DaedTech

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Carnival Cash: The Cult of Seniority

Alright, screw it. Let’s burn the boats. I said I wasn’t going to get into this until I released the book, but the idealist career advice post I had planned doesn’t make sense without a discussion of corporate seniority.  If you haven’t read this recent post, in which I outline the terms pictured below, you’ll probably want to read it for reference or this one might not make as much sense to you.  In this post, I’m going to defend a thesis that the best career advice I could offer to any knowledge worker, counter-intuitive though it may seem, would be to avoid earning seniority at a company.

In a prequel to this series I seem to be starting, I define the essential conundrum of the corporate pragmatist.  This post is going to focus on corporate idealists and the essential conundrum that they face, and it’s going to address a reader’s question while we’re at it.  That question provides a good lead-in to the context here.  Paraphrased, it was, “while going it alone may be good advice for seasoned, senior developers, shouldn’t junior developers hitch their wagons to a company for a while, giving a lot of extra effort and working their way up while learning the ropes?”  My simple, off-the-cuff response is, “oh, dear God, no!”  But the more nuanced response I’ll expand on here is, “that may be a strategy, but be very, very careful, because here be dragons.”

Dragons

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Defining The Corporate Hierarchy

Rites of Passage

Think back to being a kid, and you can probably remember a rather dubious rite of passage that occurred when you figured out that you weren’t going to be a sports player, lead singer, or Hollywood star.  You probably felt sad, but your parents and older siblings likely breathed sighs of relief that you’d never be explaining to people that a manual labor gig was your “day job.”  State lotteries notwithstanding, giving up on improbable dreams is considered by adults to be a sign of maturity in budding adults.

If you think about this, the easy message to hear is “you’re not going to be great, so give up.”  It’s depressing and oft-lamented by college kids having mini crises of identity, but it’s actually a more nuanced and pragmatic message, if a poorly communicated one.  It’s that the expected value of these vocations is horrendous.  For baseball players, actresses, and rock stars, there’s a one in a million chance that you’ll make ridiculous sums of money and a 999,999 in a million chance that you’ll make $4,000 per year and have half of it paid to you in beer nuts.  So the expected value of going into these positions is about a $4,200 per year salary and a handful of beer nuts.  So the message isn’t really “give up because you’ll never make it” but rather “steer clear because anything but meteoric success is impoverishing.”

The better play, we tell our children, is to head for the corporate world where the salaries range from minimum wage in the mailroom to tens of millions per year for CEOs of companies that create stock market volatility. Most importantly, you can find every salary in between.   So if you aim for the heights of CEO and fall short, mid-level manager making $140K per year isn’t a bad consolation prize. And so a funny thing happens. We consider it to be a rite of passage to abandon the delusion that you’ll be Michael Jordan, but we encourage the delusion that you’ll be Bill Gates until people are well into middle age.

That’s right, “the delusion that you’ll be Bill Gates.” You won’t be him. You won’t be a CEO, either, unless you pop for your state’s incorporation fee and give yourself that title. You’re about as likely to “work your way up” to the CEO’s office over the course of your career as any given child is to luck into being the next multi-platinum pop star. So, it’s a rather strange thing that we tsk-tsk children for indulging pie-in-the-sky fantasies past a certain age while we use nearly identical fantasies as the blueprint for modern industry. Kid wants to be Justin Bieber? Pff. Thirty-year-old wants to be Mark Zuckerburg? Keep working hard, kicking butt, and acing those performance reviews, and someday you’ll get there!

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Please Direct all Inquiries to My Agent

I got an email from a recruiter not too long ago.  I suppose that’s not a surprise, given how I’ve made my living, but what might surprise you is that I usually respond to recruiters, and politely at that.  They’re human beings, trying to earn a living in a way that I don’t envy.  These days, my relatively stock reply is to thank them for reaching out, tell them that I’m pretty happy and thus pretty picky, and to offer to chat anyway, if they just want to network.  As a developer with some community presence, a serial freelancer, a consultant, and general entrepreneur, it never hurts to talk for a few minutes and make a connection.  This recruiter persisted, and said that, even if it wasn’t a current fit, something might make sense later.  Sure, why not?

