Carrots and Sticks

The subject of motivation came up several years ago in reference to some employee turnover as well as increasing salary costs for IT professionals. What truly motivates us as individuals and teams to accomplish goals beyond carrots and sticks? If you aren’t familiar with the term carrots and sticks, it refers to the idea of providing rewards for results, carrots, or punishment for lack of results, sticks.

In reference to the workplace, at some point it cannot just be about dollars and cents. If this were the case, as employees, we would continually move from place to place accepting offers from the highest bidder and never care about the work we were doing. Some people make a career out of this I suppose, but I am not one of those types. I’ve been at my place of work for 15 years and while every day isn’t always roses, I have enjoyed my time there and have never really given much consideration to leaving, ever.

What are the things that add intrinsic value and not just compensational value to a person like myself? I know in my own case, I have turned down many opportunities over the years. I have been offered total package compensation as much as three to four times what I was making at the time. Was I a fool for letting that go or are there aspects about my job that are worth more to me than money? How do I convince or recruit other like-minded individuals so we get long term employees and work towards a common goal without having to stop and restart as people come and go?

Daniel H. Pink is an accomplished author and speaker on topics of business and in particular gained much notoriety on the topic of motivation with his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This seemed like just what we were looking for to help answer some of these questions.

I have a long commute in the morning, so I opted for the audiobook.  Either way, it’s a short read or listen and can be digested in just a few days. The book itself is only 288 pages and many are filled with worksheets and other tools for analysis. I can’t say I agree with every word that streams from Daniel H. Pink, but I do think his core ideas are solid in their foundation. As someone who has found intrinsic value in my place of work, I was able to look at my own situation and see what made me happy in my career and try and work with the company I work for to help others feel those same things.

Daniel H. Pink also did a TED Talk on the topic of motivation and if you really want to be entertained, the RSA did a cartoon animation of the talk. I highly recommend at least listening to the TED Talk or watching the video. The ideas of giving employees the ability to have autonomy, the ability to have mastery over their skills and a sense of purpose in their career are intrinsic values which, as long as the employee is compensated well with their peers, creating an environment where they can flourish will reward an organization well. Daniel H. Pink mentions in both the book and the TED Talk about the software company, Atlassian, and the idea of FedEx Friday’s as well as the open source movement as examples of getting value back without a carrot or a stick.

Once I digested the information, it was time for action. How do we turn a workplace into a place where others feel the same levels of autonomy, mastery and purpose that I have felt. This is a lot harder question to answer than it is to ask. We started with efforts around the office like free soda and lunches or company outings. We switched to agile methodologies for the entire IT department. We had been operating in small, dedicated teams, so we tried one big team. We then tried smaller teams once again. We tried giving ownership of design, or ownership of process. We even tried the FedEx Friday idea. We changed the structure of teams and how they functioned over and over. There were small improvements, but nothing terribly lasting or exciting.

At some point it dawned on me that in order to have those things, we needed to retain the right people and hire the right people to make it happen. We needed folks that weren’t just here to do a day’s work and go home. We needed people who had what I referred to at the time as entrepreneurial spirit. These are people who are invested and have the spirit of innovation and risk-taking that all great entrepreneurs share. At this point I realized that I was not just an employee of a company, but rather the CEO of my own personal company and that is how my role had formed inside of the organization. We needed people that, while they may not see it in themselves, we saw that they were the CEO of their own self. This is the magic straw that mixes the Daniel H. Pink drink.

If you give someone autonomy who doesn’t have the right spirit, they become scared that they aren’t doing their job well. They become lost without direction. They are constantly looking over their shoulder and wondering if they are doing the right thing. They don’t know how to be a self starter. That same person doesn’t have the burning desire to master their skills. They might try an online course or a night class, but it’s money and time wasted. The content will go in one ear and out the other, because they don’t really want to learn it. They have no desire to become a master. That same person will feel lost and without purpose, and finally, that person will quit and go work somewhere else. I know this sounds very harsh, but it is the reality of the importance of finding the right mix of individuals to work together towards a common goal. Daniel H. Pink was right in his attributes of where motivation comes from, but he was definitely missing one important element. This is the root of the why.

Simon Sinek had a great TED Talk called Start With Why which talked about this very topic. I enjoyed his talk, however, I’d be lying if I said I bought into his entire talk, but I do agree with his core message. The why is just as important as the what, if not more important. Like I said before, this is the missing driver in making the motivation operating system work in the first place. You must recruit the best talent that also is wired with the burning desire to be motivated in the first place. I cannot make you motivated. This is something that exists within you. As a leader, it is my job to give you the tools to become a master, the reasoning or the why to give you purpose, and freedom or autonomy to do your job to the best of your ability and then it is my job to get out of the way and let you do your thing. If you fail or succeed, you did it on your terms, and this is ultimately what is best for the organization as a whole. If I did my part in recruiting the right people, we will all work together in accomplishing the goals we set out to do without having to use carrots and sticks to drive results .

