Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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72 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    I would describe this as my entire experience in social work. The best people are kept on the front lines because being good at that work is exceedingly difficult; the worst are promoted away from the front lines, because they’re far less likely to damage the situation from faraway positions.Report

  2. Citizen says:

    Damn skippy, these be sad days.Report

  3. greginak says:

    I’ve certainly seen some of what Sam describes in my time in human/social services. However there is also the sad fact that to make a living and raise a family lots of people in social services have to move up and away from direct service. Many direct service positions pay poorly so you have to become a manager or admin. Some parts of social services are worse for this than others.Report

  4. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Of course, there is the converse as well, when the technically brilliant worker gets promoted because he’s brilliant, and in short order it is realized that his brilliance does not translate into management of any kind – & now you are stuck with him, because you can’t demote him.Report

    • Yeah, the Peter Principle just results in everyone working in a job they’re not very good at.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Which is why well-tun companies have a long technical latter, that makes it possible to promote people and keep their salaries commensurate with their contribution without making them managers.Report

      • greginak in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        And hire people to spell check for them. ( insert smiley face here)Report

      • From back in my Bell Labs days — which I regarded as a very well run technical organization — where I spent a couple of years as a group supervisor…

        (1) The technical ladder was, for all practical purposes completely flat. If you hired in as a Member of Technical Staff, worked there for 30 years all on the technical side, you retired as an MTS. OTOH, there was no upper limit on how much an MTS could earn.

        (2) Once you were promoted to supervisor, the Labs sent you off to “Charm School” were you were instructed on the care and feeding of the MTS. My recommendation when I retreated from management, was that people should be sent to Charm School before they were promoted — and that many of them would decline the promotion as a result.

        (3) The Labs had an official category for job changes called “retreat,” for people who voluntarily left management. When I did so, and it was announced in the little blurb all the managers got about people changing levels, I got phone calls for three days from department heads I didn’t know, all saying some version of , “Good for you. It’s what I should have done 20 years ago.”Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Michael Cain says:

          This does not surprise me. Technical people are very often disinterested in managing. I’m not sure if this makes them better managers or worse ones.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I think inadvertently you have found another part of the problem.

          It has become exceedingly rare/impossible to have lifetime employment at one company or a few companies. This extends to all levels of employment and education.

          My dad has worked for four law practices for his entire legal career. A career he started in the mid 1970s. He has been at the most recent firm since the late 80s or 1990 at latest. I don’t think my legal career will shape up this way unless I hang my own shingle and it is successful.

          The same is true for all jobs and people it seems. I’ve only heard it anecdotally but I heard that a lot of companies distrust promoting from within these days and prefer to go lateral.Report

          • Michael Cain in reply to NewDealer says:

            It has become exceedingly rare/impossible to have lifetime employment at one company or a few companies. This extends to all levels of employment and education.

            Depending on the field, this will probably end badly. That may just be my own experience talking, of course. My technical career was at companies (all fragments of the old Bell System) that ran big operations. The worst screw-ups I saw all happened when management chased out enough of the senior talent that there were no technical staff that had a reasonable idea of how all the moving parts fit together. It’s interesting — at least, that’s one adjective — to watch an organization spend $100M and produce exactly zero lines of usable code. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster I was out range of the fallout from that debacle.Report

            • Tribal knowledge has been underappreciated by virtually every employer I’ve had.Report

              • At the time I worked at Bell Labs, one of the things that they did incredibly well was document. If you didn’t write the memo and get it into the system, it didn’t matter what technical miracle you had pulled off — at performance review time, no technical memo meant no credit. I recall the time I walked into Engineering Records and gave them the file number for the 25+ year-old document I needed: “That’s on off-site microfiche, so we can’t get you a copy until tomorrow. We’re really sorry about the delay.”

                It spoiled me for a long time. In later fragments of the Bell System, in technical organizations that were supposedly modeled after the Labs, to discover that someone had done something potentially useful two years earlier,but never documented it, and since left the company… I was appalled.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Will Truman says:

                Tribal knowledge has been underappreciated by virtually every employer I’ve had.

                The preferred academic term is “institutional memory.” “Tribal” is un-PC you evil reactionary.Report

            • Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Cain says:

              On the other hand, this also helps to spread knowledge around. People will take things they learned at their old companies and bring them to new companies.

              But really, there’s no good alternative. You can’t force people to stay in their jobs, and forcing companies to keep staff they can no longer employ productively leads to a sclerotic economy. At best, firms could assign a higher value to product-specific knowledge and pay employees accordingly so that other companies don’t lure them away.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                What companies do, especially these days, that’s very stupid is to give no raises, figuring they can get someone just as good for the same money the person makes now. That completely overlooks both the cost of recruiting and hiring, and the cost of losing institutional memory. No, you can’t force people to stay at their jobs, but it’s a false economy not to encourage them.Report

              • NewDealer in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                I largely agree with you but I still think it is rather stupid that companies developed this adversion to promoting from within when the need and opportunity arises. This is partially what causes lateral moves.

