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Don't ask employees to be passionate about the company!

People ask me, "How can I get our employees to be passionate about the company?" Wrong question. Passion for our employer, manager, current job? Irrelevant. Passion for our profession and the kind of work we do? Crucial. If I own company FOO, I don't need employees with a passion for FOO. I want those with a passion for the work they're doing. The company should behave just like a good user interface -- support people in doing what they're trying to do, and stay the hell out of their way. Applying the employer-as-UI model, the best company is one in which the employees are so engaged in their work that the company fades into the background.

Given a choice, I would work ONLY on projects that followed the Hollywood Model, where people come together with their respective skills and talents, and DO something. Make a web app. Create a book. Build a game. Develop and deliver learning experiences. The happiest moments of my work life were on projects where we pulled all-nighters because we wanted to, not because the corporate culture said we weren't a true team-player/trooper if we didn't.

Employees shouldn't be sleeping in cubes to prove they're "passionate employees." I want to work with people who have a particular set of skills (and interests) who view themselves and one another as either professionals/craftspeople (programmers, designers, engineers, animators, editors, scientists, authors, educators, architects, entertainers, etc.) or as producers and assistant producers (the people who pull it all together, support the craftspeople, and make it happen).

[UPDATE: I do not consider "caring about the user" as separate from "our work." In other words, I consider one who is truly passionate about their work to have "the effect it has on the user" as a fundamental part of that work. A tech book author/teacher who has brilliant wordsmithing and technical breadth but no effect on the reader is not a professional. A software developer who crafts
brilliant code that doesn't include that code's effect on the user is not a professional. Part of what makes us professional/craftspeople is that we value and never forget the POINT of our work, and the point is--for most of us--what it means for the user. It's quite sad that many of our professions have rewarded work without making the user the most important attribute of how we asses that work.]

I realize these aren't mutually exclusive--one can be passionate about their employer and the work they do, but it's a matter of which one employers value. And all too often, it's the wrong one.

The simple 4-quesetion test to see if someone has a passion for their work:

* When was the last time you read a trade/professional journal or book related to your work? (can substitute "attended an industry conference or took a course")

* Name at least two of the key people in your field.

* If you had to, would you spend your own money to buy tools or other materials that would improve the quality of your work?

* If you did not do this for work, would you still do it (or something related to it) as a hobby?


Passionate about the company:

* The ultimate team player who goes along with the group rather than voice dissent

* Works late nights and weekends because "everyone needs to pitch in on this project"

* Defends the company to anyone, anywhere that criticizes or questions its products, policies, or practices

* Puts responsibility to employer above responsibility to customers, without question

* Questions, but does not challenge the status quo

* Is well-liked because they do whatever is asked, enthusiastically

* Accepts (and uses) phrases like, "this is what corporate needs us to do."

* Cares a lot about his career path in the company; focused on getting management recognition.

Passionate about the work:

* Scores well on the 4-question test:
- keeps up with trade/professional journals
- knows who the key people in the industry are
- would spend his own money, if necessary, for better tools
- if they were NOT doing this as their job, they would still do something related to it as a hobby

* Works late nights when, "I'm just one-compile away from this awesome refactoring that's going to make this thing run 40% faster." In other words, they work late when they're driven by something they know they can do better on.

* Defends the quality of his own work (and, in the Hollywood Model, the work of his team).

* Puts responsibility to his own ethics and values--especially related to quality of work--over responsibility to employer.

* May not be extremely well-liked, but is highly respected and tolerated because he's known as one who, "cares deeply about doing the best possible job, and is very good at what he does." [update: the person must be liked well enough for people to want to work with him again... the Hollywood Model has a way of screening out a**holes... nobody calls them for their next project.]

* Does not accept, "this is what corporate needs us to do" when it conflicts with quality and ethics. Must be given a damn good reason why a corporate decision is worth the downsides.

* Does not care about upward mobility in the company. Cares about doing fabulous work and possibly the recognition of his peers in the industry. May stive for professional recognition.

Am I, as always, glorifying the maverick? It only looks that way if your perspective is a Big Company that puts teamwork and company loyalty above all else. In the Hollywood Model, our ability to get work--which means new projects--depends entirely on whether anyone on previous projects wants to work with us again. What you hope for--and what happens--in the Hollywood Model is that when a team is being assembled, someone says, "Hey, last time I worked on the Bar project, Roger did the graphics and he was awesome." And the assistant producer or project manager says, "What's his phone number?"