Come Hear about this Depressing Opportunity!

When she called, we exchanged pleasantries and she asked what I’d been doing lately in a professional capacity.  I explained that the last 2 years had seen me as the CIO of a company, running an IT department, and then going off on my own to do freelance development, consulting, coaching, and a cadre of other activities.  At this point, she began to explain what life was like for line level devs at her company and asking what tech stack I preferred.  I sighed inwardly and answered that I’d been engaged in coaching/mentoring activities in Java and .NET recently, but that I didn’t care too much about language or framework specifics.  She then asked about my career goals, and I scratched my head and explained, honestly, that I was looking to generate enough passive income to work on passion projects.  She became a little skeptical and asked if I had recent development experience, clearly now concerned that whatever it was that I’d been doing might not qualify me to crank out reams of line-o-business code or whatever fate she had in mind for me.

The conversation had become deeply tiring to me at this point, and I steered it to a close relatively quickly by telling her I had no interest in line-level development positions unless they were freelance, B2B, part time sorts of engagements that weren’t very long in duration (and not bothering to mention that I’d probably sub-contract something like that since I don’t have an abundance of time).  She assured me that all of the positions she was hiring for were W2, full time positions but I should give her a call if I changed my mind and felt like being an architect or something, and that was that.

I hung up the phone, sort of depressed.  Honestly, I wished I’d never taken the call more profoundly than if I’d interviewed for some plum gig and been rejected.  This just felt so… pointless.  I couldn’t really put my finger on why, and indeed, it took my subconscious some time to kick into useful mode and deposit it coherently into my active brain.DevOpportunityCost

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The Tech Lead Role: Lessons from Ancient Rome

 

Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cassius walk into a bar, and the bartender asks them what they’ll have. “3 beers!” Caesar proclaims. “2 beers,” whispers Cassius.

 

Because I’m not a historian, I have the luxury of making spurious historical arguments that suit my purpose. I can even bring in Star Wars if I want to. For those of you only passingly familiar with the story of Caesar, he was the pivotal, popular, and controversial figure around which the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. He was also the obvious inspiration for the scene in which Chancellor Palpatine becomes Emperor Palpatine, causing Padme to remark, “so this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.” Caesar was a popular and extraordinary general that imposed his will on the increasingly ineffectual Roman Republic, essentially replacing it with a more unified and centralized imperial government. That is, until his friends in the bar assassinated him in the name of “liberty.”

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Employers: Put Your Money where Your Mouth Is

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter a couple of days ago with Dave Schinkel. Here’s the most salient tweet:

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Lifting the Curse of Knowledge

As most of you know, one of the biggest anti-patterns when you’re instantiating program slots is to forget to set CanRemoveOverride to true. But what you probably didn’t know was that the SlotConfig is — Just kidding. I lifted this from a post I wrote almost 3 years ago about legacy code I was working with then. I have little more idea than you do what any of that means.

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Performance Reviews Simplified

If you were to ask people in the corporate world about the most significant moments of their careers, a lot of them would probably talk about annual performance reviews. That’s a curious thing. Anyone who talks about performance reviews when asked this question is not talking about an idea they had that saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars or about rescuing a project that had gone sideways. Instead, their careers were defined sitting in a room with their managers, going through a worksheet that purports to address how well they’ve matched up against the company’s ‘values.’

FriendlyBoss

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Programmer IS A Career Path, Thank You

If you’re a programmer, think back for a moment to the first time you hear the career question. You know the one I mean, even if you don’t recognize it as the question: “do you see yourself on the architect track or the management track?” Caught off guard, you panic momentarily as you feel that you have about 5 seconds to decide whether your long term future involves lots of UML diagrams and flow charts or whether it involves lots of Power Point presentations and demanding TPS reports from underlings. If you’re like most, and you were to answer honestly, you’d probably say, “neither, really, because I kind of like writing code.” But you don’t give that answer (I never did) because you’d effectively be responding to a career development question with, “I have no interest in career development.” But let’s put a pin in that for a moment.

