Let's set some basic assumptions before we dive into this rant.
- People, engineers, human capital, are the most valuable asset any technology company has. There is no doubt that methodology and process come second after the core culture that is made of people. Waterfall or agile, XP or SAFe (God forbid..) can produce good results, despite the environment, if the right people are on the job.
- Happy people are productive people. People that see value in what they do, have an opportunity to grow and develop themselves, and are challenged just enough to step out of their comfort zone - are happier, inspired, motivated, ready to take responsibility, and see the delivery of the value through.
- People management is hard. Creating the conditions mentioned in the previous point is hard when the org grows beyond a bunch of college friends building the next coolest thing ever in a basement.
- "Rant", the noun, is defined as "a bombastic extravagant speech" by Merriam-Webster Dictionary
I hope we concur on the above to some degree, yet this is where things went wrong.
The Role of HR in IT Companies
One of the Grumpys mentioned a comment they had read the other day:
“At most companies, HR will tell you that their role is to help you navigate the workplace and be your best self. It’s not. Their role is to protect the company from liability. Complaining to HR says that you’re a complainer and that what they need to document is you to insulate the company from liability from you if you’re ever terminated. HR is not your friend”.
I, on the receiving side of this, have agreed wholeheartedly. Yet, in my opinion, things are even grimmer.
If you ask an organisational consultant what the role of HR is, the answer will be short and brief. It is to protect the company from legal liabilities, caused intentionally, but mainly unintentionally by the employees. Managers and individual contributors alike, but most managers as the blast radius is bigger. It is also to govern and oversee the execution of the internal processes and protect the company, related to terminations, promotions, hiring, etc. Sounds straightforward, isn’t it? Talent Acquisition, the hiring org, luckily is usually to be a separate group in many modern companies, but it is still reporting to the highest-ranking HR officer, so independence is an illusion. Still does make sense in a way.
Today HR usually also has a subgroup of PeopleOps, which are system admins that run the HR tools for the company, and have an unimaginable level of access to your personal data.
But, if you ask HR about what their role is, you will get a completely different answer though. You will be washed with the philosophical concepts of continuous growth, personal development, people’s happiness, how people are the most important asset, career progressions, competencies and performance management, coaching, employee relationships, etc. All of those are important, but as an engineering leader, starting from engineering manager up to the VP or even a C-level, those are your responsibilities. Some representatives of HR, especially the more senior ones, would also tell you that they are in charge of ensuring the company's values are followed and lived. Now this statement is a bit scary if you have read “1984”.
So how did we get there? Remember when we agreed that people management is hard? Not all engineering managers are people’s people. Although they really should be, they are not. Dealing with people's feelings, and everything related to people’s irrationality is stressful. Much more than delivering a piece of code that works or spinning up a new account in Azure. Those managers were looking for an opportunity to, first, get help, and later - offload many of those things to someone else. Who could it be? Who is the one that is supposed to deal with “people matters”? HR! With time, the self-feeding cycle of importance and artificial dependencies have spun out of control. Supported by leaders who have perpetuated the concept of “HR deals with people”, human resources organisations grew to provide their services to larger organisations, hierarchy was created, and new roles came to be. Everything was under the banner of “helping the manager and the employees to do their job and make people happy”. That is downwards and sideways. What about upwards? This is one of the overwhelming success stories in the history of structured organisations! Growing from courtier with admin and labour law knowledge, we now have an HR representative in the C-Suite of the business - the glorious Chief People Officer (CPeO). Sometimes even preposterous like Chief People and Culture Officer. Yes, many C-Level people are incompetent, just as people are at any level (see, Peter principle), but C-Suite should represent some level of expertise. CEO is a person with a deep understanding of business, CTO is one with a very good grasp of technology, CFO - is undeniably one of the hardest jobs in the family and requires not only knowledge but also certifications, if I am not mistaken. And then there is the CPeO…
So what does HR in its current, oversized manifestation with an overgrown sense of self-importance do? They control. I have met many HR leaders and all of them share one trait. They believe in their irreplaceability. In some cases, they exaggerate the concept of “people are the most important asset” into meddling with business decisions, performance, and competency definitions for the technical roles, injecting themselves into interviews and cutting down candidates because those “do not represent the values of the organization”. Being given the mandate, led now by a C-level executive, HR has grown into a shadow organization that “whispers” to leaders, but this is not the worst part.
