Monday, August 24, 2015

Playing office games ...

This weekend, my son played what was to be his last soccer game for his school - yes, next year he will (with luck) be off to University!

It was a hard game, and his team lost.  It was made more difficult by the attitude of the opposition - they'd previously been found cheating in the season (fielding a lot of players who weren't even members of the school).

In this game, Cameron faced a team who seemed to play dirty at every opportunity - some brutal tackles (which would be banned even in rugby), a tendency to be forever calling for a penalty, and just being rude at every opportunity.  Cameron as goalkeeper played the game of his life keeping balls out of the goal, but it wasn't quite enough.

Cameron called his team in at the end, and called for them to cheer and applaud the opposition.  Then privately, he gave his own opinion,

"I'm actually glad we lost, if winning would have involved behaving like they did".

A double dose of sarcasm for sure, but surprisingly short on bitterness.  What I love about my son is that he absolutely meant it.

Of course, his words have been ringing around my head ever since - how did a teenager get to act so mature about something like this?

It made me reflect back about a team I used to work on, many years ago back in the UK.  I worked in a large multinational IT company, the kind they write Dilbert about.  A lot of aspects of the company were not too bad, then in 2003 I was assigned to a particularly toxic project I'll called NavyNet.

This project had a lot of problems (ironically which could all be traced back to people problems).  For me the most obvious was the kind of "snitch culture" that went on.  You never got feedback directly, but there seemed to about a group (which I've always assumed to be a minority) who seemed to go around reporting/complaining about coworkers regularly.

A few of us seemed to spend every month being told that "someone has complained about you".  And having to go through it with a HR representative.  Ironically this caused some deep friendships, as I soon found it wasn't just me.  It was really frustrating, I was even told by HR that "the problem isn't so much your work ... it's the perception about your work".  What does that even mean?

A bit like my son, I had a difficult game to decide how to play.  I have to admit I gave serious thought to joining the accusers and trying to get the drop on someone before they got the drop on me.  But instead I tried to go "I'll show them", and worked harder, and tried to showcase what I was doing more.  But the complaints just kept coming.

Then after two years, I learned how to win.  I left.  And I never went back.

I found other projects and companies who took the office environment and culture more seriously.  I kept in touch with my friends on the project, and they were more miserable than ever.  They seemed truly envious of the fact that I had moved on, and was happy now.  But it had to come with a very hard realisation - I could never make this project happy.

It was a hard lesson.  Unlike my son at his game, I have to admit, I do feel bitter - I pretty much view those as two completely wasted years of my life.  Years that I will not get back.

Talking during this years Kiwi Workshop on Software Testing (KWST), Chris Priest had an experience report on such toxic work environments which blew me away.  You could tell those who'd experienced such offices, especially by their passion to avoid such places in future.

For a time in the late 90s/ early 00s, it felt like this kind of Office Space experience was just going to become more and more frequent.  But thankfully at KWST, there was a good proportion of attendees (typically the younger testers) who had never experienced that kind of environment in their careers - and who I'll admit to having a degree of jealousy over that.

So there is hope.  But as I've said to someone at KWST - we're really good at talking up our successes.  What's hidden is someone successful typically has built this on a lot of hidden failures and hard times, which lie beneath the water line.  This why Chris Priest's experience report was so powerful.

Like my son's game and the NavyNet project, if success in a field involves compromising your fundamental sense of fairness.  If success involves doing something which you feel deeply makes you unhappy and respect yourself less, then maybe the only way to win is to smile, and walk away.


  1. What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger, but it certainly pays to continuously reevaluate the situation and make sure the benefits of continuing outweigh the costs. For me, in a difficult situation such as the one described at KWST, pride was the major factor in my persevering in a toxic environment. Pride that I had taken on a difficult situation and would bear it where others had failed, pride that I was able to protect my team from the worst of it, and pride that I was reasonably defending my profession against the nasty and unwarranted attacks it was receiving. I gained a lot from that tough experience, and I'd like to think that put in the same situation today I could do it all again (or simply walk away) with a smile and a laugh, knowing that my goal to provide the most benefit I can to each situation cannot be compromised by the negative actions of others unless I let it. As your son displayed, being able to hold your head high having maintained your principles in tough times is more valuable (and rewarding) than winning any minor battles.