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Is There a Correlation Between Employee Happiness and Agile?

We all know that Google has managed to sit atop the Fortune 100 Best Companies to work for in 2015.  Which of these others made it? Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Apple, or Amazon?

 You got it - not one of them. And this is despite many of them offering similar perks - the fancy, millennial-friendly offices, free food, massages, dry-cleaning, generous paychecks right out of college, and hipster-approved social status. The fact that Tech Titans don’t dominate the Fortune 100 list makes no sense. These companies really dote on their employees, with perks that would be impossible to imagine at most other firms. What’s the deal?

 Is it possible that the culture of Silicon Valley has some cracks in it? More interestingly, does Agile have anything to offer the Tech Titans? I think it does.

 While it is difficult to ascertain how much Agile has taken hold inside these companies, I have long missed their presence at Agile conferences. Like all good IT workers should be doing, I keep my eye on these leaders, and from an Agile perspective, opportunities are increasing. Agile has penetration in these companies. Jobs are starting to show up on their websites, and one colleague says use of the Agile framework is expected from all who work there. No exceptions. Yet, for the ten or so years I’ve been actively paying attention to Agile, one thing has been nagging me. It was hinted at by a keynote at one of these Agile Alliance conferences where Ken Schwaber dared to voice my very fear. He asked:  “Where are the developers?”

 To be sure, developers were there in that audience. But what he meant was he’d expect more developers in general, and he’d expect more from the tech companies. You know, the big ones, the Tech Titans. You would think the podiums would be crowded with their people, espousing the best way to do software in an increasingly complex world. And what about sponsorship? While a few of the tech titan tool vendors (Microsoft and IBM) have a booth, you don’t see the sponsorship from a pure PR perspective that I would expect. They’re always looking for tech talent; is that not to be found at Agile conferences?

 So I wondered if there was a connection between their absence from the Agile community and the Silicon-valley inspired culture of the Tech Titans? Note first that I didn’t say doing Agile, big “A.” Despite the cynics, my view of the Agile community is that all we have ever wanted was little “a” agile, and we feel that the way to get there is to use big “A” Agile. 

Going beyond the subjective interviews I did with employees at these companies, I looked at their job sites. While some have agile positions, it's hard to see any evidence of Agile penetration at Google, Apple, or Facebook. Why?

My first thought was that maybe they don’t go to conferences?  Maybe they’re so brilliant and so busy that they don’t need any help and they can’t share due to onerous NDAs. But that seemed unlikely. These companies do have their own conferences, so I’m sure that’s expensive, and if you’re doing your own conference, why go to anything else?

Second thought: they’re just natively agile. Startup culture is a quasi-religion for this group, and they strive to protect it. This makes sense: it's naturally iterative, focused on  delivering working code in weeks or even days. Agile has focused on managing the work and this may reek of control, which is an anathema to these companies. According to Steve Dennig, the flat nature of these orgs is the defining factor of this new economy. This is consistent with the self-organization concept of Agile. Still, a lot of their customers are at Agile conferences. Maybe they could teach us? The Tech Titans aren’t showing up at all, even behind the podiums.

Third thought: Agile is just wrong.  We’ve heard this before: Agile is for old people and for consultants to make money or Agile is simply a bad idea, adopted by companies with employees that simply aren’t as good. Yet, beyond the random blog posting, it's hard to find substantive written critiques on the topic. And even if so, if Agile is so off-base, I would think these companies would jump at the chance to correct many of the companies that go to conferences for a nice consultancy fee.

 Agile also has some momentum in academia. Just a simple search shows good schools across the country with the topic, including Villanova and the University of Washington. Most baffling is that this is such a prime market for software companies to sell to. Considering the last Agile conference sold out early (2300+ people) and it's always close to doing so, it doesn’t seem like smart business to ignore this movement, especially as the community continues to succeed at scaling Agile. 

Fourth thought: Their Leadership Does Not Want Agile. This initially felt like the least likely reason the Tech Titans aren’t showing up. After all, even if they’re natively agile, when they scale (and they do) you’re going to need some help balancing the needs of the business with developer autonomy. What, then, keeps them away? It must be a culture thing, and perhaps it's related to what keeps them off the Fortune 100 list. 

Then a pattern started to form.

 First, there was that New York Times Amazon article on Amazon. For those who haven’t read it, it's a devastating piece on the brutal culture at Amazon. Not about poor labor practices in the warehouses, but in their white collar jobs:  IT, Development, Product Managers - all were under soul-crushing pressure to perform. The article portrayed a derisive, divisive culture that, even if only half of it is true, is simply awful.   But it's not fair to pin this just on Amazon. Perhaps Silicon Valley is closer to The Wolf of Wall Street than its eponymous comedy.  

