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This Is How You Lose Good People

, , , , , , , | Working | August 16, 2023

I’m a government employee who works with various contracting companies to develop top-secret software — which is FAR less interesting than it sounds, I assure you. I’ve been assigned to work on a new contract and was disappointed with the company that won the bid for that contract. They tried to cut costs by offering very low salaries, resulting in their mostly hiring newbies with two-year degrees and no work experience paired up with non-technical managers.  

I’ve met some skilled new developers, but if you don’t give them mentorship — someone to teach and guide them, to help with larger design decisions, and to show them how to avoid common mistakes — you’re kind of setting them up to fail. And that’s exactly what happened; they were often behind schedule, regularly had issues with bugs they couldn’t figure out how to fix, and lost ground due to newbie mistakes like failing to properly back up code.

That being said, they got lucky with one of their newer hires. He had no work experience, but he at least had a four-year degree from one of the top-ranked public schools for computer science, and he really exemplified that old saying, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” This guy took over a project and was regularly cited for why that project was meeting and exceeding deadlines. He still made some of the standard “newbie” mistakes — he wasn’t perfect — but he was a step above most of their hires.

This story happened during summer, and the new guy came in wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It’s a common joke that if you need IT help at a company where everyone is wearing a suit, you should find the person dressed like it’s laundry day because programmers and IT folks consistently get excepted from any kind of dress code.  

Manager: “Hey, [New Guy], what are you wearing?”

New Guy: “What do you mean?”

Manager: “You can’t wear shorts. Why aren’t you wearing pants?”

New Guy: “The AC doesn’t work well in our cubicle and it’s hot.”

Manager: “It doesn’t matter. We work right next to the customer here. We need to keep up appearances; we can’t have them seeing you running around in shorts.”

I was probably the most important “customer” working in the same building with this company. I had the most say on whether or not the company got to keep its contract — out of those present, at least. While I had a number of reasons to not support their keeping the contract, I can definitively say that their employee not being forced into sweat-inducing garments was not on that list. As far as I was concerned, as long as his private regions were covered, I didn’t really care if he wore shorts, sweatpants, hot pants, a kilt, a dress, a hijab, or whatever other garments he could think up.

I was tempted to say as much there and then, but I didn’t want to risk undermining a manager in front of his employees. Plus, there are supposed to be some boundaries between government and contractor that I worried I might overstep by interfering with contractor internal matters. So, I resolved to wait until I could catch this manager in private to tell him I really didn’t care what his employees wore. 

New Guy: “Is there some sort of dress code or something? I never saw one. I figured this is better than sweating at my desk all day.”

Manager: “It’s just not something you do!”

New Guy: “So, what am I allowed to wear tomorrow that won’t be so hot?”

Manager: “You can still wear a T-shirt, but you need pants. Maybe you can find some light ones.”

New Guy: “Umm, okay. Well, I guess I could wear some pants tomorrow, but can you please rush them in fixing the vent near the exit so it’s not so hot?”

Manager: “Yeah, I’ll talk to them, but you need to go change now.”

New Guy: “But I don’t keep pants in my car. I’d have to go home, and that’s a thirty-minute drive each way.”

Manager: “I know. Sorry, but you need to get changed.”

New Guy: “Would I get a charge code or something for the time spent driving?”

For those who haven’t had the fun of having to painstakingly record everything you do with various charge codes, this basically translated to asking if he would be paid for the hour’s drive.

Manager: “You can’t legally charge overhead, no.”

New Guy: “But I’ve been here for half a day; everyone has already seen me anyway. Surely I can just finish the day and come in pants tomorrow. It’s not like I’m breaking an official dress code!”

Manager: “That would make us look bad. Just go get changed.”

I could see the new guy stand there for a second, and I got the distinct impression that he was seriously considering refusing. But then, he got a more resigned expression as he apparently decided it wasn’t worth the fight.

New Guy: “Fine. I’m going home early. I’ll make up the time later this week.”

Programmers get REALLY flexible hours, so leaving mid-day was completely acceptable so long as he made up the hours that week.

Two months later, I heard that [New Guy] had put in his two-week resignation. Since he had impressed me, I caught him to speak with him a bit, not just to wish him good luck but to offer to serve as a recommendation in the future, and we ultimately stayed in contact after he left.

This is how I learned that he had been considering leaving his company for a while, having many of the same complaints I had and wanting to work where he could get proper mentorship. However, he had stuck around due to inertia until the argument over shorts and the sudden half a day of unplanned free time at his home that evening. That was the final kick in the shorts to motivate him to officially start his job search. He had found a position paying him significantly better in a place where he would rather live with a (technical!) manager who was an excellent mentor to him.

I’m happy to say that when it came time to consider recompeting this contract, I firmly advised against allowing the current company to keep it, not that it was necessary since their terrible track record with getting quality code released had already damned them. The people who won the contract away from the first company did a substantially better job getting quality work completed.

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