Don’t Be Lured by the Fringe Benefits

It seems common for software developers to question their career direction after several years of experience. I have gathered through my own feelings and conversations with others that there is a point in one’s career, usually after about 4 years, at which one wonders how long he or she can continue to build business application after business application. What once was challenging and exciting has become repetitive and mundane because the pace of learning has greatly decreased. The motivation to create yet another CRUD application (one that is categorized because it only involves the most typical business functions: Create, Read, Update, Delete) has been lost, resulting in many introspective hours staring out the window thinking about greener pastures.

What can be done to renew the sense of excitement and urgency that comes from developing something new? Myself, I thought that working in a “cool” industry that I was already interested in would solve the issue. I figured I already loved sports and casinos. If I got a development job in those industries it would make the dull tasks less dull. I would be able to tell myself, “Well, I hate clicking through smoke tests again but at least everything is sports-related!”

Roulette CasinoBaseball StatueFashion Industry

Posted by Heather Clemons
Posted by wallyg

Having worked at an Information Technology (IT) department for a professional baseball team before, I figured I would be able to leverage my experience and professional network to get an interesting new job. Granted, my work there was more of an internship than anything, but a role in such high demand serves as a recognizable selection process and it has been a great conversation topic during job interviews. It was a wonderful overall experience and I appreciated the opportunity. Therefore, I focused on new jobs with professional sports teams, video game development companies, and casinos.

Casino – For someone going to school in the middle of Ohio, I spent a lot of weekend time in college at casinos. I enjoyed Black Jack and was constantly searching for the perfect system to make money. I even wanted to be a professional poker player for a little while. I also toyed with the idea of taking a winter off to learn to be a Black Jack dealer. There is something about fiddling with those heavy clay chips that is both riveting and relaxing at the same time.

Sabermetrics – Growing up I was obsessed with baseball and individual player statistics. I played on a baseball team and played board games like Strat-o-matic. I made my own scoring sheets and even used to make my own player cards to represent my friends in the board game. During my job search, I joined SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and immersed myself into baseball statistics again thinking I could become a full-time statistician or statistical application developer.

At this particular time in my life, I knew I was moving out of state, so I figured it was a perfect time to make an industry change. However, at the time I was not comfortable with the prospect of not getting paid so I took one of the first jobs that was offered to me until something else presented itself. A funny thing happened at that company. As it was a small software product company, I learned that the environment there was close to what I had wanted all along. It was an old company by software standards, but it still had a “startup feel.” I learned what I wanted and what would keep me motivated:

  • The transparency of a small company makes it easier to absorb new knowledge about other business functions (e.g. Marketing or Recruiting)
  • There is a shorter feedback loop from working at a small company. This creates more accountability and helps employees to learn what is working faster
  • Being a software developer at a software company is a critical role and treated as such

Although the company had its share of problems, it showed me what I was looking for in a long term position. I wanted the growth potential and commitment to progressive technology that comes from a software product startup.

While working in a “cool industry” does come with perks, fringe benefits, interesting subject matter, and it may turn out to be generally awesome for some, I caution software developers to think about some of the hidden drawbacks to these types of positions.

Positions are in High Demand

Positions in interesting industries are both scarce and in high demand. If you are interested in a professional sport, does the city you live in even have a team at the highest level? If not, that’s scarcity. If you are lucky enough to see a job opening you are interested in, you must realize that there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of other applications. That’s demand.

As a result, salaries tend to be lower and expectations of working hours are much longer, especially during busy seasons or big events. Additionally, people hired into these jobs stay around for a long time. Because of the low turnover, it can be difficult to gain more responsibility by moving into someone’s role that has just left, limiting opportunities for promotion.

Technology comes at a Cost

By definition, the interesting industries mentioned do not focus on technology. They are generating revenue through entertainment. Therefore, it may make the job more entertaining but it changes the perspective of technology throughout the organization. Employees outside of the IT department view technology as cumbersome, productivity-restricting, and expensive. Any time there is a trivial bug in internal software, it will be treated as an urgent support request. Did I mention developers will be doing technical support?

To summarize, the key problem here is that the organization does not exist for the sake of progressing in technology. The IT department is a cost center. Any mistakes that cost money for the company were not budgeted for and get escalated quickly, making for a stressful environment for technologists.

Think it over

There are smaller drawbacks to consider too. Working somewhere that garners the awe of family and friends comes with requests to trade favors (e.g. introductions or getting event tickets). Additionally, sports teams and casinos are highly competitive with one another, so they are protective of advantageous processes and knowledge. I prefer to be able to learn from peers both inside and outside of my company as opposed to being a slave to competitive information silos.

