For most of us in IT, when we want to buy some equipment or hardware, we have to get it approved by someone. When you go to this person and say you want to buy a new server, they often want to know:

  1. How much it costs
  2. What is the benefit

The evaluation method is simple, if the costs are less than the benefits (profit) then you buy it, if the costs are more, you don’t buy it. What this ends up being is an effective way to cut short term costs. In the long run though, it will often end up costing more. The reason is that with the way people practice this, they end up making the wrong decision. One reason is that technical people often are not that good at explaining themselves. But more importantly, there are inherit limits in this sort of thinking. Why?

People know more than they can say

I once learned about an experiment that demonstrated that people’s hearing was more sensitive than people originally thought. The traditional experiment was to have people tap if they heard sound, and not tap if they didn’t hear the sound as the sounds were made quieter. From the results of doing this with a lot of people, you could find out where people could no longer recognize sound, right?

Wrong. Eventually someone came along and changed the experiment. The person was no longer supposed to tap when they heard a sound, but rather this time they were to tap when they guessed that they might have heard a sound. The result was that people would “guess” right almost all of the time at levels that were previously believed to be out of the range of hearing.

I went to college for music, and a thing in music that only the “special” people have is the ability to sing a note from memory without having heard it in a while. Most people couldn’t do this. I had a teacher however, that insisted that most people could and just didn’t know it. Again, when they were asked just to “guess”, they were amazed that they got it right most of the time.

The lesson I gathered from both of these things was that people’s instinct, things they know but can’t quite say for sure, has actual value. We know things that we don’t even realize we know.

Case Study: Buying more servers than you might need

Take a common example in IT, and that is buying more servers. The traditional cost benefit analysis is probably includes things like:

  • The cost of not having enough hardware for your application and becoming a little slow.
  • The cost of going down if the additional server is for redundancy.
  • The depreciation of the hardware. This is an important one, hardware loses value fast, if you didn’t actually need it, by the time you do it will probably be a lot cheaper by then.

This sort of thinking is what I have usually seen in IT. There may be more variables, but they are always things that are very concrete and easy for people to comprehend and assign values to. The cost of downtime, cost of the site being slow, etc.

But they leave out the most important category of benefits, the ones that make up the awesome factor.

The Awesome Factor

When George or I ask Jeff about our budget for something, sometimes he says “Just Make it Awesome.” If you are used to traditional IT, this seems a little bit silly.

It’s not.

Going back to our case study, let’s think about some things we didn’t account for:

Pride. Pride is what people get when they make something that is awesome. When you have everything you need to make something awesome you will spend more time on it and do it right. If you don’t have the hardware to set up the redundancy or get great performance, people will care less.

Momentum. Lets pretend the developers just came up with a great feature, it requires more resources, but they were so excited they just programmed it over the weekend. When it comes time to push it next week, and IT tells them they can’t push it to production until a new server gets approved, ordered, setup, tested, and then deployed, they will get discouraged. Eventually, they won’t even think about new features.

Inspiration. Having good tools is inspiring, they give you new ideas on how to do things better and they are fun to learn. Not having what you need is just frustrating.

So, what is the dollar value of pride, momentum, and inspiration? In other words, what is the dollar value of being awesome and just how do you fit that into a cost-benefit analysis. I guess it is possible, you can look at turnover rates in your employees etc, but people just don’t work this way. Creativity in work comes from intuition — not the sum of a bunch of tangible factors.

  • ae

    Rock on.

  • Test

    Well said.

  • lose is spelled with one o 🙂 P.S. great article.

  • Awesome!

  • Gaurav

    Great read.

  • Steve McConnell talks about developer motivation being the number one factor for many innovative companies (e.g. mid 90’s Microsoft) in Rapid Development. I think that ties up nicely with this point of view.

  • Davide


    Could you provide a reference to that sound experiment? It sound really interesting! 🙂

    Cheers! 🙂

  • “People know more than they can say”

    This! Fully this!

    I have changed my call on things after discussing with others who point out practical ways to change or improve that are completely logical only to later realize they were wrong in some way that I could not articulate. Selling and persuading is a completely different brain mode from engineering.

  • Not recognizing “these” people and not turning them loose are arguably the most prevalent failures of management.

  • Pingback: The Awesome Factor for Consulting()

  • john harper

    Developing ( ) can be pain in the butt at first. But getting getting some proper guidelines will get you there more easier.