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Agency terminology: people as the commodity

I had a business appointment in an office building yesterday and spied an office of Spherion, a national IT recruiter and contract agency. The large slogan sign in their office said "workforce architects".

Now, does anyone else here feel like a brick or a 2x4?

The concept doesn't surprise me, since I've given up on dealing with these places years ago. But it's a pretty blatant way of "objectifying" workers, IMO.

No big story here, just a data point of sorts.

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I think the people are important, just as the 2x4's in your building are important. You need both to operate.

Of course, both are also a commodity for which you want to pay the lowest price possible. You know, because you want to make money.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I think the point is it's a terrible analogy that doesn't work.  Yes 2x4's are important to a building, but if I built it out of the cheapest 2x4's I could find, my building would be in serious trouble.  I'd have a building composed of warped boards with large knots missing that resembled more of a carnival fun house, lacking a single right angle, that would crumble at the feeling of the slightest tremor instead of having a building that is designed to withstand a serious quake.

So, then the standard rebuttal is that quality control sifts out those crappy 2x4's so that only the acceptable ones are left.  The real point is though, that all the good 2x4's are mostly interchangeable, made out of pine, pressure treated, same length, width, depth, density, etc.  People unlike 2x4's have personalities that work well with other personalities, and yet not others.  They bring with them domain knowledge that is acquired through years of experience from whatever venues.  Some work well under pressure, others don't.  Some are very loyal to their jobs, other's aren't.  Some are simply better than others in the right situations.

I look at the whole CMM/CMMI process in the same light as treating employees as bricks and 2x4's and the reason that it doesn't work well, is that it doesn't acknowledge the fact that people are not interchangable like 2x4's.  The whole idea behind these rediculous processes's and hiring firms of treating people like interchangable legos doesn't work.  For someone to believe that following an 800 page book of processes for example, and documenting something to death, that when that lead designer leaves the project, you can drop in another lead designer (read brick or 2x4) at will and pick up where you left off is rediculous.

Sorry about the rant, but I'm tired of people thinking and commenting that people are an interchangeable part of the workforce.  Yes they come and go, and the job always gets done, but sometimes, it's the selection of people that makes the difference between a so-so product, and the next globaly used search engine.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

But then, what do people in HR know about development? :-)

Frederic Faure
Wednesday, December 31, 2003


The point of your rant is mostly the point of "PeopleWare" by DeMarco and lister, which I think is #1 at the top of Joel Spoksly's recommended reading list.

In other words:  Work for people who have read Peopleware.  Ask them about it at interviews.

I wonder how it would work if, after they make the offer, you said "I will accept if you read peopleware and still want me ..."

That'd be interesting.  You can read the book in about 4 or 5 hours.  I wonder how many managers would be willing to put the time in ....

Matt H.
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Maybe DeMarco should start a certification program, so developers know know where to send their résumés :-)

Frederic Faure
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

BB wrote, "Now, does anyone else here feel like a brick or a 2x4?"

This is one reason why some people such as yourself chase after their own work. I tried doing this myself in 1999 and was only able to land two significant development projects with very small firms. Both of those projects came about via word-of-mouth recommendations.

One thing that I have noticed since the start of the dot-com boom era is just about every employer who advertises for a full-time IT position wants an instant expert in whatever technologies that are being used on some current or upcoming project. My point? The way agencies and large consulting firms treat their technical employees (i.e. treating them as interchangeable units) is only a symptom of a much larger industry phenomenon.

One Programmer's Opinion
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

On the other hand, the line that I always found condescending is the "people are our biggest asset" platitude spewed out at company meetings. It's become so trite that I inherently distrust the President / CEO saying it. It comes off as though they don't value their employees enough to come up with anything original, true to heart, and meaningful.

Besides, have you ever seen where payroll appears on a balance sheet? (Hint: it's not under assets.)

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Recuiters do not work for you. They work for and are paid by the hiring company. Why sould you expect their marketing message to be directed at anything other than corporate executives? To the buzzword addicted execs, workforce architects probably has a nice ring to it. But since we're more furniture-like than structural I should think workforce interrior decorators is more to the point.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The system works well because there is an unlimited supply of incredibly talented superstars with interchangeable talents. Company HR departments just need to select these high value, high skill, low cost performers and ignore the talentless ones, just as one discards a board with too many knots in it.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I, personally, hate words like "Resources" or "Assets" or "Position" and so on to describe what is, by all accounts, a person.

