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Technology industry doesn’t have a monopoly on speed

I recently checked out the Google Groups site. Google is always trying something new. The interesting thing is that the old Usenet groups are all there (Google acquired the Usenet archive).

If you work in technology, searching the group archives is like revisiting your life a dozen years ago.

I try entering in the names of some of my old co-workers and here they are – the ghosts in the archives – conversing on these ancient list servs. Here are all the guys having mid-1990s debates and celebrating advances in technology. A 4,800 BPS modem! I feel nostalgic and a little sad. Where are all these guys today?

Naturally, I type my own name in the Google Groups search box to see what happens.

One entry pops up. It’s from an ancient interview I gave about the tech workplace and why it’s so demanding (long hours, constant pressure, etc.). Someone clearly not involved in tech posted that interview to a Usenet group and asked his fellow group members why technology workplaces should be more demanding than any other workplaces.
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Lots of other list subscribers chime in with possible answers. Technology changes rapidly and you have to stay ahead of the competition. Technology is all about speed (processor speed, network speed and so on). Sure, I read all this very old traffic, but I don’t buy it.

Technology is about speed. So is the media. So is retailing.

How does Target get those designer-apparel knockoffs in its stores by the time I’ve first spotted the look on some skeletal Hollywood babe in Us magazine? Speed. How do clever ad agencies get commercials produced and aired spoofing any comical current event within days? Speed.

Can we really claim that the tech industry has the edge on speed? I don’t think so.

“Soul of a New Machine,” Tracy Kidder’s terrific book, came out in 1981. The book profiled the determined process of developing a new Data General computer. We’re talking about nights, weekends, sleeping at work and the whole soon-to-become-stereotypical engineer’s code-fest lifestyle (all except the foosball table).

Those guys were living and breathing their new product development almost a generation ago. Somewhere back in time, something about our industry got associated with living at your job. Based on industry demands or any other special attribute of the technology marketplace, we can’t justify it any more.

Can we just be honest and say that it’s part of the tech workplace culture to try and wring every waking hour out of our salaried employees? Am I lying? Isn’t there a paradigm that says every new development project must start with a tug of war between the engineers (saying the project will take 18 months) and the top brass (saying it shouldn’t take more than six)?

Isn’t it also part of our culture to ask guys (that’s a unisex term) to work on weekends not only as the project nears completion but also toward its middle and even its beginning?

We work hard. That’s great. Working hard is fun. I always liked it. Before I got into technology, my boyfriend (now husband) used to ask me if he could pick me up at work. I’d say: “Yes, get me at midnight. We’ll go to Medusa’s.”

I take responsibility for that. I’m a workaholic. One way or the other, I was meant for a tech environment.

Not everyone is like I was then, though, and I’m not like that any more either. Five kids later, working killer hours has become a lot more complicated. Does this mean I wouldn’t add value in a technology environment because I couldn’t hack the hours? I reject that, too.

Speed is great, yes, but speed over all has put a lot more crappy products on the market than we might have seen otherwise. The things that are justified in the name of speed (poor communication, lack of acknowledgement for contributions made, faulty leadership decision making and many more offenses) further erode the logic of speed as the ultimate goal.

I've come around to agree with the sage who said: “Faster, better or cheaper. Pick any two.”

When it comes to the workplace, I’d love to see almighty speed take a second place to judgment, people-centered decision making or even good old collaboration. When we read Kidder’s book in the early 1980s, we were in thrall to the idea of through-the-night, no-life-outside-my-lab technology development.

Some 20 years later, some of us have never gotten off that train (some by choice and others because that kind of commitment was viewed as the price of entry by our employers). Enough already! It’s time for a new book. It could be the “Soul of a New Tech Workplace.”

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at lizryan@worldwit.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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