How to spot a terrible tech boss within SECONDS
El Reg job expert Dom Connor returns with more top interview advice
Part 2 Having been an occasionally competent manager I know that nowhere in the spectrum from micromanagement to management-by-email suits everyone.
In fact, you people don’t even know what sort of boss you want. Your imaginary “manager I like” is really just the opposite of your most hated real-life superior, but what's missing is the realisation that he or she could have been a lot worse.
Note my excessive use of “you” and in particular “you people”. The very worst managers don’t identify with their teams. A depressingly common sickness in many firms is the formation of a management team: bosses are part of a distinct group from the workers, who are not seen as being on the same side as their employers. If I am on team A, and you are team B, we are playing against each other.
Bad managers of this kind talk of their achievements while good managers talk with pride of what their teams accomplished. You spot them by pronoun frequency analysis or “counting the Is.
“Which one of the five principles of software engineering is the most important?” I was asked in a job interview; all five looked good to me, so I plumped for something like “ensuring the bloody thing doesn’t crash too often”. I was met by the sort leering grin you’d expect from Jimmy Savile, followed seconds later by the retort: “They are all the most important.” Thus I was exposed as a fool and unfit to write code for that bank. Or more accurately, I had a lucky escape.
With a bit of preparation and googling, interviewers can line up questions involving triple negatives, software interfaces that do the opposite of what their name implies, and the exact number of VMs that Windows Server 2012 can support. These interviewers will discover absolutely nothing about the interviewee's ability, but do get to big themselves up in front of a job applicant who can’t call you a prat because he or she needs a job. Personally, I’d worry about some who actually could quote from a manual verbatim.
If a boss can’t at least pretend to engage in a discussion during which he takes your views seriously - and asks for good judgement rather than reciting trivia - he won’t just be a pain, he will fly the project into the ground and you will end up just like him.
You can’t just wait for them to blunder as badly as the examples I use. You have to poke at them a bit by asking politely if they’d thought of doing X instead of Y. That not only gives an insight into how much your professional input will be handled, it’s the sort of thing good managers like to discuss with the better kind of applicants.
Make sure they've read your CV. Make sure YOU have read it, too
It’s quite possible I am the only person who will ever read your CV. In fact having read a lot of them it is clear that they’re not always read by the person sending it to me. But, ideally, your new boss should at least skim it before you turn up so he or she has a clear idea of how your skills map to the job - trust me, this is not in any way a universal constant.
This is part of being organised. A lot of crap bosses just aren’t very good at the whole time management thing, such as remembering what they are supposed to be doing or that the project they assigned you to was canned a month ago. So if they’re not prepared for the interview it’s another bad sign, as is any air of disorganisation. Yes, I have noted a correlation between neatness of dress and being a good manager, though to be fair “neat” and “well dressed” are really not the same thing. It’s not just wearing a suit, it is whether or not not they look crumpled or tired; both are a bad sign about how things are going.
Your new manager should be ready for your arrival and have the full sequence of interviewers ready to go. The worst departure from this was at a bank where I was called in for a “Head of …" role. They’d outsourced a chunk of the human resources department to an outfit that had simply failed to summon any senior managers to interview me. Instead they found what appeared to be a junior secretary who read from a script and asked me questions including (and I’m not making this up) some designed to explore my ethics.
I didn’t go back there, but presumably someone did and that means some people reading this are managed by someone who was so desperate that they put up with this crap. Good luck with that.
This is not an isolated point. If they’ve outsourced HR it is a sign only very slightly less disturbing than “LEAVE HERE” written in dried human blood on the walls. It means they have so little clue in how to manage people that managers too implausible to appear in Dilbert cartoons are seen as a way forward. If you think IT outsourcing is a bad idea, why would you think it's a good idea for HR?
Power corrupts and so does impotence. In the prequel to this piece I talked about getting coffee at your interview. This is a first indication of how powerful your boss is within the firm, and you should spend more time than you do looking at his or her desk and office to see visible trappings of that power. It may be a corner office, stupidly priced Apple computers, a chair that ought to be on Star Trek, or a desk made of the wood of an endangered species. For some demented reason, as an IT pro you probably don’t like the idea of working for a boss who craves and obtains power. That sort of mentality can hurt you enough that for your next job you should choose one who does.
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.