Then I recalled Showstopper, a book about the launch of Windows NT, and how people literally lost marriages and loved ones over/during the creation of the thing. Then the two Steve Jobs movies and countless articles resurfaced in my mind. 

And those reminded me of the heart wrenching article in Wired magazine article that showed Silicon Valley's culture as nothing but a giant R&D farm for venture capital and big business. Its cheery title?  No Exit.   

Yes, a pattern was forming, and with it, an answer to my question. The Tech Titans leadership doesn’t want Agile because Agile isn’t good for their questionable labor behavior. Notice I didn’t say labor practices - that smacks too much of unionization and blaming the execs, which I’m not going to get into.  The labor behavior is different. It comes from a tightly wound knot of employee expectations, peer pressure, and management dictate - the social norms of a company, its culture. And from these brief mentions and countless others, this labor behavior has nothing to do with coding at a sustainable pace. These guys can’t even go to the bathroom in peace

 From my years in coaching, I know that by using Agile people can expose some very ugly things that impede their organization. With Command and Control organizations, Agile can expose the ineffectiveness of holding onto a five-year plan, or it can expose the innovation-choking bureaucracy that slows them down and makes their stuff more expensive. 

 But with the meritocracy of the Tech Titan class, Agile would challenge something entirely different -  something core to how the whole Silicon Valley culture works. Namely, the eighty-hour weeks and the assumption that endless hours equals better work, or that it keeps us afloat, or funded. But I’m not talking about startups here, I’m talking about Tech Titans. And those companies have billions of dollars in the bank. Apple has $203 Billion Dollars in the bank. They could buy Morocco and have money left over, but they can’t afford a few Agile Coaches? More importantly, they can’t let their folks take weekends off? 

 The Agile and Lean communities would demand something different from these companies. The Agile crowd would ask them to put a reasonable amount of content into a sprint, and to remove heroics from the equation for success. The Lean Startup crowd would ask them to measure and pivot, focusing on the best opportunities. Both would expect them to have sustainable work for their people.

Let me pause here. I’m not judging people who are currently at their Dream Job. I work full time, I take classes, I have a family, and I have my consultancy business LifeSparcs, where I am focusing my energies on helping people focus on their true life dreams. I endeavor every day to uncover better ways to help people accomplish their dreams and goals, without sacrificing happiness. Because those are different things. 

The fact that the Tech Titans aren’t at these conferences turns out not to be the issue. The issue is quality of life. It is a flight of fancy to believe that tens of thousands of men and women are sacrificing their youth for their dream. It’s likely a combination of money, status, doing something “big,” and being considered top tier or cool. I know I’m painting with a broad brush - these massive companies are really amalgams of smaller business units, and an employee’s quality of life usually depends on which unit you’re reporting to.  But overall, many of these companies have the power of being Cool, and they’re misappropriating that power.

Power is a curious thing... Three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies? ... Power resides where men believe it resides; it's a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

―Varys to Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

 Recently Patrick Pichette, the CFO of Google, retired, and his comment was as such:

This summer, Tamar and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. When our kids are asked by their friends about the success of the longevity of our marriage, they simply joke that Tamar and I have spent so little time together that "it's really too early to tell" if our marriage will in fact succeed.

I know that’s a joke, but it's not terribly funny. In his case he reports that he was having the time of his life at this company, so it seems he has his dream-focus intact, but did he really have to miss all of that for it?

I know a few folks who worked like crazy in the first .com boom. After that died, they were in their late thirties and wondering if they were going to get to have kids, see the world, write that book, or donate some time. They wondered if they were going to do what mattered to them, finally, and many of them left after the bust. And, unlike Mr. Pichette, not all of them left with a golden parachute, or any parachute at all.

We all know excessive hours might be necessary for brief stints. Sometimes products are being co-developed and sure, everyone wants to have “first to market” on their resume. But this cannot possibly be the case all the time, the de facto labor agreement for the Tech sector. I’m not speaking against simple hard work, I’m talking about a slavish duty to one aspect of your life to the exclusion of all else indefinitely.  As for the tripe that this is how lawyers and doctors and stock brokers work - how does that change anything? Those careers have been historically some of the suckiest in the world, happiness-wise. Do we really want to emulate the ethics of Wall Street? There could be no louder clarion call for change if we do.

