Resources should follow responsibilities

In the german military forces, there is a new idea coming into effect: Give your commanders the ability to spend free expenses (linked article is in german language). Like, if your battailon lacks sunglasses, you don’t have to wait for bureaucracy to procure them for you (and it probably takes longer than the sun is your immediate problem), you can go out and just buy them.

This is not a new idea, and not a bad one. It implements a simple principle: Resources follow responsibilities. If you have goals to reach, decisions to make and people to manage, you need proper resources. And by resources, I don’t only mean money. Some leniency in procedures, maneuvering space (both real and figuratively) and time are resources that can’t be bought with money, but are essential sometimes.

At our company, we installed this principle over a decade ago. The “creativity budget” is a budget of free expenses for each employee to improve their particular working situation. This might mean a new computer mouse, a conference visit or a specific software. You, the employee, are at the frontline of your work and probably knows best what’s needed. Our creativity budget is the means to obtain it, no questions asked.

And this shows the underlying core principle: Responsibilities follow trust. If I trust you to reach the goals, to make the right decisions and to manage your team, it would be inconsequential to not give you the proper responsibilities. And, transitively, to provide you with adequate resources. As it seems, responsibilities are the middle man between trust and resources.

At our company, you don’t need to invest your free expenses for basic work attire. We are software engineers, so “work attire” means a high-class computer (with several monitors, currently our default is three), a powerful notebook, a decent smartphone and all the non-technical stuff that will determine your long-term work output, like a fitting desk and your personal, comfortable work chair.

For me, it was always consequential that great results can only come from the combination of a great developer and great equipment. I cannot understand how it is expected from developers to produce top-notch software on mediocre or even subpar computers and tools. In my opinion, these things strongly relate with each other. Give your developers good equipment and good results will follow. Putting it in a simplistic formula: the ability of the developer multiplied with the power of the equipment makes the quality of the software result.

So, if I trust your ability as a developer, provide you with premium equipment, give you room to maneuver and resources to cover your individual requirements, there should be nothing in the way to hold you back. And that places another responsibility onto your shoulder: You are responsible for your work results. And you deserve all the praise for the better ones. Because without you, the able developer, all the prerequisites listed above would still yield to nothing.

The work experience improvement budget (“Kreativbudget”)

We at the Softwareschneiderei are a small team of software developers working in a founder-owned company. We develop software since 15 years now and have experimented with a lot of management ideas and concepts. We can conclude that a lot of things don’t work for us while others are highly effective. There is no guarantee that anything we do works anywhere else, so don’t expect wonders just because it works wonders for us. But we are willing to share nearly every detail of our management style, and here is another bit of it: the “creativity budget”.

I’ve already blogged about this idea five years ago, but it’s still a good (and fairly uncommon) idea, so why not do it again? The name “creativity budget” (“Kreativbudget” in german) is actually really bad, but it stuck and we cannot realistically change it anymore. A more fitting name would be “work experience improvement budget” or something similar. The core of the idea is simple: Every employee can spend a certain amount of money every year to improve his/her own work experience. The investment doesn’t need to be profitable, the improvement doesn’t need to be effective, whatever was bought, the employee never needs to justify it. It’s just company money that the employee can rule over to improve the company in his/her fashion.

The actual ruleset is fairly simple: In recent years, the amount was defined to be 1000 EUR per year for each employee, regardless of actual job (development or administration, for example). Our students could invest half the amount (500 EUR). You don’t need to buy coffee or food, your work computer or laptop, all the basics are provided outside of the budget. You shouldn’t spend the budget on silly things just to get rid of it, but if you have an idea – even a crazy one – and think, “hey, that would be cool to have”, you just need to create a “purchase order” issue in our administration issue tracker and flag it as “on creativity budget”. We will buy it right away, without further discussion.

Why the creativity budget?

The most competent person to improve the work experience of an employee is he himself. Every hurdle we impose between him and his improvement ideas, like bureaucratic overhead or reviews, will only damage the improvement effect, but not improve the financial situation of the company. Our financial situation is directly linked to the productivity and happiness of all employees, so we will actually damage it by trying to go cheap. Not spending money won’t buy us happiness. And remember, we are a small company. The maximum amount of all creativity budgets combined is still only a small percentage of our total revenue (under 2%). If we can improve our total revenue just a little bit, it is totally worth it. But why speculate? We have hard numbers from the last dozen years that show that it works for us.

What did the budget gain us?

The most important gain is making room for errors. If you have to plea and convince higher-ups of an improvement, it better has convincing figures and a realistic chance of success. If not, you are the moron that suggested it. Using our budget, we can try crazy things and never need to explain ourselves. If it doesn’t work – who cares? If it works – well, you were the first, now we need to implement it for everyone.
We try things earlier. New technologies like solid state disks were frowned upon in the beginning – how long do they last, etc. We tried them early and got convinced quicker than most (but that’s another blog post).
We don’t calculate improvements first. One of the most common refusals for a new idea is the worry “what if everybody wants one?”. That’s the fear of upscaling paired with the fear of failure. What if the idea works and is a huge improvement and nobody wants it? We rather err on the side of monetary losses instead of productivity loss.

