Saturday, April 12, 2008


I'm going to cannibalize myself today. About a month ago, I responded to a post on the excellent The Corporate Cynic blog. Sadly, he has a real life, so posts all too infrequently (though he does, as a result, keep the signal/noise ratio quite high). Anyway, he was kind enough to find a comment of mine helpful in assembling his own fine post on the subject of corporate promotions.

His point was that the worst of all promotions was when a "Born Jerk" gets to a management position, then feel validated by the promotion and spread their toxicity through everything they do. I absolutely agreed with that, but left as a comment a slightly different perspective based on my worst manager ever, the story of a "Made Jerk." I'm going to copy my comment as I wrote it back on March 17 (including the throw-in topic at the end, which probably deserves to be developed into its own post at some point):

I am quite glad that I could serve as an inspiration for your post. Don’t be surprised when I do the same, use you as inspiration: first, because I really “enjoy” what you’re writing; second, because the pressures of daily blogging often have me casting about for anything I can find. (Enough about me…)

As a follow-up, let me offer a couple of observations about management, at least in the IT world.

The mechanism you’re discussing is quite common, but there is something else that occurs quite frequently. I’ll tell it as a story of one particular manager (I’ll call him R), but it is not a singular phenomenon.

R was, at best, a mediocre technical mind (I worked with him on two companies before I worked for him at a third). He did not work very hard (IT isn’t normally a 9 to 5 job, except for him), and he never did any of the extras, reading journals, learning at home, that are done by most of us in the field. He found a narrow technical niche, milked it for an unspectacular career.

Then R lucked in. He wangled a job at a high-growth company at a time when their standards were pretty low. A few months into his tenure, his boss left abruptly, a few weeks from a major software release. Upper management panicked and, rather than going on a major search even among other employees, decided to promote from within. It came down to a choice between the two senior developers, and they chose R - in some sense, that was logical, because the other guy was integral to actually getting the product out, whereas R was a fifth wheel.

I joined the group a couple of months later (I didn’t really want to work for R, but I thought that I was positioning myself for a management position in this growing company - whoops!). And what I found was not your “Born Jerk.”

You see, R is a really good guy. You’d love him as a neighbor, he’d lend you his stuff and even help you use it. He’s just not someone who ever should have been allowed into a technical field (I’ll omit that story for length).

And he was remarkably humble a couple of months into his management career. He was kind of awe-struck at leading a group of MSs and PhDs (he has neither), and truly believed that he was just a member of a team (albeit with an inflated title and salary).

But over the next six months or so, I saw him change. I mean, he has important VPs coming to him and asking for his opinion (another thing atypical about R, he had an exaggerated respect for anyone above him in the org chart, that is, he “humbly prostrated himself,” not what you commonly see in IT), so he must be good. That they would ask the same questions of an orangutan in his cubicle never occurred to him.

He became duplicitous and manipulative; being a nice guy at heart, he was hilariously bad at that, but he thought it was expected. He began taking credit for things he couldn’t have thought of with 60 extra IQ points. And he became a total joke, so much so that new group members couldn’t understand how those of us who had known him before still had some carry-over respect for him.

Long story short (OK, that ship has sailed), two-thirds of the company was laid off in the wake of the tech bubble’s bursting, but R is still there five years later, making six figures, and he hasn’t improved a whit (the prevailing theory is that upper management won’t admit a mistake - “we promoted him, our decisions are always right, therefore he must be good”).

Which brings me to my second point, and it’s one you may well have written about before (I haven’t gotten around to reading all your back posts yet): One of the biggest issues facing American business is what I call the “evaluation crisis.”

The ability to evaluate the value of people is, perhaps, the most important challenge for management and, in every such situation, they’re dropping the ball. Whether hiring, promoting, giving raises, or deciding whom to lay off, it is clear that very few know what they’re doing.

I won’t belabor the point, already having written a little too much for a blog comment, but, when I look at the decisions made by a cadre of “big executives,” decisions that have nothing to do with the real caliber of an individual, I am continually appalled. We who, for example, write code for a living have a pretty good idea as to who else can do it, so we know how often management doesn’t have a clue.

If we still had a burgeoning job market, that might be OK - we would be mis-evaluated and move on to something bigger and better. But, at a time when, in the IT field, we are facing the challenges of H-1B visas and offshoring, we’re talking about an inability to evaluate having a major effect on careers. There are a lot of talented people out of work or underworked because one person with power and no judgment made a decision about their career. I can’t believe that it doesn’t have some long-term effect at some point.

I could write a lot more about R, and probably will at some point. I'm not sure if I was able to convey the complete loss of morale that came, over time, with working for someone who was so ill-suited to his position. But, for today, I will leave it as it is without elaborating.

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