Stories about Software


Top Heavy Department Growth

I’ve been somewhat remiss in answering reader questions lately.  Largely, I’ve lapsed because I’m choosing to focus on my upcoming book.  Nevertheless, I apologize for the lapse.  I do appreciate all the questions you folks send my way.  I’ll try to compensate today with this post about organizations engaging in top heavy department growth.

I’ll paraphrase this reader question because the specificity of the titles and information involved could make it sensitive if I didn’t take a couple of liberties.

I read your article about architect title over-specialization.  I’m a software developer with senior level experience.

Recently, my company has created “levels” above me.  I used to have only a dev manager above me.  But recently, the organization has brought in both new team leads under the dev manager and architects under a different manager.  Both take precedence over the existing developers.  These people now have authority to tell us what to do and they get to choose what they want to work on, leaving us with the leftovers.

I feel as if i’m being promoted down hill. Can you please advise?

How Companies Expand

If you’re up for it, I’ll offer a good bit of background reading to flesh out the terms.  If not, I’ll furnish minimal definitions here for reference.  A while back, I wrote a post describing the company hierarchy.  That post contains excerpts from my upcoming book, which you can pre-order and read on leanpub.

Here you have an apt illustration of the average company.  At the top, in executive roles, you have opportunistic individuals who define (and violate) the rules and culture of the company.  Then, in the middle, sit the idealists, who guzzle that same kool-aid and ask for more.  Finally, at the bottom toil the pragmatists, who roll their eyes at the company but put up with it for lack of better options.

Significantly, pyramids retain their stability by maintaining their shape.  Thus the most stabilizing growth pattern involves rewarding (over-promoting) loyal pragmatists, and hiring a bunch of grunts beneath them.  If you think of an existing pyramid that needs to get larger, you wouldn’t heap stuff on top.  Instead, you’d build from the bottom.  You’d pull some senior developers, make them architects or team leads to reward them hanging around, and hire a bunch of new grunts to report to them.

Politics Gut Check

But consider also that opportunists (over) promote and move idealists around like pawns in a chess game for their own ends.  Thus when you see unusual hiring patterns, you know the organization’s opportunists are making unusual moves.  And, make no mistake, making bulk leadership hires without line level hires qualifies as highly unusual.

As they say, here be dragons.

I would consider it highly likely that your boss, or perhaps even his boss, has declared political war on someone.  I say this because the dev organization and architecture organization appear to be conducting a decision-maker arms race.  If they want to claim turf by proxy, they won’t do it by hiring junior developers into the pecking order.  Even though this threatens the stability of the organization for a time, it no doubt advances some interest of theirs.

Caught in the Crossfire

You have two basic options: ride it out and try to take advantage.  With the ride it out option, you have the ultimate pragmatist’s path.  You keep your head down, do as the 8 different bosses say, and wait until something gives.  I recommend this if you value stability and consistency primarily.  But that doesn’t really sound like what you have in mind.

That brings me to the second option, which involves inserting yourself into the drama a bit.  The most straightforward way to do this would be to approach your manager and state your case for a team lead position.  If he won’t grant the designation outright, you could at least ask for the opportunity to interview as a candidate.  Though consider that an interview most likely starts you off in last place for the role.

However this might go, bear in mind the real stakes as you navigate it.  Your boss is staking a claim to disputed territory.  If you can somehow conceive of a way to help him toward that end, it will net you the inside track in the upcoming proceedings.

Approach this negotiation with your boss the way a consultant might with a prospective client.  That is, sniff out his pain points and needs, come up with a proposal to address them, and approach him with that.

What I’d Do

All that said, I probably wouldn’t stick around in a situation like that.  An escalation that radically increases the ratio of bosses to employees as part of some territorial pissing match indicates a relatively high degree of instability.  Instability, in turn, can mean great opportunity, but it can also mean great misery.

For example, the power games among the bosses might mean a promotion for one and a restructuring/disbanding of the other’s group.  When the dust settles, your loyalty to the winner may put you in position for advancement.  But then, if your boss viewed you as instrumental toward that end, he probably wouldn’t have brought in hired guns from the outside.

I don’t advise people to be cavalier about leaving jobs.  That said, if I were you, leaving is what I’d do.  The organization has grown by installing bureaucracy above you, which is both career limiting and frustrating for a human being.  The modern corporation has a pathological tendency to disappoint, but some situations are more tolerable than others.

Read More about This

As I mentioned earlier, you can read a lot more about my take on the corporation n my book.  If you want a sample, sign up using the form below.  In the sign-up process, I’ll send you an email with an 11,000 word PDF, taken mostly from my book, Developer Hegemony.  Don’t worry if you’ve already signed up for my list.  As before, you’ll just get the content without being doubly signed up for the list (I’ve tested it myself).

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