Motivation and Meaning over Hierarchy

Updated June 8, 2023

Motivation and Meaning over Hierarchy: Figure 1

In the world of business, we often hear the term "hierarchy" being thrown around. It is the conventional belief that a hierarchical structure is necessary for businesses to run smoothly. However, is it always beneficial? Organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, argues that hierarchy can be detrimental to creativity and productivity.

Enter Iron Software, a company that is breaking the mold and proving that hierarchy doesn't have to be a hindrance to success. One way they do this is by hiring engineers to delegate tasks to senior engineers. It might sound counterintuitive, but it actually works.

Onboarding at Iron Software involves encouraging senior engineers to work closely with entry level engineers. Lesser experienced engineers at Iron Software are not just confined to mundane tasks; they talk to customers, become product experts, and create unit tests.

After graduating with a Bachelor's in Information Technology from Otago University, Michael joined Iron Software.

“On day three I started answering customer’s questions, with my manager reviewing the answers. Within 4 months I was writing unit tests, testing all across our codebase. And half a year in I PR'ed my first bug-fix and added a popular feature.”

This is starkly different from many other software companies which tend to silo-off entry level engineers so that they are limited to single tasks.

Motivation and Meaning over Hierarchy: Figure 2 Based on the 2022 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, the majority of developers are 18-24 years old. Iron’s approach means they can create jobs for less experienced developers.

At Iron Software our engineers find the variety gives them broader experience, more meaningful learnings and insight they can use to propel their own careers.

The delegation of tasks from entry level engineers to more experienced engineers has also been shown to be a better use of senior engineers' time, as they don't have to switch tasks or research, but can focus on completing the work that has been delegated to them.

Ten months into working at Iron Software, Michael’s role changed to reflect his experience. Now, his day-to-day includes reviewing pull requests, and drafting documentation, as well as managing other engineers.

Iron Software has a Product Engineer Team and Technical Support Team.

Michael’s role is in part to bridge both team’s work to ensure that customer’s feedback is relayed; in conjunction with product development priorities.

“When product engineers make changes to a product, they aren’t immediately implemented, they go through a process where they ask peers to review their change and test it, to verify what they did.”

Individuals are encouraged to learn from each other based on strengths. The benefit to less experienced developers is that they get to learn from the way engineers with more tenure and experience work. They will also have an unique skill that they can contribute.

“You can learn a lot by how they write code,” says Michael, “because your role in a pull request is to look for overlooked edge-cases, and make suggestions and ways to improve it. It creates team accountability which is in turn a good team building exercise as we’re working together.”

Motivation and Meaning over Hierarchy: Figure 3 The 2022 Stack Overflow Developer Survey highlights that the majority of developers have >9 years experience. Iron’s approach to work means they can accommodate both entry level and senior developers.

The feedback loop means revisions can be made, implemented, and they collectively build a better and more stable product.

According to Jacob Mellor, Chief Technology Officer at Iron Software, "The most important part of my role is to get people to disclose their blockers and to highlight where there are problems and embrace them and take them off one person’s shoulders. The most productive team meetings are when someone says they’re stuck because someone in the room will have a solution." This approach of open communication and problem-solving, regardless of rank or position, fosters a positive culture where everyone is encouraged to contribute their ideas and work together towards a common goal.

Even when it comes to scrum planning, entry level engineers are the ones telling the senior engineers what to do. The structure at Iron Software allows all engineers to have a high-level perspective on issues and do pattern recognition on what kind of problems have occurred, so they can be highlighted for a deep dive. This approach ensures that everyone has a voice and that the best solutions are reached through collaboration.

This culture of delegation and open communication allows Iron Software to hire more engineers with less previous experience, who are choosing to code in .NET. As Mellor advises, "My advice to engineers who are starting out, is to learn to code in .NET. It's a stable, easily debuggable programming language, and with MAUI, you can now deploy to every device type. Companies in Silicon Valley are making trending choices, but .NET continues to have some of the smartest minds in language and compiler design in the world investing in it, and Microsoft is backing it with billions in a way that Java promised but has kind of dropped out of the race."

Iron Software has implemented several practical examples to achieve a culture that's free of hierarchy, including team OKR planning biannually, so every team member understands their role, projects, priorities, and how they can support each other. Additionally, they demonstrate trust to team members by allowing flexible work hours, which shows that they value the work-life balance of their employees. Finally, they encourage team members to highlight problems, even if they have created them, as finding problems and solving them helps the company grow and improve.

“This structure means we can give more emerging engineers their career start because we’re creating far more jobs,” says Jacob.

“My advice to engineers who are starting out, is to avoid the latest fad from Silicon Valley. 99/100 lines of trendy code never go into production or are disposed of and replaced in a 3 year cycle.”

In contrast, .NET has longevity, and is backed by Microsoft. Jacob continues:

“NET continues to have some of the smartest minds in language and compiler design in the world investing in it, and Microsoft is backing it.”

Iron Software is continuing to grow, and our culture and business structure continue to evolve, but we are committed to a culture of learning; where meaningful contribution is more important than hierarchy.

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