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.

On cultivating self-resilience

There was this Wall Street Journal article about Chinese parenting that made some waves. And I’m telling you not all Chinese are like that. I can say that because I’m Chinese, and I didn’t get straight A’s, and my dad didn’t force me to study, and I turn out ok. My dad did wallop me, but not because I got a B. More on that later.

One point I want to highlight in the article:

Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

[Emphasis mine]

When I was young, my dad used to call me lazy.

“The weather is hot. Remember to drink more water.” said my dad.
“I’ll do it later.” I said.
“Don’t be lazy.”

“Clean up your room.” said my dad.
“Rrrrgghh” I said.
“Don’t be lazy.”

I don’t remember being told to do homework. I just do it on my own. So being told “lazy” must be about other stuff. It hurt being called lazy, since I wasn’t really lazy. As time went on, I realised my dad didn’t really think I was lazy. It was just an expression to say I should be doing stuff that should be done.

Best yourself. (Straight A’s optional)

I think I told you before about my English tuition score. When I was young, I scored a 76 out of 100 in an English test. It’s not exceptional, but I scored the highest in the class. I went home happy and told my dad. He just said “Why so low?”

Now that might be seen as a classic “Chinese Straight A” syndrome, but I don’t see it that way. The lesson I learnt wasn’t to triumph over everyone else, but to triumph over myself.

I was 10 at that time.

And it’s not like my dad will jump for joy if I get straight A’s you know…

[Skip to 1:50 mark if you’re impatient]

Not bad. Now I don’t have to kill you.

On excessive meaningless praise

Disclaimer: The following isn’t a racist comment. It’s just an observation.

So a while ago, my aunt told me something about American game shows. In particular, “Jeopardy”. The contestants, when asked to tell the audience something about themselves, would say what they do for a living and their hobbies maybe, and then:

“I have a lovely wife and 2 beautiful daughters.”

My aunt found that funny, because we Chinese would hesitate to say that our wives are lovely and our daughters are beautiful. At least not on national television. The statement just doesn’t come naturally to us. And my aunt is in a position to say that, because she has 4 beautiful daughters.

I give you another quote from the article:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her “beautiful and incredibly competent.” She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

I repeat:

Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Those adjectives (“lovely” and “beautiful”), is it for the benefit of the father, the mother, the audience, or the daughters? Think about that.

Tell the truth. It hurts, but we have to assume that our children can take it. If they can’t, well, they’re going to suffer more when they grow up.

I was caned

I was caned for being irresponsible

I’ve been caned by my father before. Not for getting B’s, but for irresponsibility.

At a young age, I was given a lot of freedom. My friends had curfews, such as being home by 7pm. I didn’t. Well, not exactly. As long as it’s not too late (the unspoken limit was midnight), I was ok.

The only thing I needed to do was tell my father where I was. There was this one time where I went to my friend’s place to play computer games, and I stayed a little too long. I think it was maybe 8pm when I got home.

My father was furious. I didn’t tell him where I was. I didn’t tell him if I would be back for dinner. I didn’t tell him anything. So he walloped me.

“Go get the cane.”
*sniff sniff*
*whimper rush to get cane* “I won’t do it again!”
*hooot piack!*

Yeah, my dad made me get the instrument of my punishment. That’s how he rolled. But after he caned me, he would get ointment and apply on the areas where he caned me. He didn’t punish me for the sake of punishment. It was because I was irresponsible, and made him worry.

That said, he did cane me when I failed my Chinese spelling once. What, a Chinese failing Chinese spelling tests? It didn’t happen often.

On cultivating self-resilience

Build self-resilience

From what I’ve read, Western parents (mostly American) are too lax with disciplining their children. Or they go overboard and beat children without showing the children what it was they did and why they were beaten. I know it’s illegal to beat anyone, even if they’re your children. Just don’t go the other extreme and not discipline them at all.

That said, Chinese parents can be too strict. I should know, because I’ve heard that some Singaporean Chinese children don’t really have a life outside of school, tuition classes and extracurricular activities (that their parents had painstakingly chosen for them).

I didn’t have tuition classes after I was 11 years old. Mainly because my father couldn’t afford it. I grew up learning to be responsible and be self-reliant. After school, I went home by myself. I bought lunch and dinner by myself. I did my homework without being told. I chose the secondary school (high school) I went to, mainly because my father couldn’t read English and he didn’t know which school was good and so he couldn’t care less. I chose the junior college I went to because my father couldn’t read English and he didn’t know which school was good and so he couldn’t care less. I chose the topics I studied in university because my father couldn’t read English AND BECAUSE IT’S MY LIFE.

He let me choose the path I want to walk. Because he taught me to be responsible. To be self-reliant. To be self-resilient.

Ultimately, the children of our future needs to be able to weather the vicissitudes of life. Too lax a discipline, and at the first crack of pressure, a person might turn to drugs to escape. Too strict a discipline, and at the first crack of pressure, a person might go all out and let loose the pent up frustration.

The balance is to be resilient enough.

Are you conscientious

My friend is thorough in his analysis and coding. Once, he remarked that he thought about solving a work problem while driving home. While bathing. Just before closing his eyes to sleep.

You could call him obsessive, a workaholic. Actually he isn’t. He arrives on time and leaves maybe half an hour after the official work hours.

He did it beyond the requirements of a paycheck. He cared about the work. Yet he’s not passionate about programming. At least not as much as I am anyway.

He did it because he’s conscientious. Because he’s responsible. Because he cares about the people he works with. And so when the situation requires it, he puts in a little extra effort to make his program better, more robust.

Are you conscientious in your work? Do you choose the right way, or the easy way?