“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?

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.