Note: The following is based upon my experience with IT-Security oriented environments (i.e. feel free to replace 'smart' with 'extremely geeky'). I would think this should apply to non technology people as well, but I do not have the experience to confirm that one way or the other.
During the course of my professional career, I have been fortunate enough to work in some environments that attracted and retained smart people. I have also had the opportunity to analyze environments that simply could not retain smart people. A few of the 'bad' work environments managed to hold the good folks for a tad longer than I thought they could by offering higher than market value salaries - but ultimately the good people, including myself, ended up leaving.
There are dozens of 'Top 10' lists that attempt to identify do's and dont's on how to keep people happy. As a fellow geek, I can easily dish out a never ending list of dont's based on my experience in environments that simply didn't seem to get it, but that is not the goal of my quest which is simply the following: What are the one or two root-causes of executive or management level decisions that repel smart people in any given organization?
I might have not solved this quest for the 'string-theory' of how to retain smart people, but I'd like to think I've made some progress. Before I go into what I feel these root-causes might be, I'd like to reflect on one important characteristic of a geek: analytical. I believe that the smart people working in technology oriented environments are really pure scientists at heart, and therefore extremely analytical in nature. We derive sheer enjoyment out of solving problems just for the sake of solving them. Any environment that threatens the ability of a geek to flourish analytically will repel him or her.
Based upon the above thought process, I have so far identified two main root-causes of frequent executive or management level decisions that tend to repel the good employees:
Decisions solely based upon tradition. This is how things have been done in the past, so we will continue to do things the same old fashioned way. It's worked for the past few years, so it must be the right way to do things. With a thought process like that, people would still be believing that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Decisions based solely upon tradition lack the hypothesis, the predictions, the joy of finding out things, the very thing that is essential in fostering a healthy atmosphere for geeks.
Decisions solely based upon authority. These types of decisions have the following explanation: the decision was made by somebody important so it must be a good decision. Important decisions cannot and should not be explained as 'executive decisions' without any sound reasoning behind them. Analytical people have a tendency to see past this type of bullshit quite easily. As a manager, if you commit the crime of passing on a decision based on authority to a geek, I wish you good luck with earning his or her trust and respect back. Thanks to (some of) the younger generation of companies, the role of the manager is steadily decreasing, and I feel this may (in a few years) contribute to lessening the ratio of decisions with 'authority' as the reasoning.
It is often the major decisions in a organization that end up fostering or destroying the ability of a department to retain smart people. I feel the two root-causes above give rise to issues such as: lack of creativity and motivation, a feeling of disconnect (lack of communication), lack of respect and trust, and a general lack of well-being.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Feel free to leave a comment on my O'Reilly blog.
A lot of people have emailed me personally and shared their personal experiences and thoughts. Based upon the responses, I'd like to add the following comments:
- The keyword to watch for when reading the proposed root-causes above is 'solely' or 'approaching solely'.
- There are instances where decisions based upon authority are completely necessary. However, if you are doing this too often, you are most likely ignoring an underlying problem that needs to be solved.
- My definition for 'smart people' or 'geeks' is not limited to entry level geeks. They can be applied to people in management and executive positions.
- Some people asked me what sort of experience my post is based upon. It is based upon my experience so far, which includes management.