Cutting back on perks may seem like a smart business move—until developers start leaving the company.
“Where is the free soda?”
I had just opened the fridge in the office kitchen when I blurted this out in a puzzled tone because, much to my chagrin, there was no soda.
Ever since my first internship, every company has offered free soda. Carbonated beverages (sometimes called “pop” based on where you live) are an ingrained part of the techie culture, especially for software developers working long hours and late nights.
After writing code for a few hours straight I always looked forward to taking a break and sipping an ice cold Diet Coke–or two or three. Of course the caffeine boost never hurt.
Confused, I closed the fridge door and went down to my co-worker Frank’s cube.
“Dude, there is no soda in the fridge. What’s up with that?”
Without looking up from his dual monitors, Frank responded “When you were out sick yesterday, our new CFO announced there would be no more free soda.”
“What? That’s crazy. How much can soda possibly cost?”
Frank, eyes still locked onto his displays, agreed. “I know right? Now we have to walk downstairs to the vending machine and dish out a $1.50. It’s bad enough we have to walk to the kitchen.”
I figured this must be an oversight. So I headed down to our manager’s office. Sue was a cool manager. She always listened to us, and I was sure she could straighten everything out.
I poked my head into her office and asked, “Have a minute Sue?”
“Sure, have a seat.
I plopped down in her guest chair and said, “I was surprised to find no sodas in the fridge this morning. What happened?”
Sue smiled. “Yeah, it’s a new cost-cutting measure that Cheryl, our new CFO, put into place. You’ll have to hit the vending machine or bring your own case of soda in. Sodas don’t cost that much right?
“That was my point exactly, Sue! What kind of message does this send about the company if free sodas are going to break the bank?”
Sue gave me her empathetic look. She always had a way of making her team feel she totally understood their point of view. She was promoted from the developer ranks after all, so she knew what we needed.
“I totally get it, but our stalled economy has dragged down sales, so we have to make choices. You may have noticed the free snack bar is gone as well. But at least no one has been let go, right?”
Shocked, I said, “Wait, what? The candy and energy bars are gone too?”
Sue shrugged her shoulders. “You’ll survive. Maybe we can all pitch in and take turns buying soda and snacks?”
I shook my head. “C’mon, Sue. Would you rather have us focused on writing code or worrying about whose turn it was to pony up for soda and snacks?”
Now Sue’s frowned. “Ok, now you need to take a step back. Not only do you have a job, but a well-paying job. You can afford the soda! Besides, there is nothing we can do about it until sales grow again. Cheryl isn’t going to change her mind, so please go write some code so we can sell more of it, ok?”
Seemed she didn’t understand us after all.
Despondent, I left Sue’s office. Sure I could afford to buy my own soda, but there were days when the energy bars were my only sustenance because there just wasn’t time to leave the office and make our deadlines. And the caffeinated sodas kept us coding well into the night.
By the way, the coffee was still free. But I never drank coffee, and those who did said it was terrible anyway.
Not surprising, the soda controversy became an ongoing hot topic of conversation in the developer cubes.
Shaun was the lone health nut on our team and therefor was taking the changes in stride. “You people should be thanking Cheryl. You’ll have less unpleasant trips to the dentist.”
Frank shot back “But I only drank diet soda!
Shaun laughed. “Yeah, and all soda corrodes your teeth. And what about those handfuls of M&Ms you scooped up on the hour? Besides, not only does this save a few thousand dollars each year, having you goobers drink less soda will save the company money on health care premiums.”
I rolled my eyes. “Shaun, do you think us goobers care about health care premiums? This company makes millions–they can afford it.”
Sudhir, who was usually pretty quiet, spoke up. “You all should be happy to have jobs. I have a lot of friends who are having a hard time finding decent opportunities in tech companies
“Now you sound like Sue,” I said.
Sudhir stood up and leaned over his cube wall. “That’s because she is right. I worked in many jobs in India where there was nothing free–except the air and water. And sometimes the water wasn’t drinkable!”
Shaun chimed in. “Amen, Sudhir. At least we have drinkable water!”
Frank laughed and said, “Have you actually tasted the water here?”
“Guys, you are missing the point,” I said.
Management expects us to work at least ten hours a day and many weekends. Every minute of my day at the office spent on anything but writing code is a minute that I could be going to the gym, gaming or sleeping. Plus, not having sodas and snacks impacts our productivity, right? We all have been using caffeine since studying late for finals in college because it clearly helped with unreasonable time demands.”
Shaun piped up with a look of consternation. “You have to be kidding me. Do you think nurses or security guards get free sodas? They work long hours too. Most developers are just used to being pampered because good ones are hard to find. “
Then he added his usual health-related snarky comment, “And besides, caffeinated soda will send you to an early grave.”
(This was before the days of super-caffeinated “energy drinks” which have caused some cities to sue their manufacturers regarding health concerns. So maybe Shaun wasn’t too far off. But I digress…)
Now it was Frank’s turn to roll his eyes. “Whatever, Shaun. Sipping soda helps keep me in rhythm while I code. It’s hard to explain–it’s like a part of my creative process. Security guards and nurses don’t need to be concerned about their creative juices.”
I interjected, “I don’t know about that, Frank, but I will tell you that this new policy likely is just the beginning of changes we won’t like. It’s a sign that things are changing–and not for the better. This isn’t a startup anymore. I’m sure the latest investors are trying to squeeze out as much profit as possible so we can go public or sell the company. These changes are clear signs that the culture of the company is changing right before our eyes. “
Sudhir peeked over the cube wall again, and this also got Shaun’s attention, who asked “What do you mean exactly?”
I stood up so everyone could hear.
“The sodas are just the wake-up call. If the culture changes to be focused more on cost-cutting than on innovation and creativity, then would you still want to work here? I wouldn’t.”
And sure enough, in the next months Cheryl announced cuts to training and conferences. Then, predictably, annual performance reviews resulted in much smaller raises than years past and a couple of what management referred to as “necessity” terminations. We started calling Cheryl “The Turk” after the mythical figure that cuts NFL players during training camp.
The result was an exodus of talented engineers who weren’t going to wait around for The Turk to cut them too.
Although the company was eventually acquired, most analysts thought it sold for a song. It’s my belief that this lower valuation was a direct result of the most talented engineers heading for companies with fantastic free perks, like Google, where they have stated their goal is to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world. Not only does Google offer free sodas and snacks–they have free lunches and massages.
Being concerned about free sodas, snacks and other perks certainly seems shallow on the surface, but sometimes you have to look beneath the surface to see what is really happening. Management should carefully analyze the impact of changes which could very well corrode company culture and negatively tilt the scales of staff retention in favor of the competition—who just happen to have a fridge stocked with free sodas.