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Giving a damn about customers...

That's a true story. It happened to me, at Sun. While sitting in the hospital early on a Monday morning, waiting for my CAT scan (after a donkey kick to the head that sent me there unconscious the night before), I called in to explain why I wouldn't be showing up at the customer's site that day. I was told, "there's nobody in all of Sun's education division that can do this now, and we can't reschedule that customer's enterprise Java course for at least three months." Long Pause. "OK, I'll be there. But tell them I'll be late. Oh, and you better warn them I look like... well, I hope they aren't squeamish."

The customer's employees were horrified when they saw me--both shocked and incredibly grateful that I had actually done this.

And of course my mangers at Sun were deeply appreciative. Or so I imagined. Fast forward to my annual performance review a couple months later when I get my "Meets Expectations" rating.

I asked the obvious question, "So if [rattle off my list of do-anything-for-the-customer examples, of which the donkey incident which was just one] only MEETS expectations, then what the hell does it take to EXCEED expectations?" For dramatic effect I added, "Because I have to tell you, another year like this and I'll be dead." I was only partly exaggerating.

The manager's answer sums up the problem nicely, "There's a quota for the eval ratings and, uh, we gave 'Exceed' to Fred because he had a higher number of 'on-platform' hours. His work accounted for more direct revenue."

I countered with, "But Fred (not his real name) hates customers; he shows open disdain for them when they ask a question. And because I'm on the Quality Reveiw Board, and have to field all the customer complaints, I know that YOU know this is no secret to the customers. They leave his courses vowing never to take a Sun course again."

"That's not the point," the manager says. "This is simply about numbers. My hands are tied."

(Within 24 hours, someone had posted a Dilbert cartoon on my cubicle where Dilbert had donated a kidney to their biggest customer, and still got a "Meets Expectations.")

From a systems thinking perspective, it's no great leap to say that while Fred might have been responsible for more revenue that year, his "I hate customers" attitude was responsible for a devastatingly low customer-retention rate. The next time those customers took an advanced Java course, it sure wasn't from Sun. (And we actually had numbers to prove this.)

Meanwhile, the management of that company I walked into with my smashed face never forgot what I did, and they saw that as a reflection of the value Sun put on meeting their customer commitments, no matter what. We continued to do business with them almost non-stop from that first week. I set the tone for their relationship with Sun. (Not that I recommend the whole donkey-kick thing as a viable strategy...)

I guess I have two points:

1) If you're a manager, for the love of god PLEASE make taking care of the customers a top value. Customers are living, breathing people--not just Six Sigma stats.
2) Never, ever let your head be in striking range of a donkey.

Posted by Kathy on January 29, 2005 | Permalink


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Forget customers for a second: how about give a damn about employees?

I am certain this whole experience has been nothing but motivational for you . . . .

Posted by: jeff | Jan 29, 2005 1:26:31 PM

The issue here is about the review process. Firstly, having to have a certain number in each category is clearly wrong, as you have seen.

Secondly, if they must do such a thing, then they should pick better labels for the categories. A, B and C would be better, because calling you a B wouldn't allow to prove that you have exceeded expectations. It is possible for everyone to exceed expectations, but not to be the "best" in the team.

Thirdly, getting too emotional about reviews causes demotivation. I see mine as pointy-haired form-filling that must be done, and I do it graciously. Nobody reads them anyway. Just carry on working hard.

What should happen is regular conversations about how things are for both sides, little and often. Waiting nearly a year to officially mention something isn't too good.

The only issue is if the review result is linked to salary or bonus, then it would be worth fighting for. If I was your boss, I would give you a bonus for seeing the customer instead of leaving hospital. Not that I'd ask you to leave hospital...

Posted by: Simon | Jan 29, 2005 2:41:51 PM

Amazing! Sad. And you didn't quit??? Scream? Kick anybody?

But I guess it's typical for a large organization. As soon as you forbid people to think, you lose your edge.

