Do the right thing, Wait to get fired

I stumbled upon this bit of wisdom in Team Geek: A Software Developers Guide to Working Well with Others, and it resonated.  It comes from Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan:

Do the right thing, wait to get fired.

New Google employees (we call “Nooglers”) often ask me what makes me effective at what I do.  I tell them only half-jokingly that it’s very simple: I do the Right Thing for Google and the world, and then I sit back and wait to get fired.  If I don’t get fired, I’ve done the Right Thing for everyone.  If I do get fired, this is the wrong employer to work for in the first place.  So, either way, I win.  That is my career strategy.

This requires you to have confidence in your judgement, to assume authority and responsibility, to make decisions, to take risks – in other words to do what you have been hired to do!

You’ve got to recognize that companies are schizophrenic.  They build process, and rules, and structure and they ask you to follow them:

  • “Employee evaluation is done this way…”
  • “The rules on conferences attendance are as follows…”
  • “Products are to be QA’d and deployed in this manner…”
  • “New projects require the approval of the following people…”

In general these rules are better than the alternative – no guideposts or structure.  They help new managers and teams to function effectively.  They push employees to do things in a good way.

But greatness rarely happens by following rules, process and structure.  That is why companies also want to find employees ready to take risks, make decisions, try new things, move fast and even break things.

This means recognizing when the process is too heavyweight – and a simpler alternative is better in this case.  It means making the call to assume some technical debt or operational risk because getting this new product/feature out to some real customers for feedback now is most important.  It means approving an over-budget trip for a particular employee to a conference they’re passionate to attend.  It means setting aside some time to work on your idea for a new tool that will help the support team to diagnose customer problems.  It also means slowing down to refactor something – even if it means hurting your reputation for getting things done quickly.  You do this because it’s the right thing for your team, your company, and/or your customers.

When you break rules, and do what you think is the right thing you are taking a risk.  Sometimes this will pay off, sometimes it wont.  It’s ok to fail – but try hard not to fail repeatedly at the same thing or for the same reasons.  Know when you’re taking a risk, and learn from the outcomes.  The best engineers and managers I’ve known have all been willing to break rules and take risks.  You should too.

Update:

Follow the discussion of this article on Hacker News or the discussion of this article on Reddit.

About brendansterne

Director of Innovation Labs, Indeed.com
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61 Responses to Do the right thing, Wait to get fired

  1. engineer says:

    The problem is, you don’t know what the right thing is, and you haven’t done it, or you would have gotten fired. Move fast and break things? EG: Steal other people’s property and sell it, even though since you stole it rather than create it, it works poorly: Example: android.

    Google is a profoundly evil company. In fact, your judgement is questionable given that you chose to work for them. But maybe you’ve been there awhile.

    At any rate, you are still working for a company whose business model is based purely on data theft… I don’t mean indexing websites, I mean violating people’s privacy, stealing other peoples software and inventions (java, iOS, etc.) and then selling it.

    There are only two possibilities: You are evil and you want to do evil things. Maybe you don’t care how many lives you help ruin, so long as you get rich in the process.

    Or, you have such a profound lack of morality that you cannot recognize your role in perpetrating evil.

    If you think google is not evil, then you’re just deluding yourself, and that means you are evil. Because evil is not defined by people who seek to destroy, it’s people who don’t mind destruction so long as they get what they want.

    • Jason Cole says:

      The way technology moves forward the fastest is through examining someone else’s innovation (such as the UI with windows and mouse made by Xerox, or a touch-friendly UI made by the ‘thieves’ Apple 20 years later), and making a pretty verbatim copy, and tweaking a few thing here or there to improve it. You should also note that Apple has ‘stolen’ UI from android now. It’s an N-directional street, where everybody steals, because in UI there’s often only a handful of best possible ways to arrange an interface.

    • Reika says:

      While totally agreeing with this comment (Google is THE iconic evil these days), I assume “The right thing” to be highly subjective and context-sensitive.

