The Blog of John Hewitt

Turnover, Freedom, and Standards

Turnover

At work this week, we are losing one of my favorite and most relied upon coworkers. He’s a programmer who helped build and customize our customer help delivery site. It is a massive site for a massive set of products. Beyond missing him personally, I will miss his understanding of the giant ball of code that keeps our systems running. If you ever doubt the difficulty of this, spend a little time reading this essay at Still Drinking. Last summer, we lost the other programmer who helped build this platform, and so all of the key builders are gone. We have another programmer who replaced the last, and he is good at his job, but the depth of experience with our little beast of a platform went from vast to minimal in the span of less than a year. That is a problem and it will have clear consequences when it comes to future development. I’m not sure if it was avoidable though.

Freedom

GlassesWhy did we lose these guys? I can only speculate, but I think the freedom to create is a big part of it. When the platform was young, there was much to do. As a small group without a lot of people watching over them, they were able to build it with a certain amount of freedom. Did they create the perfect platform? No, there are issues, but they created something good and useful. As time progressed and the visibility of the project got higher, the number of people who wanted a say in how it was built began to grow. Over the past couple years, there have been a lot of people who wanted a say in how this (now high profile) platform moves forward. The programmers were no longer creating in a vacuum. People were watching what they did and for better or worse, telling them what was wrong (real or perceived) with the platform that they built. The freedom to create was gone.

I’ve left a few jobs in my time (sometimes by choice, sometimes not) and one of the overwhelming feelings I’ve gotten every time, is one of freedom. Sure, leaving a job is scary, but when a job ends, so does a wall of rules that have kept you constricted. For a creative person, and most good programmers are endlessly creative, freedom is a necessary tool. I’m not criticizing usability studies, standards, and design oversight. They are an important component of a development project. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance. There are programmers out there who care only about the code. Give them a clear design with a set goal and they can do it. For most though, that much limitation starts to kill their passion for what they do. The desire to be free to create becomes overwhelming. In many cases, people just end up swapping one set of restrictions for another set at a new company, but even that can be better. At least the restrictions were there when you got there, rather than imposed along the way.

Standards

It is the same for writers as for programmers. At my job, I am the leader of the technical communications standards committee (I named us the Standards Heroes). We discuss and vote on everything from broad concepts to nit-picky word choices for our technical communications strategy. Some people might think I am a strange choice for this. I am not a member of the grammar police, as anyone who reads this site knows. In a way though, it is why I belong at the top of that standards heap. I don’t want to overburden us with rules. I want there to be a certain amount of freedom to create, even in a technical atmosphere. I understand that there are some writers, like some programmers, who only want to know exactly what to do and exactly how to do it, but I want to leave room for creative people who just want a path to guide them, not walls to limit them.

What do you think? What is the best balance between rules, standards, oversight, and the freedom to be creative?

What I’m Reading

Rachel Rachelle Gardner over at Books and Such has a nice article about How to Work With a Freelance Editor.

Some good advice:

  • Use it as a learning experience.
  • Make the changes yourself.
  • Start with an evaluation of the first few chapters.

Janice Hardy over at Fiction University discusses Balancing the Number of Characters and the Scale of Your World.

She talks about social hierarchies and bonds between social groups, using a school classroom as an analogy. She also shows some of the ways you can demonstrate the size of a community even without having a flood of characters.

Leslie Jordan Clary over at Make a Living Writing writes about How I Found a Steady Stream of Writing Clients in 9 Months Flat

I agree with her advice about developing a niche. I think it is important to have a writing focus that people can know you for. I make my living as a technical writer with a web development background. I’ve never made much of a living writing general articles, even though I have done so on occasion because I enjoy it. I’m not a true freelancer though; I mainly worked on contract and now have a “permanent” gig. Your mileage may vary.

Deb Ng over at Kommein lets people know that Freelancing Doesn’t Look Like This.

She critiques an advertisement for “freelance writing riches” that shows a woman sitting on a rocky beach, typing on a laptop. Beyond that fact that nobody sits for long on a pile of rocks expecting to get work done, she makes the point that a freelancer’s hours are long, clients often don’t pay on time, and people never really think of what you’re doing as a “real job”. I’ve had a couple of deadbeat clients in my time. It is very frustrating. I don’t miss it. As for typing on the beach, I would if I could but I’d prefer bigger, flatter rocks.