Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

I have enjoyed Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Farnamstreet’s review is perfect so I will not attempt at writing one. I will focus on one idea I found most intriguing.

I read Horowitz’ book as an account of dealing with hard decisions in general, about having to decide alone, about personal accountability, about having to pick the lesser of two evils.

The idea that stuck with me in particular is Management Debt, and Horowitz also blogged about this.

… management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence.

You accumulate Management Debt if you try to fix an organizational issue quickly by acting inconsistently. Horowitz’ example: You might give an employee a raise in order to stop her from leaving the company. But she had discussed her plans with another employee who then wonders why she stayed; so she feels pressed to explain the reason to him. Then others learn how to blackmail you in order to get a raise, etc..

From my short stint as a manager I am familiar with such situations but I rather like to extend the concept to Social or Political Debt. I believe that we, as human social animals, tend to focus on resolving the conflict right in front of you, rather than considering seemingly abstract consequences in the future.

I am thinking of the expert bombarded with all kinds of requests. As a professional it is hard to avoid them: People who to want to pick your brain and just like to have 5 minutes so you can glance over their problems. For free. Trying to help all of them – on top of working with paying clients – would be the equivalent of trying to copy a full book at the photocopier but yielding to anybody who wants to copy just a single page.

As a fallible human you might give in to the most intrusive requester just to get rid of him or her. You think that explaining your seemingly cold-hearted rationale would take more time and would be more emotionally taxing than just fulfilling the request.

But those people will return with more problems, and their acquaintances will, too. You have incurred debt, and there is interest rate. The moment of refusal might be difficult though, in particular with requests in the blurry area between business and private. How to say No to that alleged or self-declared old friend?

I am a believer in 1) Stating clearly what you don’t want and don’t do (rather than focusing on the positive) without feeling the need to explain yourself and 2) “Principles” – a short list of your values, or guiding principles you always follow. Both need need to be ingrained in your mind so that you react accordingly in case you receive those e-mails and calls out of the blue.

The paradoxical or sad thing is that explanations are most often futile. There are many good reasons – both ethical and business-wise – for not jumping onto such requests. The obvious one being limited time and treating all clients equal, but the best one in my point of view being the value of true expertise: Based on years of experience you might only need five minutes to solve a problem that requires somebody else doing days of research. That’s exactly why those first minutes might be the most valuable.

I am speaking from experience although such things fortunately did happen to me rarely. But when they did, it was freaking me out. I once got a call from an unknown lawyer who was in the middle of installing his very own Public Key Infrastructure; he started asking technical questions before introducing himself. I tried to explain that I was actually charging people for such services, and that I assumed he did not do legal counselling for free either. His response was that he was maintaining all his IT stuff by himself – just this topic was too complicated for him so he needed advice. So services should be free if a professional solves a particularly tricky problem. This defies common sense.

I also thought I had a killer argument, non-refutable. I am actually providing technical information on ‘the internet’ for free – the same sort of answers or materials I would charge clients for. The difference is that I am not obligated to do this, so I pick this case by case. I believe in open-source-style sharing in a community of like-minded members. I am a believer in demonstrating skills in real time instead of showing off certificates – it goes without saying this might include giving away some valuable advice for demo purposes at the start of a business relationship.

Unfortunately, this demo-for-business argument that is used too often by people who want to milk your know-how forever – just testing how far they can go – without ever really considering a ‘business relationship’. As soon as you tell them the answer to the next question will not be free of charge anymore, they suddenly stop asking.

Fortunately, I get enough feedback by providing so much detailed information for free!!. A few people who don’t get it would not shatter my confidence. Interestingly, people who still challenge me (But then you don’t have time for me??) are those whom I would not consider part of any ‘sharing’ communities or get their spirit in the slightest. I think all those issues belong in the category: Either you get it immediately and communication is based on tacit understanding what is normal and appropriate – or all explanations are in vain.