On a side note, I’d like to ask where in the heck are the Agile consultants on this Amazon article and on the whole culture of Silicon Valley? I searched and searched and I find very little on the overwork that these companies pride themselves on. I asked Skip Angel, a very experienced Agile Coach that I’ve known for years, why more high-profile Agilists aren’t commenting on it, and he had a great take on it:  

"Because we [the Agile industry] didn't think about people, we didn't focus on leadership and how to move towards a culture that embraces transparency, collaboration, teamwork and other values held by Agile. So while we focused our training and coaching of teams, we weren't spending time changing behaviors, mindsets, and capabilities needed by people to lead an organization that has greater agility." - Skip Angel, Director of Services, CA Technologies

Tech Titans, you’ve got a culture issue. It’s a startup culture mindset gone rampant. It has mutated and metastasized, and it's eating your life and your humanity.  It's bad for your company and it's bad for your family, and it's bad for you.

It's not good for your company. The company suffers because overwork is not good for innovation.  These guys are fooling themselves into believing that they can do this by sheer willpower and shaming.   Dan Norman states that fear creates focused, depth-first thinking, while happiness creates breadth-first thinking.

It's not good for your family, even if they’re not human. Look at the design of your life. You need to ensure that you have the right mindset to succeed at all portions, not just one. Recognize the beauty of a well-lived life of variety. 

It's not good for your health. Read that article No Exit  - they had so many health issues, and these are young guys. There are so many studies on this it’s too easy to Google. Here’s one and another one.

It is no wonder few of the Tech Titans show up on the Forbes list. But then there’s Google, the Outlier.

They have defied the odds and have stayed hot, gotten large, split into two companies, and remained at the top of the Forbes list. Some of my conversations with those folks tell me that they’ve cooled the intense demands for overtime there, so perhaps that’s part of it. While they’re still guilty of the sin of omission by not being part of the Agile community and sharing, this is changing through the books written on this company. Also to their credit, Google is making changes for their people. At Google you can now get up to twelve weeks of fully paid baby bonding time. Google also provides $500 of “Baby Bonding Bucks” to all new parents to use during the first three months of their child’s life. Now that is pretty cool and should show folks leading the Tech Titans a different way to deal with the people that are their company.  

Only by understanding the journey involved in each of the three marriages and the stages of their maturation can we understand how to bring them together in one fulfilled life. - David Whyte

This article has pointed at the Tech Titans, but really, we all should heed the call when our work is bumping up against our own principles.

As individuals, what can you do? Perhaps first you codify your own life principles. Write them down.   Get a journal and write down your goals for the next three to six months. Not your employer's goals. Not your mate’s goals, or your parents’ goals for you. No. Your goals. Once you have them down, break them down into chunks, and start working them, using either my adaptation of agile principles I call LifeSparcs or something else; anything that makes you stop, pause and listen to yourself. Read something from the OD community; I like Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer. Start living that examined life.

If you want to change your company culture, then you have to get out there and become a change agent. You might be surprised to find out that there was a whole field of study dedicated to culture change, flying under the banner of Organization Development. Try out a conference with those folks, or at least read some books in this space. Start with Joining Together, by Johnson and Johnson, and move from there, or shoot me an email for recommendations, since that will change based on where you are and where your organization is. Rebel management books are also fun. Anything that Gary Hamel, Steve Demming, or Seth Godin have written will light your fires directly. Have the courage to break out!

 If you’re an Agile advocate and a professional then you have a duty.  You need to start speaking out, start creating a counter movement that stops our companies from moving further down this path. Speak up when companies that are doing agile don’t show the fruits of it. After all, isn’t this tech revolution and the Agile movement supposed to give us all back time? The Tech Titans are loved across the world; why tarnish it with Tayloresque management styles? Surely we can all agree that 21st Century Knowledge Worker Sweatshops should be an oxymoron?

What do you think? Is there a tie between the egregious demands of these jobs, their company’s lack of support for Agile, and their lack of presence on the Forbes list? Before you answer that, note that Twitter and SAS show up on the list and both of them have had Agile-specific positions on their sites.  Coincidence? The start of a movement? You decide, and comment below!

About the Author

Joe Fecarotta is an IT Project Manager and Agile Coach in the Pacific Northwest.  He is the owner and operator of, a coaching and consultant company that uses Agile and Organizational Development principles to help organizations work better and people lead more fulfilling lives.   In his twenty year career he has held positions in software development, project management and agile coaching.  He has a BSEE in Computer Engineering from Washington State University and an MA in Organizational Development from Seattle University.   When not working, Joe enjoys writing Science Fiction and spending time with his family. 

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