Daniel Pink argues in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that motivators historically used in the workplace (the promise of monetary rewards and the fear of punishment) are less effective in the information age. His new prescription for a highly motivated and satisfied workforce is based on three ingredients: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
From my personal experience, I’m starting to suspect that, for lower-level employees in big tech firms, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are out of reach, making work for many in Big Tech incompatible with job satisfaction.
To me, the most desirable quality of a job is autonomy. Controlling my own destiny motivates me to dig deep into a problem and analyze the all the details because I like to be prepared. If I’m responsible for my own results, that also grants me more flexibility in achieving goals since I’m less reliant on others’ inconsistent efforts.
More than the positives, however, I appreciate autonomy for its lack of negatives. Specifically, I hate not having the authority to direct my own work. And this is where big tech starts to lose its luster.
At large tech companies, there is almost always someone with more seniority, more clout, more golf dates with upper management than you, who wields immense power. Found and implemented a great solution to a problem? Too bad! Someone important remembered that his buddy’s system (being developed in another division, likely in a different time zone) could be bent, stretched, and perverted into a barely passable solution to your problem. “Synergy” is no longer just a new word you’ve added to your vocabulary, it is your problem to deal with.
I’m all for bringing people together to craft great solutions–this is how corporations should work. But at some point, once an important person’s influence expands to the point that that very person is impossible to reach (either electronically or in person), we need to let someone else step up and fill the void–and even let that new person fail sometimes. I consistently see senior employees stocking up on responsibility like it’s going out of style, only to end up working ridiculous hours, eventually slowing everyone else down. While influence is important, not being a roadblock is even better.
Unless you have a really fancy job title (which most people do not, by design), the bottom line is that, if someone can strip you of your autonomy in short order, by changing the schedule, plan, or design, you don’t really have autonomy at all.
Although specialization is frequently excessive in Big Tech, specialization is also what allows you to focus on an area and really dive deep to uncover the best techniques and resources. Every company needs experts in critical areas, and the best way to breed experts is to let them continually explore their niche and refine their knowledge. When I’ve been lucky enough to spend sufficient time in a few areas to really grok how the pieces feel together, I’ve found I can be incredibly productive, especially by helping others with less hard-won experience.
The best way to discourage mastery is by redefining jobs and redirecting efforts constantly. Technology is fast-paced. Innovation is proceeding at ludicrous speed. Just keeping up on all the acronyms is challenging, if not impossible. But that is not a sufficient reason to be constantly shuffling around job responsibilities as well as changing platforms and technologies.
These days, it seems like being hyperactive with a short attention span is a requirement for managers in the technology world.
“What? A competitor claims to have boosted productivity by using technology X? We’d better catch up! Everyone must drop what they’re doing and learn technology X!”
Sure, you don’t want to be wasting time on outdated systems, but having to retrain people costs more than just a few days of training. You’re also going to lose people who don’t want to adapt (admittedly sometimes a good thing). You’re also going to lose productivity as people realize that the new system has its own flaws. Worst of all, your previously proud, productive employees might start to disengage because they don’t feel proficient in their “new” job.
Repeat this process every few months, and you’ll basically end up with a bunch of burned out employees with as much relevant experience (with the current flavor of the week) as a new hire. Some level of stability and familiarity is important, but very often lacking in the technology industry.
Now for the depressing one!
Although many workers are so caught up in blowing all their money as quickly as possible on as much stuff as possible, at the end of the day, employees will start to identify with their jobs, and they’ll want to feel good about what they’re doing. It might take a health scare or mid-life crisis, but at some point, people start to assess their lives and their own personal impact on the world.
“I help people maintain relationships with one another.”
“I provide free tools to help people maximize their potential.”
“I help save people money.”
These are examples of how technology jobs are sold to those entitled Millennials, who have the preposterous notion that they can and should make the world a better place and derive meaning from their work.
But what is the reality of the three altruistic Big Tech jobs from above?
“I gather personal data and use it to sell targeted ads.”
“I … also gather personal data and use it to sell targeted ads.”
“… same here.”
This is the reality of much of the technology world. You provide a tool or service, build an audience, and… “monetize” that audience. Technology companies are falling over each other trying to gather as much information about you as possible so that they can segment, target, message, and convert you.
Sure, the technologies are interesting, and there are challenging problems to solve. But if all that work is in service of selling even more junk to even more people (even if your company isn’t directly doing the selling), you’re still complicit–and you’ll probably need to find your purpose outside of work. Start a blog, perhaps.
So… what should I do?
Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of all of this. I hope, if you are involved in technology and want to stay there, you can find a role where you have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But I feel like the deck is stacked against you in this field.
Perhaps a compromise where you get a couple of these key ingredients is acceptable. Maybe you can negotiate for more flexibility in your work or follow your skills across different teams or start mentoring junior employees.
Or maybe you should just take the money and run, with a goal of finding true meaning outside of work.