Christian Heilmann

Continuous growth is cancer

Friday, March 3rd, 2023 at 12:40 pm

Terry Jones as Mr Creosote in Monty Pythons The Meaning of Life

I am currently affected by the wave of layoffs in the technology industry and this isn’t my first rodeo. The difference is that it feels worse this time as I am not only annoyed by losing my job, but I am starting to feel that the system is incredibly flawed. Instead of building a sustainable work environment with sensible compensation, the system favours continuous growth – something that isn’t possible in a world of limited resources.

Betting wrong on the pandemic

I’d wager to say that 90% of the layoffs right now across the tech sector aren’t related to performance or productivity. The reasons are the troubles on the stock market and the general recession we are experiencing. We just barely survived a global pandemic and there is a war going on in Ukraine that could easily escalate into the next world war. During the pandemic all tech companies hired like mad as people who were quarantined at home needed tech much more than they did before.

This turned out to be a premature celebration of growth as the pandemic hit a lot of people hard and the war made people wonder how they could pay the next gas bill rather than if they want to buy another laptop, game console or mobile. So whilst there is no massive decline, there isn’t a growth that warrants the number of people in the company. The stock market looks at profit per head in a company, and if profit goes down, and you need to act swiftly, heads must roll.

Why not use stocked resources instead of trying to add when nothing comes in?

Maybe I am being naive here, but I don’t see how anyone can win in this situation. As the market gets better, companies will have to look into hiring again and there is already a serious lack of employees available in tech. Maybe, just maybe the better way would have been to plan for two years of no growth but sustained work instead. Every huge tech company has money – the layoffs right now aren’t cheap at all, after all. But instead of riding out a pandemic and the delivery issues it came with we still plan the old way with explosive growth in a short time frame.

This fetish we have for growth is starting to annoy me. If your career doesn’t progress every half year, you’re a failure. If your product doesn’t double user numbers each quarter, it gets canceled. If you don’t show any interest in advancing up the career ladder, but instead focus on your job, you’ll get asked why that is and pushed into booster processes.

The missing HR process for happy employees

This didn’t happen to me, but to one of my colleagues in the past. This person was amazing. A great technologist with tons of experience and liked by all. Thorough, documenting everything and patient with unreasonable demands, he was my go-to for new features. He also was family oriented and had a secondary income. So instead of a promotion with more money and more responsibilities, he asked for a four day week – even at the expense of a lowered income. There was no process for this, and the company back then was at a loss what to do. Instead of understanding that this was a decision by the person to get more peace of mind and time for the family, it was seen as not having a growth mindset. Instead of understanding that this could be a common demand in people who get older, he was refused the opportunity to work less and left the company.

I am worried about this as there is no logic to thinking that everything has to grow, get better and more. Not everybody wants to go up the career ladder and there should be no shame in finding a place you are happy in and stay on that level. For some of us our needs are met at a certain level and anything else would bring more money in but also eat into the way of life that makes us happy and effective.

Back to the grind?

Right now I am looking for new opportunities and I want to go into a lead role similar to the one I had. I would love to see if there are places that understand that people like my colleague earlier exist and could make up an incredibly effective team. And I would love to lead people like that, make sure they can concentrate on their work instead of being asked to think about advancing a career they do not care about.

If companies want to continuously grow and have long term career employees, they need to make sure that there are enough senior roles and positions available. It feels odd that we have a very limited number of high-level career positions, and yet everybody is forced to think about advancing towards those, or not seen as a person who is eager enough to be in this market. I want to build excellent products for our end users, I don’t feel like I should spend a huge amount of my time competing with my peers for those few senior positions.

How many more rounds of inflated hiring and short term layoffs do we need to go through before we understand that continuously shooting for unattainable goals isn’t as motivating as we think it is? Maybe with all the mess that is going on in the world right now, we should think smaller and more maintainable. I’m tired of companies telling me they aim to become a “unicorn” in the next quarter. I’d be more excited about companies aiming for a goal that makes them sustainable and keep their employees instead of having to deal with a one year churn.

Maybe we should grow in our mindfulness and humanity and not only in numbers.

If you agree and you’re looking for a technical lead in your company, check me out on LinkedIn

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