      E.g. for an Israeli soldier guarding the border, driving away islamic threat is the Right Thing; also for the islamists, killing innocent people is a way to promote their questionable values of jihad and terror — they perceive this as the Right Thing.

    • zjm555 says:

      Setting aside the more glaring problems of your rant, I’d like to address your part about “data theft” (by which you seem to mean software theft). If Google “stole” Java, then iOS “stole” POSIX and GNU. Using open software under a BSD or MIT-style license for commercial purposes is completely fine (RTFL if you don’t believe me), and literally every commercial piece of software is built on something free that the owning company didn’t make. As far as actual “data”, e.g. sattelite images, topological GIS data, search indexing; all of those data were gathered at Google’s expense and are owned by Google, and are free for us to use if we so desire. Your definition of evil is not shared by me, nor by many other users of these products.

      The technical contributions of Google back to the community far outweigh Apple’s, for the record, and I would even say they far outweigh those of Sun (and definitely those of Oracle). Collaboration and open software are better for the community than closed, proprietary stuff.

      • Bob says:

        It’s the fact that they’re building skynet and don’t even know it that makes them evil. Just because they’re not call Cyberdyne System doesn’t meant the prophecies won’t come true.

    • thevisuoso says:

      If Google is evil, then so are Microsoft and Apple; they’ve done far worse things to their users via false advertising and over-priced marketing hype. If you think about it, no tech company is made from an angelic philosophy – they’re all in the business of making money, regardless of the cost.

      Even though Google indexes my data and makes a profit off of me, they do so in a non-intrusive way, and the services they offer allow a great deal of flexibility. I’m not saying this justifies their business practices, but if you look at companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and others – their practices are no better.

      • Srsly Yo. says:

        Other companies being evil doesn’t make Google *not* evil. Yeah, all those companies are evil too. Lots of companies are evil. Monsanto, The Carlisle group… doesn’t make Google not evil and it doesn’t make evil okay. Srsly.

    • ml Tma says:

      All things are evolutionary. You’re encapsulating a small amount of technological time and expounding a result that, ‘Google is evil’. Each step in technology is taking from something else. Nothing comes from thin air. All of human achievement is evolutionary. I look forward to Google’s future as a betterment to mankind.

    • Brian Miller says:

      Engineer: This might not seem all that relevant to you (although it does sort of throw your entire comment into the category of pronoun abuse), but the blogger doesn’t actually work for Google. He’s taking some inspiration from a Googler and relating it to his own experience.

    • First, awesome article! I’ve permamarked it for prosperity! http://www.permamarks.net/grabbed_urls/OQhBYg/brendansterne.com_343.htmlz

      Second, awesome quote, man! I’ve added it to The Wisdom Project: http://www.wisdomproject.cc/node/83

    • Nathan Sweet says:

      There’s a really simple and effective way to get a long with Google in this world if you disagree with how they use the data that users are voluntarily giving to them. Don’t use their products. You have a right to privacy, absolutely, but that right ends the moment you decide to make your information public. If I got caught stealing something on a convenience store camera I couldn’t claim it violated my right to privacy when they decided to arrest me. That convenience store is owned by someone and they have every right to protect their security and profit margin within reason.

      When you are on the internet you are stepping out in public, you are stepping into places that are owned by other people, you are stepping into your cable provider’s infrastructure you are using some one else’s site. The internet isn’t your own private garden.

      I’m not trying to say I trust Google or Facebook (I don’t have a Facebook account for this very reason). In fact, I feel like I trust them less than the average naive supporter of the, vague, right to internet privacy. Don’t trust a company like it’s your friend…ever. Why would you? And why would you ever assume that you could?

    • Joe Lippeatt says:

      The desire to share opinion, personal experiences and newly discovered wisdom often evolve into “blog posts”. Snark, misdirected anger and uncontrolled One-upmanship birth “blog comments”.

