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When to say those three little words: 'I am quitting'

Ruthless headhunter also dispenses tips on when NOT to

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Hitting a plateau

When helping people to choose between two job offers, the process I’ve perfected is looking at what jobs this job will help them get next time. Basically how it will move them forward when they quit the job they haven’t even started yet. Some see this as confirmation of the gimlet-eyed cynicism they expect from a City headhunter, for which I am flattered, because to assume that you will stay in this job indefinitely is a sure route to uncomfortable transitions in the directed acyclic graph of your career. Too often, I am brought into this process too late. You need to be thinking about how your current work moves you forward before you even start looking for a new job.

As IT pros we are walking up the down escalator. The tech changes, the value of any skill changes with fashion and the trajectory is nearly always downwards. Since the people in your team are on the same step of the escalator, it may look like you’re staying on the level, but usually it means that you’re going down together. That means working on the latest version matters more than many IT pros think, as does understanding whatever business you are in.

For example, it may be rational for the firm to have stayed using Visual Basic 6 on Windows XP because this stuff is stable and you’ve got 700 man-years of business-critical code on it, but one day, sooner than you think, they will decide that they are “legacy” and do the new cool stuff on Hadoop with MongoDB and you will dumped without a second thought with minimal redundancy.

That means you need to build an exit plan when your firm drifts back from the leading edge, either by elbowing your way onto the Big Data project or by quietly building up other more modern skills in your own time so that you can leave before you become a legacy.

A useful signal is how receptive they are to your requests to move to the sexy new stuff, or to learn more about the business. I delude myself that I’m a competent manager and if a valued member of my team says he’d like to do something that’s not within his normal scope, I’d usually let him, simply because I want to keep him happy as well as knowing that he’ll be more motivated. If your boss flatly refuses, then he’s crap or thinks you are, or both, different signals that actually mean the same thing.

Working for aliens

You can’t expect to get every promotion going, but the sort of people who get promotions around the firm has a high signal/noise ratio. It may be more irritating that they promoted a guy who is just like you but (in your unbiased opinion) is less competent, but it is a positive sign that people like you are moving up the greasy pole. That’s not just in skill base but also personality, the business area you work in, age and of course sex. The worst case is where HR is able to pursue a diversity agenda, ie, which often translates as promoting white middle class women, because apparently this balances those places that only promote men. Either way, the less those promoted are like you, the sooner you have to go.

Jumping and pushing

Contrary to what you think, very few managers actually get a kick from firing people, partly because it makes them feel bad, partly because HR will make them jump through hoops to make sure you don’t sue them and of course their empire is reduced and it looks bad to the rest of the management team.

So some resort to “encouraging” you to leave, especially if you have TUPE rights after being outsourced, where getting rid of you is more messy. Perhaps you are crap, or at least thought to be so. It is hard to work out exactly how much of the hassle you get is bad management or “encouragement”, but a clear sign is an increase in the formality of the way your work is assigned, in emails or even bits of paper, rather than simply being asked.

Being outsourced

One of the things I'd have loved to dig up for the purpose of writing this article is the handbook of phrases used by outsourcers when your employment is transferred to them. Clearly, there is only one, because the lies they emit seem always to be read off the same script. Talk of “new opportunities”, “focus on delivery”, “a broader horizon in our new family” (yes, really) etc are simply ploys to delay your departure until they can suck out your knowledge of your local system setups and procedures.

You should of course pay lip service to the new order and even give the impression that you’re enthusiastic, but don’t kid yourself that you are anything other than a cost to be minimised. However, between the outsourcing and your departure you can exact revenge. Your new employer may want to cut costs, but at the same time they have bid for the work below cost and want to find things outside the project that they can gouge from your former employer since they no longer have the ability to do it themselves. As my former boss told me: “Money is the best revenge”, and if you avenge yourself well enough, the outsourcer may actually deliver on the promises they made at the start.

Relations with your boss

Obviously, if your boss is crap then you need to start looking elsewhere. He's attained that status because the higher-ups like him, or at least think he gets things done and has some political skills. That means complaining about him is largely pointless, and even harassment and bullying are unlikely to be enough to get anything done. The HR director of a household name firm described their job to me as “protecting the management from the staff”, which is a hard-nosed view, but illustrates that however nice HR may seem, they work for the company, not you.

Quality of work

Although money is important, to get you out of bed in the morning requires more. One thing I’ve found over the years is that although people will bitch to their mates in the pub about the things they are asked to do and occasionally complain to their boss, this is after they’ve been assigned to a task, when it’s too late to get moved onto something better.

“Better” is a subjective term, learning a new skill is definitely good, but dull if you’ve done it before, so you need to ask for the good work and as above if you keep not getting it, then look for the eject handle.

Sort-of-nearly demotion

To get things done, it is necessary to reallocate people to lesser posts in other projects and this is nothing personal. It's often so impersonal that it comes out of MS Project and the first your boss knows of it is when it tells him to move you. Flatter management structures mean that formal recognition of the fact that you effectively ran a team, but are now on your own doodling T-SQL isn’t so easily defended and since “ran a team” on your CV needs to be reasonably current when you go for your next job which has a better title, then you need to start looking sooner rather than later.

Leaving with style

A graceful departure is a lot better than the short-term excitement of a table-banging exit. Firstly, they may be tempted to break company policy and give a bad reference which can be very painful if it causes your new employer to withdraw their offer, since spinning this to the employer you need now to find very quickly is not at all easy. Also, the world is a lot smaller than you might think and a bad word from one manager to another as an “informal” reference may come back to haunt you.

You also want to leave the door open for them to buy you back with more more or better treatment which can sometimes be very lucrative, if somewhat stressful. Recruiters of course hate buybacks, since it takes the food from our children's mouths just as we’ve done all the work and it makes us look bad to the client as well. But it’s not your job to keep me happy, I already have people to do that.

The standard figure is what they offer to persuade you to stay buys them a year. This can be all they need but ultimately the structural reasons for you wanting to go will remain: they didn’t raise your pay before because they don’t care about technical skills and the senior arsehole who thinks a mix of David Brent and Sun Tsu is a valid management style isn’t going to get a personality implant.

So finally coming back to the “What do I do if they cut my pay?” I started with: you want either to be at the start of the exit queue or the end. These are both valid strategies. Getting out quickly means you take more risks in the job you're moving to, but you aren’t trapped in a death spiral, while waiting to the last moment means you can hold them to ransom when they realise they need you. ®

After a wide-ranging career in City IT, Dominic Connor is now a City headhunter and you can connect to him here

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