Frustration in software engineers – A Study (Part I)

By | November 18, 2007

A job of as a software engineer is one of the most sought after jobs in India today. A major number of engineering college graduates are sucked into software companies, where they are offered high pay packages and various bonuses and incentives. Yet, most of India’s software engineer community is frustrated today. This post attempts to look at the frustration of this community of people that writes most of the source code which powers a lot of software around the world.

When a fresh engineer joins a software company, there is anticipation, a joy that is unique to the first job. But after a year or two on the job that he was so eager to lap up, the going is not so rosy as it promised to be. He is frustrated, angry, stressed out. And people who are expected to understand almost never do.

The first reason, and the major one, is money. There is a very small segment of software engineers in the industry who are satisfied with the money they are paid at the end of the each month. Every single engineer will recite an anecdote where a friend X made a jump from a minuscule salary to a package that would make Mukesh Ambani jealous. OK, maybe not that high a salary, but I am sure my point is taken. And it is this anecdote that plants the seed of frustration. In the recent past, I have grilled many a friend who have come up with such anecdotes, and at the end most of them have proven to be hearsay. A friend of a friend of a friend got such a hike. There is no way the authenticity of such a story can be validated, and yet such a story is enough to set of frustration.

A frustration of such type is extremely easy to manifest, and is excessively difficult to control. Personnel and HR managers all around the globe seem to have very little ways of controlling such a fire. This fire of discontentment eventually leads to an employee coming to office daily with a negative attitude. He thinks that he is working for a company that comes off to the public as a big profit maker, and when it comes to paying its own people, they are the worst of the lot. Such feelings come to the fore at the time of compensation valuation exercises in the form of direct/indirect threat by the frustrated employees to resign.

Which brings me to the second reason for employee frustration. Performance and compensation reviews. Most companies have extremely standardized processes for performance and compensation valuation. These processes make life easier for managers and HR personnel, by making the quantification of an employee’s performance against a scale that acts as an organization-wise standard, and employees throughout the organization at the same level can be easily compared against each other. These processes, though make the review more quantifiable, they leave employees dissatisfied most of the times.

For the simple fact that the interpretation of performance is usually a single point. The manager. Now the manager would definitely seek the opinion of team leads and other such people in evaluation of the performance of an employee, yet it is difficult to fathom that a manager will keep his personal prejudices aside when he makes a review. Over the years, I have heard several complaints by fellow workers that female employees tend to get a better rating at the hand of male managers for the same amount of work done as a male employee. I do not have any empirical data to support such a claim, and neither do I intend to.

The point here is not gender based bias, it is that a single decision making point will always incubate a feeling of discontent in a one/more employees. No matter how fair a manager is, there will always be allegations of favoritism in such a process. And this adds to employee discontent. Another interesting twist in the review process is that an employee is told the review results only after the process is almost finished. The employee feels powerless, in most scenario he is forced to ask why is he even being told at a time when his opinion does not matter? There is no point in keeping the employee’s feedback for a period of one year, when the next review would be scheduled.

The counter-argument to this issue presented by most HR managers is, if the employee opinions are taken at the initial stages and not considered, they would anyways be frustrated that no-one listens to them. Even so, I do not agree that a process so translucent as the one currently followed in the industry should be labeled as a good HR practice. It falls in the category of a doctor telling his patient he is going to die when it is too late to do anything, when he could have told earlier. It is an equal evil.

Lack of a 360 degree review in most companies is also rued by several employees. It adds to frustration in cases when they feel they are being singled out by their manager, and have nowhere to go. The HR executives who told them about an “open company culture” now tell them to escalate this issue to the proper level, that is, to the manager of the manager. And almost certainly, no employee takes that path. Why?

Consider the scenario when you go you your manager’s manager and complain. What does he do? In 9 out of 10 scenarios, he would informally call your manager and tell him what you just said. And in almost all of the 9 cases, your manager would nurse the grudge till the next appraisal cycle, where he would take it out on you! Or even worse, keep taking it out on you in the course of the year by assigning you mundane tasks that frustrate you more and provide him a lot of sadistic pleasure. In the one exception scenario, the senior manager would try to investigate your complain, and go down the same path as the 9 remaining cases.

