Who Do You Want to Work With?

When you are a kid in Argentina, there are invariably three questions that you’ll always get asked whenever you meet a grown up person:

The answer to the first question depends on the moment, of course, and it’s simply a test to see if you know how to count. The answer to the second depends on your parents (this is like religion down there) and the city where you live (but there’s a 90% chance your answer will be either River Plate or Boca Juniors).

The third question, however, is problematic, no matter what the answer is. Because at a large degree we build our lives around that “what do you want to be?” question, whether we like or not what we do, whether we believe or not that what we want to do is doable or not, or if it pays well or not, or if we will like at all, or if we will end up doing something completely different whatsoever by the time we retire.

This single question shapes a lot our lives, without even realizing it, and we pollute otherwise peaceful kids with the realization that there’s much more to life than school and Wii and friends and chocolate milk.

The problem is, for me this is clearly the wrong question to ask. We should be asking kids “who do you want to work with?”, instead.

There’s an old adage that goes like this: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. Life is made of relationships, not pure knowledge got through 12 boring years of study, in a terrible environment made of vertical authorities and obligatory dissertations about horribly dull subjects.

In this blog I’ve often held the hypothesis that most problems in software teams are not technical, that the technical problems have been solved long ago. I think that the root cause for many software problems are social problems, like team cohesion or communication. Likewise, in terms of social relationships, in terms of society, the root causes for our problems lie in our capacity to understand each other.

And in spite of all the efforts and money spent every year in workplace health problems, in spite of all the deaths and the acknowledgement of the existence of assholes in our jobs, we still ask our kids “what do you want to be when you grow up”.

This question seems harmless by itself, but looking closely, it supports several fallacies:

In short, we do not teach our kids to question the world we’re living in, to search for lots of answers before taking decisions, and also, to question the authority, simply because we haven’t been taught to do that. And given the natural human inertia to avoid change, it is somehow natural that our questions to kids reflect what our parents asked us. We tend to repeat mistakes, and that not only works at a macro level, but also at micro level. It is part of human nature.

By asking “who do you want to work with” you ask explicitly your kid to choose between allies and assholes, and given that choice, guess who most kids will choose? The question will also prompt them to learn to accept their own choices, too, because it prompts a thought process much more elaborated than just answering “doctor” or “lawyer” or any other similar politically correct answer.

Kids are much more intelligent than we are, and then we send them to school to avoid having them telling us repeatedly how stupid we are.

Finally, by asking “who do you want to work with?” you are also implicitly asking “who you don’t want to work with?”, which is the second most important question you should ask, and whose answer is not implied by the first. Dilbert is a funny comic, but I don’t see why we keep on behaving that way, when our working life could be much more enjoyable, by any standards.

Try it: if you have a kid, or the next time you meet one, ask her or him this very two questions. You will be surprised of the answers, and you might as well learn something about your own life, too.