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Maker Angst — Job Flippers and Do Gooders

Published: November 18, 2017

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Maker Angst

For a while now, I have been observing something on Twitter. I call it Maker Angst. I started to notice it when I would tweet certain types of content. For example:

Or one of my drawings…

Any tweet that hints at coherence, flatter organizations, genuine work, trust, transparency, and craft will get a response from my Twitter audience, and their audience (an albeit self-selected, naturally filtered audience). But it got me wondering.

So we’ve got these people who “get it”. There’s this obvious angst — people feel something is missing — but what’s going on?

The (Nearly) Inevitable Rot

Brainstorming….

To operate and grow, tech needs makers, hackers, crafters, designers, builders, tinkeres, puzzlers, and scientists. Let’s call this diverse gang problem solvers.

Problem solvers crave challenge, momentum, a chance to help people (using their craft), proof that “it’s working”, autonomy to solve problems, and opportunities for growth. They also have an uncanny knack to sniff out a lack of congruence: hollow cultural values, drag, loss of inertia, favoritism, success theater, and “just because”-ism.

Unfortunately…in all but the rarest situations, most technology companies (especially those dead-set on growing rapidly) are in the process of dying…some more gracefully than others. They may be growing, and may be making billions of dollars, but on the inside they are rotting. You can feel the quicksand. It’s easy to assume malice, but most of this is pure organizational physics. Rapid Growth = Accelerated Rot. Entropy is a cruel mistress.

Problem solvers sense the rot in our bones, and it sucks. We want to believe in the power of technology, and the potential of our related crafts. We want to believe that craft and commerce are compatible. We want to believe that focusing on the problem to solve — the happy customer, the useful design, or the resilient organization — can win out in the end. But again, entropy is a cruel mistress.

Buying Time

Depending on your role, it may be possible to insulate yourself from the drift. The money certainly helps. I’ve known software developers who bought themselves a couple years (and a couple more vesting periods) by diving into a big greenfield rewrite with some sexy, new technology. Organizations frequently spin up interesting research projects just for this purpose.

Designer friends, if they’re lucky, can catch a rebranding or design system wave, and ride that to shore for a year or two. For product managers, this isn’t so easy. You sit at the “hub” of the organization. When the entropy ratchets up, you’ll be the first to feel the shifting tide.

At some point, reality usually catches up with us. You can’t hide in a problem, or project any longer. So what do we do?

Can It Be Fixed?

Naturally, problem solvers want to help fix the problem! Why do things need to be so irrational? Why can’t we just figure things out? Why are things getting more and more fucked up? Why is management so conservative and toxic? Why can’t the company see the insanity of all this process, lack of focus, and rushed decisions? So for a time, we may try to fix “the problem”, or at least corral people to define “the problem”.

Not so fast! What can be hard to fully appreciate is the massive inertia at play. You can boil most things back to how the company was funded, early partners, early leaders, early product decisions, luck, and the shape of the org chart. A great example here is growth trajectory. To meet their valuations, companies try to grow at a certain rate. Those valuations are based on core growth opportunity assumptions. A company that has raised $60,000,000, can’t be Basecamp (with its extremely high employee retention rates, and thoughtful craft-based approach)… ever. The decision to accept the funding will guide all decisions henceforth.

Long story short, the efforts to fix the problem will likely bump up against Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior.

Yes, some companies reinvent themselves and dramatically change course. Yet how often does this happen organically without facing a near-death threat? And even when it does happen, how long does it take? 3–5 years? 1/8th of a career? Do you stick around? Some do. Many don’t. The money is better at the next place.

Soul-Searching

All this leads to maker-angst…that sense that more is possible in our work and craft (and at our current job), but more may be impossible at the current gig. It can also leads to a daunting increase in cynicism and resignation (“I guess that all companies work this way”), which is an incredibly sad thing to witness and experience.

This is not good. It really requires some soul-searching. Questions like…

  • Is it worth that raise to go through the wringer?
  • Does my company really care about me and my growth?
  • Can I find a more sane, ethical, and people-centric place to work?
  • Can I start a company — a lifestyle business even — that more closely matches my values, and lets me practice my craft? So what if we never grow beyond 60 people?
  • Am I perhaps OK with skipping between jobs, in an effort to keep things fresh and interesting? Am I myself a product/business?
  • Is it time to become a manager/executive, where I might (just might) be able to truly impact the nature of the system?
  • Are there big problems in government, education, and health that could benefit from my focus?
  • Can I do something with more local, tangible impact? Here’s where I admit I don’t have the answers. I have no idea.

Hearts and Brains

We can’t afford multiple generations of burnt out and cynical problem solvers. We also can’t let talented problem solvers put on their headphones, retreat into the bowels of their organizations, and distance themselves from the impacts they are creating. The algorithm “works”, but what impact does it have?

Most makers I know have a heart and brain. They aren’t automatons. They want more! So what are we going to do about it? How are we going to create more organizations worth sticking around in? Or is the answer to become companies-of-one, and adjust to this reality? What do you think? Do you know of an ethical organization that seems poised to stand the test of time. Are they hiring?

All this said, I think the maker tribe truly cares. I’m so grateful to know people who care deeply about their craft, and the promise/potential of technology.

OK, out of time (I’m trying to stick to a time box with the writing, I’ll try to continue this in a future post).