The membership of Ninja club is self-selected, purely on the basis of demonstrated accomplishments on the technical front
The problem is well known in the IT industry in India – why are smart techies tempted to switch to the management ladder, a few years into their careers? The industry loses technical talent, and quite possibly, gets saddled with mediocre management talent in the bargain! Techies who stay on the technical track complain about a lack of control, a lack of visibility, and a lack of rewards. Society also seems to treat ‘managers’ as an exalted breed, and someone who remains an individual contributor is seen as having stagnated in his or her career.
Organizations are taking different approaches to tackle this problem – including creating explicit technical ladders, giving more high-profile recognition for technical accomplishments, even awarding junkets for creating IP. At BMC Software, we have taken a somewhat different approach – a grassroots effort in the technical community that is backed by, but not actively promoted by, the management. It’s loosely patterned after the martial arts, and is called the Ninja Club.
The Ninja Club is a forum created by techies, for techies. Its membership is self-selected (by invitation), purely on the basis of demonstrated accomplishments on the technical front. As such, membership itself is a badge of honor. In addition, however, like in a martial arts discipline, members qualify for different colored belts – starting with white, and earning their way to black. These belts are completely independent of the usual grades or bands in the HR system, and unrelated to promotions and performance evaluations. A points system has been put in place – a Ninja earns points for activities such as technical talks, participating in coding contests and ideation sessions, filing invention disclosures, publishing conference papers/whitepapers, etc. Points make you eligible for ‘promotion’ to the next colored belt: white to yellow to green to red to black. But, promotion is not necessarily automatic – in addition to points, the Ninja may have to get past, for example, an online programming test or an interview by other Ninjas at the higher belt level.
Like martial artists, the idea is that Ninjas get together regularly to practice their skills – coding, design, etc. – and to learn from each other. To that end, the Ninja Club organizes various activities such as coding contests, design review sessions, etc. for club members. We are also starting Special Interest Groups (SIGs) focused around technology areas like Big Data, Cloud Computing, SaaS, etc. Discussions can also be around the business domain (IT management and data centers, in BMC’s case) and customer use-cases, not necessarily on technology. Smaller groups of Ninjas can get together in SIGs to discuss, brainstorm, and do small side projects on such topics of their interest.
Such activities enable techies to network across their product teams, find role models and/or mentors, benefit from peer review of their ideas, and expand their sphere of influence. However, the club also organizes wider events that are open to everyone at BMC, not just its members. Over the past year, Ninja Club has organized the following different types of events:
• Ninjutsu: Quizzes focused on technology and programming – with questions ranging from tech trivia to “spot the bug in a snippet of code”
• Kaigi: Technical talks on hot topics like Hadoop, Android development, etc.
• Tougi: Debates, where teams argue for or against a given proposition, such as the effects of Consumerization of IT, BYOD, or Desktop Virtualization
• Online contests like treasure hunts, crosswords, etc.
One key element of Ninja Club is its online presence, in the form of a gamified social network called eMee. This was developed at Persistent Systems, and heavily customized by them for BMC. Ninjas get their own profiles and avatars on eMee, using which they can showcase their technical skills, certifications and accomplishments. Points earned for various activities can be exchanged for ‘gifts’ that are used for decorating your house. Promotion to a higher belt results in your moving to a fancier house! Like in the martial arts, a Ninja can have ‘followers’, you too can follow your role models or mentors, to keep track of their activities and status updates. Common news items are published to the “Ninja Times”, and visible to all. Non-Ninjas also get their own limited profiles, and the ability to follow Ninjas. A search mechanism allows anyone to find people with specific skills. This melding of the real and virtual worlds in eMee levels the playing field for smart programmers who may not be very social in the real world!
The hope is that this Ninja Club initiative will improve the technical vitality of the organization, and make technical careers more desirable and rewarding. By providing cross-team visibility, encouraging collaboration, and peer reviews of design and code, product functionality and quality should also improve over time. Success will eventually be measured in terms of the quality and growth of the technical populace at BMC Software, and being seen as the techies’ employer of choice in the region!