Monday, March 09, 2009

Average Quality

Is it worthwhile to have good janitors and administrative staff in universities? How about staff in dining halls (called "mess-boys")? My dad certainly thought so. He often told us how the dining hall staff in his university was top notch. As children, we thought it strange that someone would remember the quality of such things. Who cared about mess-boys when you had wonderful teachers?

At IIT Bombay, I faced some of the worst staff. While there were a few gems, like the kind lady who arranged transcripts, most of the clerical staff were rude and unhelpful. The sought to assert their power over students rather than help them in any meaningful way. Many of them saw students as an annoyance, and as temporary visitors in their bastion. The worst were the security guards, who thought that their position somehow gave them unlimited power. While the best interaction was remarkable, the average interaction was abysmal.

Such low-life staff really bring down the average quality of the place. While your best interactions might be pretty good, you also have to live through many terrible interactions. Interactions that you cannot avoid and whose frequency you cannot control.

When I began working, I was amazed at the quality of the best engineers. They seemed like super-humans: smart, fit, affable, polite, productive. I was discussing this with a person from my team. He mentioned that he had worked in plenty of places where the top 5% were very good indeed, but that this was no indicator of quality. According to him, what really set this place apart was the quality of the average engineer, which was much higher than his previous companies. You are lucky if you only get to interact with the best. Usually, you interact with all kinds, and then the average quality is a better indicator of how happy one would be in a company.

Recently I had a chance to witness a dramatic lowering of average quality. A friend of mine was grumbling about how she wasn't happy with the system administrators at her job. While her peers were very nice and smart, she dreaded interacting with two system administrators. In the past, she had no interaction with them but due to some hardware change, she was forced to deal with their antics. They wouldn't let her install emacs on a machine, for some utterly contrived reason. They wouldn't even install Python, even when it was essential for her to do her job! These two clowns are causing her so much misery, that it overshadows any sense of satisfaction or accomplishment due to her everyday work. This isn't in some backwater either, this is happening in the main office of a prominent Silicon Valley web company. If this company had been a little more selective in their system administrator hiring, she would have been a lot more productive. I've talked to some more people from this person's team, and her observations are shared by others. The consensus is that firing these two people would have a huge positive effect on the productivity of everyone in her team.

So maybe my dad really had something when he spoke of the quality of the mess-boys. A collection of many good mess-boys make a great campus!