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The Pyramid Corporation: Your Grade School Teacher for Adults

I can now proudly say that I have finished the initial draft of Developer Hegemony.  Currently, it weighs in at a robust 376 pages that contain my blood, sweat, and tears.  Digitally speaking, anyway.

I haven’t yet published the preview of it because I want to give the people I interviewed a chance to peruse the draft before I make their words available.  But I promise that you’ll have a chance to read in its entirety soon.  I have a lot more coming on that front as well, including the announcement of a launch date, so stay tuned.

I mention completing the book because this should leave me with more time and material to post here on DaedTech.  I’ve mostly cross posted from the other blogs I write for of late, but look for an uptick in posts here.  Alongside that change, I’m going to be shuffling some other things around in my life as well, and changing my focus somewhat in the coming months.  I’ll get to all of this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I plan to post more about the suboptimal current state of the corporate entity and what I believe we can do about it.

And, I’ll start that tonight, with a theme that I wanted to address but didn’t fit particularly well in the book itself.  I’m talking about all of the ways that the corporation has come to simulate a sort of parental/teacher hybrid for adults.

Caveats

Before I go too far, I want to say that I’m not intending to serve up a blistering critique of society, per se.  I feel more philosophical and observational about this.  In other words, think less “this is all so stupid and people are sheep” and more “how and why did we get to this place?”

I understand the how, to some degree.  I think, anyway.  Pyramid shaped corporations (the standard corporate structure) have a knack for becoming less than the sum of their parts.  You can get buy with common sense up to a certain level of scale, and then finally you get some weirdo that likes to clip his fingernails next to the coffee machine no matter how much anyone asks him not to.  Then, bam.  You’ve got a sign next to your coffee machine exhorting people not to clip their fingernails, and your whole company looks ridiculous.

I think that organizational childishness tends to scale more than linearly with the average marginal childishness of individuals hired.  The bigger you get, the more your collective adulthood escapes.  Still, though, it’s amazing we don’t blink more often and scratch our head at the state of things.

The School Dress Code

As a teenager, I remember coming to school wearing ratty jeans and T-shirts of bands that I liked.  You could do things like that at the public high school.  I think you just couldn’t wear shirts with swears on them and expose yourself.  I don’t really ever remember running afoul of the dress code.

As a consultant, the work dress code frequently occupies my thoughts.  I visit a lot of companies, so I ask what I should wear quite frequently.  When in Rome and all that.

We have many ways to talk about what you’re allowed to wear to the office.  Formal, smart casual, dressy casual, business casual, smart business, casual, etc.  I’m probably leaving out a few, including places that simply make you wear uniforms.  The rules for how you dress as an adult in the corporate world have many more complexities than when you were in school.  I guess you outgrow being trusted to wear what made sense for the occasion.

Authorized Absences

I remember that school came with both excused and the dreaded unexcused absences.  Excused absences presented no real issue for you.  If you got sick, your parent could “call you in” and the same kind of thing happened for a family vacation and the like.  But if you simply blew off sixth period to hang out with the burnout crowd, you flirted with docked grades and detention.  That, the unauthorized absence, was serious business.

Of course, then you grow up and everything is different.  You’re an adult, coming and going as you please, and on one can tell you what to do.  Except, of course, for your boss.  It goes without saying that you need to obtain her permission to be absent, lest your absence be unauthorized.  If it smells fishy, you may need to bring a doctor’s note.  But then, of course, you can go home and totally do whatever you want there.

Drug Testing

This one, actually, never happened to me in high school.  But doesn’t that seem like a likely place for it?  Right smack in the middle of children’s rebellious years definitely seems like the perfect time to check for them on the straight and narrow.  And yet, high schools extend this level of trust.

Not so much in the corporate world.  I didn’t suffer the “guilty until proven innocent” treatment until I started to land corporate jobs.

Don’t get me wrong on this.  I support the right of corporate entities to make this a precondition for employment.  But doesn’t it seem just a touch infantilizing?

Entrance Exams

Another rite of passage for the high school experience came in the form of SAT and ACT tests and prep.  For those not in the US, SAT/ACT are standardized tests used by colleges to determine suitability.  Of course, your college admission also included writing some essays, listing what clubs and sports you’d joined, and even, in some cases, doing interviews.

Then you grow up, and do basically the same stuff when you’re applying for jobs.  A panel of people convenes, discusses you, your performance, and your appearance on paper, and then makes a wise and just ruling on your suitability.

Report Cards

Four times per year and twice per semester, I took home a report card from high school.  I can still picture this, since I’m old enough to have toted home paper report cards.  They came hot off the presses of some dot matrix printer with the perforated strips still on the side.  I’d tear those off and bring home the grades.

As adults, we typically have something similar in the form of the corporate performance review.  Often, these come once per quarter, but of course, they’re a lot more grown up.  Instead of A, B, C, D and F, adults get “Exceeds Expectations,” “Exceeds Most Expectations,” “Meets Expectations,” “Meets Most Expectations,” and “Needs Improvement.”  Totally different — way more letters.