Imagine a kid going to law school and graduating to go work at a law firm somewhere as an associate, doing whatever it is that associates do. Now imagine a conversation where a partner at the firm pulls this associate aside and says, “so, have you thought about your future? Do you see yourself as more of a partner in the firm, continuing to practice law, or do you see yourself as more of a lawyer-manager?” I imagine the response would be, “what on Earth are you talking about? I’m a lawyer. I want to practice law and be a partner. What else is there?”

Why is it okay (or would it be okay, since this conversation would never actually take place) for an ambitious lawyer to say, “I just want to be a lawyer” and not for an ambitious programmer to say, “I just want to be a programmer?” For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave that question as rhetorical one. I’m actually going to answer it at length in the book that I’m starting to write, but until the publication date, I’ll leave the why as an exercise for the reader and just posit that it should also be okay for a programmer to say this.

I’d like to see a culture change, and I think it starts with our current generation of programmers. We need to make it okay to say, “I just want to be a programmer.” Right now, the only option is to ‘graduate’ from programming because failure to do so is widely construed as failure to advance in your career. If you become a line manager (or the diet version, project manager), you stop writing code and become the boss. If you become an architect, you kinda-sort-usually-mostly stop writing code and kinda-sort-sometimes-maybe become sorta like a boss. But however you slice it, organizational power and writing code have historically been mutually exclusive. You can play around with teh codez early in your career, but sooner or later, you have to grow up, take your hands off the keyboard, and become a boss. You have to graduate or risk being the metaphorical ‘drop-out’ with the title “Super Principal Fellow Engineer,” who looks great on paper but is generally ignored or smiled at indulgently.

ProgrammerGraduation

That’s going to change sooner or later. As someone who has looked for work and looked to hire pretty steadily for a number of years, I’ve witnessed an increase in developer salary that is both sharp and sustained. As the average software developer’s wage starts to creep into 6 figure territory, it’s simply not possible to keep the pecking order intact by paying overhead personnel more and more ungodly sums of money. Just as it makes no sense for a law firm billing out at $500/hour to hire a “lawyer manager” as a 1 mil/year cost center, it eventually won’t make sense to pay a quarter million a year to a pointy-hair, when Scrum and basic market forces both offer the allure of a self-managed team. In both cases, overhead work still happens, but it reports to the talent rather than ordering it around and demanding status reports.

How quickly it changes is up to us, though. We can change this culture, and we can change it pretty quickly, I think. The first thing you can do is fix it in your mind that being an “architect” or “project manager” or “manager” isn’t a graduation and it isn’t a rite of passage. It’s an agreement to do something different than what you’re doing now. Nothing more, nothing less. The second thing you can do is vote with your feet.

I’m not advising that you do anything drastic, but rather that you take stock of your circumstances. Are you at an organization where programming is clearly viewed as how you bide time until you get promoted to a boss’s chair? If so, consider adding a new criterion to your next job search. Look for organizations that feature prominent industry figures, such as conference speakers, authors, or people with some “tech celebrity.” These are the organizations that are the “early adopters” of the lawyer/partner dynamic of “best at the trade calls the shots.” If you hook up with these organizations, nobody is going to ask you what “track” you see taking you out of programming. They’ll assume that you’re there because you’re deadly serious about programming as a profession, interested in learning from the best, and interested in subsequently becoming the best.

Sooner or later, we’ll hit some kind of critical mass with this approach. My hope for all of our sake is that it’s sooner. Because the sooner we hit critical mass, the sooner you’ll stop having to explain that doing what you love wasn’t a backup plan for failing to rise in the ranks.

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Be the We

There’s a moment at a job that you’ve probably never thought about specifically, but it’s a knee point of sorts. Think of arriving at a new gig that you take somewhere, fresh out of the interview process, pumped about the new opportunity and the 10% pay bump you’ve negotiated for yourself, and generally rarin’ to go. You’ve come out of an interview process in which you’ve presented a pretty rosy picture of yourself and so have they, so everything’s awesome.

