True Story of an IT Manager Who Needs to Get a Clue

question on quora

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Spot quiz: What’s wrong with this picture? An anonymous IT manager asked this question on Quora:

“I have a staff member who produces brilliant work but is consistently late every single day. I can’t fire him because it will take months to find someone to fill his position. What can I do?”

In case you haven’t arrived in the 21st century yet, the correct answer to that question is: Count your blessings. Get a clue.

Developing software is — or at least it can be, when done right — an art. The best developer is 10 times better than the second best. In this field, when a developer produces “brilliant work,” anybody who understands software and programming, and anyone who values productivity,  forgets the stupid work schedule and the 10 minutes late.

In this case, however, after the initial question was answered by hundreds of people with essentially the same answer I wrote here (but more nicely, and in more detail than my suggested answer) the IT manager who asked the question added more to it, defensively responding, arguing that he has a valid complaint. Here are some excerpts:

“I’m the manager of an IT Department in a small town. It’s taken me months and months to find this guy — his work quality is fantastic and he’s both a good colleague and a friend. However, he is late virtually every single day. This is despite multiple verbal warnings. In the last month he has been over 10 minutes late 15 times, and between 5 and 10 minutes late 12 times.

It makes other members of the team feel they can turn up late as well … I’m at my desk at 9 a.m. waiting to ask him questions with no idea what time he’ll be there … There could be an issue that needs his immediate attention at 9 a.m. Unlikely, but there could be. … It’s really f***ing simple to leave the house 10 minutes earlier.”

I find this very amusing. I’m amazed that the brilliant programmer is still there, after all that harassment. I know very well at least three different companies that would love to hire him. The manager here is living a few decades in the past. Welcome to the 21st century.

There are three lessons here that are much more important than mere amusement:

1. Productivity Isn’t Butts in Chairs Anymore

Look around you. Consider the expense of office space, the human time wasted in commuting, the explosion of new virtual connections, and rise of a generation raised with mobile phones and social media, and give up your old-world mentality.

Businesses that measure and manage by physical presence are obsolete. Nowadays, we should all be figuring out what jobs and what tasks and what parts of work go better with people in the same spot together, and what parts are done just as well or better alone.

Work life is a giant mosaic, mixing focus, concentration and alone time with communication, engagement and interaction. And every day less interaction is in the same physical space, more in shared space online.

Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat is already seven years old.

2. Productivity in Code and Software was Never Butts in Chairs — Ever

Coding is special. I’ve done professional coding and I’ve managed dozens of coders and, as I said earlier, I’ve learned that the best developer is 10 times more productive than the second best. It’s not a straight curve. Yes, some coding is boring busywork, but most is related to creativity and imagination. It does not do well when locked into a specific office at a specific time for a specific number of hours. If you like software, set the developers free.

And — yikes — this isn’t even new to this century. The milestone book on this topic, The Mythical Man Month, was first published 28 years ago. Even its second edition is 19 years old.

I’m not sure coding is the only pursuit that works like this. Maybe graphic design, maybe even good business-related writing, web copy and marketing messaging are like that too. But I am sure coding is like that.

3. There’s a New Best-Ever Kind of Accountability Emerging

In the details of the Quora question above, the complaining manager cites the problem of precedent — what does he tell the other programmers who are on time — to justify his concerns.

That’s also obsolete. When and if the others complain about your star coming late, challenge them: “When you can produce what he does, you can come late too.” Let people be accountable for the work product, not punctuality, and your business will be better off.

Clock Photo via Shutterstock

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Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

8 Reactions
  1. The points in the article are well taken. However, lets get down to some things that can help both the IT Manager and the developer.

    1.Are there childcare or other issues that have caused the developer to be consistently late? If so, lets adjust his hours to say 9:30 – 5:30

    2.Coming late to work simply because you are an awesome developer and being allowed to consistently do this is cancerous, a good manager can coach the employee in a positive manner that inspires him/her to want to set an example for their peers.

    3.The ability to motivate our workers without our being bodily present is a crucial skill that this manager should be coached in.

    If the developer is required by company culture or bylaws or whatever to be bodily present, then so be it – but there are so many ways to deal with this issue without upsetting the entire team. I would focus less on the developer and more on the manager.

    • Great points, Guy! This especially: “…there are so many ways to deal with this issue without upsetting the entire team. I would focus less on the developer and more on the manager.”

      It suggests something I used to see in my corporate days, with managers who really weren’t comfortable managing in today’s environment. It’s easy to be an “old style” manager when you just look at a time clock and check the box late or not. It’s much harder when people’s feelings and motivations are involved and other complex workplace dynamics have to get addressed. It’s not nearly as easy then.

      – Anita

  2. I work in pretty much the same way. I produce output but I don’t really care so much about other stuff. Though I am not late, I always go out when I need to take a breather from all of the work.

  3. I don’t think it should be OK for an employee to be consistently late because they’re brilliant at what they do. However, it’s evident that coming in at 9am is a problem for them. Perhaps both should have a meeting to discuss how it can be resolved and reach an arrangement that they’re both happy with.

  4. I’ve been working as a developer since 2001, and the most stringent requirements I’ve had were basically “start between 7am and 9am, leave when you’ve put in your time.”

    We’re not talking about a production line, where someone else’s work depends on mine getting started at a certain time. I’m certainly not advocating a “work any time you want,” but why not offer this guy some leeway. Let him start between 8am and 9am. If he’s like me, he probably has many of his “a-ha” moments during the morning shower. Let it run a little long, if that’s the case.

    Something else to consider…most of my jobs as a developer have run 2-3 years at most. I’ve been on my current contract now for seven years. Why has it worked out so great for both me and my employer? Part of the reason…I’ve been working 100% from home for the last six years.