Shiny objects ruin startups | psychology today

Employers and employees usually have a common interest. They all want the company to be successful, and the better off a company is, the better off its employees are.

There are certainly small frictions between management and people. For example, employees may want to work fewer hours for the same salary. But by and large, a company is a machine that becomes more successful when all of its members are individually successful. That is, until we look at most tech companies.

As a consultant, I work closely with several product teams. I’ve worked with over a dozen startups this year alone, and the pattern couldn’t be clearer: the interests of the company and the desires of software developers often do not align.

When asked “What is the most important thing about your job?” every tech person in the world, in every company and in every interview will say the same thing: They want to “learn something new”. Engineers often want to learn new technologies to put on their resume, but that may not be in their team’s best interest.

As author Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Another weakness of human character is that everyone wants to build and nobody wants to wait.”

We have an SOS on our hands

In the popular psychology literature, “Shiny Object Syndrome” (or SOS) is a pop culture psychological concept in which people focus on the most current trend, regardless of how valuable or helpful it may ultimately be in one’s life.

SOS is nothing but a distraction; The term is often used when people become so fixated on something that they lose sight of the big picture. SOS influences tech entrepreneurs and startups because of the qualities that make tech people unique: They tend to be highly motivated, crave new technologies, and aren’t afraid to throw themselves into new projects frequently.

Like an optical illusion, the “shiny object” becomes uninteresting as soon as you catch it. As soon as software developers explore a new technology, they dive into something new almost immediately—and end up chasing one project at a time.

With technology companies, it’s almost guaranteed that every few years a major technology change will render a significant portion of their systems “old.” From a business perspective, maintaining “legacy” systems is important, but such maintenance will be the kind of project no one wants to work on.

Boring companies

There’s a reason SpaceX has spent time on astronaut fashion. In a world where developers want to keep working with the latest innovations, companies are under pressure to keep up and adopt new technologies faster. Other things being equal, it’s an easy choice to work for a company that uses run-down computers or one that uses the hottest equipment.

Using the latest technology does at least two things:

  1. The latest technology is usually an improvement over all other tools available – at least in some important respects. Ultimately, the latest technology was built on new knowledge. Using better tools should future-proof the company simply by reducing its reliance on less popular options.
  2. New technologies make recruitment easier. Software developers and their online communities love innovation, so there are usually courses, blog posts galore, and constant chatter on social media.

On the other hand, the introduction of new technologies causes problems:

  1. There are almost always productivity losses while team members are learning them. In some situations, employees may even need formal training, or new employees may need to come on board to fill knowledge gaps.
  2. Learning new technology can be confusing for employees. Do you find it interesting? Not every new thing is created equal, and some people may choose to retrain, while others may choose to abandon ship and learn something else – a different type of new technology.
  3. Businesses often find that the people they attract through the use of new technologies are not the kind of people who stay for a while, in which case a slow but steady effort might have worked better in the long run.

It is important to set short-term and long-term goals correctly. There is no right or wrong answer – there is only one “right answer for the right company at the right time”, which is why it is so important to choose the right technologies, and to do so wisely.

A win for boredom

The Amish are known for their simple lifestyle, simple dress and religion, and considered use of technology. They don’t live entirely without modern refinements. For example, they might use small household appliances, power tools, and batteries, and they might even use cars or telephones. However, the Amish use technology selectively; They are very cautious about how a particular device can impact their community.

“Amish life is about recognizing the value of established boundaries.”
– Erik Wesner, Amish America

Perhaps tech companies should do more like the Amish: determine what kind of developers they want to attract and choose their technologies accordingly. If a particular technology looks good on a programmer’s resume today and four to five years from now, that’s probably a win for everyone.

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