Altruism, profit and IT
Programmers continue to suffer from burnouts, increasing responsibilities and a growing pressure to deliver more and more functionality to customers. But what role do developers need to play in business? And what is the true purpose of business?
A number of loosely related things have been simultaneously bothering me lately. John Willis’ brave and generous post about burnout brought them to a head in my mind. This tweet from the Dalai Lama prodded me to go ahead and speak my mind.
Idealistic as it may sound, altruism should be the driving force in business, not just competition and a desire for wealth.
— Dalai Lama (@DalaiLama) February 20, 2015
Why do ops engineers burn out from overwork and feeling ever-increasing pressure? Why do Agile teams get sidetracked from a focus on delivering customer value to an obsession with “velocity”? Why are DevOps and Continuous Delivery misunderstood as ways to make shit flow downhill faster, rather than as ways to improve the ability to hear and respond? Why does the question of whether massive security breaches really impact corporate behaviour even merit debate?
I believe these problems all derive from misunderstanding the true meaning of service. We’ve fully entered the service economy, so understanding what it means is critical to all our lives. Service increasingly happens through digital means, so IT has to be an integral part of the discussion.
We may have transitioned from a product economy to a service economy, but we bring hangovers from the past along with us. We still often see our purpose as being to create things, fill them with value, and give them to customers in exchange for money. From that perspective, digital service just lets us make more things and deliver them faster.
The meaning of service
Service, though, is really about helping people accomplish their goals. The dictionary definition of “to serve” includes “to render assistance; be of use; help”. A waiter in a restaurant doesn’t just keep delivering plates to your table; they start by asking you what you want. You might order a full breakfast, or just a cup of coffee. Seen from a product-centric perspective, software as service creates unattainable pressure to push ever more functionality at users.
That perspective misses the critical point that customers hire services to operate that functionality on their behalf. You don’t judge a restaurant based purely on whether you get what you want or how fast it comes. You also judge it based on whether the food is any good when it arrives, and how courteous and helpful the waiter is.
Operations includes non-functional quality (resilience, security, etc.) as well as human assistance (training, support, onboarding, etc.). These “features” all contribute to helping customers use a service to accomplish their goals. They are part of the benefit for which customers pay, and need to be treated as first-class needs. If I have to waste time and suffer anxiety getting a new credit card number, the company that suffered the breach has done the opposite of helping me.
One might object that customer benefit isn’t the real purpose of business. Business is inherently selfish; its purpose is profit, not help. Service, however, makes the two inseparable. Furthermore, service makes customer and employee benefit inseparable. A company’s internal functioning is no longer an irrelevant black box. Uninformed, unmotivated, disempowered employees make lousy customer support agents. Burned-out system administrators make mistakes that impact customers.
It is my belief that “service for others” can and should be the driving force behind the new economy. To work, it has to apply equally to relationships between companies and customers, and between employees within companies. The lack of one compromises value co-creation. The lack of the other causes the service organization to crumble from within. In either case, without thinking of others, we can’t hope to operate organizations that continuously provide true service quality. In the post-industrial world we now inhabit, that should be the point of everything we do, whether it’s as mundane as running an online invoicing service, or as exciting as building connected cars and thermostats.