The Alignment Illusion: Confronting the Misconception in Tech Companies
There's a pervasive and dangerous misconception lingering around the tech industry: people think everyone in a corporation wants the same thing.
Spoiler alert: they don't...
While it's true that we all bring unique perspectives to the table, the belief that we're all seeking the same outcomes can have serious repercussions, including derailing projects and diminishing morale.
This isn't always true, but in general:
The board and CEO see the corporation as a cash cow ready for that sweet, sweet exit 💶
For many, it's just a way to keep the lights on and food on the table 🍕
And some folks are out there crusading to fix those chronic issues we all love to hate 🤺
There are multiple ways that people are getting value out of the corporation, and it's impossible to align them.
If you are an employee in a tech company, you should know: management is playing a different game than you are playing.
And if you are a manager, you should know: your reports are playing a different game than you are playing.
I don’t know why this is not common knowledge.
Since I've been an IC (Individual Contributor) for a long time, I tend to understand that side and to relate to it more.
Let me explain.
Put simply, a manager will want you to deliver faster. Managers have an incentive in squeezing every bit of productivity (velocity?) from their reports without a care about tech debt. All they want is a promo (and to move on). This might sound harsh, but I've seen it countless times in Amazon and – although I spent less time there – in Meta. And from friends' accounts I can tell that unfortunately my experiences were not isolated incidents.
The ICs? They care about the long term. Again, this is a generalisation, so caveat emptor, but devs tend to care about the quality of what they produce and about their quality of life. Taking shortcuts to satisfy arbitrary deadlines doesn't work in the long or even medium term and they know it. The problem is that asking time to pay that tech debt is almost always met with resistance.
What to do then?
Set aside a shadow budget.
Create your own shadow initiatives (and teach the new hires as part of your mentoring, I guess?). Estimate longer times to complete tasks, and then use part of that time, the shadow budget, to keep the code tidy, everything working, and – dare I say – the documentation up to date.
Because, again: there are multiple ways that people are getting value out of the corporation, and those can never be aligned.
I get it, acknowledging the various ways people derive value from a corporation can be uncomfortable, but it's crucial for overcoming the barriers that hold us back. Running a shadow initiative may feel somewhat deceptive, but it's not too different from the day-to-day corporate work that sometimes involves bending the truth.
The conversation about alignment of interests might touch on sensitive issues, such as the fact that some individuals prioritise exiting the company at all costs. However, even investors and VCs openly discuss their focus on financial returns.
So, why is this not discussed more openly?
I don't know, but I think we should start having that conversation.