bits by luke

A Review: Developer Hegemony

I recently had the pleasure of reading Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor (2017) by Erik Dietrich. To be honest, it’s been difficult to summarize my thoughts on his writing. Erik works in my industry. He proposes more than a few arguments that I, too, have made over my career. I often felt a combination of deja vu and catharsis when reading the book. This makes it difficult to untangle my own thinking from his words on the page, but I believe the primary thesis of the book is this: for “knowledge workers”, the modern corporate structure is an absurd morass of inefficiency and disharmony, and there is surely a better way for professionals to organize.

Who is this for?

The title “Developer Hegemony, The Future of Labor” is reminiscent of deeply philosophical or academic essays in the labor versus capital debate. “The Labor-Capital Divide: Inequality and the Future of Work” or “Invisible Hands, Invisible Workers: Labor’s Struggle against Capital” come to mind. Don’t be put off by the heady labeling. Dietrich’s writing is extremely accessible. He critiques the modern corporate working environment, then lays out a more hopeful vision for the future. His arguments and proposals often target laborers in a software development role, but I believe any professional knowledge worker could benefit from reading the text.

The Three Stooges

Erik opens with a brief history of humanity’s labor arrangements. He starts with the first barter-based transactions between individuals, and ends at our modern corporate amalgamation. The succinct (if necessarily shallow) summary is a useful introduction to the labor-versus-capital struggle in which humans have been engaged for centuries. He introduces the three-layer management structure invented and perpetuated by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1800s. Dietrich argues this system has produced inefficient and unsatisfying workplaces for everyone involved, and must be replaced.

According to Erik, corporate workers can be categorized into three buckets: losers, idiots, or sociopaths. More politely he refers to them as pragmatists, optimists, and opportunists, but the pointedness of his tongue-in-cheek categorization is hard to ignore.

We have created a bottom-dwelling class of pragmatists who realize the system is rigged against them. You shouldn’t work above and beyond the assigned duties, but focus only on the minimum amount of output required to not get fired. The corporate ladder-climbing strategy doesn’t allow anyone to “win”, at least not in any reasonable timeline, so why bother playing the game? These losers are content working their dead-end roles, and accepting suboptimal salaries, because the alternative is a life of longer and more stressful hours without appreciably more pay. Pragmatists are quite content to sit on the bottom and spend their lives focused on nonwork activities.

Conversely, optimists are those workers who don’t realize the game is rigged. They dutifully accept more responsibility, more blame, more risk, more working hours, and more stress. Why would they do this? Over time, they believe this will result in higher pay and advancement up the corporate ladder. They aren’t entirely wrong– optimists eventually receive more perks and advancement. The problem is that the pay is never commensurate, and the advancement is never on time. To follow the path of the optimist is to trade your prime living years, your autonomy, and probably your health, for the extremely unlikely chance of eventually winning the coveted position of boss.

In direct opposition to the first two layers of workers sits the opportunist. These are people who recognize the game is rigged, but still choose to play. They are therefore unwilling to play by the rules. Clever political maneuvers and unabashed risk-taking behavior allow them to skip rungs in the corporate ladder. Opportunists realize it is easier to climb to the top when you step on the heads of pragmatists (who are used to it) and optimists (who are happy to provide the service). Unfortunately, to play the game with this strategy is to trade away your humanity for better odds at reaching the top.

An alternative

Dietrich recognizes the absurdity of this situation. Corporate structures have created a world full of inefficiency and disharmony. What can we do to crawl out of this morass? He argues that knowledge workers stuck in a modern corporate structure should reorganize themselves to mirror the professionals who never fell into the corporate trap in the first place. They should cast off the constraints of employee-employer relationships and resist the false allure of a corporate paycheck.

Consider doctors, dentists, and lawyers for example. These professionals organize into solo practices or owner-operator partnerships. They don’t impose layers of middle management or institute ladder climbing. They form a flat structure of peers, each contributing individualized expertise to the work at hand. They are incentivized to be efficient because there is a direct connection between hours worked and income earned. They are also in a position of increased stability; losing a client or customer is dramatically less harmful than losing a corporate paycheck.

Most importantly, the nature of the relationship between a professional and client is dramatically different from the relationship between a laborer and corporation. A corporation hires a law firm because the lawyers are the experts in law. A corporation doesn’t hire a law firm then proceed to dictate to that firm exactly the process by which they want the work to be done. That would be ridiculous. The lawyers know how to do their job, and they don’t need much input from the corporation when it comes to fulfilling their professional duties.

Contrast this to the predicament of knowledge workers trapped in a corporate environment. Employees are experts in a particular field–be it software, or shoe manufacturing, or whatever. A corporation hires experts because they need help. They want to gain new capabilities, or improve on existing processes. Strangely, the corporation then proceeds to dictate not only what the experts work on, but also when they work, where they work, and how they work.

Consider the metaphorical equivalent: a sick patient hires a doctor, then proceeds to tell the doctor the cause of the sickness, the diagnosis, prognosis, and course of treatment. The sick patient has ignored, at their own peril, the decades of experience and practice offered by the doctor. This is a peculiar and ineffective way to organize a workforce.

My Thoughts

I believe Erik Dietrich hit the nail square on the head. I have experienced first-hand most of the complaints laid out in his book while working as an employee in the capacity of a software engineer. I’ve assisted startups in finding product-market fit, advised established firms through their next stages of growth, and evolved overburdened legacy systems into efficient, modern platforms. I have designed and implemented a huge variety of software systems in my decade-plus experience as a software engineer. Yet, in each of these engagements it has been a challenge to establish a more professional working relationship with the employer. It can take months, if not years, to build enough trust and gravitas before my professional opinion can convince the corporation to allow me to make meaningful improvements. What’s more, each time I am hired by a corporation, I somehow find myself starting over in the relationship-building process, despite the accumulation of years of experience.

Erik has convinced me to try something new. The current corporate situation is nonsensical. We, the professionals, are hired by corporations to improve the status quo, or to build new capabilities. If we are unable to fulfill this contract under the constraints of employee-employer relationship, then perhaps it’s time to rethink that relationship. Developer Hegemony has provided me with the motivation and know-how to establish a basis for more effective work, and to better leverage my professional skill set. I’ll see you on the other side.