  2. Required. says:

    As long as the risk you’re taking is for company and/or everyone’s benefit, its fine.
    Many will break the rules for personal gain. It’s surprisingly easy to get that wrong :)

    • rolo says:

      I agree with you on this and believe a person’s motives and motivation should be in the best interest of the company, employees and clients. The personal gain approach usually ends up getting people fired.

      I have witnessed where people take risks and “do the right thing” only to find others threatened by those actions. These threatened people make it their mission to kill the efforts often going to higher level management for support to do so. This undermines the whole process of doing what is best for the company and can get a person fired, for doing the right thing.

      I’m not convinced that taking risks without understanding corporate politics (and knowing the people you work with) is a good idea…whether you are Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc. Getting buy in from more than yourself when working for a company is probably a good idea…in my opinion.

  3. noblegesture says:

    It’s hard to understand and accept that schizophrenic nature sometimes.

  4. ibrahim says:

    I guess getting fired is not the end of the world. Especially if you are doing the right thing, it might even be an opportunity to find something better.

  5. Andy Fishman says:

    Would love see a Googler do the clearly right thing and bring back Google Reader.

    • colindean says:

      I thought the same until I stepped out of the cave and found several better things that simply have a better implementation of the paradigms Google Reader pioneered. Feedly is what I settled on, and I find it to be more enjoyable on my consumption device – a Nexus 7 tablet – than Google Reader ever was.

  6. leon206 says:

    Great article! Thanks for taking the time to put “pen to paper” it’s much appreciated.

  7. tyw says:

    so is secretly handing off all of everybody’s info to the government to use anyway they want without warrants the right thing?

  8. Hoover says:

    What if you have a family to feed? Getting fired doesn’t look like so much fun any more.

    • Munch says:

      The average churn rate in the software engineering industry is less than 3 years. People get laid off (or fired, or they walk on their own) *ALL* *THE* *TIME*. It comes with the territory. Get used to it. It is emphatically not the end of the world.

      In the eight years I’ve lived in the bay area, I’ve had five jobs. My family is doing fine.

  9. nope says:

    wow. here’s hoping you or anyone following this advice gets fired regularly. As a DBA managing production applications I can tell you that this is why SWD gets a bad name with ops. I have had more “hour long” production pushes that have ended up taking the entire night and into the morning as we clean up the bullshit problems created adventurous development sessions by cowboy developers who would love this post.

    • In which case they didn’t “do the right thing”. I think you’ve completely misread this post.

    • “Do the right thing” is not synonymous with “Do the convenient for me thing”. If you don’t get that, how can you expect developers to get it? Sometimes the right thing is to say “no”, sometimes it isn’t. Often, it isn’t what is convenient.

      Essentially, doing the right thing and waiting to get fired is a demonstration of integrity, where integrity means doing the right thing even when you don’t want, others aren’t looking, or it is the harder thing.

      If you (grammatically) don’t have the integrity to stand up for the right thing, you don’t have it. You don’t get to lay the blame on your company or others for not doing the right thing if you won’t.

      In your example, if you don’t say no to deployments you know are going to be problematic, you’ve already avoided doing the right thing. Why should the devs change when you let them gat away with it?

  10. GL says:

    This is exactly how I did my job of over 20 years at Disney. My team and I were able to provide solutions in a quick and inexpensive manner that would have taken months or years to do and cost (literally) millions of dollars through ‘proper’ channels. We found holes in firewalls, went around policy and avoided ‘those people that put themselves in a position to control things they have no business controlling. Not once was I reprimanded and the teams we worked for could not have valued us any more than they did. We saved the company millions and put solutions in place in hours or days instead of months and years. We accomplished things that the ‘proper’ channels claimed were not even possible. We were even asked to provide solutions to those ‘proper’ channels when they hit roadblocks with policy or senior company officials demanded something they were not able to do following the ‘rules.’ I was very successful before being offered a position I couldn’t refuse with another company. This article is 100% correct in my experience. You will never reach the top if you don’t take risks. If you want the respect of your peers and bosses, you have to get out of the box, make the tough decisions and deliver what your clients (often internal company personnel or departments) want and need. Without risks, you are just a cog and will never rise above.

