“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain...”

Quote from Harvey Dent in the movie, The Dark Knight by Warner Brothers Pictures

I know, you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why I’m quoting comic book movies. Bear with me, there’s a point here. In our industry there is a trend of promoting good technical people past their level of effectiveness. Yes, we’re talking about the Peter Principle.

You all know someone who was an excellent technician but changed tracks in order to keep getting promoted. Maybe he manages a department, or maybe she’s a VP. At some point, each of them became a problem... not a solution. Maybe he remembers just enough to do more damage than good, or maybe she’s just horrible at managing people. The same skill-set and personality type that once drove them to excel now hinders them.

How does this happen? Are companies promoting people so they won’t go elsewhere? Most in this industry remember a time when the easiest way to get a meaningful raise was to change employers. Recent industry wisdom supports this too, with the notion that staying at one place for too long can actually hurt you when looking for that next job. (The thought is that your skill set becomes tailored to solve the problems at that one employer and nowhere else... you begin to rust.)

Consulting is the exception to this. You’re never anywhere long enough to truly rust. Consultants can usually stay with the same company forever without running into this problem.

Of course, there are plenty of techie people who successfully make the transition to management. I know some of them personally and they probably FEEL like they belong in the villain category but that just keeps them sharp. I’m talking about people who actually cause damage to the organization without realizing it.

So how do we fix this problem? Is it even possible? The answer to the second question is yes, but it’s going to take work and change, which are two things a lot of folks seem to be resistant to. The answer to the first question is a bit trickier.

Part of the problem is our chosen field. There are only so many rungs to climb in the technology track at any company. Adding more rungs is not the answer. Can anyone reading this really tell me the difference between a Software Developer III and a Programmer/Analyst II? The government loves ranking systems. What’s the difference between a GS-9 and a GS-11, other than the pay? What about a State employed GS11 versus a Federal GS7? Try guessing who makes more... you might be surprised.

So if more rungs aren’t the answer, then how do we fix the retention problem?

  1. Get rid of rungs and titles. Pay people what they are worth, modified by a combination of seniority and performance metrics. If you work your ass off and achieve your goals, you get more money. Slack off and not only do you not get a raise, you might actually get a pay cut.
  2. Abolish salaries. Many companies abuse them by demanding extra work without compensation. Some employees abuse them by not working as much as everyone else but getting equal pay. Go to an hourly rate and not the kind where you only pay for billable hours. Work is work and should be compensated. If you pile more work on your employees than can be done in a regular day, then pay for the extra hours whether you can bill the client or not.
  3. If you must keep salaries, go to the consulting shop model. Pay a base salary and pay hourly for overtime. Your employees will thank you. Learn this and learn it well: it is almost always about the money. People who say it’s not are either: A) making way more than most of us, B) working somewhere SO BAD they would take a paycut to go anywhere else, or C) lying. My money’s on C.
  4. Build a place people want to work. Don’t sweat irrelevant details or impose arbitrary restrictions on the people who make you money. Don’t view IT as a necessary evil, but instead learn what they do and why they do it. Find ways to make their work life better and reduce their unnecessary distractions.
  5. Consider hiring management from outside. Bringing someone in increases exposure to new methods, new ideas and unless your interview process is really flawed, proven management skills.

So, how do you tell skill sets apart without titles? Get rid of ranks, not competencies. If you’re an Architect, Developer or Tester, that’s what you do, not who you manage. Most folks I know wear more than one hat on a daily basis anyway.

Most people pursue promotions/advancement for the money. By paying people what they are worth, and eliminating “the ladder,” people who are good at management (whether its people or project) will naturally gravitate towards those tasks and you will notice them. The ones who would normally only pursue management for the money won’t need to because they’ll have job and financial satisfaction already.