The Inevitability of Evil

You did good kid, real good, but as long as I’m around, you’ll always be second best see

14 minute read


The Last Judgement by Rogier van der Weyden
Staff rarely looked forward to the team building offsite

Google’s code of conduct begins with the phrase “Don’t be evil”. If you work for, or with, Google you’re meant to follow the code. Google’s management enforce the code to the extent that you’re even protected from retaliation if you blow the whistle on someone who is being evil.

I have a pet peeve with codes of conduct, missions statements, HR policies and (my favourite) architectural principles. They nearly always state the bleeding obvious as if it’s some distinguishing hallmark of corporate culture. No principle should need stating where the diametric opposite would be ludicrous.

Except with your kids:

Why the hell is there Lego all over the damn floor?

Because you never said don’t leave Lego all over the floor

True story.

Seriously, would “Be Evil” ever make any sense as a policy?

“Keep it complex”? “We aim for inflexibility”? “We want to minimise ROI by implementing hard to change systems”? “Vendor lock-in. Bring it on”?

Though now that the evil cat is out of the don’t-state-the-obvious bag, it’s worth some pondering. Did Google choose to say “Don’t be evil” because they believe corporations inevitably head in the direction of doing evil deeds? Small companies rarely get labeled evil, probably because they’re too busy trying to stay in business. With larger corporates though, there’s a bit more time, a few more people at a loose end. It’s easier to adopt strategies that go awry.

Even then though - evil? I can see selfish, thoughtless, incompetent, wasteful. But evil?

Google, like any company, makes mistakes. It not a great idea to introduce the concept of corporate evil and make mistakes when many of your users are baying technophiles willing to demonstrate their tweeting and blogging prowess whenever they feel ticked off with your service. But despite many anti-google rants and sentiments in the IT community, mistakes and even shoddy and annoying service is hardly evil.

Poor service is just that: annoying. Even calling a service poor is a relative concept. I live in the UK where service for most things is abysmal. Friends of mine from the US complain about poor levels of service which to me sound like some utopian vision of consumer bliss. Mostly, we call service poor when it’s less than we expect. When we don’t expect much, we complain less. We complain more readily when we expect more, or if we’re paying a lot of money, or giving more of our time. That’s as much about us as it is about the service.

It still doesn’t make it evil.

When we talk about a company being evil our conversations are not so much concerned with service levels as what their intent is - towards customers, competitors, the law, morality, decency, etc. Google’s code of conduct talks of integrity and ethics. Clearly they intend to be on the right side of those conversations and not the subject of them. So is Google evil? It’s a well debated question.

Personally I don’t think Google is run by malignant forces bent on the destruction of all that is righteous and just. Like all big companies, it is run by competitive individuals who more and more are given fairly narrow measures of success.

Sometimes, these people are going to put their objectives above any moral code they may be expected to comply with.
Sometimes, these people are going to make poor decisions due to time pressures or bad advice.
Sometimes, these people are going to hire other people who always put their objectives above any moral code.

It’s called fucking up. Fucking up isn’t evil, it’s human. And sometimes, after a prologued period of fucking up, the result can appear to outsiders like a de facto policy. De facto policies have a habit of becoming culturally embedded and, lo, an ‘evil’ corporation is born. My guess is this is why it’s in Google’s code of conduct - to maintain a constant reminder that inconsiderate fucking up can become a cultural habit. Because cultures are hard to change without drastic action, like firing a whole management team. Though I might admire Google’s attempt at non-evilness, a code of conduct won’t do it. Codes mean very little when businesses get larger. Though ironically you do see more evidence of code creation - in my experience companies are most likely to publish codes, practices, policies and principles about good behaviour at precisely the moment they’re doing the opposite. The pieces of paper act as a sop to uncomfortable questions or probing by partners, external agencies or potential new hires.

Monsanto has a pledge on its website that says “Integrity is the foundation for all that we do. Integrity includes honesty, decency, consistency, and courage” and they aren’t short of bad press. I am no fan of Monsanto. I would not work for them nor any organisation that aided them in any way, but I’d bet their staff have never been in a meeting where the objective was to do some evil. We live in a world that could benefit from better crop farming techniques. I bet that’s how they see themselves - as helping the world’s hungry. They just happen to go about this in an appalling manner and now 95% of people hate them.

