Remember that scene in Billy Madison when Billy’s cute porkstick of a classmate says that he can’t wait to graduate and go to “hige school”? And then Billy gets all emotional and frantically tries to dissuade him from losing his innocence?
I don’t know if your face will make that noise, but even if it doesn’t, this article is pretty much that scene. I’m grabbing your face, I’m shaking it, and I’m doing something I usually reserve exclusively for strippers and bank managers; I’m begging you.
No matter how big or successful you get, don’t ever lose your homogenous startup sensibilities and let anyone in your organization speak the term, “The Business” in reference to a collection of employees that is definitively outside a separate group referred to as “Technology”.
Over the course of my career I have worked with and heard of a number of companies that have implemented a structurally informal but operationally reinforced distinction between “Tech” and “The Business”. Sometimes it has been the result of a cohort of geriatric executives refusing to effectively embrace an admiration, understanding and respect for software. Sometimes it has been the result of naturally diverging departmental paths during campaigns for rapid top-line growth.
All times, it has been a shitty idea.
Most of us have heard the phrase, “Body & Mind”. It’s frustrating in the same way. Not just because when I read it, I imagine some glass-sculpting vet school drop-out drawling it out to me next to a display of salt crystal lamps at Whole Foods. But because at the surface – the level at which most people register and react – it’s misleading and disruptive. Ultimately, it’s harmful.
Immediately, it’s just piss-poor taxonomy in what it implies and how it defines the units and layers of anatomy. Your mind, or more accurately your brain, is necessarily part of your body, and what happens to your body necessarily affects your brain. If you don’t believe me just ask Muhammad Ali to play the piano, or ask Ozzy Osbourne to calculate a tip.
Similarly, in an innovative organization, everyone and everything is necessarily “The Business”. The whole thing is a fucking business. You all make up “The Business”. Without technology, there is no viable business, and without a viable business, there is no technology group. The only question is: on what part of the business are you primarily focused for driving success?
It’s revolutionary that the Tech industry is so passionate about outthinking and outpacing traditional business. They implement culture-based job titles like, “Resident Rockstar” or “Vice-Awesomefest of Fucking Kool-Aid Chugging”; they artificially flatten hierarchies by drawing lines around people and calling them Pods; they encourage flexible hours, flexible vacation and flexible work stations. That’s all fine, I suppose.
But where we don’t need innovation or oversimplification is in team nomenclature; if and when you’re going to name groups, name them by their functional specialities, not by their contrived alliances to fragmented strategic objectives.
What are you focused on? Getting people to buy shit? Great, you’re in “Sales”.
What are you focused on? Strategic partnerships, revenue growth and effective management? Great, you’re in “Executive Leadership”.
What are you focused on? Blowing everyone’s mind by somehow building stuff on a computer screen that does whatever we want it to? Great, you’re in “Engineering”.
What are you focused on? Managing the content and strategy for social media? Great, you’re fired in a year.
But guess what? You’re still all on the hook for understanding what everyone else does and perhaps more importantly, how and why they do it, because at the highest and lowest levels, everyone’s motivations should be in lockstep.
One of the most prevalent sentiments behind the Business vs. Tech division is the insecure defense, “they don’t get this stuff.” Tech people aren’t good with money and humans because all they do is make “beep boop boop” noises in the dark, and Sales and Marketing people just talk out of their asses and wonder if the cookies on their browser are white macadamia or oatmeal.
“They don’t get this stuff.”
What stuff? Half-promising futures to close a deal? The value of matching a fierce competitor’s feature set? The long term-costs of unscalable architecture? The importance of rigorous, extensive quality assurance?
You’re not teaching calculus to a fucking llama; these are professionals who are getting paid to learn and succeed, and most of the material concepts are not particularly complicated if they’re explained properly. The whole place is part of making The Business successful, so encourage and enable everyone to act like it.
You might think that I’m overreacting to semantics, but I assure you, I’m not. What this semantic sewage does, conversational or operational, is breed resentment, defensiveness and a dangerous talent for targeted indifference on two sides of a very ugly fence. It’s a fence that too sharply tries to separate the grown-up commercial thoroughfares from the innocent, trusting, rambunctious antics of the sparkly-eyed startup playground that attracted all the traffic in the first place.
As you get bigger and older, don’t lose touch with the common sense of purpose and inclusive spirit that enabled your first growth spurt and that guided your maturity. Appreciate the effect that poor terminology has on a product; not just externally, but internally too.
The business is the brand, and everyone should be wearing the logo. If not, you will have serious problems.
So if you ever catch someone using broad, bent-ass terms like, “The Business” or “Technology” in reference to specific people, grab them by the haunch of their cheeks and give them a good shake. Tell them that you’re all “The Business” and that they have the choice to either fit in or fuck off. Tell them to stop trying to grow up so much.
Then when HR tries to fire you, say “they started it”.
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Cathleen George says
Words to live by. I love the Billy Madison movie, great introduction to that one!
Benjamin Mann says
“It’s too hawt foh a penguin to just be WAAAALKIN arrrooouuund…”
This isn’t a problem relegated to the tech industry, it’s pretty much any industry with different groups of people working together. Perhaps the divide isn’t as great as in tech fields, but every kind of job that I’ve had that was a “serious” job, always had some bogus ass job title associated with it. I remember once in a job that they went ahead and renamed our job title out of nowhere one day. I forget exactly what they called us, but it went from one completely vague job title, to a new one that made no sense. We’re workers who take orders, that’s it. We do what we do for the money and at the end of the day, a job title shouldn’t make that much of a difference. The only reason it annoyed me was that it was complete fluff made up bs.
Benjamin Mann says
Ya, this is definitely an issue across industries, but it’s not as much about “job titles” as it is about “role segregation”. It’s not that people in tech companies have “Business People” and “Tech People” on their business cards – but because they are in departments considered on the “business” side of the fence, or on the “tech” side of the fence, they are treated very differently (their capabilities, their influence, their relevance) and it creates disharmony in what is ultimately one big fat product trying to success from all angles.