Pizza & Programmers

In an article over at CIO, Esther Schindler wonders about the magic of pizza (and a few other food items) in getting programmers to work overtime. There are some noteworthy things about this.

  1. I should probably be reading CIO more.
  2. Esther, who’s an old pal of mine, is both seriously cute, and seriously technical.
  3. Actually related to the article: Programmers and other IT geeks love what they do.

Right now, what do I do? I design and code software for various purposes, and build special purpose Set-Top Boxes for people (like TiVo on steroids).

If I had all the money in the world, what would I do? Deisgn and code software for various purposes, and build even cooler STBs for people. I’d probably work the content angle harder, too–besides super-powered media devices, people need ways to get unfettered content–and that takes a lot of money, or at least more than I have. (For example, I could build or buy a cable network. That kind of money.)

But the point is, I’d be doing almost exactly the same thing that I’m doing now. It’s like Office Space: “What would you do if you had a million bucks? Apart from two chicks at the same time.” I’d need about two million, I think, what with the family to support, but maybe with the investment stuff I’ve learned I could get by on less. (Heh. Get by on less than a million? Can’t be done!)

I know programmers better than other classes of Information Technology types, and I’ve never known one worth a damn that didn’t spent considerable amounts of their free time working on other (non-work) projects.

To give you a personal example, I was heavily into music in my teens and early 20s (as many of us are), and played guitar, keyboards, etc. I also wrote a program that allowed me to create musical scores. This was before there were many of these, sure, but even now, I might pick up one of the modern tools and dislike something about it, and my reaction would be to write my own. That’s what programming geeks do.

I waxed a bit on D&D in an earlier post this week: I can’t tell you how many D&D related programs I wrote in my youth, other than “a lot”.

In my martial arts years, I wrote a program to manage tournaments. It was awesome. Anyone who’s ever been to a karate tournament in particular, and probably most sporting events, knows how poorly organized they are. My sensei told me to slow things up because I was moving people through so fast, there wasn’t enough time to sell them concessions (which is a big revenue generator at tournaments).

This really isn’t all that unusual among craftsmen. I have a friend who’s a master woodworker. He might go to Ikea to pick up a lawn chair, if he really doesn’t care about it. But most likely, he’s gonna build what he wants, exactly as he wants it, to exactly suit his needs. That’s what he does.

So, back to the pizza point: Basically, we’re going to be coding because that’s what we love to do. But we don’t like to be taken advantage of any more than anyone else, though we’re probably less aware of it. Little, consistent gestures, such as pizza, sodas, snacks, oddball breaks–other stuff I outline in my CIO article–all tend to reflect an appreciation.

There’s an ego issue, too. We all have war stories. Overtime is part of the culture, and if you’re being productive, is its own kind of bliss. Think not of teamsters for whom overtime is an excuse to bump the paycheck, think of Michelangelo slaving over the Sistine Chapel. I once stayed at a job, ooh, eight months longer than I knew I should have because I wanted to finish the project.

There was huge, huge stress in my life as a result. I ended up out of work right about the time the tech bubble burst. Hell, I ended up in court as a result. But I’d been nursing some ideas about–well, something really, really technical–and had designed all kinds of theories around this thing, and I was just so, so close to testing them out.

This led to some of the worst times in my life and yet, if I had to do it all over again, I might just.
I ended up proving to my satisfaction the feasibility and limitations of the ideas, and developed a system that was gratifyingly high-performance and low-cost. (Smarter now, I hope, I’d probably just ditch the whole situation and applied the theories elsewhere.)

Note Google’s extremely clever “free day”. A job where I’m encouraged to pursue some wild hare? Oh, yeah!

So, it’s not a really big mystery. It’s just the threshold for getting geeks to work overtime is lower. You can get a lot of mileage handing out cash, and raises and bonuses (bonii!) sure don’t hurt, but pizza can make the office a nicer place to be, without necessitating budgetary oversight, etc.

Two things execs don’t understand about geeks: 1) What they do or can do, so they often just completely misuse them; 2) That they love doing it, and really need oversight the other way. (At Melissa & Doug’s toy company, for example, they pretty much make you go home at six, I’m told.)

I’ve made the comparison before to musicians–you can almost always get musicians to work for free food–and it’s apt. Although, of course, musicians are more likely to actually be starving.

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