Cultural Infections

Beside the flu there is another infection which you may get – at your day-to-day work. Cultural habits may be a decease in some organizations. Here are some of my experiences with these cultural infections and how one can vaccinate.


Bob Sutton introduced the concept behind cultural infections in his book The No-Asshole rule. In summary he states that one gets infected when working with assholes. He distinguishes between permanent – or official – assholes and temporary assholes. Over time these assholes infect the whole organization with their habits if they are not stopped. He filled over 200 pages with his reasoning which grew from a much buzzed-about article in the Harvard Business Review. Sutton gives several cures for this decease, i.e. leaving the company, laying off assholes as soon as possible, etc. If you haven’t read the book, get it – now.

Broken windows

The Pragmatic Programmers, Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas, coined the broken windows rule. Research found out that a left house stays in pretty good shape as long as it seems to be cared about. When the first window gets broken, the building will dramatically rot. They transferred the same principle to code. When the first Technical Debt gets into our code bases, the code starts to dramatically rot. To cure this decease, they introduce the boy-scout rule:

Leave the campground cleaner than you found it.

Similarly one should leave the codebase cleaner than it was before touching the code. This reduces accumulated Technical Debt and enables future changes demanded from the paying business stakeholders.

Inattentional Blindness

The same happens with the quality of our testing. Yes! Indeed. When faced with patterns of your organization, you may end up suffering from Inattentional Blindness. Your thinking and your testing abilities will start to rot by that time. You will seek for errors just in the areas of the code, that might not be infected. Over time the most critical bug patterns might be kept unnoticed by your testing activities. Likewise, when you miss to do Performance or Stress Testing, but apply functional testing, your product might work functionally, but are your customers going to wait five minutes each time they want to use it? Would you want to wait that amount of time? The Agile Testing quadrants are one cure to this problem. They remind you to think about several approaches your test strategy may need. But keep in mind that cultural patterns may as well infect you with inattentional blindness. Reflect over the bugs found and adapt your approach if indicated.

Behavioral infections

Personally I noticed the same pattern on another level. Elisabeth Hendrickson coined the term “silo-thinking” for this. In waterfall projects this behavior surfaces when developers keep on throwing code over the wall and testers throw back the bugs they found, maybe without caring much about the outcome or consequences. Over time this becomes a habit. In order to get silo-thinkers out of their comfort-zone you need to bait them. Sometimes there will be no bait to do so, sometimes it’s very easy. Organizational and cultural change at this level is difficult to overcome from my experience, but it’s not impossible. For some hints there are some good books on the topic, but it needs some experience to implement them successfully.


There is no one right way to deal with these infections. It may be the right decision for you to leave your current employer; but maybe you need to feed your family and cannot find a new job in your area. By then you may want to find recreational balance in your leisure time and keep on taking your “carcass” to work day-in, day-out. Maybe you want to read some blogs and find out how to improve, get some books, share your experiences in local user groups or Internet communities. Software Craftsmanship proposes Journeymen on their course to leave their former masters in order to get to know different techniques. All these approaches may work for you, or they may dramatically fail. You have to weigh in how much you may want to give, is it worth the trouble that this is causing? What about the consequences? I’m afraid that all I can offer you is to make a decision on your own.

What cures do you know from your work? How do you vaccinate your deceases at work? Leave a comment to share it.

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