You, as the sufferer, have lost more than you could have. And now you cannot go any further for a very simple fear of retribution. The seeds of frustration are now beginning to germinate into a tiny sapling now. You are more frustrated than ever.

Let us stay on this issue of performance and compensation reviews for another moment. If you are a software engineer, or if you were one, just think of the best performance review of your career. A little difficult, ain’t it. For me, the best ever review was the first one I ever had in my career. But then that is me.

Now think of the worst one you have been subjected to. Easier to remember, ain’t it? Partly because the human mind has the extraordinary ability to recall the bad faster than the good, and partly because bad experiences in performance reviews are more in existence as compared to good ones. The reason of frustration, in most cases, is the manager giving a lower rating than the employee would expect. In some cases, it is a genuine case of over-expectation on part of the employees.

But in several cases, such rating differentials come in when “normalization” happens. In simplest word, normalization takes ratings of a set of employees at similar experience/grade levels and makes them consistent with the expected ratings set by the managers and HR for the set as a whole.

Let us say the HR expects not more than 10% of the employees to be top performers. Now lets say that 15% employees turn out to be rated as top performers. This is where normalization comes in to reduce the rating of 5% of people to a lower one. Of course, normalization can happen the other way round too, but that is an extremely rare scenario. Most of the times managers use normalization as an excuse for employees who have been given a lower rating. And this further increases the frustration of an employee.

This was part I of the study, where I analyzed the compensation and process related factors that cause frustration in engineers. In part II, I will look at more work specific factors like peer and supervisor feedback, quality of work given etc. and the effects they have on employee morale. Feedback on this study is most welcome in the form of comments on this post.

Part II would come up next.

Author’s Notes:-
1. Material on which the conclusions are based are derived from the author’s own experiences, and the experiences of several engineers/senior engineers he has interacted with.
2. “He” in the post must be interpreted in a gender independent manner( (s)he ).

6 thoughts on “Frustration in software engineers – A Study (Part I)

  1. satpalparmar

    As a software engineer I can confirm ur observations.I am just wondering what solution we have to solve this problem. I think most of the issue is about attitude rather then reality.POeple with right attitude dont have much of this frustration.

  2. The Empty Head Post author

    satpal: to a great extent, it is attitude of the person. But attitudes are also developed based on some external factors.

    keep watching this space, part 2 of the study will look at more direct factors and also look at some solutions. In the meantime ask your colleagues to read this study and provide feedback on what they think.

  3. Vikas Shekhawat

    I’m sure Ashish this analysis applies not only in software industry, but other sectors too. However, the facts, of course true as far as the vicious performance-compensation cycle is concerned, highlighted might not hold true amongst modern professional units with a selected team working for a cause. The fact that only makes all the difference is the perception a team member holds that whether he’s working for the ‘company’ or for the ‘employer/senior’. The former always remains in a win-win situation and the later nurtures frustration nothing else rather then trying to be an asset to the company, which the former will always emerge to be, and no doubt, compensated accordingly. Here, one might argue that personal prejudices somewhere in the hierarchy may turn down things against, but the damage done will be minimal if one is focused.

  4. The Empty Head Post author

    vikas: I totally agree with you. Focus is most certainly one solution. But it ain’t easy. The usual question asked is, what does the company do for me?

    More on this question, and the reasons why it crops up easier than one can imagine in part 2 of this study that is coming up very soon. Do watch this space for more, and ask more of your colleagues to read this part and provide more valuable feedback.

  5. V

    I think the top most cause of frustration is other person and managers. Some of the peers and seniors do not allow to work freely and every now and then torture junior fellows and other people around them only support that senior person. Also some of the masnagers every now and then threatens to give resignation. So many a times peers only frustrate you and torture others and they still remain in the company and the victim suffers. The victim cannot also say against them as company thinks its offensive to say against the seniors. Such seniors and managers should be fired immediately.

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