How do you deal with workplaces that don't work?
June 5, 2007 4:34 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with companies that are badly managed? Are all companies badly managed? Is the "real world" just an endless fight to try and get things done?

I've been contracting for the past year for smallish companies in IT, as a software developer. Previously to that I was involved in a little startup with a friend, which didn't really go anywhere but was very fun; before that I was doing graphic design and web stuff.

The pattern, since that little startup, has been pain and annoyance. I keep working for these companies where practically no one knows how to do their job. I poked around Ask for relevant answers, and there were a couple, but they were very specific and my question is a little more general.

I keep finding myself thinking, well, this would work if, we could do this if, everyone would be a lot less stressed out if, I wish we all had clear communication about, I wish the person who was supposed to do this would.... etc. It sounds egotistical, and I do think I am good at my job, but I relate the stories to my friends and they nod and agree, and (at least at the past two places; one 7 months and ongoing, the other 3) there seems to always be this small core of people who are trying to get things done, and nothing else seems to make sense. Project managers who can't manage projects, other dev teams who don't seem to be accomplishing much, CEOs who have no real idea what you do and have specific suggestions and don't like yours, no one reading any e-mails, a total blanket of noncommunication, except among the few guys who are talking to each other about how hard it is to do anything and how much their morale has plummeted over the past half a year.

I've got a pretty good resume, so I could get another job, and I'm thinking about it, but I'm also trying to do a lot of things in my life that require me to save up a bit, and I really hate finding jobs. This place isn't even that bad, or it didn't seem like it at first, but it's like after a few months of relative success and calm, we grew a bit and now everything is this horrible passive-aggressive hand-wringing mess.

And the things I can think of that would help things a bit, I can't do, because they're massive company-wide things. It's only 15-25 people, but saying "hey, the project manager can't do his job and it's making our lives very difficult" doesn't seem like it would work. Or the fact that I don't feel like the tech department(s) have any real direction or goals or feedback. It's so vague, it's like "make everything better!" "It's not better enough!" "No not like that!" While simultaneously being yelled at every day if things are not absolutely flawless despite the fact that we are doing entirely new things that will, you know, have bugs.

We have no defined processes for anything, we have no insulation from non-technical people who freak out at the sign of any tiny bug, we have this weird vacillation between "I don't want to micromanage" and "what are you doing right now"... I mean, yeah, part of me just wants to write this to vent, but seriously, people, what do you do? This is actually an improvement over the last place I was at, where we worked hundred-plus hour weeks for a while and then "weren't working hard enough".

Do I have bad luck? Is there a secret to being employed that will somehow let me get some of these changes to happen? I'm sure it all really comes down to a lack of communication, and I am big on communication, but half the time people are too busy or too something to even read my e-mails, and then when I really want to talk to people about things I feel like I have to spend 50% of my day documenting things and trying to talk to people about things, and then I'm not being productive and it's a waste of everyone's time and money.

We've had a couple of people even come in (consulting-types) and say, "hey, yeah, you need to do this, I know it's annoying to take the time, but it'll help everything." We don't.

I felt like quitting today. I want to quit. But I shouldn't, for me, so I am going to have to start doing things differently.

posted by blacklite to Work & Money (20 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
There's an adage about your situation from Martin Fowler: "You can change your organization, or change your organization". Those links will take you to the Portland Pattern Repository's Wiki, where many software developers have discussed and dealt with some of the things you mention. Even though the "change your organization" page is pretty small, you might be able to find some other discussions and ideas linked from there that may inspire you.
posted by DrSkrud at 4:45 PM on June 5, 2007

Dilbert is popular for a reason. I think a lot of great companies got started when competent people got fed up and found a like-minded friend to start a company with. This might be what you end up doing. In all honesty what you say pretty much exactly mirrors my experience in small (and some large) companies. One thing that helped me is to really appreciate the cool and competent people I find, because there are always a few. And if you work together sometimes you can achieve critical mass and actually DO something.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:12 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

My experience is, in any organisation that I work for, those in power have different values than mine. For example, the boss might value social relations over quantity/quality of work, so because I don't schmooze, but sit at my desk and power through my work, I'm overlooked when it comes to promotion. Or maybe I can't really see how obnoxious I am. My current theory is that extraverts rule the world because they're noisier, but they have less time to achieve because they're talking so much. Mostly about crap. I mean, about things that do not interest me.

I quit my job at the uni about a year ago mostly because of the differences in values between me and my upline. I got rehired on a casual basis as an RA. Great, interesting work, and I have recently had the very great pleasure of finding out that my upline missed me - not immediately, but about 6-9 months after I left, all the things that I'd been doing were being left undone, and finally, recently, someone got yelled at. Someone else is implementing my plan for improving the School website (a year later - wtf).