Singular Purpose

I’ve written before about keeping things simple in software design. One such way to do this that I preach nearly daily is to give things a singular purpose. The moment you introduce multiple purposes is the moment you introduce complexity and most likely the need for a refactoring session in the very near future.

When I started professionally in software, our budget wasn’t large. Mostly, I had to figure things out on my own. I can recall a function we introduced called Search. At first, this function took about four parameters and returned a single output type, but after several software revisions the function took about twenty parameters and could return several different output types depending on an output parameter that told the developer which form was being returned. Why strongly type output?  That’s too easy. As you can imagine, this was where the idea of singular purpose started to make sense to me. Making my programs call a SearchThis function or a SearchThat function rather than all programs calling a single Search function.

How do we achieve singular purpose in design? This question can start a great session of paralysis by analysis if you let it. Most programming I do nowadays is object oriented, but this principle applies to any programming style or framework. Singular purpose starts at the application level, then goes to the class level, then to the method level, and even in the variables you declare and how you name them. It exists throughout the design.

SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) was our first attempt, organizationally, to bring singular purpose to the forefront of our designs from the ground up. This was a new way to think about programming, and building applications that provide single services and building a pipeline of navigation through the single service apps to solve a problem. This paradigm changed the way we build applications. In fact, most of our application design today follows the SOA pattern.

We started by chaining Windows services together with MSMQ (Microsoft Message Queue) and pushing a state object through different services that performed actions and appended data to our state object. We have experimented with other queues such as RabbitMQ and we have added caching servers into play such as Redis. We have even migrated these services to the cloud and used both AWS and Microsoft Azure native services to help drive these systems.

SOA is not the silver bullet when it comes to singular purpose. An example from our experience was that we wanted to build a pipeline that was only dependent on the database at the beginning and end of the journey. At some point in the build, one of the developers realized we needed to append information to our state object that came from the database from other processes that kicked off after the state object started on the pipeline. Rather than change when the pipeline started, we eventually caved, and added a service to append the necessary fields of information. This was still keeping with singular purpose, so no harm, no foul. However, because of code reuse, and maybe some impatience by some of the development staff, the database code that was added to a single service was also added to a second service, and then a third. At this point, I was no longer running this group, but from afar it became clear to me that singular purpose and SOA aren’t necessarily equal. The team was still following SOA, but they introduced complexity by having services that did one function and appended information from a database, as well as logged information to a database.

The lesson learned from the above story is that singular purpose has to be as important in your architecture as the problem you are solving. As I mentioned before, if not, you will be in for refactoring sessions sooner rather than later. The team that introduced the database into the several steps in our SOA design, also had to refactor the database out of the equation. They were contaminating their data from all directions and had to only pick specific points in which to allow new data into the model. This was the original design, and the correct solution to the problem at hand. Because we did not account for all scenarios up front, it became the easy way out to add a function to a single service rather than add a single service to the pipeline. It took a while for me to understand why, but I think I have figured it out. We need a system for SOA that makes it just as easy to add a service to the pipeline as it is to introduce a function to a service.

Recently, I have discovered Microsoft Azure WebJobs. I am so new to working with them, I can’t say they are the silver bullet to both SOA and singular purpose, but in my small experience with them, things are looking promising.  Expect an entire blog post dedicated to them very soon, but look them up.  They provide a framework to do very singular purposed design by exposing just a single function and allowing it to be called on a schedule or have it run continuously and even be triggered by events like messages in queues or files being uploaded. Very cool stuff! I am currently building my first SOA style system with them and I will provide a complete review very soon. The best part about them, is that they run in the space you have dedicated to an App Service in Azure, which is where you run your websites. These jobs can run either across the farm for your site, or as a singleton.

Singular purpose in software architecture is a key component to simple software design. It has to be as important as the problem you are solving to build long lasting, scalable, maintainable software systems. SOA is a good pattern to help reinforce singular purpose, but it is still up to you, as the developer, to make sure singular purpose is at the forefront of your thoughts and your actions. There are many tools, services, and frameworks available to help you in your quest for singular purpose. I am encouraged by WebJobs and I will provide an update as to my thoughts on them in the near future. Ultimately, it is on your shoulders to build specific apps, classes, and methods that tell a single story, rather than every story that needs to be told.  When we launched the Search method with twenty parameters, we found many years of headaches maintaining a poorly designed function that found itself interwoven into much of our infrastructure instead of the many hours or days of pain it would have been to refactor it out, or even better yet, the hours of contemplation about keeping things simple that could have saved us that complexity in the first place. Learn from this and happy coding! 🙂

SPOILER FREE: A Lesson We Should Take From Captain America: Civil War

As of writing this post, I have not seen the upcoming Marvel Studios movie, Captain America: Civil War. I will, however, be seeing it very soon.

I love what Marvel has done with the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). This continuing storyline of movies over the past 8 years or so has been quite a fantastic ride and it is also a ride that doesn’t seem to be coming to an end any time soon. It has been very exciting seeing the characters grow, and I am super excited about Spider-Man joining the fray.