In the software world we have Oracle. I remember when Oracle was hot. They had this awesome database and they hired smart people like crazy. I have an aversion to product companies so I never worked for them directly but I did have some fun times tuning System Global Area parameters and designing some fairly sophisticated applications around their RDBMS. How many people like them now? Sure, there are plenty of non-technical middle managers who still think Oracle are awesome, but what about coders, smart people, the sort of people who really make a difference on projects? I see nothing but expensive, over-complex, non-integrating badly-supported bloatware. In November 2011 even a Gartner analyst expressed surprise that so many of Oracle’s customers continue to buy from them.

Companies seem to go from cool to evil pretty quickly. Is Facebook evil? They collect and sell a lot of data that some people would deem private. On the other hand they provide a free-to-use service that helps you keep in contact with your friends (or try to look hip with the kids if you’re a corporate organisation who’s anything but hip with the kids). Is that really evil? Or do we all just need to grow up a bit? I dislike Facebook. I use it but honestly I’d rather not.

Jeff Atwood famously co-founded the Stack Exchange network with Joel Spolsky to put the evil empire of Experts Exchange to death. It’s mostly worked. Stack Overflow is awesome beyond words and I rarely see Experts Exchange come up in results lists any more. Information is a little freer than it was just a few years ago. Now Jeff’s out to take on the forum market. Perhaps someone like him will take on Facebook, Diaspora have already started.

I’m conflicted on the Facebook vs Evil story. On the one hand it’s simply a value exchange: you use their crappy UI for free and indirectly give them your data, they use that data so that ultimately you’ll buy stuff from advertisers. Professionally I admire much about their architectural ability to sustain impressive user growth. Now they’ve been through an IPO though, they will surely fast track themselves to evil. It’s inevitable. It was inevitable for Monsanto and Oracle. It will be for Google.

It’s inevitable because we are obsessed with growth. Doing well isn’t enough any more, you have to do better than last time. You have to grow. We are in the middle of a major financial crisis right now and all you hear about is growth. Do you cut budgets then invest for growth, or borrow and invest right away?

I’m no economist. In fact you could easily capture all my financial wisdom on the back of a postage stamp and then burn that stamp with no loss to humanity. But it seems to me that our unhealthy fixation with growth is the main cause of inevitable corporate evil. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with developing and extending a successful business. Of course not. I’m not that crazy. But there’s a point at which you’ll be doing it for its own sake and you’ll be doing it not because it’s right but because you can’t see why it’s wrong.

I’m no anthropologist either, but I don’t think I’d be overstepping the mark to say that human beings have reached their current level of sophistication (i.e. grown) due in large part to an amazing ability to collect, analyse, and act on data. In most cases this sophistication is a good thing. It’s the bedrock of engineering and science. It’s pervasive in classical and modern art. We do things, we measure effect, we make changes to optimise the effect, we move on. It sounds both logical and rational. And it is until measuring becomes more important than why we started the whole thing in the first place.

Let say you founded a start-up. Initially it’s you and a few friends who work well together. You do awesome work for your clients. You’re cost-effective. They love you. But you soon find that you’re turning away new customers because there aren’t enough of you. So you hire some more people. They’re good too and the success story continues. It’s awesome. You’re happy. The employees are happy. What’s not to like about being busy, working on cool projects and getting paid? You hire more people. Profits grow.

At some point you will hit a wall. It’s quite a low wall too. Maybe 100-150 people low. Maybe quite a bit lower depending on your business. Companies need management because staff need paying, get sick, take days off, generate paperwork. There aren’t that many smart people in any one locality. That’s why businesses collect together in big cities and valleys, roundabouts, and fens. Also, you’ll amass people who don’t directly do the job your clients love, jobs that you don’t have skills to hire well in. Constantly you run the risk that the next person you hire won’t be as good as the last.

You’ve only got two choices: hit the wall (call an end to the growth) or tackle the wall (jump over it and into a model based on different parameters).

Most companies leap the wall, because most companies focus on the data. Growth requires accepting compromises. Grow on, make more money, hire more people, produce codes of conduct, focus on the numbers even as they become more and more abstract. Numbers turn businesses away from personalities and towards targets.

That’s not to necessarily say small is always good. In my example the start-up was awesome because it was started by people with a passion for something and ideals that drove how it should be done. If they’d started it with the idea of just making money it would be more like Monsanto than 37signals. But growth is a great leveller - once you’re big you’re going to be a lot like other big companies, no matter how many times you say your greatest asset is your people. If you’re a consultancy and you leap over that wall you end up as Accenture.