And, instead of “Calculus” and “Literature” adults get them in “Customer Focus” and “Reliability.”  You see with kids, it’s all objectivity and clear cut things.  Where are all the feels?  I bet high schoolers would have felt way more grown up if instead of “A in Calculus” they got “Exceeds Expectations in Reliability and Customer Focus.”

So What?

Where am I going with this?  As I said, nowhere in particular.  I’m indulging in some musing and enjoying the free form writing that I used to do a lot more of on this blog.

If there is a message to take away, I’d say it’s this.  The corporate workplace has managed to create a remarkably infantilizing atmosphere.  We tend not to perceive it this way because of its ubiquity.  If you’re in a position of any leadership whatsoever in your organization, do what you can to restore adulthood, sanity, common sense, and trust to the people you lead.  It may not seem like it, but I promise you that, on a long timeline, it will prove a competitive advantage.

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  • Rodney Smith

    There was a HackerNews thread the other day discussing the controversial topic of working from home. Most weighed in with a for/against type of argument, centered around trust, productivity, etc.

    Your mention in this article about the guy clipping his fingernails is what made me think about my comment on the HN thread:

    —begin post
    Management/Educators/Government will always cater to
    the lowest common denominator(LCD). It only takes one person to screw
    it up for everyone. This is the real upside to working for a small
    company. The larger the company, the lower the LCD is likely to be.

    I admire large companies that have the balls to delineate between groups.
    Most don’t. If you work as an IT professional for a company that has a
    large call center, God help you. Call center work is some of the
    highest turnover work out there. Managers of call centers resort to
    treating they’re employees like children.

    It is frustrating when you find yourself as a college educated, fully formed adult, being lumped in with cretins.

    IMO, this is largely why work from home is squashed. Because if we let you
    do it, everyone will want to do it, and we can’t have that.

    —end post

    Here’s the whole post for reference:

    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13462601

    • Wow, stuff in that thread and the general subject of conflating presence with work could send me on a multi-post rant bender.

      But the comment you cited is definitely appropos. LCD is inversely proportional to headcount scale, which is why I’ve had a natural aversion to working at large companies as an employee.

    • Who wants me? I’m here
  • David S

    I gotta admit, this drives me crazy. I suspect it partly comes as a result of managers being promoted to management without any training or mentorship in how to be a manager. They’re figuring it out on their own, and they tend to fall back on their only real leadership experience, which is being a parent.

    I can recall a couple incidents of being chewed out by a boss where I had a sudden flash of insight that this is the EXACT tone of voice he uses on his bratty 10-year-old. It probably doesn’t help that the typical promotion to management comes in your late 30’s or early 40’s, right around the time of life when a lot of people have kids in their pre-teens.

    I also think it’s made worse because a lot of normally mature adults will start to act childish when they are treated like children.

    • That’s an angle I hadn’t considered — the coincidence of being promoted to manager at the same time as having small children. And I definitely agree about being treated like a child prompting you to act like one. It’s similar to the way that overbearing micromanagers create learned helplessness and malicious compliance.

  • DHalonen
  • Dean Lackey

    The thing I’ve noticed with any organizational structure (corporations and software alike) is that when a problem arises, a solution inevitably is found without anyone ever asking why the problem arose in the first place. The solution may even be a bad one, but, it’s THE solution at that point. Applying band-aids to sores is somehow a part of human nature, so it makes sense that it invades most of our hierarchicalizations and systems of things.

    This is all reinforced by the notion that if an effort reaches some measure of success, then all of the choices made up to that point must have been the right ones. So, if at the end of the year we can say that the product shipped AND the 2nd floor break room was kept fairly clean by the 2nd floor staff, then putting up that sign about fingernails was the right way to go! And then the sign becomes part of the break room. And maybe even other break rooms on other floors get a sign.

    Iterative introspection doesn’t look like forward progress to management types, so it’s just not part of a standard corporate institution.

    • Excellent observations, all. In a consultative capacity, I often find a complex web of band-aids that each make sense in a vacuum, but serve to create a crippling state of affairs for the organization.

  • Jim Kerak

    I think in a human behavior/learning lens, a lot of the issues you point out could be related to over-use of negative reinforcement as a means to teach employees “correct” behaviors.

    • I’m definitely inclined to agree with that. It seems a lot easier in corporate contexts to figure out what people want to avoid than to figure out what motivates them and how to provide that.

  • yogamini

    What if technology and an entrepreneurial mindset can enable the disintegration of large corporations into small and medium sized businesses? Thereby employment will be an ephemeral phase in the career of an individual which lasts for barely a few years after he or she graduates school. The employer-employee relationship will eventually give way to business-business relationship. Am i just fantasizing or is such a thing even possible?

    • I think that’s where things are generally headed in tech. Large, successful tech companies usually seem to stay on top by decentralizing and running as a loose collection of programs/products/whatever. For companies whose products are mainly digital, economies of scale don’t provide benefit — just cost.