In the Hollywood Model--despite the glamorous name--whether the project is exciting or sexy has very little to do with whether we view our work together as exciting and sexy. The sound guy pushes the edge with intelligently-adaptive audio that changes subtly as the user navigates into different "places." It doesn't matter that the project is a boring bank's interactive annual report. The programmer (usually my role) builds an authoring tool to help the artists sync their work to the sound way before the engine is ready. The artists decide at the last moment that they aren't happy with something that nobody but they can see, and spend days tweaking something that they swear will have a subconscious impact (for the better) on the user.

There are plenty of companies--even big ones--who are able to foster this kind of enviornment (including some parts of Google, I've heard). And in many small start-ups there is virtually no distinction between passion for the company and passion for the work--they are, essentially, the same thing, driven by the same overall desire to succeed. The companies that have the greatest chance, in my opinion, are the ones who can hang to that. And I would start by thinking of project managers as "producers" and treating the "talent" like gold ; )

Finally, if you really want your employees to be passionate about the company, take lessons from UI and Usability: let people do what they want and need to do, and get the hell out of their way. Unfortunately, too many of our employers are like really bad software--frustrating us at every turn, behaving inconsistently, not giving us a way to learn new things and develop new, cool capabilities, etc.

Remember, when I say I have a passion for a particular piece of software, it's not really the software I'm passionate about. It's always about my passion for what the software lets me DO. Companies should work the same way. By acting like a good UI and letting employees express the passion they have for their work, you'll end up with employees who'd never consider going elsewhere.

Posted by Kathy on February 6, 2007 | Permalink


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Politics parallels your line of thinking pretty accurately.

Replace "Passion for the Company" with Passion for the Party, and "Passion for the Work" with Passion for the People.

I'm definitely picking up what you're putting down here, and am happy to say that I scored pretty well on the 4 question quiz. But I wonder -- as a freelancer, how do I use my passion for the work to build my passion for the company (me)? Should I care about one more than the other?

Posted by: Jake Ingman | Feb 6, 2007 9:27:41 PM

Wow, that's an amazing perspective I've never looked at before. Excusing the passion for the company and diving directly into the passion for the profession is a great angle to take.

I really appreciate your thoughts on that, so thank you.

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 6, 2007 9:48:43 PM

So where do marketers fit into this? Are they professionals or producers?

Posted by: NJG from NYC | Feb 6, 2007 9:58:25 PM

Brilliant, brilliant! I just love your ideas, Kathy. The employer as UI - wow! What would be your analogy for the client who wants something out of a whim or a fancy rather than becaust it is appropriate for the user/learner?

Posted by: Geetha Krishnan | Feb 6, 2007 10:11:08 PM


Public schools are not considered systems that foster creativity among the employees. However, I believe that if we apply what you write at the level of the student and start to think about how it is that we allow students to Kick Ass in the world we will be a better system. The more we at central administration look for the opportunties to get out of the way allow our teachers to create passionate users the better off we will be. We shouldn't get out of the way because that is what the teacher's union wants or that is what the tradition has been. No, we should get out of the way because there is a clarity of vision and agreement on what the outcome should look like (kick ass student).

Posted by: Joe Miller | Feb 6, 2007 10:15:03 PM

NJG: marketers? Depends on how you define that word, I guess. I've had very little exposure to people whose job IS "marketing", but rather I've worked for quite a while to help those of us--like myself--who are NOT marketers learn to do some of what we might think of as marketingish things. But I reckon someone who refers to himself as a marketer would be a craftsperson/professional, rather than a producer. (Or, if they can't pass the 4-question test, then they don't fall into EITHER category... this is not a there-are-two-kinds-of-people thing, it's a there-are-two-kinds-of-people-in-a-successful-Hollywood-model-where-people-are-passionate-about-their-work thing.

A producer is the one who makes a project happen, whether that's a film or album (where we traditionally think of producers) or a book or software application.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 6, 2007 10:23:38 PM

Geetha: I have to think about that one a bit, but it sure is a fun one! ; )

Joe: wow wow wow -- I almost teared up over this one:
" We shouldn't get out of the way because that is what the teacher's union wants or that is what the tradition has been. No, we should get out of the way because there is a clarity of vision and agreement on what the outcome should look like (kick ass student)."

