Software developers: probably our new overlords. Or at least it can feel that way in our increasingly digital lives. The past few years have brought a steady flow of initiatives – such as the “Hour of Code”, the “Year of Code” and “Code Year” – that seek to make us all a bit more “developer”.
But there is more to learn from software developers than just programming. The revolution in technology has also brought us innovations in working and people management practices.
Welcome to the company
Take the way working life starts for recruits at many traditional companies. Highlights of the first week may include: reading stacks of outdated documentation, an unconscionable ratio of introductions to cognitive capacity, an embarrassing need for someone to be called to collect you from the lobby as a security pass proves perplexingly difficult to acquire, and a few too many glances at the time.
Contrast this with the approach taken by a well-known, developer-led company. A class of 30 to 60 people forms, comprising a mixture of recent, and significantly less recent, graduates. They spend the first few days on introductions to relevant systems. Then they are set tasks. Pulled from a company-wide system, these tasks are features to be added to the company’s online platform. Mentors offer guidance and before the week is out, their work is released to clients.
That is the first of seven weeks in Facebook’s Bootcamp, which all engineering recruits, and everyone who will work with them, go through.
Also deploying a militaristic term for a common working practice is Netflix, with its “Simian Army”. Its first soldier was Chaos Monkey. This simian, which was entered into service in 2009, is a program that randomly disables systems running Netflix’s videostreaming service (as if a monkey had been let loose with a wrench in a data centre). The idea is that by deliberately causing damage to the system, the company constantly checks its resilience to known points of fragility.
It is a valuable way to learn. Tara Swart, chief executive of consultancy The Unlimited Mind, and a neuroscientist and leadership coach, says: “Visualising something or actually experiencing it is very powerful on the brain. Just theorising about it is not quite the same.”
Such “experiences” must be spontaneous enough to be realistic, but controlled enough to avoid actual failure. Chaos Monkey is allowed out only on weekdays, when software developers are around and the load on the site is relatively low. Yury Izrailevsky, vice-president of cloud systems and infrastructure, says: “In reality, failures will occur no matter what, and usually if you wait for them to occur naturally, that will happen at the worst possible time. And it’s much better to constantly go through the drills on your own schedule.”
While the benefits of realistic rehearsals have long been recognised in industry as well as the armed forces, practice drills in service organisations are less widespread, apart from the occasional test that involves using a back-up office location. A more useful test might see business-critical employees randomly told to stay away on a given day, in an effort to test resilience to so-called key-man risk.
On a mission to network
Back at Facebook, the unusual induction programme does not just serve to familiarise recruits with the company and its systems. Being given real problems to solve spurs productive introductions to company veterans. As David Recordon, the 27-year-old engineering manager who runs Bootcamp points out, it helps people “to get over an innate human fear of being someone who’s new and going to get help from someone who’s been here for a while. And just not feeling bad about that.”
Finding your niche
Working with veterans also helps Bootcampers identify the projects they want to work on at the end of the seven weeks, since being hired by Facebook does not come with assignment to a particular team. Mr Recordon says finding a team – there are more than 100 of them spanning about a dozen different areas – is about discovering the “maximum intersection of passion and impact”. He gamely admits it might sound “a little corny”.
Dr Swart says identifying an employee’s enthusiasm is a particularly efficient approach. While people may feel drawn to improve on things they are bad at, doing so requires a great deal of effort to achieve relatively small gains. It is a function of the brain having to work hard to create new connections (synapses) between neurons and even to grow new neurons associated with the skill, she explains.
Working instead on improving an area of natural talent or already advanced skills is literally the path of lesser resistance as the brain instead creates further connections and speeds up existing ones. “If you are already good at something, then you can just get better, faster,” says Dr Swart.
Another practice beloved of technology companies, and those of the start-up variety in particular, is the “take what you need” policy for paid time off, including holidays and sick leave.
While adherents of the unlimited holiday approach use it as a way to attract top talent, it is not without difficulties. Chief among them is that employees simply may not understand what is deemed acceptable by colleagues and management. As a result, they nervously avoid taking holiday at all. Or, in some cases, they forget to take it because with no deadline for taking it the pressure is off.
It is a problem for which non-technology firm The Motley Fool, a financial services company, has a novel solution. Founded in 1993, the company has had a policy of having no policy ever since it had employees to not apply a policy to.
The solution is the Fool’s Errand. One employee a month is randomly selected to go on a two-week holiday that must be taken within a month, with $1,000 of spending money thrown in as an extra sweetener. A preselection of 10 finalists allows the ultimate winner of that month’s draw – which takes place at a company-wide meeting of its 290 employees – to be done in a fun way.
Last year, Motley Fool’s director of external communications Matthew Trogdon was selected from the line-up by a pet. A customer visiting its offices had brought her dog and all the finalists were given pet treats to offer. The dog went to Mr Trogdon first.
He says the Fool’s Errand serves as “a monthly reminder that ‘we want you to go on vacation and it’s OK to go on vacation’.” It also, inadvertently, forces the company to test for resilience against key-man risk. But according to Mr Trogdon that “just happens to be a valuable byproduct”.
The FT has yet to confirm whether the winner has ever been chosen by a monkey. Maybe the next time.
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