Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Best Bonus I Ever Got

I know I complain a lot on the blog about IT management. Well, in my opinion, IT management asks for it. Just like lawyers do when they send our society on a downward spiral to hell on riptides of lies and blame deflection.

But this post will be different. I promise. Today, I'll talk about the extra bits of cash compensation employees get outside of their base salaries. These have been far and few between in my career, so maybe this will also get to be a blessedly short post. Apologies again in advance, for some salty language that might follow.

The first bonus I got didn't come until about five years into my career. A lot of that had to do with the crappy company I worked for, but a lot also had to do with me being an inexperienced and poorly managed resource. Anyway, it was a day cruise given to my team for working hard. I appreciate the gesture, but it was on the lame side as rewards go. And I didn't like how only half the team got to go and in retrospect consider this a managerial mistake. Some of the newer team members weren't included (in what I would bet was a cost-cutting move). I felt that was not a smart way to handle team morale in an effort about raising team morale. But it's the thought that counts, so I count it as a bonus even though it sucked in more ways than one. Shit, sorry, I was supposed to be positive in this post. I'll try harder on the next paragraph.

The next bonus was much better. It came in my sixth year with my first company. I had moved to a new, smaller, team and I was doing a much better job of being useful as I'd become more experienced. I also had a more laid-back supervisor and a pretty reasonable manager. My team received an end-of-year bonus of about three thousand dollars. Not enough to buy and island and retire, but nothing to sneeze at either. What is so damn goofy is that I worked less hard for that bonus than I did for the day cruise.

I switched to contracting for a while and bonuses are typically not part of the compensation structure for hourly employees, so there's nothing to report until I switched back to full-time work about 1999. Then I got a variety of bonuses. An annual performance bonus could be between two thousand to five thousand dollars. A spot performance bonus I got was three hundred dollars.

I bounced back and forth between full-time and contracting for a while after that but didn't get another bonus until I was again full time and had a manager that appreciated my work. I killed myself for more than a year straight of overtime and got a spot bonus of a thousand dollars.

I think it's fair at this point to note some lessons I've learned about bonuses. Your experience may be different. In fact, I hope it is. I hope you've done significantly better.
  • Bonuses are usually but not necessarily tied to company profitability
  • Bonuses are highly dependent on your immediate superiors and their superiors
  • Bonuses are a very subjective thing.
    • At one company I got almost no bonuses until the end, and I was working less hard than I did in the earlier years. Some employees told me of bonuses they got for putting in a mere hour of overtime. Now that's the kind of consistency that earns employee trust!
    • At another company, bonuses sometimes came with formal recognition in the form of "President's Awards" or "Outstanding Performance Awards". These were REALLY ridiculous. It's not that some of the people getting them didn't deserve them. The problem was that the significance of the achievements earning these awards were all over the map. Some people got them for working hard on a specific important project, even though the teams on that project might have had several deserving people. Or two people might get awards for working on different projects, even though one was a multiple month or multiple year effort and the other was a one week commitment. It all came down to who had the manager that liked them, and in the end, I think this hurts morale more than it helps. Getting no recognition really hurts when you give your heart and soul for a long time and when you really make a difference. I'm not sure what the answer is for this bullshit though because for the people that deserve it, it is nice to see them get something.
  • Don't depend on bonuses. They're not guaranteed. Hold their feet to the fire in salary negotiations. If you get a bonus, great, but either way you will get the salary.
  • IT shops are pretty barren when it comes to bonuses especially when the company treats IT like a cost center. For sales and a few other divisions, bonuses may be a more legitimate part of the compensation structure.
  • If you want to work in IT and get bonuses, find IT shops in companies where an annual bonus is universal to the pay structure. For example, one of my clients was a trading firm, and everyone, even IT, got significant bonuses (like 20-40% of the salary, a concept that is completely alien to me!).
So which of the bonuses above was the best one? I am thankful for them all, but the answer is, "none". The best one didn't come from management, it came from my users. One of my clients had a legacy system that had (and still has) a terrible user interface. They were suffering greatly on having to enter data one row at a time, spending multiple man-days of effort each month. I added a simple import capability so they could massage their data in Excel and then import it through cutting and pasting. Did it work? A few weeks after the feature went live, I got this from them:

That's right: a modest $25 gift card, for a place that makes food that's mostly not on my diet. It's the best bonus I ever got. Why? Because as Jeff Atwood would say, it showed that people were using my software. It showed that my work improved lives. What makes this bonus great is not even the $25, but the kind comments from my users on the card it came with. 

Now I'm sure there are managers looking at this and saying, "Gee what an asshole that Bernard is. How could that meaningless shit be worth more to him than a thousand dollars?" Man, if you're a manager saying that right now, I pity you. You have completely missed the boat on how to do your job and how to be a leader. And I pity even more your subordinates.

Oh shit, I'm supposed to be positive! Ah, ok, well, I took the card and had a nice date with my wife, eating wings before a movie.

And for any overly literal pinheads reading this, no, this doesn't mean I don't appreciate monetary bonuses. But really, this kind of recognition is truly special and particular to software developers in the same way that a compliment to a chef or an artist means as much emotionally as the money. The chef gets a paycheck either way, but if he knows his clients were enriched by his cooking, he has a sense of purpose fulfilled. And this really is where IT management really needs to get a better understanding of how technical people respond to feedback.

We really don't give a shit if you praise us for good attendance or being on time to meetings. We do like pizza, but throwing a pizza party isn't really doing much for morale. When you use metrics like how many SOX audits we passed or how little we were penalized for dress code violations, you're just drawing attention to the parts of the job that suck. 

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