Sunday, July 22, 2007

IT is from Mars, HR is from Venus

In general IT and Human Resource departments do not get on well together.  To be fair to IT I'm not sure any department in a company gets on brilliantly with HR but IT seems to get one worse than most.  I once worked for a company where one senior manager claimed "I only work for small companies, as soon as they get big enough to have an HR director I leave."  True to his word within a year of the firm appointing a permanent HR director he was gone.

When you look at it the two departments really are opposites.

  • HR is generally staffed by people who use people skills, they do touchy-feely, they do form filling and the do structure.  HR comes along late in a company's life; nobody founds a firm by starting with an HR group.  HR is also, if we believe stereotypes, largely staffed by women.

  • IT - and really I'm talking specifically about software development groups - are the reverse.  They are staffed by people who don't know the meaning of the word touch, generally dislike form filling (why fill in a form when you can create an electronic systems?) and are creative.  Software developers are often the first people in a start-up company.  And on the whole the teams are male dominated.

To be fair to HR - and I have been known to stand up for them in the past - they do have good intentions.  HR departments can be a force for good in a company and they do work that does need doing in big companies.  On the whole IT people do not appreciate this.  Which just goes to make the conflict so much worse.

I've commented on this subject before.  Then I gave two reasons: firstly that HR groups just do not understand IT and secondly that you actually need damn good HR people if they are to benefit IT. 

So why are software developers so different form the other groups HR works with?

Well I think there are some characteristics of development teams which alienates them from HR people.  Other groups and individuals have these characteristics but in software development they are more common and more pronounced:

  • Technical skills are to the fore and social skills can be non-existent.  I think the developers of tomorrow need for more social skills than those of yesterday but still technical skills are key.  This is the opposite of HR departments themselves where social skills are more important than technical skills.

  • Software developers often appear to job-hop.  A year here, two years there, six months there.  To a classical HR person this looks risky, will this person be with the company in three years?  But actually this can give a software developer a lot more experience than they would get from working on the same code base year after year.

    And it is not really developers' fault.  Much development work is project based, teams expand and contract, therefore people move teams and people move between companies to follow the projects.  Further more because so many software companies are start-ups the risk of company failure and redundancy is that much higher, it is an occupational risk.  Unlike HR departments which only exist in safe companies.

    The really odd bit is that the best developers may have the most fractured CVs.  If you are good you will be hunted.  If you are an average developer you are more likely to stay in one place because fewer people want you.  Simply good people move.  This is the opposite of what HR expect.  Part of this is because...

  • Productivity varies:  good developers can be twice or ten times as productive as average developers.  In fact one study I saw put it as high as 27 times more productive.  Yet do you see this in their pay?  Many of us have met hyper-productive developers but have you ever met one who was paid twice or ten times more than the average one sitting next to him?

    These kind of difference mean that developers who are a little bit better than average can be significantly more productive.  Thus becomes more important to be able to differentiate between someone who is 10% better than average and someone who is 15%.

    As a result a good developer can consistently extract more economic-rent from an employer.  Because paying people these sorts of differentials is alien to HR groups they don't do it thereby leaving the gate open for someone else to.

  • Software developers often lack traditional career markers: in other words they generally don't do sport.  They were never school team captain and - if they are like me - spent their teenage years in front of a computer honing their skills.  And they don't move up the career paths into management.  If you have a great developer then keep him developing, do not force him into management if he wants to carry on cutting code.

This is all leading up to one more difference.  The best software developers are clever, very very clever.  There is a scene in the BBC film "Breaking the Code" where someone from the Ministry of War tells Alan Turning "You are much more intelligent than most of the people around us.  That makes them very nervous."  I think that effect is at work too.

So what can be done?

There needs to be work on both sides.  HR needs to appreciate the special challenges and demands of managing IT resources and especially software developers.  IT needs to recognise how HR can help and the corporate need for HR.  But this may not be enough, we may need a structural solution.

A few months ago I visited the offices of one of the UK's leading national newspapers.  There are two sides to a newspaper: the business side, including production, advertising, marketing, accounts, etc. and then there is the editorial side.  Because of the need to keep editorial independent this needs to be handled by journalists.  Therefore, there needs to be two HR departments.  The first is for the bulk of the employees and the second is just for the journalists.

I suppose the main HR group could handle the routine admin like payroll, tracking holidays etc.  but to have journalists governed by the same management structure could compromise editorial independence.  So they have their own HR group, staffed with managers from the editorial side.

This model could work in IT.  I can imagine a new role inside the group "Technical HR manager".  This person would be involved with hiring, performance reviews, etc. etc. but they would know about technical people in depth.  They would come from a technical background themselves.

Although this might sound like a drastic change I think it is reasonable.  Companies which depend on software development really bet their future on their people.  They bet that their people can develop better technology than the competition.  What appears to be a technology based business is in fact a people based business.  There is vast difference between having above average people and above above average people.  Just go and ask Google or Microsoft.

Ironic isn't it?  HR departments can't be trusted when human resources are the most important thing.

And that's another thing, why on earth did we dump the name Personnel Department? We are not talking about some plug-compatible resources here, we are talking about people.  Living breathing people, not resources.

My guess is that Personnel Departments dumped the title so they could put themselves on a part with the money and machines, the other resources; in doing so they lost sight of their key differentiator.  When people are key you have to treat them as such.

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