Two Analogies and An Observation

In the Army, there are basically two kinds of soldiers: enlisted and commissioned. Enlisted soldiers fire weapons, drive vehicles, guard checkpoints and go on patrol and so forth – they are the “hands-on” bit of the Army. You would start off as a Private, get promoted to Corporal, then Sergeant, Colour Sergeant and finally the highest enlisted rank, Sergeant Major. The other type of soldier, the commissioned officers, coordinate many small teams of enlisted soldiers in order to achieve some grand objective. The obvious parallel between the Army and a commercial organization is no coincidence; everything about the commercial world is based on the military, even suits are descended from uniforms. Call it blue/white collar, programmers/managers, associates/partners, workers/party, it’s basically the same as enlisted/commissioned. The latter has explicit power over the former, but at the same time, is completely dependent on them.

Many organizations have a career path that requires that in order to progress beyond a certain level, measured in responsibility, or pay, or title, or any other metric, you must “get a commission”, i.e. become a manager. Using our military analogy a career at such an organization would go Private → Sergeant → Lieutenant → Major, perhaps with the interim ranks too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach; Roman Centurions started out in the ranks and no-one can argue that they weren’t a wildly successful Army in their day. The “commissioning” may involve getting a qualification like an MBA, or it might be informal, an experienced programmer segueing from mentoring juniors to officially leading the team with just a change in title. An alternative approach adopted by some organizations is separate career tracks for technical people and managers, usually at the behest of the former. You might in such an organization, on the technical track, start as a Junior Engineer and work your way up to Principal Engineer. But here’s the thing: the most experienced, most respected, most decorated Sergeant Major in the Army still has to salute the greenest graduate trainee Lieutenant fresh out of training. There is no such thing as parallel career tracks. It is in fact still linear. The engineer track ends on “Architect” (whatever that means) not CTO, and such an organization will inevitably be controlled by people who have little or no experience of doing what the workers actually do. Maybe that doesn’t matter, if your organization has the institutional memory the Army does, but in high-tech it matters very much. I believe that advocating a technical career track is an abdication of responsibility by the engineering staff, and not in their or the wider organization’s best interests. Even if you personally wish to remain technical (and FWIW I do), you will be better off in an organization with a single career track and no shortcuts, so the management you work for is technically savvy.

Speaking of ceilings, there is another phenomenon I have observed, in job ads, and I would therefore assume in the contracts of many working engineers: a compensation package defined as a base salary plus a certain percentage bonus. Let’s say for sake of argument that you have a base of £50k and a 20% bonus. If the company meets all of its objectives, usually defined as a certain level of revenue and a certain level of profit, then you can expect a bonus of £10k. Seems reasonable on the face of it, but let’s dig a little deeper. Where does the objective come from? Well it is actually only finger in the air figures; maybe the person who comes up with them isn’t very good at estimating, either way, you have no influence on this. Who decides whether it has been met or not? The company’s profit is whatever the CFO wants it to be really; maybe it’s in the best interest of the company for tax reasons say, to make no profit this quarter, so he can shuffle some expenditure around: sometimes a company will beat revenue but miss profit by 1%… No bonuses. Or the opposite, if the company makes the expected profit on less revenue, is that really a bad thing, as it means greater efficiency has been achieved, but still, no bonus. And finally, what happens if the company performs brilliantly and smashes all its targets? Well the senior managers pocket multi-hundred-percent bonuses and the rank-and-file get at most 20%. They might do that anyway, regardless of company performance! It’s not an eligibility at all. It’s a cap, and it’s not applied to everyone, particularly not the person who ultimately sets the compensation policy… When you see something like this in a job ad, think of it as a job with no bonus, and be certain that you are happy with the base salary alone. If you’re not, negotiate or keep looking, but don’t tilt at windmills. Too many times I’ve seen people spend a bonus that never materialized.

My final analogy for today will be the restaurant industry. Let’s say you are a top chef, the kind running a Michelin starred establishment. What sort of people would you want to work in your kitchen? Now I am speculating here, having never done this myself, but I would guess that while you would obviously want people who can execute complex tasks quickly without sacrificing quality, and who are willing to work like sled dogs, you are also looking at their potential to become top chefs themselves one day. Not least so you can leave one of them in charge while you are off promoting your book or TV show, but also because there is satisfaction to be found in nurturing talent and seeing it blossom. A good chef goes to the market in the morning and buys whatever is the finest produce of the day, and that is what is on the menu when the restaurant opens for business, not what’s in the recipe book. He improvises when he has to, actively seeks opportunities to experiment and he makes his money by being creative. And an integral part of that is surrounding himself with a great team (we are back to the enlisted/commissioned relationship).

Now consider the manager of a fast food restaurant, or better yet, the manager responsible for the menu of an entire franchise. What sort of people does he want in the kitchen? Well, again speculating, I don’t think he really cares much, so long as they can produce the same burger every time, from lowest-common-denominator ingredients bought in bulk. Towards that end, every aspect of the process is carefully designed to be foolproof, so it can be done by people who are cheap to hire and easy to replace, and any investment is an investment in the process and perhaps the equipment; not the people, because they have a habit of quitting and never looking back! A manager may be thinking about shareholder value, and that’s fine, but I bet there are no programmers thinking that it would be great to have every product perfectly specced and project micro-managed so they can just code flip burgers all day!

The moral of these three stories is, have a care what you ask for, because you might get it, and it might not be what you think it is!

Extra disclaimer: any reference to any organization is purely coincidental, and my opinions are mine alone.

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About Gaius

Jus' a good ol' boy, never meanin' no harm
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