Tool of The Man

I said something the other day that surprised me. I've since pondered my statement enough to believe it's an interesting idea.

To set the stage, I was listening to someone complain about how the employees of their company needed to grow up, act like adults, and start treating communal property with some respect. The rant in question was about a common issue that I suspect plagues most companies -- how do 40 busy engineers share two projectors?

The issue is that people "borrow" the gear and don't return it when they're done. When the next person (who incidentally waits until the last minute) can't find it, and there's a big flap. Both parties get angry and bring the hate, but neither party learns their lesson and starts acting like adults about shared resources.

My knee-jerk reaction to this rant was to give up entirely on the notion of sharing, and to utter this:

When I run my own company, I'm going to equip each of my employees with all the tools they need to do their jobs! They'd each get a projector, big flat-screen monitors, a fast light laptop, a mini-tower under their desk, their own printer, and whatever else they needed to do their job. It might cost $15,000, but it's worth it. They'd get it all on their first day. Or maybe I'd give them a budget and let them shop for themselves. But they would get the tools they needed to do the job I asked of them. If a tool broke, I'd have it fixed. If one got stolen, I'd have it replaced.

I've never worked any place that took this approach to tools. I've always had to fight to get "the good stuff" for me and my teams. It's usually the bean-counters that push back, but the push back is just nuts.

Let's say your US-based engineer costs you $75 an hour. If you're a typical R&D shop, Engineering represents maybe a third of your overall expense base. YMMV. Still, in this scenario, if you're a profitable company, that means you need to make a little over three dollars for every dollar you spend in engineering, in order to remain profitable. If you shift your thinking to opportunity cost rather than General Ledger impact, your engineer has an opportunity cost to your company of over $250 an hour.

Thinking about my own career, I can guarantee that in December alone I spent over 10 hours walking back and forth to the printer, to ensure that highly confidential contracts and performance reviews were picked up (by me) as soon as I printed them. All that walking back and forth and waiting nervously over the laser printer cost my company $2500 in opportunity cost. A brand new Dell personal color laser printer starts at $300. I know, because I tried to buy one. Coincidentally, I was shot down by the IT Purchasing Standards Committee.

And I can not even count the number of hours I've spent trying to track down a projector, or the number of times I've had to cancel or postpone a meeting because the eight or nine participants didn't have a way to look at project plans together. For what it's worth, entry-level projectors run about $600 now.

I can't quantify how much more productive I'd be if I had these two pieces of equipment all to my very own, but my gut feel says plenty more productive. At least enough to justify the expense.

Presume it costs $15,000 to outfit an engineer with the best of everything he or she might need to do a GREAT job. (That number might be low, might be high, depending on the kind of work we're talking about, but let's use it for the sake of argument.) Most companies balk at that kind of expense, and they skimp out. But if you can save that employee one hour a week of productivity... if you can keep them on-task, keep them from having to waste time trying to track down a projector for a meeting, you can actually save money. If you give them back an hour a week, you've broken even from your $15,000 on-boarding investment in 15 months. This says nothing of the message you've sent to your employee -- You're important. We're giving you the best tools possible so you can do your very best at the important work you do for us. We love you, you brilliant but poorly socialized whiz kid. Now, go forth and be excellent so we can book more revenue.

A few years back, when I was setting up a contract for a partnership with an R&D company in India, I put a term into the contract which, apparently in radical departure from the standard of the day, stipulated that technical leads and managers would be issued laptops rather than desktop systems, at my expense. This simple upgrade in tools was viewed as an immensely positive act by the engineers in India. It boosted productivity and morale, and most importantly, it sent the message that the work the team was doing was valuable, and that I wasn't afraid of making capital investments to allow my team to do their best work. It was "revolutionary" at the time, and very hard to get past the accountants. But in retrospect, I should have gone much deeper, and provided a much higher standard of tools. I should have contracted that everyone get the best tools available, not simply "adequate" tools.

Like I said, when I run my own company, it's going to be laptops and laser printers for everyone. Oh, and because... well, because WANT... a new Macbook Air for me, please.

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