Technology and Dysfunctional Organsations – News International

I can’t possibly comment on the current controversy surrounding News International. For the 6 months I architected the 2010 elections version of MySun and delivered The Times and Sunday Times Paywall. I was so busy I barely noticed the news desks of News of the World let alone their working morals. What I did notice was the working practices of News International and more specifically how it impacted my technology projects.

It is often the case, in any technology projects that your manager or customer asks you to do something that you feel will jeopardise your project. A good employee without causing embarrassment or resentment explains how the request will impact the timeline, budget or quality. Successful technology people are ones the business people sound out before making their request.

In News International I found that when you pushed back it felt like the message was getting through. However all too often the requester found someone else to carry out the ridiculous idea. When the the ridiculous idea went wrong the person who carried out the idea took the wrap not the manager.

One of oddest conversation I had, was being told that I had to amend a piece of HTML and me explaining I didn’t have to do anything. It took some effort for the project manager in question to understand that we had the option of not working at News International and therefore not carrying out ridiculous requests. It took me a lot longer to understand that there is string of people willing to execute the ridiculous ideas.

Dan Arnold talks about a culture of suspicion and paranoia’ in his BBC article. Actually I think we in technology were too busy to be paranoid. I suspect the journalist who rolled into work later and worked through the night had more thinking time.

Arnold also talked about News International being a bubble. I would concur. Physically you are miles away from anything on the outside world. It took 15 minutes to walk to the gate and then there was a trek to the  nearest tube. Each paper or major department had their own office or in some cases, their own building.  The regime was so intense that no one could have meetings across departments to collaborate.

There is back biting in every organisation and internal gossip played a great part of the culture. The UK media is so tiny that grudges and complaints can go way back. One senior News International employe I worked with had a grudge against Rebecca Brooks that went back to when she started as a secretary at News International.

The thing that really made News International impossible was the constant pressure. As a news organisation the pressure to publish the paper every evening was intense. This was felt in the technology team. It seemed to me that News International had moved to an Agile process so they could use the short sprint cycle to maintain the pressure.

The key in such a dysfunctional organisation is to stay focused. Set your goals and ignore anything that isn’t related. One of those goals should be your exit strategy.