Jay Little - Software Obsessionist
The Death of the Meritocracy

05/07/2016 04:38:22

Before you read this post, I urge you to read through my resume. When you do take particular note of how long it takes me to move from employer to employer. You'll notice that I don't spend too much time in any one place. Why is that? I've been thinking a lot about that as of late, and I have some thoughts that I'd like to share with the world at large.

To put it arrogantly: I'm very good at what I do. I have knack for consistently driving to the heart of problems and providing working solutions to those problems in relatively short order. Software development just so happens to be my preferred tool when it comes to providing solutions. I'm not above providing solutions that don't utilize software, but generally software solutions are the kinds of solutions I provide. I attribute most of my talent to the fact that I was lucky enough to be born into a family where I was exposed to technology at a very early age, though not too early. I won't bore you with the details as they have been covered in previous posts, but I got my first computer, an Apple IIe, at the age of six. I began to learn how to program at the same time thanks to a BASIC book my father, who is also a software developer, bought for me.

I thrive in an environment that provides technical challenges. At my most trying professional moments, it is the lure of the unconquered challenge that gives me my second wind. I hate to dismiss, avoid and hide from problems. I enjoy tackling them head on. I also enjoy dealing them quickly and efficiently. I believe that software developers exist for a single purpose: To increase the efficiency of their would-be users. Anything else is fluff to be ignored. This approach has led to a weird combination of beliefs ultimately resulting in a professional ethos that is hard for many to understand. Rather than delve further into those details though, I'd prefer to return to the original discussion.

Did my previous employers fail to provide me with technical challenges? They did not. In fact I have never had an employer or a client who has failed to challenge me in some notable way from a technical standpoint. Unfortunately what all have ultimately failed to provide, with the exception of one, is a true meritocracy. According to dictionary.com the primary definition of meritocracy is "an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth." Talented people really want to be recognized and appreciated. They also want to make a positive difference. But what few if any of us are willing to tolerate is being lorded over by those we consider to be mediocre.

Therein lies the crux of my problem. I have worked at a number of places over the years and other than working for myself, no place could be considered a meritocracy. Whether the employer/client was big or small the end result was the same: People were more likely to recognized and rewarded on the basis of politics rather than the basis of merit. Sometimes people are not rewarded at all.

I've lost count of the number of times a manager has told me during a performance review: "I know you deserved a higher rating than this. But the company restricts how many people we can give the top rating out to and unfortunately you didn't make the cut." Whereas at the same time, my mediocre co-workers tend to receive similar performance reviews without the same caveat, despite the overwhelming obvious gulf of difference in performance. Each and every time I experience this at an employer, it effectively marks the beginning of the end for me. To be told that I deserved better but received something less repeatedly has worn me down over the years. As soon as I hear it, I almost always start looking for another job out of instinct.

Keep in mind, I don't just provide more results, I generally provide better results. Are there developers out there that can produce better quality solutions than me? Sure, but they are far and few between. Thnakfully I have been blessed enough to work with more than a few of them over the years as you can learn a lot from these people. Are there faster developers? Yes, but that answer depends entirely on how you measure speed. If you measure what developers can produce in an hour, there are faster developers than me. But if you measure what developers can produce in day, a week, a sprint or even a year you'll find nobody faster than I. My speed is consistent and something I bring to bear every single day. It's not the top speed out there, but it's faster than most and can be maintained indefinitely. A privileged upbringing and a relentless desire for practical self-improvement are at the heart of these results.

Yet here I am, detailing the fact that in my career (and I suspect the careers of many many others) there is no such thing as a meritocracy. Perhaps this environment exists in Silicon Valley somewhere, but back here in good old South Carolina I have yet to experience it. There are no words to describe the disappointment a talented person experiences when they realize that they have become a victim of corporate homogenization. What is that? I am more than happy to explain.

Nowadays its trendy for software shops to tell their employees, "We have the best developers in the country!" Though it is decidedly not true given the wide range of actual capabilities, it seems to sell with the masses. People have an inherent desire to believe that they are part of something great. If an employer keeps enough talented people around, they can even manage to make the illusion persist for awhile. But that's the heart of the problem. At some point instead of just serving the kool-aid, companies inevitably end up drinking the kool-aid.

I refer to this trend as "Getting high on your own supply". I have worked at so many places over the years which suffered from this syndrome that's it's just kind of sad at this point. Nevertheless once a shop drinks the kool-aid here, the death of the meritocracy is all but assured. Talented people stop being recognized and rewarded because the assumption is that everybody is talented therefore talent is no longer a unique asset but an assumed prerequisite that everybody brings to the table. When that becomes the case, talented people are marginalized and when that happens: They depart.

This trend is more prevalent in medium and large employers than it is with small ones. In a small startup situation, it's virtually impossible to homogenize employees because transparency is naturally at its highest possible point. But once an organization grows, the people at the top of organization inevitably become more disconnected from the people in the trenches. They lose whatever insight they used to have and are left only with their preconceptions and whatever their direct reports are willing to share with them.

In any event once the talented people are driven out of an organization, the organization will begin to flounder. Depending on the size of the organization and the state of things in general, it might take years for the effects to become apparent. But make no mistake: Once an employer has been marked in this sense, it is hard to roll back that perception.

Talented software developers are a rare commodity nowadays in terms of quality, speed and consistency. Can those exceptional traits be taught? I remain skeptical, though admittedly I am unqualified to argue the point. Nevertheless, drawing and retaining talent is often the difference between success and failure for a software development shop. The sooner the MBAs of the world get acquainted with this reality, the better off the rest of the world will be.

In my preferred system what would happen to the less talented software developers out there? They will either improve or go away. A meritocracy appeals to talented people because it promotes the concept of natural selection and it does not tolerate a trend of failure. One of the side effects of these kool-aid shops is that the less talented developers will inevitably begin to overestimate their own skills, though frankly they were more than likely doing that already. The basic take away here is that if you refuse to provide your employees with detailed and accurate feedback they will respond in kind by refusing to provide you with good work whether they are talented or not.

When I worked for myself, I did not have any of these problems. My merit was proven each and every billable cycle when my clients chose to pay me and I continued to provide them with the benefits of my labor. In retrospect I really miss working for myself. Sadly my skills in business development are stunningly lacking compared to my skills in software development so once my big client ran into serious issues, it was all over but the crying. Despite those sobering facts, I miss it. I really do. That doesn't seem like it will change anytime soon either.

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