So really, value differences. Oh and the myth of meritocracy. That's the issue, I reckon.
posted by b33j at 5:13 PM on June 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I feel for you. I experienced this for two years. I couldn't easily quit, so after a while I just stopped caring and hopped on with all of the lazy/incompetent people. It was so ingrained into the culture of the organization, that it seemed like the motto was "Those who do good satisfactory work, do all the work".
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:24 PM on June 5, 2007

There is always tension between the techies and the non-techies. Everything seem easy to management, so why isn't it done yet?

What you need are competent test and dev managers who will set priorities and deal with the rest of the exec staff. You can't have the marketing manager running to programmers with every Chicken Little bug. They certainly will if you let them.

Everything can't go in to every release. Somebody has to triage what goes in, what gets punted, and what is just silly. Somebody has to decide when a release is 'done', and it better be somebody who has some responsibility for the released product (i.e., test manager) and not the sales VP.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:27 PM on June 5, 2007

I should add that it can be done with a small team in a small company. We have five devs and three testers under one manager. Helps that everyone is very competent but hashing out our process did take time but it is possible.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:28 PM on June 5, 2007

Any organization - corporate, government, educational, social - would work very smoothly if everyone involved had the same priorities.

This almost never happens.

You remind me of my fiancé, who just doesn't understand why everyone can't just agree on how to run these Big Important Cool Projects. He spends a lot of time and effort trying to convince people how things should be done, and a fair amount of his identity is invested in his work. Then there's people like my father, who puts 40 hrs/wk into a dull job far below his intellect, but makes good money and gets tons of vacation time. He really could care less what happens in the upper realms of management, as long as he gets his paycheck.

I think there are more people in the world like my dad than there are my fiancé. Truth be told, I'm one of them. I'm not going to stress out if things at work aren't going my way. In under 8 hrs I'll be home with my feet up on the coffee table.
posted by desjardins at 5:33 PM on June 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'd like to add, this doesn't make me incompetent. I know what I'm doing, and I do it well. But if someone gets in my face and starts stressing about how things should be done this way or that, unless they're the one signing my paycheck, I'm probably not going to pay them much heed.
posted by desjardins at 5:35 PM on June 5, 2007

And another thing. Good, competent people are out there and they tend to find each other. Ask around and find the places they enjoy working. I've been at my current job for a record four years because anyplace else will be a step (or three) down, people-wise.

If you are frustrated with the people at your company it is time to move on. If there are good people but the process is broken, then you can stick around and fix that. Processes can be fixed but people can't.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:39 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Join a Consultancy...

You don't spend a ton of time (years+) at any single client, so you get to experience a wide variety of different operating environments

Management brings you in to do one of two things:
1) Advise management. This means you are tasked with proposing a solution to a problem, but whether Management decides to take your advice is not of much concern to you. It is a liberating way to operate.

2) Serve as an arm of management, doing things they cannot, or will not do. This is usually some variety of a change to the status quo. It seems to address your need to make positive changes within an organization. Consulting gives you the opportunity and power to actually do it.
posted by WetherMan at 5:51 PM on June 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

One of the biggest problems with work, generally speaking, is that most people think that they're doing a great job (or good enough) and that they aren't the problem. Those other guys are the problem. And given this insane lack of self awareness on the part of most people, and added to that the self-righteousness to blame others, work situation (especially with diverse backgrounds of work people) create tension. Everyone has a different standard of what is, and isn't good work. And everyone has a completely skewed view toward their own performances.

Which isn't to say that you, the OP, are in the wrong. Or to say that I'm somehow completely aware of this problem and that clearly I am right to be saying this. Because I'm sure that people at work have some complaints about me too. But I am saying that blaming others instead of working with them is what creates hostile, inane work environments. Passive aggressive bosses and co-workers, a "walking on eggshells PC environment", and people's complete inability to take criticism cause a shitload of inaction in the workplace, and often leave the work itself in gridlock.

Try to find something pleasant about work, and barring that, find a job that suits your personality better. The first step in finding a suitable job is making sure to interview THEM, while they're interviewing you. If people were really as good as they say they are at work, they'd be aggressive enough to ask tough questions during the interview about what kind of a job they're getting themselves into to begin with.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 5:55 PM on June 5, 2007

Yeah, been there.

One humbling thing I learned from being there was that demonstrating my own technical competence in excruciating detail in every email I sent was actually a sign of interpersonal incompetence.