Many years ago I had been asked literally if I would like to work for free. Corporations send out request for proposals and ask for lots of free concepts and presentations – until they have gathered enough know-how from all the potential vendors invited so that finally they have learned enough from the ‘pitches’ and can do the whole project on their own. Finally I had my antennas finely tuned to all your typical manipulations methods (I have already told X you will do [unpaid honorable engagement] Y – if you don’t, this will get me into serious troubles!). Many people are driven by short-term impulses, not by malice (I have to solve this problem or my boss will kill me!) and they respond to logical arguments: What would you say if you were a paying client and find out that I do free consulting for other people at random? Some manipulators are hopeless cases though, especially if they think they provide something in return that is actually less than useless to you.

Horowitz’ war stories resonated with me more than I expected. He emphasizes dealing with organizationally or psychologically difficult issues head-on. I read his advice as: Better act sooner than later, better state the ugly truth upfront. Better take some decision at all, even if it is just 55% versus 45%. Communicate clearly, don’t use fluffy phrases. Sometimes people explicitly appreciated my way of saying No immediately and unambiguously, instead of endless dithering and not trying to hurt anybody which seems to have become fashionable in times of Networking and You Will Always Meet Two Times.

Searching my own images for own that would represent both mental clarity as well as difficult decisions – I zoomed in this one immediately. (Vineyards close to my home village, evening at the beginning of May.)

Although this is tagged with ‘rant’ it should not be interpreted as what I actually consider pointless and energy-draining – endless rants about common practices in your industry sector that you cannot change but have to live with. I am in the Love It, Change It, Or Leave It camp. I have also been writing about the past, and often a single annoying event of that sort had made me shift gears.

I believe the best – and most productive – way to cope with weird requests is to either: Respond clearly and immediately using a standardized I-don’t-do reply, then ignore them as an accidental, misguided question that just happened to end up in your inbox; or: to analyze if an aspect of your previous communication might have invited such inquiries, and improve your future communications. And don’t aim at being liked by anybody, anytime.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. So–I am finally caught up :-)

  2. Michelle H says:

    I didn’t get the usual WordPress notifications for your last couple of posts, and being away from social media, I am late getting here.

    This post lands right on a sore spot for me, in that I have been working very diligently to overcome that geek definition you gave, of trying to just solve problems on hand. My impulse is always to step up and offer a solution, rather than offer empty complaints, which then puts me in the precarious position of looking like I want too much responsibility. I’m dealing with a situation like this now, and I’ve held to my boundaries, but not without receiving some of those blackmail backlashes that you and Maurice discussed. One thing that I’ve found, though, is that when a solution is a good one (and especially when it answers an organizational problem that is significant), others step up to be part of making the change, and I am finding that so long as I keep thinking of ways to divide the work load, communicate process and strategy, and be open to other ways of seeing the problem, then I can pass the tasks on to others. In management/leadership, I think it is key to learn how to step back and let others take ownership of a project, even if it began as your own brainchild. You have to be pretty firm in who you are, though, as it can hurt the ego if you want accolades and praise, and still expect your team to work with you or for you. Still, if you value your freedom to move on to the next problem, you do have to be willing to give up being liked, or adored, or any of those unnecessary bits that leads one to grasp at praise.

    I was thinking of posting on these thoughts, but haven’t had time to dig into writing for a couple weeks now. So glad Maurice tweeted your post, or I might have overlooked it for longer (which would have delayed the ease of frustration this gives me). Grateful for you, and you sharing your insightful thoughts. :)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Michelle!
      ‘Boundaries’ is a key term here, I guess! Some people have different personal definitions of those, and it’s futile to explain yours in detail.

      I think my final solution to that ‘manager’s predicament’ was to stay away from anything management-like and focus on problems that are per definition to be solved by a single person (or by a very small team of very like-minded peers :-). But this is exactly what might cause the issues I’ve described! Often technical experts want to be promoted into management, just to escape the hands-on geek’s dilemma – then most likely stumbling upon the predicament you mentioned. So you cannot escape your inner geek one way or the other!

