Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who, Me?

There seems to be a lack of individual responsibility around these days. Maybe that's just me. Maybe it's always been this way. Probably. Some things I don't notice so good.

I've always been surprised by how lazy and opportunistic people are. Maybe that's just me. Maybe I'm not as bright as I've thought, or maybe I just haven't caught on yet to the true meaning of life. Something like that. I haven't caught on to massive sloth and grabbing what's easy.

I noticed during job interviews, or even worse, while on the job, that I scared people when I told them I stood 100% behind my work. Don't know why. That seems like a good characteristic to me, but it's never flown. People get spooked. Someone once asked me if I carry a gun.

Maybe a lot of them are scared to see someone care. Most of my working life has been in state government, where, when you swing through the trees, you see a lot of sleepy apes. The entire point of a bureaucrat's life is not to do anything. If you do anything you can be blamed, but you can never be blamed for doing nothing. Everyone in that kind of environment understands the idea of making decisions judiciously. Without question. I.e., doing nothing.

That's why it can take a year to get a stapler unless you steal one from a desk that's just been vacated.

That world works that way because there is never a positive incentive. There is no profit sharing. No bonuses. You don't get big stock options if you bet your job and a lot of company resources on a bold gamble. There is none of that, only the opposite.

Negative incentives.

What is, is. The status quo is the highest good. Muck up and the only option is punishment. Do well and you mess up the status quo. The only option is punishment. Keeping up appearances is the highest good.

I've worked with people who were demoted and moved across town into jobs they knew nothing about only because they happened to work for someone else who lost a turf war. I've seen a talented and experienced programmer given a desk and chair and nothing else, expected to sit there until he gave up and quit, only because he once spoke the truth. I know someone who, as a project manager whose project failed, was given a promotion.

No change, no gain. No gain, no pain. A small promotion is about the best you can get, and failure restores xquiet, enduring balance to a bureaucrat's life. A few dollars more a month from a promotion seems like a positive incentive but it's reall more of a threat. You have to work harder to keep up appearances, so maybe it's not a good thing to get. And you still have to show up every day for decades until they finally have to turn you loose. No matter who you are, how good you are, if you play in this system you weather down to the same level as everyone else. You want only to get through today, and live long enough to retire. Nothing more. Trying to actually do something only causes confusion and pain.

I've been a member of two Meetup groups based around web technology. I just learned today that the second one has now also failed. There are 71 members and only nine or 10 have shown up at meetings. The two organizers have been doing the presentations and the rest have been sitting there. People keep joining. And not showing up.

So easy. So clean.

I sort of know a web developer who lost his job when the big bust came a few years back. Henry Shires. In 1999 he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, using a shelter he made himself. He did it because he wanted to. He didn't sit around waiting for someone to ask, or to give orders. He needed to do the hike for personal reasons, so he did. To help he designed a shelter that was sort of like a tent and sort of like a tarp.

Later he got into web development. I don't know much about this part of his story, but having talked to him a time or two I heard that he lost his job. It was bad all over then. Happened to lots.

Sometime later, after he'd posted his original tarptent plans, then updated them with a new model or two (all free information for the taking), I found that he was in business. Making and selling tarptents.

Now he's one of the big names in the ultralight cottage industry class. Sounds like damning with faint praise but it's really praising with no damns at all. This is tough work, in a small market, and now he has a worldwide clientele and a reputation to go with it.

This is what personal responsibility is about.

First he had a dream, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. And he did it.

Then he had a job, and then didn't.

Then he created a business and made it work.

This is real web develpment. Henry Shires had a stake in it. He had something to gain. Web development now isn't something for his resume. It is a vehicle for his business. He had a reason to work with that, which was to develop his business, because he liked hiking and liked tarptents. So he took on the responsibility of it all. It gave him a payback. Not like what you get when you decide to become a member of an anonymous group.

Not a big story at all, but nice. Not like clicking a link on a web page and joining a group and never showing up. First Henry showed up at life and the group joined him.

Now if only I could be so smart.


References:

The Olympia Web Design Meetup Group

Tarptent.com

The original Tarptent plans


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