Software developers spend most of our working lives immersed in a mass of details that we have to stay on top of in order to make anything we do actually work. This becomes second nature, and it's actually quite difficult to let go of the need to spread that stuff around.

If you're often sending detailed emails up the org chart, stop. Learn to summarize. It's not so much that the people you report to don't know how to use that scroll bar thingy (although I've met plenty who, seriously, don't); it's that caring about all that detailed stuff is your job, not theirs. Quoting chapter and verse for every decision you make does not cover your arse - it just gets your mails ignored.

Another important email hint: One topic, one email. Never send a single email with three unrelated paragraphs.

Clear communication is hard, which is why it's so often poorly done. Don't you make it harder.

And rest assured that wherever you work, or whatever you find yourself doing, there is always going to be just a small core of people who are actually responsible for making things happen. It's just how people work.
posted by flabdablet at 6:20 PM on June 5, 2007 [5 favorites]

If you're often sending detailed emails up the org chart, stop. Learn to summarize.

Excellent point, and a mistake that a lot of technically-oriented people (like the aforementioned fiance) tend to make. Some of us would rather ignore an e-mail than be 1) bored to death by technical details or 2) have to admit we don't fully understand such details.
posted by desjardins at 6:26 PM on June 5, 2007

And rest assured that wherever you work, or whatever you find yourself doing, there is always going to be just a small core of people who are actually responsible for making things happen.

Perhaps common, but not always true. You just need a management team who a> knows who is doing the work and b> isn't afraid to get rid of the people who aren't.
posted by blenderfish at 10:19 PM on June 5, 2007

Politics-Oriented Software Development. (Disclaimer: I wrote part of that).

All companies are badly managed to some extent. Most people are pursuing their individual goals at the company's ( and their coworkers) expense.

That said, places do differ, and if your workplace is really bugging you might get some improvements by moving elsewhere.

Most software companies and departments either flail around in unproductive anarchy, or entrap everyone in a stultifying bureaucracy. It's worth deciding which you hate least, because you can certainly choose between the two.

Presumably there are companies which are in a happy medium between the two, but they're very rare.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:49 PM on June 5, 2007

Response by poster: This is all great stuff, thanks everyone. I kind of want to mark everything as best answer. I am going to summarize things more (though I swear I've been trying); SeizeTheDay, you're right about needing to ask more questions in the interview (but I wanted a job, and this seemed ok, and a friend of mine had just started here) and I should have taken a different approach from the beginning; I've been thinking of the consultancy thing for a while; and thanks everyone for all the other tips & commiseration, too.

It's not that I need everything to go my way, I just would like it to all go more smoothly, and ... yeah.

Thanks everyone.
posted by blacklite at 10:53 PM on June 5, 2007

Response by poster: (It was so good I said "thanks everyone" twice.)

(And here I am complaining about other people sucking at communication. Ha.)
posted by blacklite at 1:35 AM on June 6, 2007

It's an interesting question. I manage a few people in my line of business. I know that some of the time they think I'm completely at sea. The reality is, I'm focusing on something they haven't even thought about. And the reason I'm asking them to do what they're doing isn't apparent to them.
posted by londongeezer at 2:04 AM on June 6, 2007

You just need a management team who a> knows who is doing the work and b> isn't afraid to get rid of the people who aren't

...and once they've done that, you end up with just the small core of people who were actually responsible for making things happen.

They're all bloody prima donnas and none of them have social skills to speak of. Then three of them jump ship because they're sick of the goddam whiteboard markers being all dried up again since management took away Milton's Swingline and relocated him to the basement, the suddenly insanely increased deadline pressure stays unrelieved because bitching about people now has actual consequences, and the whole show goes to shit :-)

Good workers need drones.

I'm only half joking.
posted by flabdablet at 6:50 AM on June 6, 2007

londongeezer:And the reason I'm asking them to do what they're doing isn't apparent to them.

Hmm. Dunno what your management style is, but I definitely enjoy either a> knowing my boss's rationale for his actions, or b> feeling like I can always ask him and get a level answer, without him feeling threatened. In the process I've learned a lot about the business end of things, which makes me happy, and since we're on the same page more, he has to hands-on manage me less, which makes him happy.

flabdablet:They're all bloody prima donnas and none of them have social skills to speak of.

I think being on a team of 20 people where you are one of the 4 doing any of the work makes you a prima donna. Get rid of the 16 filler people, and you are no longer the smartest one in the room!

And social skills are for salespeople. ;)
posted by blenderfish at 10:15 PM on June 6, 2007

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