Gym Trophy

This weekend was the end-of-year “Trophy Day” for John’s pre-school gymnastics class. All the pre-schoolers show up for a gymnastics exhibition, attended by parents, grandparents and other relatives. Following the exhibition, all the students are awarded trophies. ALL the students are awarded trophies. I missed the event. When Gina came home, she was fuming. (As Gina is Sicilian, when she is fuming it is appropriate to conjure up volcanic images.)

“You know how you’re always talking about how advertising is going to destroy our civilization?” she asked. “Well, you’re wrong. Trophies will be our doom.”

Well, all right. She didn’t actually say the words “Trophies will be our doom”, but she was fuming, and, being Sicilian, gesticulating violently. Plus her usually impeccable grammatical constructions suffered from the onslaught of her Mediterranean temperament. I’m taking some editorial license and paraphrasing what she meant. Which was most certainly “Trophies will be our doom”

The reasoning goes something like this. It used to be that we believed in merit; in winners and losers; in the salutary effect of adversity and defeat in building character; in learning from mistakes. But on “Trophy Day”, we do not give a trophy to the best gymnast. And maybe the second best gymnast. No, on “Trophy Day”, we give a trophy to every gymnast. In the name of “self-esteem” and “not hurting anybody’s feelings”, we teach our 3-5 year old children that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much you learn, how good you become. Everybody gets the same trophy. And the other lesson we teach them is: it’s not about the excitement of learning or the joy of the sport. Mommy and Daddy and Grandma could take pictures every week at your gym lesson. But they don’t, because they don’t care about your skills or your interests nearly as much as they care about the shiny trophy that everybody gets — regardless of the effort you put in or the the quality of your results.

How much better if Grandma was supportive and excited and snapping pictures even if you didn’t get a trophy? How about if the feedback was “work harder and maybe you’ll do better next year”? Think of the self esteem generated by getting a trophy that only a handful of kids could get! Is it unfair that everybody doesn’t get one? Well, maybe some of those kids will win swimming trophies or dancing awards. Is it right to rob every child of the thrill of victory in order to spare them all the agony of defeat?

Alas, such a quaint Dickensian notion. Today, everybody gets a trophy. We are raising a generation which doesn’t understand the difference between winning and losing, success and failure. The doom of civilization, indeed.

But, what, I hear you ask, does this have to do with IT?

At AT&T Wireless, I had the privilege of working for someone who believed that success was different than (and better than) failure. Everybody shouldn’t get a trophy. One of the first things he did was institute a daily call to review the IT failures of the previous day, and discuss steps for resolution. If a system you worked on failed, you had to explain why it failed and what you were going to do about it. It wasn’t a witch hunt. The objective isn’t to shoot the three-year old who doesn’t do a cartwheel correctly. The objective is to teach the three-year old to admit that they, in fact, are not doing it correctly, so they must change something in order to start doing it correctly. And, of course, you’re unlikely to get a trophy for doing it wrong. The trophy is the recognition that you’ve mastered the skills. The bar is always set high enough so that most people haven’t mastered the skills yet.

Before we could improve our IT infrastructure and applications, we had to admit that they needed improving. This turned out to be a significant cultural change. I remember one particularly lengthy argument in which a team refused to admit that a failure to deliver reports on time was their fault. Eventually, we agreed that the customer had seen a service interruption, and somebody should take responsibility on behalf of IT. We made an elaborate certificate with flowery script that read “Acknowledgment of Defect” — and showed the before and after line of code which needed to be changed. We signed it, had it framed, and sent it to the CEO. He loved it. After that, it was easier to get people to admit that they had made a mistake.

Of course, making mistakes was not a good way to get a “trophy”. If you made a mistake, you got taken to task. The task was to learn how to do it correctly. Often, it wasn’t pleasant.

Over the course of my career, I’ve sometimes worked in places where management prefers the “Trophy Day” style of management. No matter how badly things go, the management memo talks about the “great team effort” and “awesome accomplishments” and the “great success”. You never see the memo that starts out: “Our last upgrade was an embarrassing botched job.”

I know why Gina gets so exercised about “Trophy Day”. I don’t like places like that, either.


Childhood's End

We’re in the process of getting only three children off to college this month. (Our household style and usage guide requires the use of the modifier only in any phrase that enumerates children.) Consequently, the “growing up” meme has been circulating vigorously. Into that ferment, the monthly insurance statement arrived. ( It’s a statement because the premium is transferred automatically from the checking account. ) Gina opened it. She noticed that males under 25 and unmarried females under 25 pay higher rates. And it was the inclusion of the word unmarried that sparked the train of thought which followed.

Why unmarried? ventured Gina. Because the most likely reason a woman would be married under the age of 25 is that she had kids. And, if she had kids, she would be responsible enough to drive safely. So it makes perfect sense. Except that people and organizations (other than insurance companies) increasingly discourage women from having children under the age of 25.

The effect of this discouragement is part of a broader pattern of extending childhood. Not so long ago, people at 16 years of age were considered adults — now that age is closer to 26. This continuing infantilization of young adults is having a corrosive effect on our society. (Listen, if you were raising only seven children, you’d be looking at process re-engineering, too).