      Yes, I agree: the solution is to renounce of the status of the always helpful expert, the one you can call 24/7. I think it is important to learn (and continuously update) what your ‘weak spots’ are – what people need to tell you to manipulate you. For example, I noticed that it made a difference for me if people phrased their impudent requests just a bit more flattering, I would handle it differently. I noted that I was happy if E-Mails followed the common, ‘obvious’ pattern (“How are you? Well, I [self-centered stories]…. and now I am in need of …”) instead of adding one of the magic phrases about my very special ability to help with a specific problem. But I think after some practising the algorithm sinks in and “… a guru like you …” etc. triggers an alert, too!

      1. Michelle H says:

        You are so correct about self-monitoring; you have to know your buttons. It is good to know that others feel the same old tug-o-war over letting go of tasks but then getting tangled in managing people. I like how you’ve observed that we can’t escape our inner geek. I think I am finally beginning to accept this, rather than battle with it continuously. I’ve often read that creative people, like artists or writers, need to embrace their selfishness if they are ever to get any work done. I’ve given this a great deal of consideration, and in the end, decided that if I am truly going to be selfish (in the sense of doing something I feel called upon to do, for myself, rather than simply doing what is assigned to me to do), I should go back to school and follow the path I wanted for myself in the first place. I have an appointment today to discuss academic planning for a second degree, and to register in classes. ;) And thus the need to finish up tasks and move quickly out of the committee work I found myself doing.

        1. elkement says:

          Exiting news, Michelle :-) I am looking forward to an update on your learning adventures and wish you all the best for the transition!!

  3. Sounds so very familiar. In my current day job I look after the Teaching and learning Commons at the Faculty of Education at the University in my city. Since this is new–the TLC was only opened last year and there are no equivalents anywhere–the job description is vague. Nonexistent, actually, other than “Get ‘er Done!” or something like that. The Dean allows me a lot of flexibility and I certainly try to do right by the organization. I have defined my task as “enabling students, faculty and staff to do excellent work,” a phrase that not only sounds cute but which also allows me to choose what’s important. But therein lies the problem. What I think is important my not be so to others. In addition, because I come with a variety of skills and backgrounds, the requests for help come from all directions. Now, mostly I don’t mind. I like a challenge and, more importantly, I like to keep very busy with multiple projects.
    The problem, though, is exactly what you mentioned–specifically the many, many requests that come on VERY short notice. While those requests are frightfully important and urgent to the requester, frankly, in the scheme of things (the faculty of Education in general) they matter not a while lot. I am therefore frequently left in the conundrum you mentioned: politely pass it off and suffer those consequences or do the request. You are so totally right about what happens when you do the latter. It’s happened to me many times already. Do “it” once and guaranteed you’ll have just created the new normal, a situation that will result in a barrage of similar requests not only from the original requester but also from everyone else.
    It’s been my observation throughout my career, though, theres also a cost to the polite refusal. While I’m totally within my rights in doing do, as I have learned, those turned away have all sorts of ways of making me rethink my decision, ranging from complaints peers that I seem a lazy sort who wouldn’t offer help when asked (even though those who asked likely don’t offer much help to others) to lack of support for the activities we should both share interest and responsibility for. Blackmail, essentially.
    Fortunately, in my current position I work with people who are okay, who can handle the give and take. Perhaps it’s because ofter a lifetime of dealing with it I have learned to say “no” with grace or perhaps I am just lucky enough to work with reasonable people :-)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Maurice! Always interesting to learn about similar experiences in a different sector!!
      You nailed the solution in the last sentence – that’s my conclusion, too! I feel that it helps to work with people ‘similar’ in the sense that they had the same type of experiences. Maybe one of the reasons I have also worked with clients rather similar to myself – so-called ‘detailed workers’ and geeks. I had seen one definition of geek as ‘a person that simply tries to really solve problems at hand’ – then it is not a suprise that you have to learn early how to say No.
      One thing that might have helped me to cultivate The Straight-Forward No was my time as an employed consultant. In this case you owe it not only to you but also to your employer to treat all requests equal. In addition, requests *always* came out of the blue, always when I was knee-deep in something else.

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