Then you arrive for your first day with your passport to prove citizenship and your lofty expectations and, after a period of getting settled, you get down to work and see what’s going on. Maybe it’s a walk through the code base or your first standup meeting where it happens. Maybe it’s a department meeting. I don’t know. But somewhere, it happens. You see something pretty crazy that calls into question all of the awesome things you thought about your new Shangri La. Maybe the company is using Visual Source Safe for source control. Maybe “daily standup” is a manager sitting while 30 direct reports spend 2 hours furnishing status updates. If you think hard, I’m sure you can remember the first “these people are insane” moment that you had at any given company. But that’s not the moment that I’m posting about; that’s just a baseline moment to which we’ll return shortly.

That first WTF moment probably isn’t the last and, to some degree, this is inevitable since not everyone will do things in quite the same way. You respond to these early moments by asking questions of the people there: “so, what’s the backstory behind that 12,000 line singleton class” or maybe “why do you guys put up with code commits taking 3 hours?” And, what’s more, you probably make the case to remedy some of these things and, perhaps even have some success. You fight strategic battles but you don’t (and can’t) win them all, and at some point you and the company adapt to each other like an ice cube in a warm glass of water becoming coolish water. You change some things and get used to others.

And then the moment in question comes. It sneaks up on you when a new hire comes on board, looks at the code commit process you’ve trimmed from 3 hours to 2 hours and says, “what’s wrong with you guys that commits take 2 hours?” The moment happens when you say, “that’s not me, man — you should have seen what these goofballs were doing before I got here. Don’t lump me in with them.” Tell me this has never happened to you, I dare you. You wince and say, “it was like that when I got here!”

As one of my favorite movie characters (I make the distinction because I have no idea if the actual man said things like this) Doc Holliday said in Tombstone, “apparently, my hypocrisy knows no bounds.” I mention this because I’m about to advise against this in a “do as I say and not as I’ve done” sense. Over the course of my career, I’ve tended to disengage (and eventually leave) from situations that I found to be degenerate, rather than battling endlessly to correct them. This led to a tendency to keep myself at arm’s length from a group if I didn’t like things that were happening.

DocHolliday

What I’ve come to understand is that there is no “me and them” except in the realm of your (and my) hollow excuses. As soon as you sign on with that company, there’s only “we.” I’ve learned the hard way that accepting this immediately results in better outcomes in the same way as the “fail fast” mantra. The best outcome is that you get there, ask questions about “why does our build take so long and how can we fix it,” and you start chipping away, making real progress that you can take pride in. Your investment of your own reputation in the endeavor provides strong motivation. Another decent outcome is that you can’t make progress and are forced more quickly to ask yourself, “do I want to be part of a ‘we’ that operates this way — do I want my name on this?” If the answer to that is “no” and there’s no sign of improvement, it’s better to exit stage left as soon as you can than to sit around, making sure everyone knows that you don’t actually think much of your group.

Really, that’s a terrible outcome for as long as it continues. You’re unhappy and you look like an excuse-offering malcontent. Your peers resent you because they perceive (probably correctly) that you’re bashing their previous work or throwing them under the bus. It’s a bad situation all the way around, and it can be avoided, I’ve learned over time, by getting to “we” as quickly as possible.

So when transitioning to a new job, assignment, team, or whatever, start talking immediately about what “we” do. It will align you with your group, generate earlier feedback for you on whether it’s a good fit or not, and probably bias you over the long haul to evaluating mutual compatibility more carefully up front.

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Help, My Boss Sucks!

I might be accused of link bait for a title like this, but I actually get a decent amount of questions that, when you distill them down to their bare essence, amount to this title. The questions are often packaged in narrative (possibly rant) form and almost invariably summed up with an apology for all of the detail. Please don’t apologize for that level of detail. It’s not that I enjoy hearing about your miseries, but I think that there’s definitely a shared catharsis that occurs when recounting or listening to tales of corporate stupidity with a narrator that’s powerless to stop it.