But what did it gain us precisely?

Well, to answer that, I have to present you the three categories of improvements we identified (without limiting the budget to them!):

  • Hardware: A certain piece of technology believed to make work easier or more enjoyable. Examples are computer mouses (everyone has his favorite mouse), keyboards, monitor upgrades (if the default double 24″ aren’t enough), SSDs (before we got rid of spindle disks) or even your favorite computer brand. It gained us fine-tuned workplaces that fit perfectly with the developers using them – no “one size fits all”.
  • Software: A computer program that you’d like to use even if that requires license costs. Examples are IDEs, editors, version control clients or even screenshot utilities. Don’t get me wrong – we had all these things before, but mostly open source products. If you want a commercial twin of a software, you don’t have to argue. It made our software landscape more diverse and introduced some products for the whole company – SmartGit is the example of choice.
  • Wetware: An activity you’d like to undertake – in the professional context of your job. You want to visit that certain conference? Have paid training on a specific topic? This category introduced us to some conferences that are worth revisiting and some we’ve already forgotten again. We got trainings and went to workshops, without any upfront filtering or “strategic planning”.

We’ve gained a lot of agility in pursuing technical excellence, each of us on his/her own course. We gained the insight that “work experience” is something we can directly influence and steer. It makes already self-confident employees even more confident. And it relieves the boss from important, but highly individual micro-management (but that’s just my own personal gain from it all).

Summary

In giving every employee the power to improve his/her direct work experience, we improved our overall experience even more. In all these years, we never used up the budgets completely, but the effect is very noticeable. We acted on impulse, tried it out, reflected and adopted it if worthwhile. And it was very worthwhile indeed. Currently, we discuss the idea to double or even triple the budget per year and see where it leads us.

On developer workplace ergonomics

workplace_failMost developers don’t care much about their working equipment. The company they work in typically provides them a rather powerful computer with a mediocre monitor and a low-cost pair of keyboard and mouse. They’ll be given a regular chair at a regular desk in a regular office cubicle. And then they are expected (and expect themselves) to achieve outstanding results.

The broken triple

First of all, most developers are never asked about their favorite immediate work equipment: keyboard, mouse and monitor.

With today’s digitally driven flat-screens, the monitor quality is mostly sufficient for programming. It’s rather a question of screen real estate, device quantity and possibility of adjustments. Monitors get cheaper continuously.

The mouse is the second relevant input device for developers. But most developers spend more money on their daily travel than their employer spent for their mices. A good mouse has an optimal grip, a low monthly mouse mile count, enough buttons and wheels for your tasks, your favorite color and is still dirt cheap compared to the shirt you wear.

The keyboard is the most relevant device on a programmer’s desk. Your typing speed directly relies on your ability to make friends with your keyboard. Amazingly, every serious developer has her own favorite layout, keystroke behavior and general equipment. But most developers still stick to a bulk keyboard they were never asked about and would never use at home. A good keyboard matches your fingertips perfectly and won’t be much more expensive than the mouse.

Missed opportunities

The failure is two-fold: The employer misses the opportunity to increase developer productivtiy with very little financial investment and the developer misses the opportunity to clearly state her personal preferences concerning her closest implements.

Most employers will argue that it would place a heavy burden on the technical administration and the buying department to fit everybody with her personal devices. That’s probably true, but it’s nearly a one-time effort multiplied by your employee count, as most devices last several years. But it’s an ongoing effort for every developer to deliver top-notch results with cumbersome equipment. Most developers will last several years, too.

Some developers will state that they are happy with their devices. It really might be optimal, but it’s likely that the developer just hasn’t tried out alternatives yet.

Perhaps your organizational culture treats uniformity as professionality. Then why are you allowed to have different haircuts and individual ties?

Room for improvement

Our way to improve our workplaces was to introduce an annual “Creativity Budget” for every employee. It’s a fair amount of money destined to use one’s own creativity to improve productivity. It could also have been named “Productivity Budget”, but that would miss the very important part about creative solutions. There is no formal measurement of productivity and only loose rules on what not to do with the money. Above all, it’s a sign to the developer that she’s expected to personally care for her work environment, her equipment and her productivity. And that she’s not expected to do that without budget.

The Creativity Budget outcome

The most surprising fact about our budgets was that nearly none got fully spent. Most developers had very clear ideas on what to improve and just realized them – without further budget considerations. On top of that, everybody dared to express their preferences, without fear of overbearance. It’s not a big investment, but a very worthwile one.