In reviewing the pros and cons of working for a professional sports team for this post, I have almost talked myself back into trying to work for one. The fringe benefits are great (e.g. free game tickets and meeting athletes), it helps build a resume, and colleagues are all intelligent and ambitious. However, it is my intention to bring up these drawbacks to shed light on the entire package that comes with the job and to remind myself that I really want to work for a software company. To marry the two concepts would be the “Genius of the and.” By working for or creating a web retailer like Zappos, who needs technology to thrive, one can work in an interesting industry, like fashion, AND be a crucial cog in building revenue for the company.

Advertisements

King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed a very stimulating tour of the Zappos headquarters.

In this post, I discuss some of the perks of the Zappos work environment.

During the tour, I found myself checking off items in my head from my imaginary list of things needed in a dream workplace1 :

They provide the essentials for sure. You will definitely see me write about many of these key components of a great work environment throughout my blog entries.

Allow me to start with my favorite perk of working as a developer at Zappos, Adjustable Desks. I hope you can make out the picture that I took from my phone. In it, you can see a worker that is standing while working. I did not see anyone adjust his or her desk, but I understand that this can be done easily.

I can only imagine how much more comfortable this must be while working. One of the biggest drawbacks to being a developer is the health issues that can arise from sitting at a desk in front of a computer for long hours. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, limited physical activity, and bad posture can be at least partially alleviated by Adjustable desks. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to the adjustable desks because I am fairly tall (6 feet 4 inches) and am often defaulted into using disproportionate desk furniture. Corporations do not want to purchase custom chairs and desks for each individual worker so a one-size-fits-all strategy is taken, which is no help in creating comfort. I can understand the need for saving money in this way. Alternatively, Zappos has made the definitive statement that they care about employees’ comfort by allowing the flexibility to work on a desk of any height. If I had this opportunity, I would sit comfortably before lunch and stand while working after lunch, helping me to both keep good posture and to stay awake. I appreciate a company that felt this was important even knowing that employees will occasionally be tempted to dance while typing.

My commonly observed theme was a high level of interaction between employees. Although there are numerous obvious benefits to this, my original notion was that it would be extremely difficult to get much work done on an individual level, as I alluded in Part 1 of this blog post. After all, to accomplish great work, knowledge workers need time without distractions:

We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration…trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — especially interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble.

—Joel Spolsky, Fog Creek Software
(from Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?)

What I had not realized is that I had this thought before seeing the development department, which was in a second building detached but right outside the main building. In my opinion, this separation was a crucial element to Zappos’ success.

Many departments work differently. Some require heavy collaboration and outright noise. Others are responsible for cheering whenever a tour walks by. A development department cannot survive if such distractions are omnipresent. It will never be as productive as it should be.

I cannot say I got the full experience of what the development department was like just by walking through it. However, in general, the second building was much quieter than the main. Employees working in the second building receive the best perks from both buildings because it is still easy to hop over and get a fix of the different energy of the main building when necessary. Whether it be the need for a game of ping-pong or reflecting with Dr. Vic, it must be nice to know that these options are available but do not get in the way of day-to-day work habits.

Beyond gaining productivity from existing employees, Zappos’ excellent and interesting culture affords them a giant benefit: Top-Notch Recruits. How many potential employees take the tour or hear about Zappos’ unique culture and soon after take a look at Zappos job postings? I would imagine this occurs frequently, as I know at least one other blogger that I talked to on Twitter did this. By garnering extreme interest in the company, Zappos has a huge pool of candidates to choose from when deciding to hire, which inevitably gives them a pick of some of the most talented workers around. Not to mention, Zappos is headquartered in Las Vegas, NV, a vacation hot-spot and genuinely exciting city. Many talented individuals would consider relocating to Las Vegas for a great job opportunity, at least for a few years.

With all the obvious benefits that Zappos has created with its corporate culture, why doesn’t every company strive to be like them? The only answer I can come up with is a fear of employees taking advantage of the company’s policies. At “normal” companies, we submit equipment request forms for bigger monitors and ergonomic keyboards, we are required to be at the office between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm, and we are our responsible for directing our own personal growth. At Zappos, these things and more are offered as part of the employment package, allowing them to recruit the best of the best. As always with the best of the best, superficial concerns about work habits can be relieved by knowing that great work will get done, period. Also, with such a unique experience, employees that value it know that it cannot be recreated anywhere else, helping with employee retention.

If every company tried to create an extremely unique and happy culture, it would not work. Zappos falls into the perfect fit of culture with aptitude with industry. Encouraging collaboration and outgoing personalities helps them “deliver WOW through service” which makes them a successful retailer. As more and more companies attempt this, it will require “culture innovation” to stay unique and to continue to attract talent. Kudos for being at the leading edge of this trend, Zappos, I can only hope our paths will meet again.