Posted by: Karsten Schneider | Jan 29, 2005 3:50:13 PM

Simon: Sun was *really* good about giving bonuses, at least before the dotcom crash, and I was rewarded all over the place for a variety of customer-related things. But still, the evals *were* at that time perceived to be connected to everything from raises to whether you'd be on the next layoff list...so, there was indeed some emotion attached to it. I did fight it, unsuccessfully. The story only gets worse after that... : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 29, 2005 4:52:43 PM

Karsten: I didn't quit, but let's just say that was the beginning of my downhill slide ; ) After that I decided I would no longer hold back on expressing what I thought, however politically damaging that might be. I clearly stated when I thought the emperor had no clothes, while the rest of the meeting participants would be nodding about the sensibility of some new policy that was good for Sun, REALLY bad for customers. I never even came close to "meets expectations" again... speaking your mind was the fast track to "below expectations" in my division. Eventually when I refused to sign off on something I knew (and had mountains of backup data for) would seriously hurt customers, I was found to be "not a team player" and let go (not in the happy nice layoff package way, either). The thing was, I WAS a team player... just on a different team. The *customer* team. Having said all that, I still love Sun and still work as a contractor for the only department that still likes me--certification.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 29, 2005 5:03:07 PM

I got treated like this some six years ago by my employer. And I’m still there. I must be mad (OK, I just haven’t had a better offer).

But why does everyone think stuff like this is unusual? Big corporates act like utter sh*ts all the time. And sometimes they dont’t even *know* they’re doing it -- i.e employees trying to “make it” do this kind of stuff, it’s never officially mandated.

Must... stop... saying... what... I... feel. It’s getting me nowhere :-D

Posted by: Ben Poole | Jan 29, 2005 6:22:16 PM

Actually there is a silver lining to the whole "donkey-kick" incident. In the end it gave us Head First and Wickedly Smart, having said that I fully understand the unfairness/stupidity/idiocy/.., want me to carry on?, of this type of evaluations. When are these managers going to get it through their thick skulls that hard work and dedication sometimes don’t bring in the $, but they sure as heck make the employees stay when rewarded.

Ps. I’m stealing the picture of the donkey but you knew that didn’t you :-)

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jan 30, 2005 1:33:53 AM

Ah yes, when your life starts resembling a Dilbert cartoon, you know you're in trouble.

It's an upsetting story Kathy, nice to see you have moved on.

This is not directed to you, but...

Why does management abuse you? Because they can. Somewhere down the line you bought into their value system- you took their money, you welcomed the status the position afforded you etc.

Which is why we go off and do headrush or gapingvoid. Our soul demands it.

Posted by: hugh macleod | Jan 30, 2005 1:59:10 AM

I'm studying this amazing Head First Servlets/JSP book you guys produced. One of the best training experiences I've had, and I haven't stepped into a classroom.

I think this is a perfect example of how we are a product of our past. Would I be able to use this book for the SCWCD if you hadn't had those experiences at Sun?

I've already recommended the series to 6 other Java programmers... I know two have bought so far.

Posted by: Dennis Young | Jan 30, 2005 3:26:41 PM

I think that in any company empathy is diluted, big or small. Even more so when issues are procrastinated, which performance reviews are by definition. Most of the time there is no single person that embodies the collective memory, each individual at the end of the day starts filtering, and this day after day. I find myself relativating personal issues, imagine someone else doing it for me. It's up to the individual to ring the bell often enough to make sure the corporate-neurons network sufficiently, because at the end it's a single person that has to mimick collective memory and evaluate people: in some occasions it's effective to jump ranks and have a chat with the evaluating guy's superiors, (wo)man to (wo)man. I'm working for a relatively small company now, and although less remunerated than where I used to be, lines are shorter, issues are more elastic, the 'corporate' brain is a pea-brain but it suffers less of forgetness.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 30, 2005 10:39:59 PM

Kathy, I promise I'll go back to lurking Real Soon Now; I don't want to come across as a fanboy (though I am a fan) who needs to comment on everything. But you've inspired me to tell my story (which is, mercifully, CAT-scan-free):

The date is Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I'm working for a technical training company, teaching a week-long Intro to Java class in Middleton, NJ, fifty miles from downtown Manhattan. The planes hit the towers, and I and about 500 other people in this office spend a stunned hour or two watching CNN before being sent home for the day. I wander one of the few malls left open, questioning every face I see and wondering if the nukes are coming next.