Thank you. Every time I hear from an educator who manages to stay motivated and clear under the most challenging circumstances (public school system in US), I'm so heartened. And I know there have been many who've commented here, and it's so encouraging to know they're out there.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 6, 2007 10:27:24 PM

Kathy, as a Software Developer and a fan of this site (1st comment - woot!) I am compelled to respond to this article. I am blessed with making a pretty good living pursuing my "hobby". I've been writing software for 13+ years and, though there are good days and bad days, I am passionate about what I do and what I can provide for my employer. However it is difficult finding the environment that fosters, nurtures this passion; I'm affected by bad company policies like the rest of you out there. But I tend "think global, act local" by imbuing my team with my passion; a happy team is a productive team. Anyways - Thanks for the article!

Posted by: Mel Riffe | Feb 6, 2007 11:39:34 PM

Oh, this is just so right I'm stunned. It's frustrating facing management that thinks our hard work and dedication is to code only and that everything we want to change/improve does nothing for the bottom line. It's not about the code, it's about the work! And end-user satisfaction is the ultimate reward. We're not here just to play around earning money, we respect our code and the ass-kickin' our software enables!

Posted by: Jonas | Feb 7, 2007 12:42:44 AM

My immediate thought is Jim Allchin, who doesn't appear to be inclined to defend his company from all comers, yet appears to be making a substantial effort to produce good products. But I haven't noticed him at all except for the notorious memos, so I don't know if he's an actual good example.

Posted by: Michael Chui | Feb 7, 2007 12:43:52 AM

"Given a choice, I would work ONLY on projects that followed a Hollywood Model, [...]"

It took me several tries to parse that fragment correctly!

Posted by: Gihan Marasingha | Feb 7, 2007 1:40:52 AM

I'm wary about the possible interpretation that well-liked people are necessarily less passionate about work than, let's just say it, assholes. When it comes down to it, I don't care if you have the ultimate passion for work if you're a flaming asshole. In fact, I would suggest that assholes are a force in destroying passion in others.

Posted by: Jason Yip | Feb 7, 2007 3:15:18 AM

Thank you

Posted by: Yoav Ezer | Feb 7, 2007 3:53:43 AM

Thought-provoking as usual, Kathy. I guess I'm disagreeing though. I think what counts is being passionate about delivering benefits to customers. I've known real craftsmen who were passionate about their work and didn't care about whoever was receiving the output of that work. That's just as bad as being passionate about the company.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Feb 7, 2007 4:02:48 AM

While loving this post I do worry that it encourages the school of thought that seeks perfection over everything else. I've always maintained that inherently best is the mortal enemy of good enough, and in the final analysis often our customers (internal and external) need something by a certain date. Given their head producers will worry and polish well beyond the level of diminishing marginal returns, with often, on balance, negative consequences for end users.

Sure you've got to work the message - saying "quality doesn't matter" for example is tremendously damaging, but then so is saying, "no, don't worry if it takes another six months, go and find a better image for that icon...".

Posted by: Zwingli | Feb 7, 2007 4:07:16 AM

Joe - I agree on the educational aspect. My mother is a teacher and is so passionate about what she does - the very best teachers are, I think. But her school just does not care about the passion or welfare of its staff, never mind the students. In such a case I think it's difficult for the staff to then keep their passion for their work, and I know this has caused many to leave.

My father was also an art & design teacher and has recently changed careers. Why? Because his school again didn't support the staff who had the passion for their work, and eventually the strain of this has to go somewhere. Rather than risk losing his passion for it altogether, he's decided to move into a different creative career.

Personally, I am a graphic designer and there's no way it could just be my job. It's a hobby, it's what I love to do, it's me. My company doesn't share the passion, but we're getting there. I think I'll send them all this article :-)

Posted by: minxlj | Feb 7, 2007 4:32:51 AM

Company as UI model? I don't think you understand the company as slaver model. Don't you believe in capitalism and the American way?

Where is your acceptance of property owners (shareholders and their proxies the managers) dictating how everyone else should behave? Where is your deference to monied authority?

The more I hear about this caring about people and caring about standards, the more you sound like a communist. Like the old Soviet propaganda about the model worker doing his work for its own sake and for the sake of the People.

