People Are Machines. We Need Maintenance Too.

Adam Blanchard
Dec 5, 2016 · 4 min read

Imagine a peanut factory. It takes a pile of peanuts, shells them, makes them tastier, then bags them up all ready for the shops.

There are a number of tasks needed to achieve the final bag of nuts, so we use a number of machines in the factory to do all the bits of work. But how do we fit these machines together? How do we make sure the shelling machine is ready for a new pile of peanuts? Who do we talk to when a machine isn’t working as well as it used to?

The Peanut Factory

We find a machine specialist, someone who knows them inside out… a mechanical engineer! They understand machines, and most importantly they understand all of the technical details about how they work together and on their own.

In a software company, we produce software instead of bags of peanuts. Instead of machines, we have people. But who do we have instead of the mechanical engineers? Who is there to make sure all the people are running smoothly?

Maybe this sounds like the responsibility of managers, and maybe some managers are pretty good at this sort of thing. But are sales managers, technical managers, and marketing managers really the best people to look after the machines? Those impossibly complex organic human machines that our organisations run on? Just as a mechanical engineer is an expert in machines, is a marketing manager an expert in people? Or are they more likely an expert in marketing?

There is a need for those that love the art of people, just as there is a need for those that love the art of marketing.

If the mechanical engineers look after the machines, maybe we need people engineers to look after the people. They would have the same responsibilities as a mechanical engineer in the peanut factory. They would help to design, construct and maintain happy people. They would deal with both the individuals (intrapersonal workings) and the teams (interpersonal workings) of an organisation in the same way that a mechanical engineer deals with individual machines and the mechanical system as a whole in the factory.

So, what would people engineers do?

The People Engineer
  1. Design
    Through study and experience, people engineers help design organisations and teams to get the most out of the people working in them, making sure they are happy and productive — the number one priority.
  2. Construct
    They help teams form and iron out all of the kinks along the way. People engineers take on a coaching role to help develop team work and collaborative working. They understand what makes a good foundation for happy people.
  3. Maintain
    If there are problems or a team isn’t working as well as they want to be, people engineers are there to help patch things up. They put fixes in place to support the things that keep breaking.

The lack of support for people and our minds goes way beyond the workplace. This is highlighted by our attitudes, as a society, to mental health issues. Sometimes things get a bit more serious than just making sure everyone is satisfied in their day job. Mental health issues are serious, but there exists a damaging stigma around talking about how we feel. This includes beliefs that mental health issues are a personal weakness. 1 in 4 people will suffer with mental health problems in their lives (that’s two of your colleagues in your two pizza team). 40% of sick days can be accounted for by mental health related illnesses. 25% of people won’t even speak to their doctor about how they are feeling when things get more troubling. The way we feel is a big deal, not only in our day to day working lives, but also when things get too difficult to deal with.

Organisations are built on people, and our minds should be given as much attention and thought as the machines in the peanut factory. Although stigmas and their challenges can’t be ignored, organisations are in a great position to make big changes with their powers to influence and change how people think (at least inside the walls of the organisation). As already with progressive ways of working, anti-blame cultures and strong ethical values, people health should be something that we are proud to shout about too.

Organisations are like the peanut factory, and people are like the machines. Sometimes we need help working together, and sometimes we need help running smoothly. We owe it to ourselves.

Adam Blanchard

Written by

Software engineer living in Copenhagen.