I was at a birthday party for one of my in-laws over the weekend. During dinner, I sat next to one of my wife’s uncles and we had an interesting conversation. Before I delve into the conversation, though, let me give you just a bit of background. My wife’s mom is one of fourteen siblings and so their extended family is huge. We had over 300 people at our wedding and I think I invited around 30. We’ve been married for a dozen years now and I’ve come to know many of the relatives but there remains a significant group I’ve only met a few times and definitely don’t know well. Part of this group are what are known affectionately as the couch uncles, because they tend to sit together on the couch at family gatherings and fall asleep. The uncle who is the subject of this post, Richie, is one of the couch uncles and someone I really had not gotten to know much about until just the other day. I’m glad I did.
During dinner, my brother-in-law was chatting with Richie and they started talking about a job Richie had at a manufacturing plant several years back. Richie made a comment like, “that was the best job I ever had.” That perked up my ears and I asked him why it was better. At first he sort of looked at me wondering why I cared, but then he must have concluded it was okay and he responded with ease and clarity:
- He felt useful to the company.
- He was able to add $500 of value to each part in just a few minutes.
- If you add value, the company loves you.
- Competence was rewarded and windbags were thrown out.
- Stockholders are interested in value not popularity.
- He had his own machine and was capable of performing regardless of what others down the line might do.
- The machine was cutting-edge technology, requiring him to learn and show his competence.
I jotted the above down on my phone as fast as I could as he was talking, because I really wanted to remember it as close to what he said as possible. The insights are central to what makes us human: independence, adding value through competence, and respect/reward for that competence.
I find great motivation in these words and ideas because they go to the core of what I’m aiming for in our employee-owned company. Importantly, however, expressing the ideas of independence and reward for competence is much easier than weaving them into your culture and processes. As our company grows, our teams get bigger and our reliance on others deepens. This is requiring us to evaluate our project management and development processes to try to maximize independence and control for each developer while recognizing the inter-relationships their work has with others. Finding that balance is difficult but critical.
One of the blogs I find most fascinating is Signal vs. Noise from 37signals. These guys seem like a bunch of pretty happy software developers and so their advice is worth considering. From what I can tell and based on my experience as a practicing lawyer, I think these guys operate much in the way a small law firm operates, essentially professional peers working together toward a common goal but on equal footing with each in control of their own projects and careers. Each benefits from the relationships in the firm but each person also remains their own.
A team of our developers is working on revising our development process now and I’m hopeful the result will be a process emphasizing individual control in a peer environment. Perhaps then we’ll be able to define the best job here at FBS, so that at some dinner conversation years from now, we’ll all be able to say to our relatives, “FBS was the best job I ever had.”