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Being Boxed In

The management guru fad of the ‘80s wound itself up just at the turn of the millennium. This may have been due, in part, to the rise of information technology that shifted analytical emphasis away from the personality of the leader toward those directly involved in creating value. That was evident in the last book I read on leadership, which warned managers that knowledge workers would simply walk away from organizations that did not adopt collaborative management strategies.

I find myself in such a situation at this point. When I started my current job, I sat through meetings that devolved into pitched shouting matches. Such altercations were a daily event between some of my peers. When I intervened with the HR staff to bring this to an end, I exposed patterns that dated back to the formation of the company by people that used competition to maintain control of knowledge workers. Circulating to upper management an essay on triangulation and its consequences did not make me a popular person. When I put a copy of “Breaking The Fear Barrier” on my desk, they just stopped coming into my office.

They kept me on because I sat in my office and did what I do best: create a garden in an overgrown software jungle. The application that I manage, which has always been a critical part of the user’s experience of our products, has gone from being something hidden until the sale is complete to an essential part of the sales process. At the same time I have created component libraries and leveraged them to build new applications, algorithms and regression test suites. Having gone eight years without a pay raise, however, it’s time for me to move on to a place that understands and appreciates the principles that I use to understand the needs of my customers and create success for them.

So I’ve been working on my resume and trying to visualize the kind of place that I would find success in. I have a certain sympathy for Microsoft, and went out to the Research site on Saturday to see whether I could put up a resume. The site indicates that researchers are expected to be recognized experts in their field with a substantial body of publications. Well, shoot, most of my career has been spent in top secret facilities or in small companies that use trade secrets to protect their intellectual property. Microsoft Research does have a category for applications developers, but that link led me through to the main Microsoft site.

And so I find myself where I was eight years ago: a really smart guy who was told by an honest recruiter that “if I knew someone starting an R&D program, you’re the guy I would recommend, but you just don’t market well as either a manager or a software developer.” Where most developers focus on coding efficiency and the arcane syntax, most of my effort is invested in understanding the application domain so that I write the right code. Whether it’s produced in JavaScript or C++ or C# is pretty irrelevant – once I’ve established the design, I evaluate and select an implementation platform, read a book, start writing code, and use the web to find answers to arcane syntax questions when they come up.

Most hiring managers don’t have a clue how to evaluate a person like me. They want a known quantity – a specific skill set that will allow someone to come in and deliver value on day one. They’re not willing to take a risk on learning, and don’t know how to evaluate that capability by probing past experience to determine whether a resume represents individual contribution, or simply takes credit for work done by others.

So I’m resolved to find my own opportunities this time – searching the web for job openings and pushing my resume through directly. I’m making culture an explicit issue by declaring that my loyalties lie first and foremost with the customer.

To those of you who have been following this blog, this probably resonates. I’m hard to pin down because I don’t specialize narrowly. Rather, I examine relationships (personal, institutional and intellectual), and advocate for deepening them where others pick a side. But, damn it, I don’t want to be in a conveniently packaged box that can be moved easily around (itinerancy being the biggest problem faced by software companies). I want a home, and I’m willing to meet people where they are.

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