And this is where the discourse turned into a rave. Gina began raving. (Our household style and usage guide requires that an animated soliloquy by r0ml is ranting, but the same for Gina is raving. We are very particular about usage. )

<rave> And why is it that women are discouraged from having children under the age of 25? Because they need to finish school and start their careers before they think about children. It is physiologically and psychologically better for both the children and the mother for the childbearing years to be earlier. Yet, we encourage the delay. Why not have the children first, and then go to school? Because after the children, the mother may need to get a job, and then there wouldn’t be time for school. Or child-rearing. And why is that? Because we insist on doing school full time, then work full time, where full time is defined as five days a week. Whereas if the work week were three or four days long, then there would be time for work and school, and we wouldn’t need to defer child-bearing.

There is only one effective counteragent to a raving Gina. And that, of course, is a ranting r0ml. It was at that moment that I jumped in with: “It’s the same with open source software.” which is always good for a quizzical look and a brief pause while trying to puzzle out the connection — all the opening I need to seize the initiative and launch a rant.

Open Source projects have a long tradition of volunteerism — people contributing programming (or other) efforts in their spare time. Women, in fact, responsible as they are for child-rearing, don’t have that spare time; hence the limited involvement of women in the open source movement. But even beyond that — it has become clear that the fruits of this “volunteer” labor are positive net contributions to the entire software economy. Hundreds of companies are being formed to capitalize on these contributions. Yet, there is limited time to work on these projects — the work week for a full time job being so long and all. Why, if the work week were shorter (three or four days), then there would be much more time to create economic value through the open source community. Think of the increased productivity!


The forty hour week, after all, is not divinely inspired. God rested on the seventh day only. I am old enough to remember the six day work week. I remember as a young man reading want ads in the Estado de São Paulo — the great benefit for programming jobs was that it was only a 48-hour work week — because programmers worked 8-hour days (as opposed to most jobs that were 10-hour days / 60 hour weeks). The Federal government (with some encouragement from the Labor movement) gave us the 40-hour work week fairly recently (well, for most people). But 40 is not a divinely inspired number either. More enlightened places in the world have a 35-hour work week. And it could be 34. Or 32.

In fact, if we think about a 35 year timeline that involves 7 years of college, followed by a 28 year career, we could structure our society to either do them “full-time” in sequence (as we do), or, alternatively, “part-time” in parallel. Coincidentally, that would mean working four days a week and schooling one. Lifelong learning without losing a day of productivity.

Google has a policy of allowing workers to spend twenty percent of their time (one day a week) working on projects of their own devising. Sort of on the theory that if people work four days a week, the fruits of their labor “in their spare time” will pay off.

Yes, indeed. More open source. More women bearing children under the age of 25. A more mature society. Lifelong learning. The problems are related. The solution is the same.

Shorter work week.


The balance of power between personal and corporate has had some interesting shifts over the last century — and it hasn’t all gone in the direction of the corporate.

It occurred to me that the Hollywood studio system was the ascendency of the company over the individual. Over time, however, the studio system broke down, and stars became brands in their own right. Rather than signing a studio contract and working on whatever movies are being produced by “the company”, actors work on projects of their own choosing.

In the sports world, the system of free agency shifted the balance between corporate (team) control, and the individual control. Over the years, players have acquired more individual control over their careers and working conditions.

In both cases (movies and sports), the greater emphasis on the personal resulted in increased earning power for the individual as well.

So, in the software world, is the Open Source movement akin to the drive for free agency, or the breakup of the studio system? Is it an opportunity for programming stars to emerge and prosper greatly? Is there a parallel in the software world for the waiter or receptionist who is really an actor. Didn’t the shift in control from companies to the individuals result paradoxically in even greater profits for both the companies and the individuals?

I wonder what other industries have seen a similar evolution.

Personal vs. Corporate

A corporation is a legal fiction designed to create an impersonal — or rather, a non-personal — entity. The idea was (still is) to protect the assets of the individual from business losses. So there is a requirement to separate the finances of the individual from the finances of the corporation. When people forget to do so, and it makes the news, it is usually in the context of the types of abuses which brought us Sarbannes-Oxley — the officers who dip into the corporate till for personal gain. Clearly, in that context, mixing corporate and personal interests is a bad idea.

But what about those people who mortgage their homes to start a business?

And what about the creativity and energy and passion and education that people bring to work? That they owned before they took the job?

In the last century, we’ve worked hard to try to separate the professional from the personal. The larger the company, the more aggressively the separation is sought (with rare exceptions).

I’m unconvinced that this is a good thing. In fact, I believe that the greater part of what motivates the Open Source movement is the desire to bring the personal back into the workplace — a hearkening back to the family business. This is why it continues to be referred to as the Open Source community. The community refers to the individuals who participate, and not their employers. The expectation is that if an individual changes employers, that will not (necessarily) affect her participation in any Open Source projects.

And that sensibility — the personal versus the corporate — which makes the idea so attractive to the individual, is the same sensibility which makes it so threatening to most corporations. It involves ceding control to your employees. It involves letting your employees bring their personal passion and creativity and energy into the workplace.