Hardly any companies radically constrain growth this way. My question is why? What if you stopped growing? You’re happy. Your people are happy. Your customers are happy. You earn enough. If more money is important you can diversify into products (though that too has a feature/complexity wall of its own) or you can charge more until demand for your services drops off sufficiently that you are not turning away work. You just won’t be bigger and you won’t do more work or increase throughput much.

In fact why grow just to take on more work? The company will earn more overall but employee income can’t grow linearly because there will be more of them to share it with. The founders might own a stake that’s worth a lot more, but at the cost of what they started the company for. And here’s a poorly kept secret - customers don’t like big companies. Customers aren’t impressed by their ingenuity or passion, because they don’t have any. Individuals do but creative individuals in large companies aren’t allowed to behave as they please. There are rules, codes, policies. Customers at best tolerate large suppliers and they only get the business because the customers themselves are also large inept enterprises. That’s why startups don’t hire Accenture consultants. I mean if any large SI was really that good, why wouldn’t one of their core markets be start-ups? It couldn’t be a cost issue, because any smart investor would insist that a portion of their investment went on securing leading edge skills. Smart people work for small companies because in small companies they’re, by and large, allowed to be smart, and do smart things without having a pamphlet about corporate values shoved in their face. And here’s the kicker, most of us can do our jobs in ethical and honest ways without being told to by the very people that got hired as the company grew too large. The people who busy themselves making policies and setting strategy in the hope nobody will ask what it is they actually do that justifies their salary.

One of the arguments is that growth begets efficiency. In theory bigger companies need fewer people in HR, Finance, etc per employee and/or per amount of revenue earned. That may be true for some roles (one HR person may look after say thirty staff in a small company, whereas an HR team of thirty could run an ERP system to manage thousands in a big company) but large companies are hopelessly inefficient in every other respect. A software project in a small company might have some kind of leader and some developers and that’s it. A big company will have programme managers, project managers, project administrators, scrum masters, business analysts, designers, enterprise architects, solution architects, developers, testers, systems administrators, DBAs, the list goes on. And because most of these people do the same job, there has to be endless meetings to constantly sort out who’s doing which bit of pointless non-delivery activity.

Growth is tempting. It’s also the easiest option. As a random example, the garlic bread market in the UK is worth 195 million pounds (306m dollars) and we’re a tiny island. And did you notice I said garlic bread, not bread, just the kind with garlic on it. The market for ciabatta bread is worth over 7 million pounds and grows at about 22% a year, flatbreads are worth nearly 15 million pounds (and growing at 44% a year). That’s a lot of potential bread for your bread if you’re a baker.

Let me finish by answering my own question.

Evil companies shouldn’t be inevitable, because people aren’t intrinsically evil. People are sometimes greedy though and they don’t always know when greed is influencing their judgement. Even those who aren’t greedy can make poor decisions when they focus on data rather than meaning. Whether it’s through greed, or lazy simplistic thinking, the route to evil corporations is via unhealthy growth. And unhealthy growth can be defined as exceeding a size beyond which you notice the presence of anybody who doesn’t contribute directly to the work the company was set up to do.

Unhealthy growth is in fact the norm. It’s the path of least resistance. Markets, in even obscure products, are huge which means the opportunities to grow are vast. Effort to stay healthy is hard.

A lot of middle-sized companies and a ton of small companies is better for employees and for customers, even if it’s not a very efficient model. In fact, for obvious reasons, efficient models aren’t good for the employment prospects of large populations. Which is probably why we tolerate such fat and waste in large companies. Growth should lead to frightening levels of efficiency and yet big companies are always hiring people to do jobs that aren’t real (what is an Information Architect anyway?). People with jobs that aren’t real have a lot of meetings. And meetings are dangerous because to fill up the time these people make decisions about anything and everything. Most of the time these decisions are thankfully ignored, but occasionally they break out of the meeting room as a policy in a code of conduct.

And perhaps, for all our annoyance at this ridiculous nonsense, we should grateful that it acts a kind of flood defence for incompetence. There is an old english idiom, originating in the Canterbury Tales, that says The devil makes work for idle hands, which should be updated for businesses to people should be either helpful to the task in hand, or made busy doing something else. Because until we wise up a bit as a species and stop this childish obsession with growth that’s the best we’re going to get.