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Thursday, December 2, 2021

One way a builder culture can fail

I've told some stories about what happens when you end up at a company that builds nothing and instead rents everything from some vendor. Given that, it's only fair that I describe something bad that can happen at a company which is known for building stuff.

Let's say you're at one of these companies which has a reputation for building infrastructure stuff instead of renting it. This can be good if you like that kind of environment and like digging into problems by using the source code, by talking to the people involved, and generally having access to things.

The trouble is that sometimes these companies will hire someone who's known for doing X... and *only* X. They're a builder, all right, as long as you want them to build X. Perhaps they have been building X at some other company, and now your company has hired them to come and do that same job over here instead.

Unsurprisingly, having invested in getting that person on board, the company is going to try to make that project happen. Then, they are going to try to make X go to production. That is, it has to "ship" and actually go out to real machines which are dealing with actual user traffic. If X never ships, then they look bad, the people who vouched for them look bad, their management looks bad, and so on up the line.

There's also the possibility that the prestige of having this person working at the company is what they're actually cultivating, and management wants to make this person happy by letting them work on their pet project, even if the pet project itself is not doing anything positive.

I will now point out that whether X makes it to production can become disconnected from the notion of whether X actually belongs in production. In one outcome, it's brilliantly executed and things grow. But, this is about the downsides, and in that scenario, it's a stinking pile of garbage and needs to be thrown out, but it gets forced in, anyway.

The way you find out what might happen is to challenge it on technical grounds. If the challenge is met with non-technical rebuttals, it might just be one of those bad situations. If they attack the person who brought it up, it probably is. They're pushing it for the wrong reasons: political, not technical.

If this project is being pushed for political reasons, then it should not come as a surprise that when it finally does ship to production, it causes outages and generally fails to deliver on its promises. It's actually worse than just leaving things the way they had been before any of this stuff showed up.

This is just one of the ways an unprincipled "builder culture" can backfire, particularly if you have people running the show who have no problem putting their own gains ahead of the company. They'll push all kinds of garbage if it makes them hit their goals and get a bigger bonus, a promotion, or some kind of shiny new position.

Just imagine what companies would look like if their hiring processes filtered out this kind of charlatan instead of looking for whether they could do some dumb coding card trick in a 45 minute interview block. I think they'd look very different, and a whole bunch of people would have to find another industry to prey upon.