If I ran a company, I'd require that if you weren't going to call somebody a person, you would be required to either call them a "gimp" or a "dancing monkey".

I think that somebody saying "I need a dancing monkey for the flobar team." in a planning meeting would be just the thing.

Flamebait Sr.
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Ok, everyone agrees on the essentials. My bile has been matched by everyone else's venom.

Who wants ice cream? ;-)

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Oh, and one more thing.

Yes, this attitude of people as commodity is one of the big reasons I don't work through agencies, in fact I do not even talk to them. The attitude of 99.9% of the recruiterdroids who work for agencies is that you should know your place, no matter what dues you've paid nor what value you add. The mindset of an experienced professional is pretty much diametrically opposed to their needs.

And the idea of challenging a manager to read "Peopleware" is probably the quickest way to be dropped from consideration. Nobody wants a commodity that talks back.

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

One of Demarco's observations is that the most productive workers are the ones in the private offices. But think about it; a first line manager doesn't really have much control over salaries, the only real perk they can give to outstanding performers is one of the coveted offices. So what would you expect Demarco to find when he visits an organization. The unproductive lumps in the offices? Of course not, the people in the offices were the star performers *before* they moved into an office.

Managing high performers is easy, the hardest part of managing a project is getting rid of non-performers. Labor laws in the US make it very difficult to fire someone simply because they're incompetent, it can't be just a professional opinion, you have to be prepared to defend the decision in a lawsuit.

Tom Hathaway
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Doubt if your theory holds water. In general some firms put everybody in open plan, some used shared offices or cubicles, and some have loads of private offices. The line manager in general will have even less control over that than he does over salaries.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Stephen, I agree. Office vs. cubicle is a highly political issue in most companies. When a company has bought into the commodity view of employees, it's usually unacceptable to place non-managers in offices, because it's so visible.

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Apparently, it's worse outside of the US to layoff unproductives and easier inside of the US, Tom.

At some level, it could be argued that Jack Welch's idea of firing the worst performing 10% every year would work, at least legally, better.  It's harder to sue about a group layoff than an individual layoff.  However, group layoffs look bad always.  I think there's a few ways to work around all of this, but I don't have a few companies to try them out on. ;)

It's all far too complicated to really make hard-and-fast rules about.  On one hand, it needs to be recognized that people have individual skills and interests and the best way to get stuff done is to rely on those individual skills and interests.

On the other hand, somebody needs to be a garbage man, as referenced in Office Space.  And you can't always prevent the one guy who really understands a given system from leaving, no matter how highly compensated and contracted he is (i.e. he could get hit by a truck or retire early).

The old saw about people being the greatest asset is definately pretty bad.  The management who really feels that people are valuable say and do things that are clearly pro-employee, I can assure you.  And, as far as I can tell, this pays off well.

Flamebait Sr.
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

For heaven's sake, all this arguing about whether it's a good idea or not.

IT recruiters do not give a shit, guys.

You are just something that earns them a margin and commission, and there are so many of you that it's easy for them to continually find keen young suckers happy to accept this arrangement.

Do something about it. Don't work through IT recruiters, and tell your friends and students not to either. If you're a manager, do your own hiring, as many managers do nowadays. You end up with a much better staff.

Show the cowboys the door. (By the way, the cowboys are the recruiters.)

(In deference to Stephen Jones, I have restricted this diatribe to IT recruiters, rather than recruiters in general.)

Inside Job
Wednesday, December 31, 2003


I disagree strongly that 'in the us' labor laws make it nearly impossible to fire nonperformers. First of all, almost all law dealing with this is at the state level, so you need to say which state you are talking about. Secondly, despite that statement, you can easily fire people for nonperformance in every single state. What can create a problem is if you fire someone for reasons other than performance, say if you decide you don't like their skin color or religion.

Regarding your comment on Demarco's study, you need to read peopleware to see why you got this completely wrong.

Tony Chang
Thursday, January 1, 2004

Dear Inside Job,
                        I am nit a recruiter, though I sometimes think it would be a good idea to become one. I work for a tertiary vocational college, and because I had the reputation of knowing how the internet worked they put me in charge of recruiting all our department candidates online.

                          Thanks for the consideration though.

                        I don't know about the IT world but in the education world you need to distinguish between those agencies who hire staff and farm them out to other companies (always a bad deal for all but the recruiter) and those that are paid a commission to find permanent workers; there are many serious outfits among the latter, if only because they want you coming back in a couple of years so they can get a commission on your next job.

Stephen Jones
Thursday, January 1, 2004

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