I suppose this demonstrates there isn't anything new in business admin that hasn't been discovered in politics more than a century ago. Why, someone could make a nice sideline taking ancient political analyses and spinning them so they're halfway palatable to businessmen.

Posted by: Richard | Feb 7, 2007 4:58:46 AM

hi kathy,
thought provoking as always, and this would be one of my favorite article. gives me a new direction to aspire to. thank you!

Posted by: heri | Feb 7, 2007 5:20:20 AM

great metaphor, great article! thanks for this!

Posted by: Alan Alston | Feb 7, 2007 7:14:51 AM

I'm the CEO of a technology start-up and your post resonates with me. But I'm not sure everyone on a team needs to be so passionate -- it depends what the team is producing. For example, a major component of our product is a database that we built from the ground up. I don't think the people (a really talented, dedicated group) who collected the data are passionate about the actual work. I think they've enjoyed seeing how their efforts fit into a bigger puzzle and living the start-up experience (except they get paid). I hired them because they were smart (always a good hiring criteria), intellectually curious, demonstrated good problem-solving abilities and pride in their work.

Thanks for the great food-for-thought.


Posted by: Rob Rubin | Feb 7, 2007 7:18:40 AM

Hi Kathy, This is my first time on here and Im enjoying it.

I worked at a software company once and despised every second of it - not because I hate IT work, I love it, but because the company was so badly run.

Despite having some very good people, the company was going down, customers were leaving in droves and there wasn't anything we could do.

It was hard to be passionate about a software company that was so lame that it forbade its programmers to use subroutines !! - I kid you not !!

I was almost relieved when the boss cut me loose. I look back on that time as a lesson in what not to do.

Posted by: Peter | Feb 7, 2007 7:33:25 AM


Whoever coded the interpreter module in your brain.exe obviously wasn't very passionate about it working right.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 7, 2007 7:40:18 AM

How about passion for work AND company...
That way you won't feel guilty for selling your soul to the devil just so you can do a particular kind of work that you enjoy.

Posted by: ab | Feb 7, 2007 7:51:45 AM

I have many years experience in software development spanning multiple industries. During this time I've held various positions: developer, IT project manager, architect, business/functional owner and currently VP of IT. And while this doesn't make me an expert, it does give me some insight into what you are talking about.

In my experience it seems that Often times the best technical decision is NOT the best business decision. Conversly, business decisions with short term benefit sometimes create long term pain because they are the wrong technical decision. It's a constant struggle to weigh the seemingly opposing influences of technology and commercial considerations. What a company needs is employees who can help sort this all out.

There are many types of employees to choose from. In my career I've worked with people who are:
- passionate about not much (anything to pay the bills)
- passionate about their career (anything to get ahead)
- passionate about their craft (anything to do the right thing technically - everything else is crap)
- passionate about the money (anything to make a buck)
- passionate about the company (anything to be a part of something big)
- passionate about the users (anything to help the user kick @$$)

In my opinion, I don't want to employ someone who is only passionate about what they do. In a perfect world all employees would be a combination of passionate about their craft, passionate about the company and passionate about the users. In this case you would have someone who is serious about becoming the very best evidenced by they way they answer Kathy's 4 questions. But they would ALSO be serious about building a company that they can be proud of and software that helps the users rock. This is the only way that they can help you discern between competing priorities of commercial and technical priorities.

Two things we should also not loose sight of:

First, the user is not just the end user. If you are a developer working on a B2B portal, for example, the user is not just the businesses who use the portal to interface with your company. Your users are also those people within your organziation who are responsible for the B2B portal from a P&L perspective. You have to help them rock as well. You also have to respect they responsibility they have. You have to partner with them for the good of the company and the end user. This will undoubtedly mean there will be some technical compromises, but the end result should have farther reaching benefits for all.

Finally, maximizing shareholder wealth is not inherently a bad thing. If you disagree, buy stock in your company (if you can) and see if your perspective changes. Besides, creating shareholder wealth is like helping your investors kick @$$.

Posted by: Steve Akers | Feb 7, 2007 8:25:04 AM

Thank you! I've been saying this for over a year and nobody ever understands me, but you summed it up better than I have been able to.

I wonder if I can get my boss to read this? :)

Posted by: Jimmy | Feb 7, 2007 8:25:17 AM

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