The Dead Sea effect

Wednesday February 5th 2020 by SocraticDev

Dead Sea effect is an anti-pattern observed in large organizations ; publics as well as privately owned. The Dead Sea is a large body of water located at the border of Israel and Jordan. Since it is located well below sea-level, the only way for water to escape it is by evaporation. Its water salt concentration is much higher than the oceans (8 times more !) and animal life is impossible.

Bruce F. Webster put forward this anti-pattern idea in 2008. Bruce F. Webster is an IT consultant expert in bringing IT projects back to life.

Extract from 'The Wetware Crisis: the Dead Sea effect'

Many large corporate/government IT shops — and not a few small ones — work like the Dead Sea. New hires are brought in as management deems it necessary. Their qualifications (talent, education, professionalism, experience, skills — TEPES) will tend to vary quite a bit, depending upon current needs, employee departure, the personnel budget, and the general hiring ability of those doing the hiring. All things being equal, the general competency of the IT department should have roughly the same distribution as the incoming hires.

But in my experience, that’s not what happens. Instead, what happens is that the more talented and effective IT engineers are the ones most likely to leave — to evaporate, if you will. They are the ones least likely to put up with the frequent stupidities and workplace problems that plague large organizations; they are also the ones most likely to have other opportunities that they can readily move to.

What tends to remain behind is the ‘residue’ — the least talented and effective IT engineers. They tend to be grateful they have a job and make fewer demands on management; even if they find the workplace unpleasant, they are the least likely to be able to find a job elsewhere. They tend to entrench themselves, becoming maintenance experts on critical systems, assuming responsibilities that no one else wants so that the organization can’t afford to let them go.

Toughts provoking in the tech community

This explanation casts a wide net and is based on the professional experience of one person: the author himself. However, in 2008, when this article appeared on the web, several debates were conducted and the collective thought exercise produced relevant results. Both on the side of managers, programmers who are content to do 9 to 5 as programmers passionate about their profession.

  • This is a trivial problem that has been discussed (but forgotten) for more than thirty years;
  • It's not about Peter's principle; it has nothing to do with the promotion mechanism until the level of incompetence is reached;
  • Not all IT departments work like this: some boxes simply do not hire weak people or they do not survive long in the business;
  • All those 'left behind' are not necessarily incompetent. The author emphasizes that this phenomenon is more marked in large organizations and concedes that it is not universal;
  • The hiring process is broken. Instead of treating developers like professionals, they are considered interchangeable 'code monkeys';
  • The real problem is the failure of leadership. The author recalls the relevance of his book 'The Art of ‘Ware' (1995).

The common points raised by the community

Beyond the obvious reasons why developers leave their employers (hostile environment, below-market wages, reduction in wages and benefits), discussion participants raised:

  • Frustrations with the reversal of meritocracy ('organizational stupidity');
  • Decrease in the mutual value of the work between the programmer and the organization;
  • Simply boredom;
  • The perception that the current project is futile or doomed to failure accompanied by the organizational impotence to stop it;
  • Lack of a mentor or someone who can teach us something;
  • Promotions based on duration rather than merit;
  • No clear possibility of advancement;
  • Fear of becoming part of a technology that no longer has any value on the job market;
  • Organizational bureaucracy ignoring the positive impact that anyone can have;
  • Lack of creative freedom and creative control ('micromanagement');
  • Differences in culture and values ​​with the majority of colleagues.

Possible solutions

In a future post, we will approach the Cravath system as a solution. It is a merciless system implemented in law firms. The principle is 'Up or Out'. It is understood that a new employee is asked to leave the company within a certain period if he is unable to obtain a promotion.

To be continued ...


Bruce F. Webster (2008), The Wetware Crisis : the Dead Sea effect

Alex Papadimoulis (2008)

Erik Dietrich

Notice : most of this blog post has been translate from french by Google Translate