In a comment to my griping about having to come up with 3 strengths and weaknesses for my performance review, Scott Mitchell pointed at one of Joel’s older articles entitled “Incentive Pay Considered Harmful.” I must have missed Joel’s posting the first time around, but I did get a chuckle out of reading his rant against the Ship-It Award (or, as some people called it “the Sh*t-It Award”). One amusing thing was that Joel didn’t tell the whole story, though. He says:
The Ship It program was announced with an incredible amount of internal fanfare and hoopla at a big company picnic. For weeks before the event, teaser posters appeared all over the corporate campus with a picture of Bill Gates and the words “Why is this man smiling?” I’m not sure what that meant. Was Bill smiling because he was happy that we now had an incentive to ship software?
There weren’t just teaser posters – every employee in the company also got a silly yellow and orange button with a pixellated picture of Bill Gates smiling on it. I’m looking at mine right now, and I distinctly remember when I picked it up from my mailslot, thinking “what the hell is this for?” I think I came in the weekend they were distributed and happened to pick mine up. What happened next may be completely apocrpyhal, but I believe that by the next morning the uncollected buttons (and, I guess, the posters) made a sudden disappearance from the campus. The story that I heard was that the “why is this man smiling?” campaign hadn’t been fully cleared with management and someone with a lot of clout went ballistic when they saw it and made them recall all the paraphanalia. So, the fact that I actually had my button was… well, it really meant nothing, but I’ve held on to it nonetheless.
Anyway, the really amusing thing is that while Joel has nothing but contempt for the program (as did most everyone else at the time, including myself), in my view it’s turned out to be a net positive. As far as incentives go, Joel’s right – it makes absolutely no difference. But Ship-It awards now function as a kind of institutional memory for those of us who’ve been around for a while. I’ll confess that I can never remember exactly when some version of some product I worked on shipped, and now I don’t have to. The ship date for Access 97 – November 18th, 1996 – is sitting right there on my shelf to remind me. It’s also a quick shorthand introduction to people when you go to their office: multiple Ship-It plaques = oldtimer. You can also see people’s histories within the company (“Oh, so you used to work on Windows and then Office…”) or the history of products within the company (VB 6.0 shipped July 1, 1998. VB 2002 shipped January 15, 2002. Between lies quite a tale.) So, yeah, it’s something that didn’t fulfill its intended, misguided purpose but I think it redeemed itself in the end in some small way, despite the scorn that was heaped on it originally. I’m glad I have mine and wouldn’t give them up.
As for the rest of the article slagging on the idea of performance reviews, I can only fall back on Churchill’s immortal quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” There’s no question that performance reviews can have terrible effects, but what’s the alternative? Give everyone a pat on the head, say “nice work” and send them off to a nap with some warm milk and cookies? This isn’t to say that there aren’t better or worse ways to do performance reviews, but it seems cheap to dispatch them without suggesting some alternative…