here are some excerpts:
“I’m the manager of an IT Department in a small town.
It’s taken me months and months to find this guy — his work quality is
fantastic and he’s both a good colleague and a friend. However, he is
late virtually every single day. This is despite multiple verbal
warnings. In the last month he has been over 10 minutes late 15 times,
and between 5 and 10 minutes late 12 times.
It makes other members of the team feel they can turn up late as well
… I’m at my desk at 9 a.m. waiting to ask him questions with no idea
what time he’ll be there … There could be an issue that needs his
immediate attention at 9 a.m. Unlikely, but there could be. … It’s
really f***ing simple to leave the house 10 minutes earlier.”
I find this very amusing. I’m amazed that the brilliant programmer is
still there, after all that harassment. I know very well at least three
different companies that would love to hire him. The manager here is
living a few decades in the past. Welcome to the 21st century.
There are three lessons here that are much more important than mere amusement:
1. Productivity Isn’t Butts in Chairs Anymore
Look around you. Consider the expense of office space, the human time
wasted in commuting, the explosion of new virtual connections, and rise
of a generation raised with mobile phones and social media, and give up
your old-world mentality.
Businesses that measure and manage by physical presence are obsolete.
Nowadays, we should all be figuring out what jobs and what tasks and
what parts of work go better with people in the same spot together, and
what parts are done just as well or better alone.
Work life is a giant mosaic, mixing focus, concentration and alone
time with communication, engagement and interaction. And every day less
interaction is in the same physical space, more in shared space online.
Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat is already seven years old.
2. Productivity in Code and Software was Never Butts in Chairs — Ever
Coding is special. I’ve done professional coding and I’ve managed
dozens of coders and, as I said earlier, I’ve learned that the best
developer is 10 times more productive than the second best. It’s not a
straight curve. Yes, some coding is boring busywork, but most is related
to creativity and imagination. It does not do well when locked into a
specific office at a specific time for a specific number of hours. If
you like software, set the developers free.
And — yikes — this isn’t even new to this century. The milestone book on this topic, The Mythical Man Month, was first published 28 years ago. Even its second edition is 19 years old.
I’m not sure coding is the only pursuit that works like this. Maybe
graphic design, maybe even good business-related writing, web copy and
marketing messaging are like that too. But I am sure coding is like
3. There’s a New Best-Ever Kind of Accountability Emerging
In the details of the Quora question above, the complaining manager
cites the problem of precedent — what does he tell the other programmers
who are on time — to justify his concerns.
That’s also obsolete. When and if the others complain about your star
coming late, challenge them: “When you can produce what he does, you
can come late too.” Let people be accountable for the work product, not
punctuality, and your business will be better off.