If you have spoken with HR recently, you might have heard things that could be summed up as “You are important to us. We want you to be happy. We want you to grow. Let us tell you how you can grow. You cannot grow in other ways. We created a set of rules and guidelines on how to grow. How to hire, who to hire, and how to grow people under you. There is only one way, the right way, the way we created for you. To make your life easier”. The way HR operates may be analogous to domestic intelligence service. Under the assumption they wish you good on a personal level they work you as an asset and make you trust them, all for the purpose of expanding their network of assessment of whether an individual is a “cultural fit” to the values they are set to protect. And with CPeO that is contributing directly to the creation of such values, sometimes even leading the effort, we have a combination of legislative, judicial, and executive authorities in one.
Yes, business is not democracy, but an organization of such power that has no specific business or technology acumen can become dangerous.
With great power comes great expectation
There is another, somewhat funny, side of the coin though. With such power and artificially created existential dependency of the business, HR has gained a lot of focus and, mostly unwanted, attention. This attention is dragging them into the same transformations the technology, product, and business organizations are going through to be successful, or even just remain relevant in today’s environment.
Being Data-driven means more than having numbers on a table, it is in fact about making decisions based on data, which in turn demands data be rich, accessible, and of high quality. HR has found itself amid a data mindset change, which demands them to comply with this change. To become data-driven, make assumptions, test them with data, produce detailed information, and back up decisions with data. An ability rarely found in HR. I have seen wrongly calculated charts of attrition with close to no understanding of basic statistics, I have heard stories about the inability to calculate compensation deviations between geographies, and I have frequently heard, that the data leading to this or that decision was “empirical and should be enough”, and many additional signs of incompetence.
As HR’s influence grew and many processes have become HR-driven, the leaders who accepted this reality are now expecting HR to understand the process, rather than create, push, and enforce it. Performance assessment in engineering organisations, regardless of how you do it, is deeply rooted in engineering competencies, expectations from different levels of seniority, and heavy technical terminology, on top of basic expectations of being a decent human being. Something I have never, in all my years of IT experience, seen with HR. Recently I argued with a senior representative of a people's org that insisted on having the same competency matrix for business development representatives and backend developers. All for the sake of standardisation, for the sake of ease of governance, not organisational efficiency though.
Are we doomed to work for HR?
With all of the above said, and despite what you might have thought until now, I do not blame HR for this development. HR has seen a void and filled that void in the best possible way they could. Yes, there are sparks of unhealthy ambition, but this is always true when humans are involved. Yet, it is we, the technical leaders, who left this void to be filled in the first place.
Human capital, engineers, product managers, even agile coaches (this is a topic for another rant), people, not processes, not scrum, not tech-stack, yep, not even that genially tuned Kubernetes or state-of-the-art prediction engine you are so proud of. People are the most important part of your organisation.
So if you are a technical leader of any seniority or an aspiring one, please consider some of the below as advice from an old grumpy Snarky Doodle:
- Do not outsource people's happiness, personal growth, career progression, sense of value, and psychological safety to others. Especially not to a group that does not work with those people on a daily basis.
- Invest in understanding human nature and behavior. Learn what drives people and tie this into your technology strategy.
- Invest in communication skills, clarity of delivering a message, adjusting it to the audience, and ability to simplify while remaining coherent.
- Learn about feelings and emotions, empathy, ego, traumas, and their impact on our decisions. The best is to start with yourself. Understanding yourself, developing radical candour, and honesty with yourself - is a great start. You will be surprised to discover how much we lie to ourselves.
- Establish an open, safe feedback culture. Star with yourself again by asking for feedback from those who report to you, show vulnerability, and trust to be trusted.
- Low or inadequate performance is on you to fix, not HR. The root of it is most likely to be found in a lack of trust, unclear communication or personal problems, rather than in malicious intent or inadequate cognitive abilities
As humans, we tend to radicalize, create dichotomies, thinking in black-and-white terms. This leads to some leaders focusing only on the people aspect of leadership. Developing the "human" muscle is a super-powerful addition to your hard, technical, strategic, and goal-oriented capabilities, but not a replacement for them. Keep honing your core skills, because leading a group of happy and productive people off the cliff due to your inability to think strategically is not something you should be proud of (look at the layoffs we are living through those days due to "unforeseen macroeconomic changes" Pffff...).
It's hard work, but it pays off!
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- This rant holds generalisations. There are talented and sincerely well-meaning HR professionals. Some understand and are fascinated by what a data-driven mindset offers, some are genuinely empathetic, and some are both.
- All of the above is based on my personal experience in the industry. I accept comments like “Who hurt you when you were a child?” and “You are probably fun at parties” with grace and the probability of being true.