IT Jobs and Working Conditions

Mark Glossop has written about the best designs for offices to increase productivity and attract qualified staff [1]. He makes a lot of really good points and cites the Joel on Software blog post about “Bionic Offices” [2], it’s sequel “Updated Offices” [3], and Joel’s “Field Guide to Developers” [4]. Interestingly Joel disclaims a connection to “stereotypical Asperger’s geeks” while his points about private offices to avoid distractions, technical issues trumping politics, letting developers choose their own projects and tools, and making the company seem to be doing things that are good for society would apply well to people with Asperger Syndrome [5].

While Mark has made some great points, he has totally missed one important issue – that of being able to do some useful work. The section about “no dysfunctional politics” in Joel’s Field Guide does to some extent cover that issue if broadly interpreted. But generally anyone who is good at a job will want to be allowed to do it and anything which prevents them will make “work” less pleasant. I wonder if Mark has been fortunate enough to miss out on the experience of working for a company that has problems which are suitable for submission to The Daily WTF (Curious Perversions in IT) [6].

The Worst Company I have Worked for

The worst environment that I have ever worked in was for a financial organisation. They were proud of providing a good working environment, all Occupational Health and Safety issues were properly addressed, the office was always clean, etc – many of the people who worked there considered themselves to be fortunate to work there. But almost no work was done due to foolish paperwork! The worst example was a bug in an Apache module that caused an Intranet server to hang every couple of days, the symptom was trivially fixed by restarting Apache or it could have been worked around by a cron job that restarted Apache every night at midnight (the web application was only used in business hours). But instead every few days there were a few hours of down-time while managers worked together to get appropriate approval for me to restart Apache.

On one of the first occasions that Apache hung I asked my manager if I should restart Apache and get the paperwork done afterwards (which is standard system administration practice in every office where you would want to work). I was told that anyone who did such a thing would be sacked and slandered to try and prevent them from gaining other employment. It’s generally regarded that a wise manager won’t say anything bad about a former employee when asked for a reference due to legal reasons, it’s the absence of good things being said that indicates a problem. Deliberate slander would be good grounds for a law suit, but it seems that the management of some companies think that they are above the law.

When I resigned I told my managers that I was depressed and couldn’t stand being there.

In future I will try and identify such companies and walk away from job interviews. I will ask about the paperwork requirements and also ask to inspect the workstations that are used. Any company that pays top rates to people while forcing them to use workstations that would be in the rubbish at any normal company is obviously extremely dysfunctional and should be avoided.

The Best Company I have Worked for

I have worked in a few environments that were really good by various objective measures. One that stands out as being a little better than the rest is a small company that provides network support services. A large part of their business involved maintaining network gear for medium sized organisations. Small companies tend to have financial problems and this one was no exception, there were minor issues such as holes in the carpet that would have been regarded as OH&S violations at any corporation – but everyone knew that it was best to just walk carefully and not complain so that there was money for more important things (such as payroll). Of course many other aspects of a good working environment (such as good office furniture and good monitors) were also lacking due to financial issues. So by the Joel’s standards they were doing quite badly – but this didn’t make them a bad employer.

One significant positive aspect of this company was that everyone there was really friendly, I don’t know how much of this was due to hiring nice people and how much of it was due to having a positive social environment that encouraged the best behavior from everyone. Another major benefit was that things got done with little resistance, small companies that last tend not to have much in the way of political problems. Joel states a principle of not hiring jerks, but an average person can act like a jerks on a bad day. To have a team of people consistently not act like a jerks is unusual.

Another big advantage of that company was it’s positive and supportive attitude towards staff. When I started working for them my car was having some major repairs, so the owner of the company lent me a car for a couple of weeks. Staff who wanted to apply for work at bigger companies due to the limits for career growth in a small company were encouraged to do so. This is a great contrast to the attitude of managers in most companies who want to do whatever it takes to retain staff and who are reluctant to accept that employees will sometimes have good reasons for working elsewhere. This was good for employees and also good for the company who ended up with a ratio of payroll expenses to skilled employees that was far better than the industry average.

Update: ComputerWorld has an article about managing geeks [7]. The summary is that senior managers should listen to the technical professionals, have some basic technical knowledge, and that IT staff should be involved in recruiting new managers.

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