Being The Perfect Employee is Bad for Business

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How can being the perfect employee be bad for business? Whose business anyway? Well, primarily the employee’s, but also the employer’s. Read on.

Meet Smitha and John

Smitha and John were both J2EE Java developers at Prestige Kitchens Ltd, a manufacturer and fitter of bespoke kitchen furniture, based out of Birmingham, UK. In 2015, the company started a large transformation programme to upgrade their ERP system to the latest version of Java, WebLogic server, and its Oracle database, given that the long term support for the current tech stack was coming to an end.

The upgrade involved rewriting quite a large number of libraries to integrate ERP with the rest of Prestige Kitchen’s IT ecosystem. The legacy libraries were written for Java 1.3 and used variable names that had become reserved keywords in the current version of Java, resulting in incompatibilities, among other issues.

Both Smitha and John were earning the same salary (£50,000 a year) at the beginning of the programme. John concluded that this was the big opportunity he had been waiting for a long time to embark on a serious enterprise transformation, and climb up the proverbial career ladder. Smitha seemed sort of neutral at the beginning but six months down the line, half way through the programme’s completion, the difference in behaviour, between the two Java developers, couldn’t be more stark.

On a typical day, both Smitha, and John would arrive at 9.00, but John would not leave before 20.00, unless it was on a few Friday evenings, only to have a few beers with the team. Smitha, in contrast, would not only leave at 17.00 without fail, but she would also take regular holidays during this period.

It wasn’t the case that Smitha was more productive either; whereas John rewrote most of the legacy Java modules, Smitha only took care of a small web services connector to integrate the ERP system with Salesforce.

The upgraded ERP system was a success, being launched on time, and presenting zero QA defects after 4 weeks in production.

John’s Award

Mike, Smitha’s and John’s manager, promoted John to “Senior Java Developer” and raised his salary to £60,000. Smitha, on the other hand, received a mere £50 Amazon voucher, and unsurprisingly, was not promoted. A couple of months later, Smitha quit. Both Mike and John assumed she was not “cut out” for the kind of intense effort that is expected in the IT industry.

Three Years Later

In 2017, John gets an update from LinkedIn, in which Smitha’s title is changed to “Senior CRM Technical Lead at Home Gardens PLC”. He’s intrigued. He quickly checks her LinkedIn profile and notices that she had initially joined the company as a junior Salesforce developer.

LinkedIn Profile

John being John, immediately messages her:

“Hi Smitha, congratulations on the new job; I hope they compensate you well at Home Gardens PLC”.

Smitha replies after a couple of days:

“Hi John. Sorry, I was away on holidays. Yes, Home Gardens PLC offered me a minor pay rise when I left Prestige Kitchens but I’ve been promoted twice since I joined them and now I have even managed to put a deposit toward my own flat so I’m very happy indeed.”

John’s blood is boiling. He’s always seen Smitha as a mediocre professional at best, and as a “9 to 5 slacker” at worst:

“So how much are you making now?", John shamelessly asks.

“I don’t like discussing my salary, but I do get a six figure sum once bonuses and perks are considered. I bet you must be doing quite OK too, following the promotion they gave you before I left :)", Smitha replies.

This wasn’t actually the case. Prestige Kitchens decided to can the whole ERP modernisation effort, a year later, switching to a SaaS, SAP-based solution instead, and making John redundant in the process:

“I left Prestige Kitchens. I work for a small consultancy now; less stress you know” writes John back, a few minutes after meditating on his answer, trying to save face.

In fact, John took a £15,000 cut after being made redundant at Prestige Kitchens given that the market for J2EE/WebLogic developers had dried up and he could not find a job that would pay the £60,000 salary he was at.

What Really Went On

While John worked very hard, pulling in average sixty hours a week or more for almost a year, and resulting in the successful migration of the ERP application to a recent version of Java, Smitha did not spend any extra effort beyond her legally required hours. What John (and Prestige Kitchens) failed to see, though, is that Smitha was also applying herself, spending close to sixty hours a week too. How come?

Rather than contributing more hours to the ERP project, Smitha was using those extra evening hours to study for Salesforce certifications, running labs and getting acquainted with the product. When it came to the ERP project, she engaged in the aspects of the project that allowed her to sharpen her Salesforce skills, allowing her to further solidify his theoretical knowledge and lab experience.

Google Trends: Salesforce vs J2EE

Smitha reasoned that Salesforce demand was on the way up, whereas vanilla J2EE development was on the way down. While the focus on J2EE would have got her brownie points with Mike, her manager, in the “market out there”, this was a dead end.

A tiny amount of real world experience with Salesforce, in the form of a simple web services connector, together with her certifications, allowed Smitha to find an employer that offered her real career progression opportunities.

Analysis and Conclusion

We saw that in the beginning, John appeared to be the rock star, whereas Smitha was the priah, and how, a few years later, the situation reversed. If John was the perfect employee in 2015, why was he let go right after? And what about Smitha? Wasn’t she selfish and reckless by focusing on her personal Salesforce interest when the ERP modernization should have been her focus?

The truth is that businesses do not reward “effort” per se (let alone slogging), but outcomes. For Prestige Kitchens Ltd, their ultimate goal was spending as little as possible in IT, which they achieved by outsourcing first its CRM, and later its ERP capabilities to SaaS vendors: Salesforce and SAP, respectively. John’s dedication and effort was inconsequential, in the long run.

John failed to notice the structural industry-wise transformation was about the move to SaaS, a seismic shift which Smitha did get. John, instead, thought that career progression was about making his immediate manager happy by doing his bidding. He did have his fifteen minutes of fame, though.

The moral of the story is not that being the perfect employee should be a loathsome goal, but that one should ensure that extra effort and dedication is toward creating value that will have market demand, and that the applied skills are not bound to the vagaries of a specific project or employer.

After all, John could have specialized either on Salesforce or SAP, at Prestige Kitchens. Not only his tunnel vision focus on the ERP project was bad business for him, it ended up being bad business for his employer too.

Disclaimer 1: The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, companies, and products is intended or should be inferred.

Disclaimer 2: The author does not endorse neither Salesforce nor SAP. These have been provided merely for illustrative purposes only.