by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Somewhere in the heart of the dotcom craze, the CEO of a small high-tech company noticed me reading Linux Journal in a coffeeshop in LA and struck up a conversation about technology. Eventually he worked his way around to a question that had obviously been in the back of his mind for a while. He asked me "How do I keep technically skilled people working for my company?"

"Is it money?"

"Well, money helps, but I know of plenty of high tech professionals who are working for less money."

"Is it stock options?"

"Stock options help, but again, they're more a factor in the startup world, and a lot of companies don't have them. Even the ones that have them, well, stock options are just a lottery ticket."

"Is it casual dress codes?"

"Dress codes are annoying, but I know some programmers who don't mind wearing khakis and polo shirts."

"Is it offices instead of cubicles?"

"Is it free soda and munchies?"

"Is it a living-room work environment?"

My answer was always "well yes, that helps, but it's not enough by itself, and I know plenty of cases where people were loyal and motivated in spite of those factors being negative."

After a lot of mulling it over, all of these things are simply symptoms. Symptoms of respect or lack of respect. The real leader knows this without having to be told. The others see the real leader's respect for his or her subordinates, and mistakenly emulate the symptoms without understanding what's really going on.

Sure, everybody needs to make a living, but if you don't have a ton of money, I'm not going to stress about not getting a ton of money (I'm not just talking out of my hat, either; I've walked away from large-company, six-figure contracting gigs to work for half as much for a smaller company). On the other hand, if you have money and you don't give me much, how much do you respect me?

Stock options are nice in theory, because they represent a slice of the bigger pie in the case of a major success story. But in a situation where stock options simply aren't part of the picture, who cares?

There are some circumstances where there's a practical reason to dress up - formal occasions, meeting with clients in conservative industries, dinner at a nice restaraunt. But frankly I find formal wear annoying, uncomfortable, tension-inducing and generally an interference with concentrating on my job. If you make me dress up - if you impair my ability to do my job - to impress nobody but yourself, it's a sign of lack of respect.

Cubicles are positively moronic. Although the solitude of a private office can have an immense impact on productivity, so can the rich creative atmosphere of a "bullpen" style environment. To a certain degree I fear the stifling solitude of a private office. I consider a hub & spokes arrangements, with private areas radiating out from a central bullpen, one of the best arrangements.

For some reason management types get all weird about offices. Status games, maybe. The same types sometimes can't understand how I could enjoy and desire a communal office arrangement. There are practical limits, of course, but in circumstances where you just don't have the space and resources for private offices, so what? Get on with the job.

All of those things - suits, cubicles, bureaucracy, low pay, etc, are an annoyance, but if it's a practically-imposed annoyance, so what? Petty, arbitrary annoyances, on the other hand, get in the way of doing my job for no good reason, and betray an underlying lack of respect.

The common stereotype is that technical people are socially ignorant. The fact of the matter is that while most technical people don't play social "games" very well, they're perceptive enough to tell whether somebody respects them or not. Respect begets respect, and loyalty, and motivation.

Note: If you really want to understand cubicles, read up on Focault's thoughts on Jeremy Bentham's panopticon:

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