Charting Stacks

Volkswagen, and how not to describe your employees

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AttributionNo Derivative Works Scapegoat, Some rights reserved by h.koppdelaney

At RedMonk we have been talking, and Stephen has written extensively, over many years about the world that now exists, in which developers are the new kingmakers. As many commentators are happy to quote, “software is eating the world”, and this is abundantly true in the car industry. From mapping, to device sensors, to driverless cars the automotive industry is being completely redefined by software in an exceptionally profound way. To ride this wave, automotive companies need to invest in internal and external developer communities with exceptional technical talent.

However, technical talent and ability is just once facet of the kingmakers story. Creating great teams, a strong culture and an implicit trust among all employees, and with the wider community, is a task for an entire company, and one that requires, and needs, a strong leadership.

It would be a significant understatement to say that I was aghast as I read the comments of Michael Horn, the CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, that this whole debacle was caused by a few rogue software engineers. Just a few, easy to dismiss, engineers as scapegoats.

Two things immediately come to mind – firstly the willingness to, and ease with, engineers were thrown under the proverbial bus. Secondly, the fact that this messaging about “rogue software engineers”, if not sanctioned, was most likely discussed, at very senior levels within Volkswagen.

Areas such as regulatory compliance and emissions standards are key strategic differentiation points for an automotive company. The very idea that the senior leadership of a company such as Volkswagen would allow engineers to simply commit code with such a significant strategic impact, and with no oversight or responsibility is astounding. If it is true, well there are numerous other questions about the management of Volkswagen that need to be asked.

Either way the executives at Volkswagen are not going to be able to make a few individuals, presumably in receipt of significantly lower pay packers, scapegoats for systematic issues in their oversight and governance.

Blame culture is a truly awful construct to both watch and experience. Like many I have experienced it in large corporate environments. If trust and openness and the lubrication of an agile enterprise, blame culture is the gunk that clogs things up completely.

Last week at Monktoberfest we were treated to a superb talk on blameless postmortems from Etsy’s Rafe Colburn. As I read the media coverage of yesterdays hearing all that went through my mind was just how empowering, and important, such approaches are. And how they can only truly work if the leadership of a company will not look for scapegoats.

At a time when the automotive industry is desperately trying to hire large numbers of software engineers Volkswagen have clearly damaged their own hiring prospects, and that of the wider industry. When leaders feel free to use their technical talent as a convenient cover, they should expect repercussions.

Disclosure: we currently own a very new, petrol, Volkswagen. It is a nice car. If the scapegoating culture we saw on display yesterday in Washington is anything to go by, it will be our last one.

One comment

  1. […] in software engineering. How this will affect VW’s chances of hiring the best engineers (“Volkswagen, and how not to describe your employees”) is one issue. They couldn’t hire the best anyway but they will likely always be able to […]

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