My Expert Beginner series and eventual E-Book resonated with a lot of people largely, I think, because of this dynamic. The experience of dealing with an entrenched incompetent is so common in our industry that thousands and thousands of people read these posts and, thought, “hey, yeah, I had to deal with a guy just like that!” And I’m small potatoes — the DailyWTF is an entire, vibrant site with tens of thousands of subscribers and a number of authors and editors dedicated to this kind of thing. If you want to go even bigger, think of Dilbert and his pointy haired boss or the Peter Principle.

Assuming, however, that commiseration with others isn’t enough to bring the joy back into your life (or at least to remove the angst from it), the question then follows, “what should I do?” It’s at this point that one might expect to stumble across some kind of insipid faux-answer on LinkedIn or something. It’d probably go something like this:

Top Ten Tips to Tame a Terrible Tyrant

  1. Take up meditation or yoga and learn to take deep breaths when your stress level is getting high so that you can react calmly even in the face of irrational behavior.
  2. Ask yourself if you’re not part of the problem too and do some serious introspection.
  3. You don’t have to like someone to respect them.
  4. Talk to human resources and ask for discretion.
  5. Have a heart to heart and explain your concerns, being courteous but firm.
  6. Enlist the help of a mentor or respected person in the group to make things more livable.
  7. Empathize with their motivations and learn why they do what they do so that you can avoid their triggers.
  8. Heap praise on the boss when he or she avoids behaviors you don’t like in favor of ones that you do.
  9. Seek out a project that puts you on loan to another group or, perhaps, minimizes the direct interaction with your boss.
  10. If all else fails and you’re at wits’ end, perhaps, maybe, possibly, you might want to consider some kind of change in, you know, jobs — but do a ton of research before you do anything and make lots of idea webs and charts and make really, really sure that this is what you want to do because it’s a huge decision.

Honestly, go out and google something like, “what to do about a bad boss” and this is the sort of platitudinous, enumerated non-answer to which you’ll be treated.  It’s manicured, politically correct, carefully considered, diplomatic, and a load of crap.

Let’s get real.

What To Do When Your Boss Sucks

  1. Form an exit strategy.  That’s it.  There is no 2.

AngryArch

Wait, Wat?

Yes, you read that correctly.  I don’t advocate that you take up yoga or work it out on the heavy bag or recite “calm blue ocean” or empathize or anything else.  If you find yourself miserable at work day after day because of a boss with whom you are fundamentally incompatible or if you find yourself googling “what to do about a bad boss” or if you find yourself writing to someone like me to ask for advice on what to do about your bad boss, you’re in a fundamentally awful position that’s probably shaving hours and days off of your life.  Whatever appeasement strategy upon which you may choose to embark is only going to mitigate that — it won’t alter it.  You need to take control of your destiny and that requires an executable, measurable, and tangible plan of action.

I’m not advising you to rage quit or do anything rash — that’s an awful plan (or perhaps a non-plan).  What I’m suggesting that you do is start laying out a sequence of events that removes this person from your life.  There are a lot of ways that this could happen.  Obviously, you could quit and work elsewhere, but you could also plan to stick it out until the boss retires in 18 months.  Perhaps you start taking classes at night so that you can transfer into a different group or maybe you find some team-lead type that acts as a buffer between you and Mr Spacely.  It could be that you do something as unusual as becoming a huge advocate for your boss to upper management so that he’ll get that promotion that will take him to another division or, at least, away from dealing with you directly.  Maybe you initiate controlled explosions inside of your own ears so that you never have to hear his terrible voice again and he can’t deal with you unless he learns sign language.  Go make yourself a brainstorming list — no idea short of criminal malfeasance too farfetched — and capture every imaginable path to your emancipation.  Once you’ve got that list in hand, start narrowing it down and firming it up until you have several strategies that you can work simultaneously, all timeboxed and with contingency plans.

