Monday, August 12, 2013

Corporate IT and Top Chef

I stopped watching ‘Top Chef’ a couple of seasons ago.  It isn't that I didn't like the concept of the show or that I don’t like cooking shows, in fact, it’s just the opposite.  I love cooking shows and I love watching talented chefs create amazing dishes from everyday ingredients.  My problem is the ‘Top Chef’ judging system.

In case you've never seen ‘Top Chef’, the contestants participate in various culinary challenges and at the end of each episode; the person who did the worst is eliminated.  All well and good.  The problem is that the judging system rewards mediocrity.  There’s no running score, no collected achievement, no history of performance.  All that counts is how you do on the specific challenge in front of you today.  You can be the absolute best for three weeks in a row, blow one dish, and find yourself packing your knives.

Invariably, as the group of contestants winds down, there is at least one chef left who sucks.  They've never done badly enough to be the absolute worst, but they've been consistently in the bottom half.  Try something daring and fail?  You’re gone.  Try something average and do ok?  Live to survive until the next week.

Unfortunately, this reminds me of a lot of the IT shops I've worked in over the years.  You don’t get rewarded for taking risks or trying to be innovative but sure as hell you’ll get punished for failing.  Big Corporate IT staffs are notoriously risk averse for just this reason.  The problem with this is two-fold.

First, young technical studs who are looking for interesting projects aren't looking for the career safety of doing COBOL code maintenance.  They’re looking for doing something with cutting edge technologies.  Eventually they get tired of working for a management chain that preaches innovation but punishes free thinking and they move on to smaller, more nimble IT shops where they actually can get their hands on some new technologies.

Second, when layoffs come, and they always do in Big Corporate IT, the people that get axed will invariably include anyone who made his manager look bad in the last year.  Hey, didn't Bob try out that new virtualization platform and make me look bad to the boss?  Let’s put him on the list.  Well, yeah, Charlie isn’t the best at his job but we went to college together!  I can’t lay him off!

The net is that our Big Corporate IT staffs tend towards being a cluster of B- / C+ students.  Our executive management can chirp, “We want to be like Google!  We want to be like Microsoft!” until the cows come home.  Until they can get middle management to act that way, Big Corporate IT will continue to be the mediocre ‘Top Chef’ contestant that somehow manages to just squeak through.