I call my (then) fiancee to let her know I'm okay. Then I call my office to find out what they want me to do. They say it's totally my call, but if the client stays open obviously they'd prefer that I finish teaching the class. What I want to do is hop in my rental car, point it West, and drive till I can't drive any more. What I do instead is say "of course I'll stay; that's The Right Thing To Do." They say "call us on Friday when you're on your way home."

Friday comes. I call the office. They explain to me, over the phone, as I'm crossing the NJ / PA border, 1800 miles and a couple of days from everything I hold dear -- that they're laying me off.

Not that I'm bitter. :-)

Posted by: David Rupp | Jan 31, 2005 9:50:24 AM

Okay...I have to ask...can you PLEASE provide some background about the donkey kick, Kathy? You can't just drop that into a post and then not explain it. ;-)

With that out of the way, I have to admit that I've been in a similar situation before (sans donkey, of course) and I strongly disagree with Simon's comments about not getting emotional about performance reviews. For me, a performance review indicates to me how my boss views my work. I think that "Exceeds/Meets/Below Expectations" is just fine...the annoying part for me is that employers seem to feel that everything should fit into a bell curve.

If you've got an entire team of people who are exceeding their goals, then INDICATE as much! And if upper management questions why the team had such high ratings throughout, then the team manager should be prepared to show WHY and HOW each of the team members exceeded the standard. Ditto for teams made up of low-performing individuals.

Picture it this way: you're back in school and you're about to find out how you did on that big exam. Your teacher walks down the row, drops off your paper, you look at it...you got a B...even though you got every question correct. Why? Well, because by the time the teacher had gotten around to grading YOUR exam, all of the A's had been given to other students. While there are obvious flaws in that analogy, I think there's also some truth there, too.

Finally, let me just point out that when management decides to lay off groups of employees, it's all too common for them to just take a quick look at the last performance reviews and get rid of the people with lower ratings. It's wrong and it's pure laziness on the part of management but that does happen.

Posted by: zonker | Jan 31, 2005 4:07:24 PM

HUGH: as usual, you're dead on. It all became a lot easier once the dot-com crash happened, because when you're stock options are way below sea level, there's even less reason to put up with it ; )

BEN: don't stop saying what you feel : )

GIAN: "the 'corporate' brain is a pea-brain but it suffers less of forgetnes"; I love that!

DENNIS: Thanks for the good words, and for reminding me that something truly wonderful has come from that experience.

DAVID: What a great--I mean awful--story ; ) Yeah, and I'm not bitter either... right. I'm glad you're out of there.

ZONKER: OK, I'll tell the story, and you'll see just how STUPID I really am. I had a donkey that I used as combination lawn-mower/pet/yard art, and one day I brought him out to the front, outside the fence, to "mow" the part right along the street. In an attempt at the Darwin award, I was down on my hands and knees pulling weeds right behind the donkey. Suddenly, a neighbor opened his gate and his two GIANT dogs came barking and running across the street toward us. Antonio (the donkey) got scared and backed up, and when he bumped into me, he didn't realize it was me--he just kicked. The whole thing happened so fast I didn't even have a chance to react. Out I went. The good news is that my sister happened to be visiting from out of town, and she's a nurse. If she hadn't been there, it might have all been much worse for me...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 31, 2005 6:05:22 PM

Sheeeeeeesh...I still can't believe you went into work, though. Wait...it just occurred to me...is "Head Start" a pun? Nawwwww, couldn't be! ;-)

BTW #2 - I purchased HF's Design Patterns book a few weeks ago. It's great!

Posted by: zonker | Jan 31, 2005 6:25:38 PM

A strand of thought and Christopher Bailey's The Alchemy of Soulful Work blog brought me here yesterday Kathy. It was one of those right time in the right moment experiences...very strange...very serendiptous...very inspiring! Thanks!

Posted by: Dave | Feb 1, 2005 4:43:05 AM

It's like a dementor came along and kissed your boss.
I realize companies have no soul but people do, or at least some of them do. To act like this is to show such a lack of generosity of spirit that it is troubling.
I feel sorry for him and his family and frankly anyone who he comes in contact with.

