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game of thrones

2023-01-31

game of thrones

This is an honest and transparent commentary on the state of the tech scene. There is a lot of bullshit and fakery in the “business as usual”. It’s important that everyone is capable of understanding their role in a team. It’s critical for survival that everyone understands the real intention and motivations behind every piece of work that we do.

When we work in tech we normally talk about product understanding and business understanding, a lot of times these two concepts get intertwined and used as they are synonyms. Not true. Business != Product. Business = Politics.

Product understanding

How my work makes ‘the company’ make more money.

Politics/Business understanding

How my work makes ‘me’ make more money.

Let’s see two examples on how politics work in a tech company from both a MM and IC perspective:

  • A manager wants a promotion or a salary increase. Because of it, he starts a new initiative to move a metric. To do the initiative he creates a new product, this requires an increase of headcount. The team grows, the team delivers a new product which moves a metric. Now your manager has a success story that impacted a metric to justify their promotion or salary increase. More headcount = More money.
  • A software engineer wants a promotion or salary increase. Because of it, he starts a new initiative to move a metric. To do the initiative he creates a new product, this requires a development process, architecture design, involving more people… The team develops the product that moves a metric. Now the software engineer has a success story that impacted a metric to justify the promotion or salary increase. More architecture = More money.

What nobody tells you. After one or two years another manager or another software engineer will repeat this process. Will move your metric. Re-doing all your work, deprecating it or just replacing it for a newer/cooler technology. The total impact after the time passes of the original work tends to be zero. But it’s good from the politics point of view. Because increasing the complexity and number of products that a company has, will increase the headcount in your team, which will increase the number of metrics that you can impact and generate more opportunities to grow. Eventually increasing the total compensation of everyone.

Some typical ways to move metrics and improve your politics skills to justify promotions or salary increases.

  • Adding complexity from a product point of view: new features, products, use cases, experimentation, promoting collaboration between teams.
  • From a technical point of view: new technology, refactoring, complex architecture, complex design patterns, talks and workshops…

The key point is focusing on easy to move metrics and short delivery times. The manager that will approve the initiative has also some metrics that they want to move quickly! And the C-Level also wants to move some quick metrics! After a long enough time the manager won’t be in the company anymore. And the original developer team that delivered a product will have company-jumped for a big salary increase also thanks to their metric driven resume. If we focus on political metrics we attract political talent.

Responsibility doesn’t exist

This is a hard truth. Especially for managers as they don’t build software. Imagine the previous scenarios. A team builds a product under a manager's supervision and they deliver a success. But hold on, as we know, a project requires maintenance and over time maybe this success has more cost than profit… What is the cost of maintanance? If you increase a team size, then the cost of the team increases, was the metric that you moved worth the salary expenses?

Now imagine if this product starts breaking because the code was rushed. Who is the one to be accountable for it? Have you ever heard the case of a manager that was fired because a project that they led two years ago is now failing? Have you ever heard the case of an individual contributor who is “underperforming” and put into PIP? How many people will get laid off if a recession comes like the one experienced in 2022? How many C-Levels will resign or reduce their pay? Responsibility doesn’t exist if you are calling the shots but better don’t miss if you are the one aiming and doing the shooting.

Top-down vs bottom-up decision making

This is a usual terminology that you probably hear about and use. But let’s keep it real. A job is a social hierarchy. Not everyone has the same power in the chain. If your manager tells you to do something you have to do it or it will have consequences. On the other hand not every proposal that you make to the leadership will be approved. But leadership roles love to hear about your proposal. And leadership will force you to make proposals so you show that you are proactive.

Leadership hearing what you got will sell an image that they care about you. And they care a lot about what you think about them. A company is a family! This attitude of acting like they care projects an image that they curate carefully to present themselves. Manager levels love to talk about being open and how they are actively discussing bottom-up proposals. Now think about how many of these proposals ever end-up into something concrete. Most of the time the approved proposals are harmful initiatives where the work can be delegated and don’t have a big economic impact in the budget. Two examples, it’s easy to approve an internal initiative where the teams want to do monthly tech talks, it’s harder to approve a renewal of the laptops and smartphones that people use. They will approve the easy proposal to maintain this image that they care while doing a massive layoff the next month.

A common scenario in a mature tech company is the following. A new CTO arrives. They propose a big change in the architecture and process of the company. Opening positions for new middle management roles. These new positions and initiatives are a top-down decision where the metric to move has been cherry picked by the management. A manager decides to re-do an architecture. Multiple teams spend a year migrating and working to it. At the end, the metric that we moved was the one that some manager decided. Spending a budget and milking the profits of the company. Time to move to a new company where they will share their success story on how they led this innovation and was a success.

This looks really different from a product decision which is more common in startups. A product decision is a bottom-up decision. First we find something that will generate money for the company. We have to justify this initiative to your manager and skip. Luckily it will be approved then, but sometimes it requires further higher management approval. After approval of the initiative, it’s the responsibility of the team to achieve the metric, which is going to make more money.

So, we have two clear distinct environments. Mature tech companies are environments where managers and senior roles want to maximize their profit. Startups are environments where the team focuses on making money so they can obtain big returns. Every startup that survives and becomes profitable with enough time will become a mature company as the political race takes place. Transitioning from a product oriented point of view to a political oriented point of view. Let the game of thrones begin.