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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Exceptional Workplaces and Great Engineers

I believe in exceptional workplaces. I believe in building great atmosphere, helping people to fulfill their potential and making work more fun.

There was time when I believed that exceptional workplace results in exceptional workers.

I don’t anymore.

Actually I’m confused when it comes to the subject. When I read Joel Spolsky writing about Fog Creek I’m all “Hey, the guy is a guru, he just can’t be wrong.” And then I hear the story about Googlers complaining about lack of variety of coffee brands and I’m all “What the hell? Can’t they just appreciate how much their employer is doing for them every single day?” I see how much genuine fun can be initiated by integration events. And then I see people who aren’t able to understand all of these features aren’t a duty of their employer – it’s either good will or an investment which doesn’t have to bring any ROI by the way.

Google attracts great engineers, but not with free snacks or gorgeous offices. In the first place it’s because they run extremely interesting projects and then it can be about exceptional workplace too, but in a second or a third place. I guess Google also attracts loads of people who aren’t anywhere close to be great engineers.

The same was with Microsoft back in 90s. Now Microsoft is the source of all evil but then it was a destination for many great engineers. And I don’t really remember anyone mentioning free soda as the main reason of choosing Microsoft.

At the same time I’m happy I can offer people in my team bonuses which aren’t offered by our competitors on local labor market. These guys haven’t joined the team because of these add-ons but they make working here a bit nicer.

Someone can say there used to be more “features” in our company some time ago but my answer is “so what?” Maybe some people will stop treating all these bonuses as granted and actually start appreciating when they get one. Because if you’re one of those who spend all day complaining about lack of variety of coffee brands you may want to reconsider what’s really important for you at work.

After all, exceptional workplace is only one of many pieces of attracting great engineers. Definitely not the most important one.

in: software business, team management

8 comments… add one

  • 6p00d8341ca4d953ef December 4, 2009, 5:41 pm

    Pawel,

    My wife (fortunately in this case has a different last name) works in HR for a startup company where nearly everyone has a very large sense of entitlement. The coffee comment you made is EXACTLY the same conversation. "Where did the Starbucks Special Blend go, I want that back in palce of the normal Starbucks."

    "I don't like to color of my chair, can you get me a green one instead of this black one."

    I'm so glad I work in defense where people are happy to have a phone that works and a laptop with enough memory to run Outlook.

  • Craig Brown December 4, 2009, 10:20 pm

    Pawel

    You are talking about hygene factors.

    Some things pull workers in, some push them away.

    I hav come to a tentative conclusion that in IT projects the work itself is the greatest potential pull factor. Bad management and bad customers are the greatest push, and the rest is incidental.

    Everything, of course is subject to its own context.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 5, 2009, 3:31 am

    Glen,

    Well, a couple of years before I'd argue with you. But as I've said, I don't anymore. It's not even the coffee story which changed my mind but seeing how some people, after some time, can take every single bonus as granted and yet expect more.

    I think it is related with (lack of) experience though. I see this flawed behavior mostly among people who haven't worked in environments where you should feel lucky if you notebook can deal with Outlook and there's virtually no coffee for weeks since company doesn't have enough money to buy some.

    Once you got through "less nice" companies you definitely appreciate this special blend of coffee and don't rant when it's gone.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 5, 2009, 3:37 am

    Craig,

    I think this can differ among people. Some (not many) people work for money in the first place, some just want to avoid stress at work, some look for challenges and ways to develop themselves. In each case these hygiene factors will be treated differently.

    Actually I'm not sure that I'm fully agree with bad management being the biggest push factor. It would mean that the worst managers should have problems with staffing which isn't true. Or it may be strong push factor but not strong enough to change jobs.

  • Stephane December 5, 2009, 10:15 am

    I don't think that the important pieces of google brains have been attracted by the nice coffee and all the benefit of being taken care of by google. Working for such a company is prestigious (and working for Microsoft still is!). It's "Wow".
    Money doesn't make great engineers, or developers. What makes a developer good is passion. Some talent as well, of course, but passion is the word I think.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 5, 2009, 11:03 am

    Stephane,

    Of course great office and nice coffee alone won't draw great engineers. But in Google case that's a part of their story: "not only we have great projects but there's the best office around too." Thanks to that they have bigger recruitment pool that they would have had if they had worked just like another huge software house.

    And it's not about "making" great engineers – neither money nor any other external factor can't do that – but about attracting them to join your team.

  • pete December 19, 2009, 8:22 am

    one more thing – you have to take into consideration that Mountain View is in the middle of the Silicon Valley :)
    there’s Microsoft office in MV, Oracle and Adobe nearby, Facebook around the corner, Yahoo and Sun headquarters within reasonable commute distance etc. all those companies can offer you great salary and interesting projects, so having additional “engineer bite” is not only about being nice to your employees, it’s a good business strategy. also: it may be cheaper to pay for the food and get all the free coverage around the interwebs (including this post) than to post job advertisements :)
    BTW people complaining about number of coffee or chocolate brands available in micro kitchens annoy the hell out of me, but they are still minority. most of the people in the company do enjoy what they are getting, even if it’s making us (sea) sick: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMT5WCbQic8 ;)

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 20, 2009, 12:33 pm

    You’re right about places like Silicon Valley, where it’s not enough to offer great places to attract great engineers. But Silicon Valley is a specific place. How many others, which look the same, do you know?

    Google made great offices one of their flag ships and many companies try to copy this approach. However one flag ship doesn’t make a fleet – it’s not great office alone which ends up in a group of great engineers. I see this failure surprisingly often.

    By the way I heard the story with coffee brands told in a context of four different companies which makes it pretty typical example. And yes, it’s always minority but that’s a visible sign of how people think about their employer. And their colleagues who have healthy approach to that.

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