1: A supremely neat novelty that Zappos had in the office was an industrial-strength blender. When we were walking through the tour, we watched them emulsify random office items like a foam ball and a pencil. I don’t know what the purpose is other than to relieve stress and to give outsiders something to talk about.

King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 1)

Late last summer a group of friends were planning a trip to Las Vegas and invited me to come along. I struggled to rationalize the trip until finally settling on the excuse. While in Las Vegas, I promised myself that I would perform research by visiting the headquarters of Zappos, the successful online retailer known for its incredible corporate culture. The goal was to witness first-hand a company that has mastered the art of creating a fun yet productive culture while also serving to motivate me in my own career. I apologize if I spoil the surprise, but it worked!

Planning

I am a bit of a veteran when it comes to Vegas trips. I know what I like and therefore I optimize for those things. However, I was a bit nervous about setting up the tour with Zappos because being productive and talking business does not normally fit into the schedule of planned events when I am on the strip. Fortunately, during planning my nervousness soon turned into excitement.

I reached out to Zappos customer service by finding an e-mail address on their website. Shortly thereafter, I received an informative and encouraging e-mail from someone at Zappos.

Hello,

In an effort to share our culture with visitors we open our doors and offer an experience of the Zappos Environment first hand through a tour. I would love to help facilitate a visit to our office, to include a tour.

Tours are offered Monday through Thursday; and the tour duration is 75 minutes. Tours typically start at 9:00am and the last tour starts at 3:00pm.

Please provide a date and an arrival time, and I’ll coordinate a schedule. One of our wonderful tour guides will WOW you with our history of service.

Zappos.com extends a complimentary shuttle service to all of our guests. If you are interested in the shuttle, please provide the pickup and drop off location(s) as well as a cell phone number.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards.

It may seem like a simple e-mail but I was downright surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given Zappos’ reputation. The e-mail simultaneously answered nearly every question I had and reinforced my impression that the visit would be worthwhile. I immediately began looking forward to the tour. Looking back, throughout all my interactions with Zappos employees on the visit, I was received with similar tones of courtesy and relevant information.

The Tour

The tour of the Zappos campus was quite fun. Our tour guide, although fairly new to the company, was well trained and a good conversationalist. He delivered enormous amounts of functional knowledge about the company and each department in a very short time. I found the professionalism of every employee to be quite impressive but clearly information is not what made the tour fun.

Although I came to the tour alone, I was included in a group with 13 other people who all worked together at a Zappos supplier. This made things a bit awkward at first, but the tour included multiple tactics to get us out of our comfort zone. Some visitors walked around with Zappos flags, others were asked to ring a bell and yell something that nobody would know about them, and still others got to engage in a hula hoop competition with a random employee (who happened to be walking by at the wrong time). Because doing these things felt completely acceptable, nay expected, it did a great job of loosening up our moods. Additionally, only volunteers did these things. No one was forced to be embarrassed by the zany antics.

Zappos’ culture was very welcoming toward visitors. Almost every department we passed did something to acknowledge us and to make us “feel like Kings.” Many of them shook noisemakers, jingled bells, or played funky music on their computers. Some had funny stories or poems prepared for us. From a visitor’s perspective, I felt special to be welcomed in this way as opposed to feeling like a nuisance to people in the building. From an employee’s perspective, I could not imagine being happy about the distraction of a sizable group of people strolling through my office regularly, and me being expected to make noise and interact with them, but there will be more about that opinion in part 2 of this blog post.

The folks at Zappos wanted to make absolutely sure I left the building with a positive impression. In addition to all the free information, popcorn, and smiles I received, they gave me SWAG! I could barely carry it all (a backpack, Zappos Monopoly, culture books, and more). They let me and the other visitors choose a hard back book from their 2 large book cases in the lobby. I took home The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. Given that I was on a mid-week Vegas trip I had traveled to Nevada with just a carry-on. There was no way that I could pack all my new stuff and take it home. While I was leaving the Zappos headquarters, I briefly had the thought to ask them if they would ship my stuff home for me. I honestly got the feeling that I would have, but I did not ask.

Conclusion

Visiting Zappos and taking the tour accomplished everything I had hoped. It taught me a great deal about how a unique culture can have brilliant effects, it was fun, and it inspired me to better myself so that I may be more desirable to future employers that have a similar environment. I absolutely recommend that you take a tour yourself. As long as you are interested in business, web development, shoes, or fun, it will be worth your while.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post, in which I analyze the productivity benefits and drawbacks of Zappos’ environment.