Posted by: Stephan F | Feb 2, 2005 11:01:41 AM

Thanks, Kathy, for that story. I was really pissed off about something which happened a week ago but you're story and some of the others are worse.

A week ago Wednesday I went in for a job interview to fill a 2 week gig outside of London. It hardly paid anything and almost not worth the trouble, but the recruiter and I are hombres so what the hell. They liked me and asked me to start that day. This is for a Monday deadline, so I said Ok. It was a JSP gig and while I don't know a ton about JSP it was infinately more than the fellow they had doing it. So I solved about 3 of their most pressing JSP issues that night before leaving late, leaving hehind my copy of HF Servlets/JSP.

Thursday morning the recruiter calls and says they don't want me to come in again. Total change, no warning. I'm on the way to another interview (which they knew about) and don't have time or inclination to discuss it right then. Tell 'em 'No Charge' in the most sarcastic tone possible and that I want my books back yesterday.

BTW I did well in the interview and landed the gig at about 40% more than idiots.com were offering. But the books took a week to come back to me. I sorta figure that this was all about picking my brains and maybe using my books at no cost - to them at least! Cost ME about £40 all in!

Everyone accumulates these kinds of stories if they stay in the business long enough. But this was one of the more outrageous sandbags I've seen. Fortunately no harm done.

Posted by: Don | Feb 3, 2005 3:04:34 PM


I can't believe we didn't cross paths at Sun. My later managers were cut from the same shoddy cloth.

Like you, I also enjoyed the earlier days, when there were still managers who made customer satisfaction top priority and recognized employees who went all out to deliver what was needed.

I'm publishing a book based on my experiences at Sun, Taligent, etc., etc. and so forth. It is called, Danger Quicksand - Have a Nice Day and is available for free download from my site.

I wish I had heard your story earlier, because it is one of the few situations I missed! I'll have to include this situation, Sacrifice in Vain, in my next edition.

Great site! I'm glad I found my way here. You are on my blog list from here on out.

Posted by: David St Lawrence | Feb 13, 2005 12:43:52 AM

Thx for a great entry. I really love blogging about what you blog. Nice to know stuff abt your experiences.
BTW Did u start getting those inspirational ideas after this kathy ;-)

Posted by: Prasanna | Feb 15, 2005 9:04:59 PM

Great, great anecdote Kathy. And that's why performance reviews are pathological, destroy the trust relationship between employee and manager, and should be avoided. More detail -- "Managing with Trust"


Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Feb 28, 2005 10:32:53 AM

woman I know worked for Oracle in sales a few years ago. She and her boss were waiting for a subway in Chicago to go to a prospects office. A man got off the train were they were waiting and threw a flammable liquid onto my friend,and threw a match, igniting the liquid. The man then stole her purse and took off running. My friend and her boss doused the flame. The boss then said: "Let's get on this train and go to the meeting" My friend: "But I'm burned badly and need to go to the hospital!" Boss: "But the prospect/client needs you, no one else can this job!
My friend told the boss to go to hell and went to the emergency room. She got a new job at PeopleSoft soon after.

Posted by: Dennis | Mar 26, 2005 2:31:59 AM

I was planning to buy a sheep for just such a purpose as your donkey. Plus, how cool would it be to say, "That? Oh, that. That's my sheep." or "Happy Birthday! It's wool socks that I knitted myself. They're from Frosty, my sheep, too."

However, while sheep probably don't pack the wallup that a decent sized donkey might, after your story I am reconsidering the sheep-as-lawncare idea.

Fortunately, I have recently been blessed with a boss that "sees the value" (and not from a sales skew). However, my last boss, unbeknownst to him, was nicknamed "Donkey"...


Posted by: Scott | Apr 4, 2005 6:49:24 PM


Posted by: ixgames | Mar 6, 2006 6:53:41 AM

Companies (managements) forget that employees are their first customers.

(Sorry for the late comment!)

Posted by: Umang | Sep 7, 2006 4:01:34 AM

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