#26 The Technologist’s Dilemma

by Steven Cerri on January 22, 2007

“What to do when you are good at everything”

Good evening!

This weekend I went to the birthday party of a colleague. At the party I met an engineer, we’ll call him Pete. Now Pete was in his mid-forties, a post-doc at a major university and, working at a small software startup. We struck up a conversation and after he found out what I do he invariably made the statement, “Wow, maybe I should attend some of your classes.” As we talked about his career, or lack thereof, it became clear that Pete was in a fix and it was not going to be easy for him to advance his career. After thinking about Pete’s situation I thought you might be interested in how this whole situation is structured and how Pete might help his career along, and so I’m writing about it in this blog.

So here is the lay of the land. Pete is (if my memory serves me) a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He is working at a software company with about 30 employees. The CEO and owner of this company has several other companies, some which are very large. The company Pete works for develops software and the way they do this is they design the software in the U.S. and then ship the requirements to India for coding. (We’ve all heard this before, right?)

Now Pete’s real job is to work with product development to define the requirements, develop a rapid proto-type, architect the software system, and then ship all these requirements to India. Since Pete is Indian, he does a great job of bridging the gap between the team in the U.S. and the team in India. And since he’s been with this company for a number of years, he really understands their products and their processes. Pete is the guy who truly understands all the inner workings of the company and it’s product development process. That’s the situation.

Oh… one more thing. Pete just got a new boss who knows next to nothing about software. But Pete’s new boss has a lot of marketing connections. (We’ve all heard this before, as well.) So Pete is constantly helping his boss understand what Pete is doing and when the opportunity comes about to include Pete in his boss’s high level meetings, Pete’s boss excludes Pete. So you are probably getting the picture that Pete is loosing respect for his boss.

However, Pete is a decent guy. He’s not about to go off ranting and raving; but he’s not happy either. Pete wants to get into management but he just seems to be stuck in this “product development – requirements definition – architecture – rapid proto-typing – software development interface” role and he doesn’t see a way out of it.

So Pete asked me what I thought.

He probably hoped for a different answer than the one I gave him because the answer I gave him was this:

“Pete, if I were the CEO or if I were your boss, I say you are in the perfect position. I wouldn’t want you to move anywhere else. I wouldn’t want to give you a management position.”

Why you ask? Why wouldn’t I be more supportive of Pete’s desire to move into management? Because Pete understands the process from product development to the handoff to the coders in India. The better job Pete does on the U.S. side of the process the fewer mistakes will be made by the coders in India and mistakes in coding can cost a bundle. So Pete is most knowledgeable and most valuable right where he is.

So if Pete is in the perfect position, how does he get out of that spot and move into management without quitting? That’s the $64,000 question isn’t it?

The answer is actually very simple to state and difficult to implement. The simple statement is that Pete can move into management if he can structure his move (and any increase in staff necessary with the move) so that there is either an increase in profit due to an increase in margin or an increase in revenue. It’s that simple. If I’m Pete’s boss and Pete can’t satisfy the profit motive, and he is not going to threaten to quit, then I’m not moving Pete. Now I might consider it if Pete’s move keeps revenue and profit flat, but I said I’d consider it.

You see, short of Pete quitting, there is absolutely no motive to change Pete’s position. After talking to Pete for 30 minutes it was clear to me that he was exactly where the company needed him. Therefore, if Pete wants to move into management the only way it’s going to happen is if Pete takes the following steps. He must:

1. Decide on a position Pete can move to, either one that already exists or one he will create.

2. Determine how many people will have to be hired or change positions because of his move.

3. Determine how the revenue will increase, or the margins will increase so that revenue and profit stay in synch.

4. Determine the impact of these moves on the whole organization (think systemically).

5. Develop a schedule for the changes to be implemented and develop a plan to minimize the impact to other departments.

6. Present the plan to Pete’s boss and perhaps the CEO and to other departments that might be affected.

7. Keep pushing it, because the odds of Pete’s boss accepting the plan on the first go around are slim.

8. Make it clear, but not in an antagonistic way, that if some movement into management is not on the horizon, Pete will quit sooner or later.

This is what is necessary if Pete is to advance into management. Now the only question is… how badly does Pete want a management role?

Until next Monday.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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