You need to have measurable goals against which you can measure progress and you need to understand when to pivot.  A good plan would be something like, “I’m going to get that certification that will make me a bit more cross functional and then I’ll start volunteering for work over in Bill’s group in my spare time.  Within 3 months of that, I’ll casually broach the subject of spending some time in that group and within 4 months, I’ll make it official.  While that’s going on, I’ll talk to HR within the next month about the idea of a potential transfer.  If after 4 months, none of that is going well, I’ll start interviewing for other positions.”

Now when you’re looking at your life, you’re not seeing an unending string of misery to be mitigated only with non-actionable platitudes like, “be more understanding” and “ask yourself if you aren’t partially responsible.”  Instead, you have a plan of action that you believe, if followed, will lead you to being happier.  Because here’s the thing — if you’re fundamentally incompatible with a boss then “who is responsible” is a non-starter and being more understanding isn’t really going to help.  There’s a Protestant Work Ethic, “Pain is Gain” underpinning to all of this that’s really not appropriate.  Is it an inappropriate sense of entitlement that must drive you to say, “I shouldn’t have to work somewhere that my boss makes me miserable?”  Many would argue yes, but I’m not one of them, and I think that’s silly.

If you’re overly picky or sensitive, you’ll wind up job hopping, getting stuck somewhere or, perhaps, have trouble finding work.  That’s how you pay the piper for being too picky or sensitive and, if those things start happening, maybe you should embark on a course of introspection.  But if you’re miserable under a boss, that’s real and there’s no way it’s entirely your fault.  It’s not your sole responsibility to figure out a way to prevent someone from making you miserable and you ought to view this as a no-fault problem to set about solving.  That’s where the plan comes in.

A boss is someone who should be removing impediments from your path to allow you to be as productive and awesome as possible.  That’s not feel-good BS — it’s the way to get the most value and productivity out of knowledge workers.  No boss that truly embraces this mandate should be making your life miserable, even if you are an over-sensitive, uber-picky prima donna.  If the boss is making you miserable on a daily basis then he’s an impediment and not an impediment remover.  Since you’re then responsible for removing your own impediments, there’s only one thing to be done with this boss: remove him from your life.

That’s All Well and Good…

I realize that this all probably sounds rash and maybe you think, “easy for you to say,” but it didn’t just happen to become easy for me to say.  I planned for it.  I’ve spent a lifetime optimizing for my own happiness and satisfaction with what I do and, when that temporarily wanes, due to a boss or anything else, I form a plan, follow it, and fix the problem.  And I do this by thinking in terms of diversification and dependency.

If you take a job at Acme Inc, settle in for a 10+ year stay, and let your resume gather dust, then you’re largely dependent on Acme Inc for your well being via income — you’re putting all of your eggs in that basket.  If Acme then burps out a bad manager and puts him above you in the org chart, you find yourself in the same position as a cable company customer: “yeah, we’re awful, but good luck doing anything else.”  If it seems daunting or hard to plan at this point, it’s because you’re pretty coupled to Acme.  You still can and should make a plan, by all means, but that’s why my advice might seem cavalier.

I have contingency plans all the time, and they range from W2 opportunities to 1099/B2B work to royalty streams to oddball, go-for-broke schemes like moving to the country to be a hermit and try my hand at writing novels.  Some of them are clearly more realistic or feasible than others, but they all exist and I’m in a constant state of assessing my happiness and weighing my options.  Don’t confuse this with fickleness or disloyalty in me and I’m not advocating those things in you.  If I could find something that made me consistently happy, work-wise, for the next 2 decades, I’d happily take the consistency and stability, and I cheerfully advise you to do the same.  But when life or companies throw crap situations at you don’t hesitate to start executing contingency plans to bring your happiness level back to where you want it.  Your happiness is something that you can’t count on anyone but you to monitor and it’s not just important to your quality of life — it’s important to your quality of output as a knowledge worker.  You and your reputation can’t afford for you not to be happy.

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