My excitement for the upcoming movie got me thinking about, as a leader in an organization, what lessons should I take from Captain America: Civil War based on what I know about the movie today?  The short synopsis for the movie is that the superheroes are divided against each other on whether to accept government regulation or should they continue to act as vigilantes. In a movie twist, Team Captain America is against government regulation and Team Iron Man is in favor of regulation. This is kind of the opposite of how the characters have acted up until now in the MCU. Iron Man/Tony Stark has been a symbol for flipping the bird against the government and acting however he pleases. In Iron Man 2 he claims to have privatised world peace and in The Avengers: Age of Ultron he creates the robot Ultron using alien technology, who ends up terrorizing the world. Captain America is a product of the military and has always put his nation above his own relationships, desires and existence and would never seem to be someone who would stand in the way of a governmental regulation.  However, maybe this isn’t that farfetched as Cap has seen government organizations corrupt all around him in his dealings with both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra.

In some ways, being a leader in an organization is akin to Team Iron Man and accepting regulation. This could come in the form of a boss’s directives, company rules, government regulations, board decisions, stockholder decisions, or your peers thoughts. Rules and regulations protect us in many ways. I guess you could say, in some ways being a good leader is being a good follower. The first thing that comes to mind is information security. We can’t be reckless with information security. It’s not the right thing to do. Our corporations and their partners and clients depend on us to make sure we have things under lock and key and are following industry standards to make sure of it. This is a prime example where paving your way just doesn’t make sense. Another way might be with spending. When operating under a budget, it is our responsibility to make that budget work because the rest of the organization is counting on us to do so. Sometimes we need to check our ego at the door and realize that everything we do is not always going to be about coming in with guns a blazing.

As fun as being a follower is, being a leader is also a lot like Team Cap and continuing to be a vigilante, and fighting for truth, justice and the American way, right? Part of being a leader is most definitely being a pioneer, and paving new roads. Innovation is a huge part of being a technology leader. We need to think and rethink what it means to do whatever it is we do, and constantly reinvent ourselves from a technological standpoint. Technology is moving at such a rapid pace, if we become content with a certain pattern, practice, or technology, we already are behind our competition.

I have always related my role as a leader as someone who walks a tightrope between the sides of chaos and order. Perhaps, this tightrope is not only where I belong as a technology leader, but ultimately where we find both Team Cap and Team Iron Man at the end of their movie? Those of us heading out to the theaters this week will find out soon enough, but until then, can we agree that both Team Captain America and Team Iron Man are quite possibly both correct? There is a time and a place for everything. Sometimes it is best to follow in line and follow your marching orders to a tee, and other times it’s best to stand on your own even if that means there might be consequences. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a couple of eggs, right?

Just for the record, going into the movie, I’m #TeamIronMan

*********** UPDATE – 5/6/2016 ***********

I saw the movie last night, and I think my take on the movie before watching it was a good one, but there are so many more lessons to take from the movie. I’ll have to write about more of these in the future, but I’m keeping it spoiler free for now. Go out and see the movie!  It’s a really good movie with really good character usage and I enjoyed the villain and his master plan. All of the new characters are great! I’m a huge Spider-Man fan, and the new one is excellent. I am so excited to see Spider-Man Homecoming next year!

Keep it Simple

When writing software, one of the things I preach to developers is to keep things simple. As engineers and architects we sometimes turn off our common sense in favor of trying to solve all business problems at once. We forget that the first problem we have to solve is the one at hand and not the rest of this project, next project, the bugs from those projects that could arise and the thing that might be cool or catastrophic if we go down some road in three years.

An example might be that a client asks for a modification to an existing form measuring satisfaction. Your client wants to capture a checkbox of whether the person submitting the form wants to be contacted in the future. The checkbox being checked means they do want to be contacted and unchecked means they do not.

This is a simple request and should require a simple solution. However, something as simple as this can and is often overdone. Instead of piggybacking the existing form we could post back the state of the checkbox using AJAX as soon as it changes to have the most accurate state possible. Is the default value checked or unchecked? What if we disabled the checkbox via CSS and JavaScript until we had other fields filled out? What if we only displayed the checkbox once that portion of the screen is visible? What about how this checkbox will work in multiple browsers or devices? What do we do after we capture the state? Should we notify the person submitting the form? Should we notify our client that someone submitted the form? Don’t even bring up unit tests, integration tests and acceptance tests. The questions and scenarios are endless.

In this moment, it’s best to go back to what was originally requested. Add a checkbox to a form. That’s it. Keep it simple. Start with simple.

Our job is challenging. We have to understand the best way to deliver value and yet not under or over deliver. Take the example of the checkbox, what if the client did want more from the checkbox and didn’t know to ask? It is also our job to ask the right questions. Often, our clients know only a narrow view of what they want because they don’t understand what is possible or don’t understand the scenarios that can occur from the development they are requesting. It is our job to keep ourselves in check to keep it simple as well as keep our clients on the path they truly want to go down.

We are not tasked with an easy job, but when we truly focus on keeping it simple and delivering value we will keep projects running smoothly and delivering bang for our client’s buck. Remember to start with simple, ask the right questions, and deliver time and time again.