What am I working on in a Data Center, thinking about how work can be improved

I am in a data center this week and one of my friends asked what I am up to. I could write him an e-mail or throw up a blog post that describes what I am doing in a more interesting way.  

Being at a data center many people bring their lunch in (hint: this means I am not in a Google data center where there is catered lunches.).  Given I am from out of town I don't have my lunch, so I took myself out to a local place and watched this Ted Video by Dan Ariel "What makes us feel good about our work?" while I ate and watched this video I found Dan makes points that I can use to describe what I am working on in a data center.

Data Center operations can always be improved.  One technique I like to use is talking to the people who do the work and find out what their pain points are.  Dan Ariely's question of what makes us feel good about our work? is another way to view what are the pain points that cause you to feel bad about our work.  it is not just the money. 

I want to talk a little bit today about labor and work. When we think about how people work,the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze -- that all people care about is money, and the moment we give people money, we can direct them to work one way, we can direct them to work another way. This is why we give bonuses to bankers and pay in all kinds of ways. And we really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work and what the labor market looks like.

One point that resonates for me is the one on a cancelled software project described at the 7:45 mark of the video.

I went to talk to a big software company in Seattle. I can't tell you who they were, but they were a big company in Seattle. And this was a group within this software company that was put in a different building. And they asked them to innovate and create the next big product for this company. And the week before I showed up, the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers, and canceled the project. And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I've ever talked to. And I described to them some of these Lego experiments, and they said they felt like they had just been through that experiment. And I asked them, I said, "How many of you now show up to work later than you used to?" And everybody raised their hand. I said, "How many of you now go home earlier than you used to?" And everybody raised their hand. I asked them, "How many of you now add not-so-kosher things to your expense reports?" And they didn't really raise their hands, but they took me out to dinner and showed me what they could do with expense reports. And then I asked them, I said, "What could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed?" And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said the CEO could have asked them to present to the whole company about their journey over the last two years and what they decided to do. He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology could fit with other parts of the organization. He could have asked them to build some prototypes, some next-generation prototypes, and seen how they would work. But the thing is that any one of those would require some effort and motivation. And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning. If the CEO, just like our participants, thought the essence of meaning is unimportant, then he [wouldn't] care. And he would tell them, "At the moment I directed you in this way, and now that I am directing you in this way, everything will be okay." But if you understood how important meaning is, then you would figure out that it's actually important to spend some time, energy and effort in getting people to care more about what they're doing.

You can of course guess who the big unnamed software company is in Seattle and which CEO this was.  To give you more information on support your conclusion here is when Dan Ariel was in Seattle and series sponsor in July 2012.

Presented as part of Seattle Science Lectures, with Pacific Science Center and University Book Store. Series sponsored by Microsoft.

Dan points out the issue of ignoring performance and how it affects what people think of their work.

Now there's good news and bad news here. The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes. Ignoring gets you a whole way out there. The good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying "uh huh," that seems to be quite sufficient to dramatically improve people's motivations. So the good news is that adding motivation doesn't seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivations seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don't think about it carefully, we might overdo it. So this is all in terms of negative motivation or eliminating negative motivation.

So much of what goes in the data center can be many small processes that are required to complete an overall task.  Think of all the steps required to receive a new server and get server used by customers.  Think about this example Dan uses.

Let me say one last comment. If you think about Adam Smith versus Karl Marx, Adam Smith had the very important notion of efficiency. He gave an example of a pin factory. He said pins have 12 different steps, and if one person does all 12 steps, production is very low. But if you get one person to do step one and one person to do step two and step three and so on, production can increase tremendously. And indeed, this is a great example and the reason for the Industrial Revolution and efficiency. Karl Marx, on the other hand, said that the alienation of labor is incredibly important in how people think about the connection to what they are doing. And if you make all 12 steps, you care about the pin. But if you make one step every time, maybe you don't care as much.

The types of work I am studying are everything from design, construction, operations of the building and IT equipment.  Dan thinks some tasks should be change to create more meaning.  But, the problem is how far do you go?  One person cannot have the skill to design, build, construct, and operate a data  center.  Well, there are very few people who can do all of these things, but their capabilities cannot scale to have enough resources to run a data center.

And I think that in the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith was more correct than Karl Marx,but the reality is that we've switched and now we're in the knowledge economy. And you can ask yourself, what happens in a knowledge economy? Is efficiency still more important than meaning? I think the answer is no. I think that as we move to situations in which people have to decide on their own about how much effort, attention, caring, how connected they feel to it, are they thinking about labor on the way to work and in the shower and so on, all of a sudden Marx has more things to say to us. So when we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it -- meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc. And the good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them, how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace and for the employees, I think we could get people to both be more productive and happier.

What I do in a data center is not public, but Dan Ariely's talk is public so I can reuse his presentation to illustrate the concepts I am working on.  The approaches I am using are way beyond what I originally did when I started working over 30 years ago.  Using mobile, social, and big data concepts allow new ways to improve work.  And guess what.  What I am working on makes me feel good about my work, because I am helping others feel about their work.