Stress and metrics in tech companies
Disclaimer: I am not a psychotherapist/psychologist/psychiatrist. This article is not based on scientific research but my thoughts and opinions.
Mental health in software development
There are many sources, which vigorously promote work in the software development industry. I agree with that. In my opinion, the critical factor which makes IT so excellent is access to the people who strive for continuous learning.
On the other hand, most (or all) of my colleagues who work as software engineers experienced stressful situations at work.
Examples of stressful situations
Introverts suffer from the necessity of having a 1-on-1 call with the client or from making a public speech during the sprint review. Sometimes we cannot complete the assigned task. Sometimes we work in a team, which is not supportive. We may work in toxic company culture, which requires us to work after hours. Some companies tend to create the pressure of finishing something for some unrealistic deadline, which leads to people’s burnout.
NPS and eNPS as Key Performance Indicators
Net promoter score has become the most commonly used metric across the world. When we work in a company, the impact of our work and decision leads to increasing or decreasing the NPS (client satisfaction) or eNPS (employee satisfaction). Some time ago, I started considering the action that I take through this model. Examples are:
- If we want to deliver something for the client (increase NPS), we may ask our employees to work on the weekend (decrease eNPS).
- If we deliver something on time (increase NPS) healthily and collaboratively with our team, we celebrate success (increase eNPS).
- We implement the feature and release it to our clients, but they do not like it (decrease NPS), and we blame our team for that (decrease eNPS) because we haven’t built experimental nor continuous improvement work culture.
Please think about how you can use this comparison of NPS and eNPS to imagine some real-life scenarios after reading each of the paragraphs below.
Tech company types
In my professional career, I worked in various companies. It taught me that the stressor might have a different source and might be provided with or without contextual data. Most of the people I worked with experienced just the single company type. The purpose of this article to share various perspectives on stress aspects that you may experience after joining a company of a specific type.
The context that a company is providing us is vital because the shared metrics are what employees try to optimize to become better employees; and it may lead to happiness or burnout.
What’s important, each company type should apply a slightly different approach to performance measurement.
Type A: Services Company
In Poland, we call it - software houses (did you know: this term is not widely used abroad?).
Service companies provide software development services (and project management and design) to clients. That means they set up a few software developers, and then they’re coding the software to deliver some specific output for a particular date. There is a Scrum Master or Project Manager on our end and a Product Owner on the client’s side.
Customer expectations based stressors
How may the stressor look like in this scenario? From my experiences, it is mostly based on customer’s expectations or requirements, which we very often co-create.
Deadlines with no context
Usually, as a software services company, we do not know our client’s business KPIs, and we do not see how our development process influences their revenue. That means we do not fully understand the real impact of missing the deadline. The pressure is built on the deadline set by the client (usually in collaboration with us). We tend to ask the client about the cause of this deadline, and it might be some conference, company-wide goal, a commitment made for the board members or budget limitations. Everything we know from the second hand, not from the direct access to the metrics.
Velocity - the metric of all evil
The first line of the stressor is “we are not delivering X on date Y”. If we do not deliver it, we need to discuss it with the client, who will not be happy. If you are a developer, you will most likely experience some unfriendly atmosphere during the sprint review, but your managers will handle all of these discussions. You will feel the pressure of not meeting the expectations. Maybe even your manager will increase this pressure by asking you to do some overtime.
In this case, I would say the connection between the root cause and pressure is indirect and contextless. Unfortunately (but this is reasonable in many cases), we cannot access many of the metrics, explaining the whole context for us.
Stressful sentences you may hear in service companies:
- “Rafal, we must deliver it by the end of the month because this is what we agreed with the client.”
- “We must deliver at least 80% of sprint commitment.”
- “The go-live date was set for this month. We must deliver it ASAP.”
Type B: Tech Product Company
If you are building a tech product, then the users are your clients. The users have expectations. They chose your product, and they believe that you will be the best to fulfill their needs. In the case of small SaaS, they may pay you hundreds of dollars or, in the case of big platforms, millions of dollars.
