Employers and employees usually have a shared interest. They all want the company to succeed, and the better a company does, the better off its employees will be.
There are small frictions between management and people for sure. For example, employees might want to work less hours for the same salary. But on the whole, a company is a machine that becomes more successful when all its members succeed individually. That is, until we look at most tech companies.
As a consultant, I work closely with multiple product teams. This year alone, I have worked with over a dozen startups, and the pattern couldn’t be clearer: The company’s interests and what software developers want are often misaligned.
When you ask the question “What’s the most important thing about your job?”, every tech person in the world, at every company and in every job interview, will say the same thing: They want to “learn something new.” Engineers often want to learn new technologies to put them on their CV, but that might not be in their team’s best interest.
As the author Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
We have an SOS on our hands
In popular psychological literature, “shiny object syndrome” (or SOS) is a pop-cultural, psychological concept, where people focus on the most current trend, regardless of how valuable or helpful it may ultimately be for one’s life.
SOS is nothing more than distraction; the term is often used when people fixate on something to the extent that they lose sight of the big picture. SOS affects tech entrepreneurs and startups because of the qualities that make tech employees unique: They tend to be highly motivated, crave new technology, and are not afraid to frequently jump into new projects.
Like an optical illusion, the “shiny object” becomes less interesting once you grasp it. As soon as software developers explore a new piece of technology, they almost immediately jump into something new—and end up chasing project after project.
At tech companies, it’s almost guaranteed that, every few years, a major technology shift will make a significant portion of their systems “old.” From a business perspective, it is important to maintain “legacy” systems, but such maintenance will be the kind of project that nobody wants to work on.
There’s a reason SpaceX spent time on astronaut fashion. In a world where developers want to keep working with the latest innovations, companies are pressured to keep up and introduce new technologies more quickly. All things being equal, it’s an easy choice between working for a company that uses rundown computers or for one that uses the hottest devices.
Using the latest technology does at least two things:
- The latest technology is usually an improvement over all the other tools available—at least in some important ways. At the end of the day, the latest tech has been built upon new knowledge. Using better tools should future-proof the company, simply by decreasing its dependency on less popular options.
- New technologies make hiring easier. Software developers and their online communities love innovation, so there are usually classes available, blog posts galore, and constant chatter on social networks.
On the other hand, introducing new technologies does cause issues:
- There’s almost always lost productivity while team members are learning them. In some situations, employees might even need formal training, or new hires will have to come on board to fill knowledge gaps.
- Learning new technology can be confusing for staff. Do they find it interesting? Not every new thing is created equal, and some people might choose to retrain while others decide to jump ship and learn something else—a different type of new technology.
- Companies often find that the people they attract by leveraging new technologies are not the kind of people who will stick around for a while, in which case a slow but steady effort might have worked out better in the long run.
What it all comes down to is correctly setting short-term and long-term goals. There’s no right or wrong answer—there’s only a “right answer for the right company at the right time,” which is why it’s so important to choose the right technologies and choose them wisely.
A win for boredom
The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, and their religion, as well as the considered way they adopt technology. They don’t live entirely without modern niceties. For example, they might use small home appliances, power tools, and batteries, and they might even use cars or phones. The Amish, however, use technology selectively; they are very cautious about how a given device can affect their community.
“Amish life is about the value of agreed-upon limits.”
–Erik Wesner, Amish America
Maybe tech companies should behave more like the Amish: determine what kind of developers they want to attract, and choose their technologies accordingly. If a certain technology looks good on a programmer’s CV today, and in four to five years’ time, that’s probably a win for all.