That's right. Another tech blog.

What's in it for me?

Think about how many times you’ve complained about another function at work:

  • Human resources making it harder to hire/fire/promote someone
  • Simple licenses or contracts caught up in Legal for months on end
  • Information Security bogging down your project with extra work

It goes on and on. The same thing happens outside of work too. The best examples are usually in the public sector. It seems like some people almost enjoy making your life harder, doesn’t it?

They’re not Evil

People automatically assume that these lines of work automatically attract sadists or something. You’ll hear people vent about so-and-so being on a “power trip.” While there are people who are like this, they’re actually few and far between. What you need to do to understand what’s happening is to try to have some empathy and put yourself in their shoes for a moment.

You’re now in the legal department of a large multinational software company. You get requests daily to review licenses and contract terms. If you let something through that later is a problem, you take the blame for it. If you let something through that isn’t a problem and actually helps get a product out faster, you don’t get any of the credit.

Risk vs Reward

Life (and business) is a constant juggle of risks versus rewards. Is the risk of x worth taking in exchange for y reward? Do I pay extra for comprehensive insurance on my used car? Do I ask out that man/woman that I see at the coffee shop every day? Do I approve this contract with the terms as is?

The problem for these people and departments we’ve written off as wet blankets that are only there to make things harder is a lack of reward. If an HR person approves a nonstandard offer get a specific engineer onboard do they see any of the credit when the product is better or ships faster? No, they only see the risk of the downside—potential problems with other current and future employees compensation.

Risk Minimization

Since there’s no upside, they’re really not managing risk, they’re minimizing risk. If there’s anything that will increase the risk, the answer is no, no matter how high the reward. The only exception is when someone else (generally an executive) is willing to sign off on the exception so now the potential blame is transferred to them.

Bad Incentives, Bad Leadership

This is all rational human behavior—You would do the same in those positions. The problem is clearly a bad system of incentives. They’re only exposed to negative incentives, so they only react to those. It’s not their fault, it’s a failure of leadership. Your company’s leadership needs to put people in the right positions and armed with the right incentives to make the decisions that are best for their team and the company as a whole.

Adversaries at Work

If this is so obvious, why are so many relationships set up this way? The adversarial system is a legal construct that has been used in common law countries for centuries. Somehow in the US it got folded into the competitive aspect of capitalism leaving us with the “common sense” idea that it gives us the best outcomes. Labor negotiations are a great example of this- the company and the union in diametrically opposed positions will move to an equilibrium that’s the best for both sides. As we’ve seen over decades, this is often not the case and why more collaborative labor negotiation setups like in Germany have lead to better outcomes for the company and the employees.

We’re practicing this same approach in these relationships at work. The infosec engineer’s job is to represent the side of security, and the developer is representing the side of usability and therefore revenue. The idea is where they choose to compromise will be at the best risk/reward point. As we’ve seen many, many times this breaks down here too.

How do we fix this?

This is clearly a complex situation that has no easy silver bullet fix. Leaders need to constantly be evaluating all of the incentives—positive and negative, direct and indirect, to make sure they’re aligning with the company’s overall goals. How can legal share in the reward when the product ships sooner and how can the product teams share in the downside when there’s a licensing or security issue?

Team Up

One of the easiest options that can work well in certain environments is to move these roles into the teams that they’re supporting. Instead of an infosec department, why doesn’t the product team have one or two infosec trained engineers on their team with them? They’re now part of the team that’s rewarded when the product succeeds, and the entire team is exposed to the risk of a security problem because it’s not “someone else’s problem.” We’re starting to see DevOps teams transform into DevSecOps teams for this exact reason.

A great example of this that I’ve gotten to witness personally at IBM/Blue Box was having the recruiter responsible (the incomparable Jill Jubinski) for hiring into the team be a part of the team. Having a recruiter know what your teams do on the day to day basis is really powerful. They will understand individual team micro cultures and be involved in planning—making them a strategic partner. They’ll know when you’ll need people before you do. Also, it gives the recruiter the ability to always be recruiting—if they know your team and find the ‘perfect’ candidate they can push to open headcount.

These are just a few examples of how leaders can break their organization out of this dysfunctional dynamic and get their teams working in a more productive manner with the same goal in mind.

Newer >>