IT and Intra-Class Tensions


A couple days ago, my workplace paid for me to go to a 8 hour training at a local software consulting company. For the sake of not getting hunted down and flogged by their PR flacks, I’ll call them InfoCommisars.  While training that is free to the employee is nothing to sneeze at in these economic times, and despite the risk of sounding ungrateful, I would be remiss in my self-appointed blogging duties if I did not give some sort of leftish analysis of my experience there.

For those who don’t know, Agile is a cluster of techniques for managing programmers and producing software. The basic theory, as I understand it, is that the programmers produce software, present it to the customer, test it with users; then revise their code based on the results, present it to the customer again, test it with users again; and on and on, until they produce something that the customer is relatively happy with. Agile proponents say this produces software both faster and higher in quality, than using other methods. Agile is usually contrasted with the waterfall method, which has a longer requirements gathering phase before any code is actually written. Programmers and other workers (UI designers, usability testers, quality control testers, project managers) usually each give their status out loud, standing up, in a daily meeting, where everyone attends.

As someone who does usability testing and user interface design in addition to programming, I have doubts about whether a coherent user experience can result from the iterative agile approach. However, I have to admit, there’s nothing intrisically authoritarian about agile, at least as I’ve described it above. An anarchosyndicalist or parecon software collective could, in principle, vote to adopt agile, and produce software reasonably happily and productively (assuming they could vote themselves out of agile if they chose to later).

So, that’s agile in a nutshell. InfoCommisars takes agile, adds user-centered design, and then adds their own special crazy sauce to it. From what I could see from 1 day of training, and a few hours of research on my own, this special sauce mostly consists of dictatorial control of workers in a cult-like atmosphere. Even "better", InfoCommisars has set itself the ambitious plan of proletarianizing all IT workers.  You see, InfoCommisars is not only a consulting company that builds software for other companies; it also sells its process to these companies.

In many ways, InfoCommisars seems to be a utopia for managers: InfoCommisars uses paired programming, so workers do not even have the privacy of a cubicle or their own computer– they are shifted from computer to computer based on what project they’re working on, and they are not allowed to type any code without their partner. Our trainer told us that InfoCommisars measures everything its workers do, down to the minute. 2/3rds of the workers are contractors, and management has the ability not to pay workers on an hourly basis, if they are working on something that is not approved (probably helped by the constant measurement, and by the predominance of contractors). Most employees seemed to be between 20 and 40, and upon questioning (of an admittedly limited sample), none lasted there much longer than 5 years. Employees seemed to be expected to perform on command for the CEO– when the CEO yelled in to the "factory floor" for volunteers, they came running, without any complaints that he was interrupting their work.

InfoComissar seems to fit perfectly in the smarmy, self-important New-Agey environment of my dear little burb– along with dictatorial managerial control, the training materials are suffused with references to workers’ "joy" and "passion" They even had the temerity to rip off the Buddha in their mission statement (on their Twitter account) of  (paraphrasing) "Ending human suffering in the world (as it relates to technology)."  I’m not kidding. Thomas Frank would have a field day with these guys.

All in all, it seemed like a managerial paradise. Obviously, these observations were only made over one day (although I did talk to others who took the class with me, and many of them had similar thoughts).  I would love to see a ethnography/sociological study of how power relations actually play out at InfoCommisars.

This would be little more than a cause for pity for (and solidarity with) the poor people who work at InfoCommisars, but for the fact that the InfoCommisars CEO wants to spread his gospel throughout the IT world. In a white paper by its CEO, InfoCommisars semi-explictly boasts that its method destroys the craftsmanship of programmers by herding them into a factory and using recycled Taylorist management techniques. Even worse, the CEO claims that this is the way to save IT from poor quality.

Now in one sense, this might be seen "turnabout is only fair play". In many parts of the US, IT workers have been lording their autonomy and highly-overrated "greater levels of education" over autoworkers for decades. We saw this especially in the public "debate" over the Big 3 bailouts last fall and this winter– some of the most vocal champions of letting Schumpeterian destructive capitalism work its will on the automotive industry– and destroy entire Midwestern communities in the process– were IT pundits. Personally, I heard many family and friends who work in IT claim that unionized autoworkers were overpaid, and, basically, deserved to lose their livelihood, unless they remade themselves into "knowledge workers".

Based on my extremely limited understanding of labor history, this infighting between IT workers and autoworkers sounds similar to the tensions between craft workers and "unskilled workers" in the 19th and early 20th century century. In addition to the fact that autoworkers are not unskilled (though nor were the "unskilled workers" of earlier years), there’s one major difference. Back then, at least most workers believed in the power of unions and collective action (AFL, IWW, etc). Today, due largely to the saturation of free-market ideology, IT workers largely believe that they have moved beyond unions– each IT worker considers himself or herself on the road to being a boss, and thinks of unions as lower-class and unprofessional. At least this was the case before the recession hit. As for the auto industry, I have no idea what the level of union consciousness is, or what it will be if anything is left after the Big 3 management’s and Wall Street’s destruction of the American auto industry.

Anyways, back to my point. If InfoCommisars gets their way and if "software factories" spread, virus-like through the world, ripping the last vestiges of craftsmanship from programmers, UI designers, and usability testers, I wonder if "knowledge workers" will become more sympathetic to and respectful of automotive workers, realizing that they went through a similar process decades ago.  Or even– dare to dream– whether IT workers will finally take the hint from unionized autoworkers and other unionized workers, and decide to act collectively as workers against their bosses.

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