  11. Lelala says:

    LOL, very cool attitude :-))
    Hopefully, my future employers will have same perspective!

  12. Grundle says:

    Incorrect use of the word “schizophrenic”.

  13. Me says:

    It must be nice to always do “the right thing” every time. I wish I never made mistakes.

    Talk about hubris, sheesh. I think these “Googlers” and “Nooglers” need to read up on some Greek tragedies.

    • Munch says:

      There is no hubris involved, provided you make educated assessments of what needs to be done. And that’s the point — those who don’t take such assessed risks, and do so willy-nilly, will be the first to be fired.

      This advice is absolutely no different than the advice of being professional, and taking an active interest in the management of the company you work for. And, there are ample examples in historical literature to illustrate that as well.

  14. jasonpryde67457707 says:

    One exception to the “Wait to be fired” rule is when the organization is in a downward spiral anyhow. Not an immediate problem at Google but I’ve been in more than one organization that ultimately folded out from under me while my colleagues who saw the writing on the wall were already established in their new careers. There’s no value or glory in being the last one to turn the lights out.

  15. Ligia Buzan says:

    Your comments are perfect. Assume responsibility, dare to take risks. Thank you. It’s funny to see how the world will take issue with everything around your message. Perhaps because the directness of this message is hard to take. I listened to Joseph Campbell yesterday taking about the exact same issue in the context of “becoming an adult” and he asked: “How are we going to break into self responsible authority, and have courage for our thoughts and our life?” Love your blog entry!

  16. pcunite says:

    What makes Google evil is they are indexing every single crack site. My software is being stolen thousands of times a month now. Thanks Google!

  17. Larry Levine says:

    This is exactly the way I work.

  18. John says:

    Didn’t Apple’s TIm Cook recently say/recommend “break all the rules” (to Duke MBAs)???

  19. Aron says:

    This is a great blog post, and anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation will understand the value and correctness of your comments. Thanks.

  20. Reblogged this on ashish gurbani and commented:
    When you really think you want to bring things back onto track, this would be a great way to do it! Amazing article by Brendan Sterne

  21. risingstar says:

    you realize schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder right?

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  23. geppor says:

    Methinks you take yourself way too seriously.

  24. Isint there a rule for all Google Employees to blog on Blogger.com, instead of wordpress.com?

  25. Those who do do the right thing quite often will be fired, overlooked for promotions, make themselves impopular with management, [further variations]—something those who wish to follow the above advice should consider carefully.

    The truly sad thing: The more a certain company or person is in need of someone suggesting improvements, pointing to errors, whatnot, the greater the risk that it a. fails to understand how poorly things currently are, b. reacts negatively.

    The explanations for this likely include a multitude of interrelating factors mostly rooted in intelligence and competence (respectively the lack thereof) with a strong connection to the Dunning–Kruger-effect.

    (Obviously, the reverse statement does not hold: Most people with poor career prospects have another problem than being “too” competent for their surroundings.)

  26. Ron Avitzur says:

    “Wait to get fired, Do the right thing” works for me. Did I get it backwards?

  27. Karl Wood says:

    I did this at a small financial firm. I left when they failed to adhere to my strategy and instead appointed a manger above me. This nature of ‘silo’ thinking is on it’s way out and Im grateful to the free-thinkers out there who are making it a better, more transparent, place to work.

    Getting fired however is no good, especially in an age when money is what matters. Family comes first and you have to provide. I hope the managers out there are able to figure out how to earn their worth in an age where time has become so finite that we spend so much of it doing the wrong things – instead of exploring our imaginations and transferring good ideas into the real world.

  28. meaganhanes says:

    Balancing risk and responsibility seems to always be a challenge, but doing what one believes is right rarely seems to pose as much of a problem. Also make for a much better story ;)

  29. I do same thing; we refer such thing as being ‘Good Snake’. Because you may get killed (fired) even you try to do good thing!

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