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How to spot a terrible tech boss within SECONDS

El Reg job expert Dom Connor returns with more top interview advice

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A pay rise as a reward for good work? Ha ha ha ha ha

Recently someone came to me because when he’d quit his boss had promised a pay rise to stay but later lacked the clout to get it through, so the employee had turned down a better job and was now slightly trapped. If you're a manager, your team will need resources, want more pay, request training and want to get your idea of how things should work through all the political crap that passes for senior management processes. Please don’t tell me you think you get pay rises because you did a good job - or that the directors thought it was fair that increased profits should be distributed among those that created them and not pocketed as board-level bonuses.

You got a raise because your boss feared you would leave, so he used his political muscle to land the extra cash. Maybe he horse traded moving a project up the queue or because his judgement is seen as sound by other decision makers. It doesn’t matter because his job is to fight the rest of the firm, just like it is yours to fight Oracle from ripping you off on licensing.

Yes, it’s nice to work for a boss who is a decent sort, but the best kind of boss has a virtual bastard emulator that gets things done. Aside from any trappings you need to work out where he is in the official food chain. Job titles are often not useful; instead find out who makes the decisions on priorities.

Ideally get him or her to draw the structure: people often bullshit about their importance, but it’s actually quite hard to start drawing an organisation chart and move yourself around in it. The most important power is, of course, over pay, and you need to see what control he has over this by negotiating a bit even if you think the money on the table is fair. Also as a City headhunter may I express my contempt for you if you ever think the word “fair”. By all means say it, but know that you are worth what you can get, not a penny more or less. Beware precise figures in job adverts; precision is a bad sign.

We all know that “up to £43K” means “less than £43K”, but if a job ad says £43,215 it is obvious that your pay is set by HR based upon some bogus formula involving the company's overall performance - and not your ability nor the scarcity of your skills. In particular, your boss lacks the power to change it. The HR spreadsheet says a programmer with N years of experience gets f(N), with little hope of increase if you do a good job.

While at IBM I was passed a copy of a request for a pay rise for a guy who was arguably the best programmer in the world, not just IBM. But his pay was set by his grade, not by his ability and not by his manager who to his credit was at least fighting the system. He was on half what I was getting even though for some reason no one has ever called me the best developer in the world (or even the office I’m writing this in). The polarity of your reaction to this anecdote is a function of a harshly objective self appraisal: calculated pay is preferable if you’re below average like half of us and you see that your skills aren’t as up to date as you’d like, or you’re simply lazy.

Don't get sucked into a black hole of backward tech

You obviously go for interviews at firms that use the same sort of tech you do, so that choice is quite neutral, even if it is bizarre. Even the use of Lotus Notes is not of itself proof of defective management since they may have had a business relationship with IBM that made the choice rational, though obviously if they are moving to Notes that is a deeply bad sign, not just because you will have to deal with it, but the users will blame the IT department. No product I encounter is more unpopular with its users, so ironically Notes can be good for the image of IT at the firm since user expectations are made lower, allowing mediocre solutions to look good and when you migrate they will love you.

Having the latest version isn’t just a matter of rolling out new toys; it generates work and change is more satisfying than maintenance. If your employer likes sticking with things until they die, it means that when you go for a new job, your lack of experience in recent tech will hurt.

Jobs are like black holes. We know the Sun in its death throes will expand and burn the Earth to a crisp even though we’ve only watched it for a tiny fraction its life because we've observed a lot of other stars. The further you look out into space, the deeper you see back in time. You can pull the same trick when looking at a potential employer by looking up the sequence of career evolution.

Start with your immediate boss and work out how much he resembles you in skills and personality type, then ask yourself how much you want to be like him when you grow up. That’s only one data point, but look at the other managers you meet and the longer-term staff, watching out for people like you who don’t seem to have progressed.

This data is actually quite easy to get. When they ask if you have any questions, let them talk about themselves. You can encourage them by asking “how long have you worked here” and “what sort of projects have you finished”. People like rattling on about themselves and the warm fuzzy feeling this generates will also help you get the job.

This matters because you need to tread carefully if your boss is not the same sort of IT pro as you; your performance is evaluated depending on how much your manager understands what you do. If his background is operations, he won’t have a handle on the finer detail of what constitutes good coding. Managers who cut their teeth on compiler bugs are frustrated when seemingly simple tasks take an age to complete.

Of course if he did business analysis he won’t actually care what you do, just so long as it looks good to other people. Your manager is probably older than you so bear in mind he will have used different tech to deal with different issues back in the day, and since he still thinks as himself as a hands-on IT pro he will stick to outdated views far more strongly than someone who can admit he’s not an authority.

This is another case where your ability is a factor. If you’re outstanding you want a manager who appreciates your work and understands its quality, but the less good you are, the less you want to be understood.

Beware the boss surrounded by a squad of analysts

IT at some places is so politically weak that your boss isn’t really your boss, nor exactly is anyone else. This is called matrix management, presumably after the film in which malicious technology is out of control. You are managed by both an IT boss and someone from the business side; one will tell you what needs to be done and the other how to do it. That’s not comfortable if you are an IT-focussed sort because you'll need to spend a lot more time explaining things to radically different kinds of bosses with pay rises and bonuses dependant far more on the resultant political forces than anything you do.

Matrix management curbs productivity, and it’s no coincidence that outfits that use it also have a lot of business analysts tasked with saying “business” a lot and producing pretty diagrams. If your new boss has a lot of these analysts in his group, that is a negative thing because it shows that presentation and gloss is more important that working with actual technology.

Don't fall for promises about the future

In the first part I warned against lying to HR bods during interviews and that you should hold your potential boss to a high standard when you are being interviewed. You are in effect trusting him or her with your earnings for the next five years, which should motivate you to be concerned about anything said that isn’t true or worse: for example don't fall for the line “we’ll call you an ops guy to get you through the process but you’ll be a developer”, which is something I hear of far too often.

We all have to work the system to get things done, but starting off any relationship on lies is not good; if you are labelled as the guy who changes the tapes on the 3am backup, you will be doing it regardless of any promise that can easily be forgotten.

The sort of petty politics that cause managers to lie are present in all outfits that employ more than two people, but if any dodgy assurances make any sort of appearance in the interview do not convince yourself that they are not as bad as the issues at your current job. You are seeing your interviewers on their best behaviour and if they cannot play nicely with strangers then it will be far worse behind closed doors.

Happiness in the swamp

Unusually for me I actually did some research for this piece and found two surprisingly good places to work: Lehman Brothers and EDS. You may have heard that Lehman has had issues but clearing up the mess is a good gig. It’s a relaxed environment and you can learn interesting and useful stuff, not all of which is “never do this again ever”. It’s a party for consultancy body shops and accountants that will go on for years with an apparent degree of job security not to be found at a less notorious bank. Of course the bonus is piffling, but I’ve never encountered such high morale at any real bank.

EDS has featured a number of times in The Reg for IT projects that don’t end well, but when I went fishing for non-attributable dirt with people I know there, they were depressingly upbeat about their treatment. They talked of promotions, training and the way they were managed.

The point to draw from all this is that the public reputation of a firm is a tricky indicator of whether you’ll enjoy working there. Of course the way Capita and G4S treat their staff correlates nicely with the troubles they’ve had, but the main lesson is that you will spend more time with your boss than whoever you’re sleeping with and a good or bad manager is often more important than how the firm as a whole behaves. ®

Dominic Connor used to boss IT pros and quants around in banks, and now recruits for less crappy jobs in the City. You can read part one of this series here.

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