Responsibility culture

Clearly yesterday’s article struck a nerve. I usually have zero comments on my articles. But for yesterday’s article, I had 2 people commenting! That’s like an increase of 2/0 = infinity percent! Marketing and business people will kill for this kind of return.

I want to thank James Carman and William Saunders for their comments. I’ll return to their comments in a bit, with a bit more clarification about that story. But first, let me tell you another story.

“Don’t say sorry.”

“Vincent, I just want you to know something.” I felt my stomach twisting a little. “This can’t be good,” I thought. She spoke in barely a whisper, like she was afraid other people might overhear her, and I suck at phone conversations, so it’s doubly worse. “You shouldn’t say sorry to those people. It makes you look weak, and they will take advantage of you.”

Those aren’t the exact words, but the essence is there.

This happened like 3 or 4 years ago (I think). I was working as a Systems Analyst, but for expediency’s sake, just take it as I’m responsible for anything tech-related, unless otherwise stated. I work in a small team, as in like me and my supervisor. I mention this because my supervisor gave me a lot of autonomy on how I work. Basically, she just told me “Vincent, I need you to do this.”, or asked for input “Can we do this?”, or “How long would it take?”, and then just let me do my thing. Because she had her own stuff to do.

I know there are people out there who say that managers (or people in managerial positions, say a supervisor) of programmers should be protecting programmers from being disturbed (for lack of a better word). People like Joel Spolsky or Michael Lopp. I support this in general. It’s just that sometimes, the situation doesn’t quite allow that. My supervisor already shielded me from a number of (unnecessary) meetings (for me) and does most of the documentation (for the design, not the code).

So what usually happened was that whenever tech-related problems came up, they email my supervisor. Typically, it’s so technical that she would route that email to me. Eventually, the users learnt that I’m the ultimate person to solve their problems, so they skipped my supervisor. If the task in the email was too big or involved, I will let my supervisor know and let her decide if I should proceed. Otherwise I just solved the problem, sent an email to the user(s) and CC my supervisor (just so she knew about it).

Well, some problem cropped up. I can’t remember if it affected customers or internal users. Ok, it probably affected paying customers, otherwise it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. It might have involved customers in that million dollar deal thing I worked on. I don’t think it was entirely a mistake on my part, but I don’t think that’s important. I felt the important thing was to solve the problem, and then move on.

I solved the problem, and sent an email telling the people involved that the problem’s solved. I also apologised that the problem cropped up. I treat myself as a business working within a business (my employer). If your customer had a problem with your products or services, would you make it right and apologise? I would. It really doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not. The customer typically doesn’t want to blame you specifically. The customer just wants the problem to be fixed. At least that’s what I’ve learnt from reading business and marketing books.

Apparently, one of the users was concerned for me (thank you!). She called me up personally, and advised me to not apologise. It might make me easier for other people to pin the blame on me (whenever technical problems crop up).

Anyway, I believed that if a program or application was under my care, then I’m responsible for it. It didn’t matter that the source code was written by someone else. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have full control over where the program resided, or what it did, or why it sometimes had problems. I took responsibility for it. I think I read Seth Godin write something on it. Maybe this one.

In our current economic situation, it’s ever easier to blame other people than to take responsibility. Taking responsibility means putting yourself on the line. It’s frightening. Which reminds me of another story. I was once in charge of a task force to find out “why people are afraid to speak up”. I’ll tell you that story another time.

The point is that the corporate culture (back then. I don’t know about now since I left the company) had an in-built blame culture based on fear. I was trying to spread a culture of responsibility, hopefully by being an example. With that, I return to the comments left by James and William.

On blame culture

If you skipped all the way down here, this is the story I told. James said,

Your story is a key example of why I am willing to take a pay cut, rather than work for a business like that.

First off, that company I worked for wasn’t too bad. The department I worked in had very little office politics (such as it was). Maybe it was that my team worked in a different location than headquarters. I typically go to the office with the feeling that I’m making a difference to my users. Even if I don’t directly contribute to the bottom line, I think of it as helping my users, who do contribute to the bottom line (the sales staff particularly).

That said, William had this to say,

That situation would make me want to quit. Large scale operational inefficiency goes way above/beyond people in our position, yet can sometimes directly impede us getting our jobs done. […] Really I think it should not be your concern how much the man-hours cost to get what you need done, especially since a whole team of people seemed to be fine with lobbing a bunch of blame your way.

The blame part happened because in the meeting, other departments were involved. Now that outsourcing project involved taking a bunch of the company’s work functions and bundling them together to be handled by the Cheng Du staff. Many other departments were involved. I got dragged along because the program I’m responsible for (see, see?) was involved (albeit a small part).

My supervisor was a nice person. It just so happened that she wasn’t around that day. My associate director and senior manager weren’t even involved in that program I’m in charge of. They might have gone along to the meeting just to see what the offshoring project was about, and my (program’s) involvement gave them an excuse to join (I don’t know about their intentions, so don’t quote me on this).

So when all eyes turned to me, I took the heat. I don’t remember feeling indignant about it. Just a kind of all-round-sucky feeling. I’m not saying this to protect my behind, or to not burn any bridges. My superiors were generally nice people. It just so happened that those people at the meeting wanted to point their blame cannon and fire at someone. I was the most dispensable. I was even the youngest at the meeting if I recall (have I mentioned my boyishly good looks? *smile*). Someone had to be responsible, and I decided stopping the blame game right then would move the meeting along the fastest. I even took notes on what I could do to improve the situation (that’s what the pen and notepad was for).

With regards to that $375 thing, it turns out to be some company policy. It’s an internal charges thing, and I charged at that rate too (or more specifically, my department charged that. Everyone charged at that rate). Even though opening up network ports and granting network access should be easily done (by a competent network administrator) within say, half an hour, the policy seemed to be that a minimum of 4 hours effort be charged. I’ve learnt to “bunch” up my requests when possible.

I’ve been “consulted” by my supervisor on how long a project would take. I’d give an estimate, say 5 days, and she would charge the department I’m to help. My department technically earned about 30 grand. I don’t get a single cent from that. It’s a “passing money from the right pocket to the left pocket” thing.

And yes, I’ve written such technical requests and viewed requests to my team/department before. That’s why I know the rates.

Dang, I should probably be a millionaire by now.