Thursday, 25 July 2019

Why Would you leave ThoughtWorks?

What is the Problem to which this is the Proposed Solution?

Last weekend I saw my dad for the first time in a few weeks and he had found out through the grapevine that I had started a new job. His question to me was, essentially, why have you left the company that you always said you loved working for?

Before I worked for ThoughtWorks, I realised that people often jump to solutions before they have fully reasoned out the problem that they are trying to solve. Also, I noticed that people from the business, depending on their level of technical (mis)understanding, would quite often come to us in the technology teams with a "solution as a requirement". For example, I can remember product owners who liked to exhibit their credentials as understanding things might come to me and say, "I have a new requirement for you. I need a new database column." With respect, I might say, that is not a business requirement. That is a solution to some problem. So very often I would say at these times "What is the problem to which this is the proposed solution?"

This line of questioning was always really helpful in the contexts in which I was in because it often turned out that when we drilled into the problem they were trying to solve, their proposed solution may not be the right one. It could even be that there isn't a problem to solve there at all. Maybe they have misunderstood the capability of the tools at their disposal. Perhaps they aren't aware of some feature that already does what they want to do.

So Why am I Looking for a New Job?

Back in May I started to look for a new job. The weird thing was when people asked me why I was looking for a new job was that it was hard to say exactly why. Most people, correctly, pointed out that I really liked working for ThoughtWorks. There is no doubt that it was the best job I'd ever had and the best employer I'd ever worked for. Certainly this is still the case (up until June 2019) and that didn't change drastically. So why was I leaving?

ThoughtWorks History

ThoughtWorks was founded in 1993 by Roy Singham. The company has always had a very strong and unique culture. In particular it has a 3 pillar model based on, I was told, the Ben and Jerries 3 pillar model. Pillar 3, (referred to internally as P3) states that the company strives for Social and Economic Justice. The way this objective played out varied over time and was always subordinate to pillar 1 (sustainable business) and 2 (technology excellence) but was always used at the very least to inform decisions. For example, there would often be internal debates over whether we should be doing work for Company X or Corporation Y. This debate was always healthy and open.

Activism and P3 Work

Throughout my time at ThoughtWorks Roy was actively engaged in social activism in various places in the world and, as the only major shareholder holding over 99% of the company's equity, removed earnings from the company to fund his activist work. This was well known throughout the company and, whilst you could agree or disagree with Roy's specific politics, nobody seriously challenged the validity of striving for social and economic justice and as far as I could tell, most of us bought into this.

From time to time in various geographies, I saw this happen perhaps 4 or 5 times in London during my 4 years, we would carry out work that we would call "P3 projects". This could be work for a non-profit organisation, for a charity or perhaps for startups that were well aligned with ThoughtWorks culture. The way this happened varied but what I saw in London a couple of times was that we would carry out the work at our offices, staffed by perhaps one or two experienced ThoughtWorkers and several grads. This work would be carried out at hugely discounted rates. We didn't make money on the engagement but some of our less experienced people got valuable experience and we furthered the company's P3 goals.

Takeover by Apax Ventures

In autumn 2017 all ThoughtWorks employees were gathered (I think) simultaneously to hear an "important announcement". I was working on a client site in Glasgow at the time and we were told the day before not to go to the client that day but instead to go to a nearby hotel where we had hired a conference suite. As far as I know the news wasn't leaked beforehand but there was certainly a lot of speculation as to why we were being told to do this and to my recollection there were two strong favourites, one was that Roy was selling, or had sold, ThoughtWorks and I can't remember what the other possibility was.

We learned by way of a pre-recorded video by a member of the Global Coordination Group that ThoughtWorks had indeed been sold to a private equity fund managed by Apax Partners. This was a shock to all ThoughtWorkers and can only be described as a watershed moment.

Saying all the Right Things

Of course we were concerned about what would change. The emphasis of the company was bound to shift wasn't it? Whereas previously we had all been happy to buy in to the fact that our work with our clients was ultimately being used to fund the global P3 activities and Roy's activism (while the company grew organically) it wasn't now clear if that would continue to be the case. Certainly the profits would no longer be used directly by Roy but we were all concerned about what may change.

As the soul searching continued for days and weeks the thought that kept coming back to me was that these people (Apax) aren't stupid. They know that the company has no assets, nothing of intrinsic value to strip. The continuing success of the company relies entirely on keeping the people it currently has and in order to keep those people the company cannot materially change its outlook or its culture. Ergo, my reasoning went, things should not change. Sure, they might alter some management structures, sure they might use their network to introduce potential new clients at a level of executive sponsorship that we may not have been able to achieve previously but surely wholesale change cannot be on the cards.

The ThoughtWorks Salary (anti)Premium

ThoughtWorks traditionally did not pay the best wages. When I started at ThoughtWorks back in 2015 not only was my salary lower than the role I left but it was considerably lower than at least one other job offer that I had at the time. But I wanted to work for ThoughtWorks. And while you work at ThoughtWorks you know that you could leave the company and enjoy a payrise but you are happy to get paid less because of all the great reasons for working at the company. 

In the two years since the takeover they were largely true to their word and nothing major changed. Indeed the changes were in some cases so subtle, and often superficially beneficial to the overall business, that their significance was lost on ThoughtWorkers who had joined post takeover. However, those of us that had been around for any length of time saw these changes creeping in inexorably and understood very well the ramifications of some of them. It would be wrong of me to point to anything specific in this post and indeed, I would still argue that it is a fantastic place to work and I was very sad to leave. 

The best way I can rationalise my decision to leave, therefore, is by saying that each time something seemingly insignificant changed, the gap between what I could earn outside of ThoughtWorks and what I was prepared to accept as a fair wage within ThoughtWorks narrowed. Unfortunately there was no corresponding narrowing of the gap between my actual earnings and the outside world so eventually I reached a tipping point, I'm not sure exactly when that was, but at some point I felt that I was no longer prepared to pay the premium being demanded.

Conclusion

ThoughtWorks is still a fantastic place to work. I still recommend it to anybody that asks. I continued to speak very highly of ThoughtWorks at conferences even as I knew I was falling out of love and jilting it, and will continue to do so. The danger it is facing is, I think, existential, and the management of the company (at least in the UK) is in danger of sleepwalking in to a situation where sufficient numbers of tenured ThoughtWorkers leave the company so that the culture is irreparably damaged. I hope that doesn't happen and I hope the danger is understood and dealt with by the leadership teams because I think it would be a crying shame if ThoughWorks were either cease to exist or if it changes to the extent that it is unrecognisable from everything that has made it great.

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