Cultural differences in IT

Alastair Aitken 8 July 2013 0

You say “tomato”, I say “massive privacy violations”

The NSA PRISM revelations have highlighted some cultural differences that exist between the US and Europe, primarily concerning privacy and security, and how those cultural views change over time.

The past is another country

It’s easy to invoke Godwin’s law when discussing PRISM but thanks to both the Gestapo and the Stasi, Germany has quite a different public reaction to comprehensive intelligence systems.

In the recent weeks there appears to be brownie points offered for every mention of the Benjamin Franklin quote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This is a maxim from a different age: the mainstream US press appears to be rousing up a lynch-mob for Edward Snowden whilst offering low key reportage as to the implications of his revelations.

Full Metal Jacket

These cultural differences are more than surface differences as I found out when working for a joint US-UK venture.

One senior US colleague’s attitude appeared to owe as much to Full Metal Jacket as it did to software development. After a tricky proposed change in the codebase was given the go-ahead, our Chuck Norris-style manager drawled, “oh yeah, there’s gonna be some pain”. If I hadn’t have been sat in a comfy office I would have believed that he was about to deliver a roundhouse kick to my head rather than signing off a change release form.

Chuck Norris

At another juncture I meekly railed against this quasi-military attitude by muttering to my colleagues, “bloody hell, do you think he used to be in Delta Force?”. I had forgotten however that in my team was a US colleague. She took this as a literal question, rather than the rhetorical question cum jibe that I intended, and addressed its subject by bellowing across the office, “so, hey, Chuck, were you ever in, like, Delta Force?”

Exotic dancer

I should have expected such a flamboyant amplification by my indiscreet colleague. Her previous career had been “exotic dancer” and through sheer force of will she had moulded herself into a software developer. There was no self-consciousness about her previous career choice, which one might expect from a UK colleague with a similarly daring résumé.

You guys need to turn up the volume

The cultural differences really started to become fissures when a team from India was factored in. The team was comprised of softly spoken, thoughtful individuals who preferred to consider opinions prior to action; this was anathema to Chuck and it came to a head during one meeting about software configuration. Having bawled his opinions at the room, Chuck was interrupted by the head of department who was pointing out that one of the guys from India had been quietly proposing an alternative approach. Chuch hadn’t noticed this attempt at dialog but now it had been brought to his attention he saw a resolution, pointing animatedly at our mildly-spoken colleague, he declared: “you know what your problem is? You guys need to turn up the volume!”

You’ll never work in this town again

The further up the line of management one went, the greater the cultural impedance. This peaked when the US head of the company tried to strong arm developers into working at weekends without remuneration. When the developers refused, the executive blow a gasket, “you’ll never work in this town again”, he screamed. The reality check was that this “town” happened to be London, UK rather than Knockemstiff, Ohio.

Alastair Aitken (124 Posts)

As a contract developer and manager I’ve worked in a wide range of enterprises in a variety of countries where I’ve encountered everything from great work, awful work, bizarre work, all the way down to quasi-legal work. If you think that you recognise your own organisation within my articles then you’re undoubtedly wrong, where you work isn’t that unique.

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