Roadmap based stressors
In such a company, stress may be built around a commitment to delivering a specific roadmap. If you publish a roadmap, then it is most likely that your users will expect you to get it done.
Public and Internal Roadmaps
Some product companies tend to build a public roadmap with just very conservative dates, so everyone knows about the direction they’re heading. In parallel, they use more detailed private internal roadmaps for their teams to communicate desired product development progress.
Another group of tech product companies avoids publishing the roadmaps. They share the vision, high-level strategy, and (past) release notes.
How it influences the stress generated for employees? Usually, the more you share publicly, the more pressure is created.
Growth based stressors
However, there is another factor, which may appear when working in a tech product company. If the product has already achieved the product-market fit, then you strive for growth. Not making the product, which will keep exceeding your users’ expectations, may lead to losing your users. As a result, it might end up burning all the cash your company might have, and the only rescue from this situation might be the layoffs.
In this kind of company, the root stressors are further but may lead to much more pain. Most people do not feel it as long as the company is doing well. When there is money in the company, this separation creates a feeling of safety for the developers, leading to innovation.
Lagging and lead indicators
For product tech companies, it is essential to define lead indicators, which will help them react quickly instead of proceeding with fire fighting after analyzing the lag indicators. Based on lead indicators, you may deal with the issues early and reduce the probability of creating stressful situations.
Stressful sentences you may hear in tech product companies:
- “Rafal, we are a small tech product company. If we do not deliver it for our big client, then we’re out, and we will need to fire some people (your colleagues).”
- “A few families work in our company. Losing the job might be problematic for them. We must deliver it.”
- “We lost 30% of our users this month. They do not need our product.”
Disclaimer: Tech product companies financially backed up by VCs may face different challenges.
Disclaimer: Tech product companies, which build safety-critical systems for taking care of human lives may experience it differently.
Type C: Business Company
This company earns money using tech. Tech is the enabler. Let’s consider a furniture production company that uses many systems like ERP, MRP, WMS, eCommerce, CRM, PIM, POS, 3D modeling, and more. The company doesn’t see the tech as the cost place but rather as a part of their business.
Money based stressors
In that case, if any of the critical systems, which generate revenue (e.g., eCommerce, POS) goes down, then the monthly income goes down. Another scenario might be an MRP (materials requirements planning) system calculates improper supply amounts for the next months. In that case, the company may spend millions of dollars on raw materials that will never be used to produce the ready goods.
Straight access to the revenue
For employees of this company, access to the most important metrics is straightforward. Daily, you see how the technology you create is shaping the KPIs. It gives you the feeling of victory when you increase the metrics and pain or fear when you decrease them. On the other hand, it allows us to create the best culture of learning and experimentation.
Stressful sentences you may hear in business companies:
- “Rafal, do it. If we do not get it right, then we will get bankrupt (which means firing 150 people).”
- “We all must work 12 hours a day because everything needs to be done manually. Our technology sucks. Nothing’s automated.”
Which company type is the best?
All of these are good and bad at the same time. All of these stress factors might be ruing your life or may lead to rising your motivation. The person who feel stressed during the sprint review may feel very similar emotions as the person who must fire 150 people. It is all relative to what we’ve got used to. Everything comes to how we interpret the challenges we face and how we deal with our feelings.
Stress is everywhere
The purpose of this article isn’t to lower or raise the seriousness of what we are dealing with. The purpose of this article is to show that the grass is not always brighter on the other side. Stress will appear in all of the company types, and we need to work collaboratively in dealing with it.
Teamwork is the best medicine
You may feel secure as long as you work in good company culture, which isn’t full of bias, prejudice, bullying or violence. As long as there is a team that you can collaborate with, then there’s a chance of achieving something great in these stressful situations.
If you work in an unsupportive group and deal with a tremendous amount of stress, consider asking for help outside.