                Company X has a new position opened. Instead of looking at people within the company to bump them up, they go on the outside. Fresh blood is good but not exclusively so.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

                Yeah. It’s good not to promote entirely from within, but there does seem to be a tendency sometimes to look at someone who might make a great manager and think “But he has no management experience!” and hire someone who already is a manager somewhere else.

                I am drawn to the idea of entry-level positions and then plucking from there to train and retain the best people who you’ve already seen work. I think you can learn a lot more about someone’s readiness for a more important job by having seen them work on a less important job than you can by seeing that they’ve (allegedly) already done the job somewhere else.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to NewDealer says:

                You should see our police department…Report

            • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

              My wife spends a large portion of her time at work doing Knowledge Management, essentially trying to figure out how to get all the knowledge in the senior engineers heads out & cataloged before they retire or get hit by the beer truck.

              Of course, it doesn’t help that said company had a bad habit of firing engineers for no good reason way back when, which caused said engineers to hoard knowledge so that when they were fired, they would be called back 2 months later when someone realized they were the only person who knew how to do X.Report

              • Patrick in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

                I know a couple of people at JPL who are attempting to correct exactly this problem.

                It is complicated by the fact that each NASA/JPL project was subject to so much specificity that a goodly number of the most useful bits of institutional knowledge were embedded in a very small number of noggins, and a very large chunk of those noggins are all approaching or passing likely retirement age, right now.

                The space program’s heyday came in a wave of like-minded missions. All of the heavy lifting + long distance missions… were actually the oldest. All the moon guys are in their mid-to-late 60s, at least. Another decade and you’ll have to relearn all the mistakes again…Report

  5. greginak says:

    I’ll add that reading that actual article was like a hammer to skull. It is a mish mash of points, some clearly misunderstood. It seemed like a piece the writer had to throw together just to get some content up. The quote is of course painfully dumb, but the rest of it was impressively craptacular.Report

  6. NewDealer says:

    I would add another part of the problem seems to be that companies have developed a distrust of promoting from with in. Promotions tend to be lateral these days.Report

  7. Barry says:

    Patrick: “I understand that this is common wisdom… and it is seriously the dumbest thing ever and the reason why almost everybody in management who does this ought to be fired.”

    It’s not dumb; people are taking care of their own interests at the expense of others and of the organization as a whole. Such people tend to get promoted, assuming that they don’t trash things so fast that that they get caught in their own damage.Report

  8. Barry says:

    I do agree that this ‘article’ sounds like a bunch of paragraphs thrown together.Report

  9. Tod Kelly says:

    There are some people out there that will refuse to promote the most competent of their employees, just as there are those that will refuse to hire smart or talented people in the fear that they might be eventually overshadowed by those same employees. This does not make Hustad’s advice any less terrible or short-sighted.

    If you work for someone that strategically promotes poor performers and/or makes it a rule to hire mediocre and poor employees to make themselves look better, “dumbing down” is not the action that is in your best interests. Finding someone else to work for is.Report

    • Sam in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I’m not entirely certain the “find another job” advice – while technically correct – is necessarily achievable in a depressed job market. Furthermore, I’d argue that some of these problems are by their very nature systemic to particular pursuits. I’d certainly make that argument about social services.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Sam says:

        I disagree.

        To be clear, I’m not talking about quitting your job out of spite and then searching for a new one. I’m not even necessarily talking about leaving the company that you work for, unless it’s a very small operation.

        If you are someone who has the skills and knowledge base to excel at a position higher than your own and reaching that higher position is something you want (most people don’t), being able to demonstrate those abilities is something you need to be able to do. If your boss makes a conscious decision to only elevate only poor performers – be they lazy, incompetent, clueless, or unskilled – then except in certain highly specialized cases he or she won’t be your boss for very long.

        I should probably note that I’m talking about people who are skilled *for* the elevated position to which they aspire. I have worked with a lot of companies that have technical line people who believe that being an exceptional line person is what makes a good manager of people or systems; they are wrong. Line proficiency and management skills are two separate and different things; a person may possess one, both, or neither. But even in these cases, refusing to show upper management that you possess that ability to handle different and greater responsibility is a terrible strategy to being given that responsibility. If your employer operates otherwise, then it won’t matter if you are ever promoted or not, your career experience is going to be horrible – and one way of another you will eventually be looking for another job with a mediocre pedigree that is one of your own making.Report

        • Sam in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          I think that these assumptions are generally sound, although I want to introduce a large caveat: I’m not sure that these facts hold true when the jobs in question aren’t highly desirable. It’s one thing when there is aggressive competition for work – in those cases industries can pick and choose who is getting hired, who is getting elevated, who is getting opportunities, etc. But when there isn’t aggressive competition for work, then having somebody (ANYBODY!) sitting there can be considered as important as having somebody there with a competency for the work.

          I think social work is a good example. The field is so badly paid and so incredibly high-stress that getting and keeping people is practically impossible. But going even a few days without somebody isn’t a workable solution, so it often becomes a scenario in which anybody WILLING to be there is welcomed, especially onto the front line. I’m relatively certain that logic would dictate that those who are the best on the front lines would be the first to be considered for promotion, but the reality is that the best on the front lines are passed over specifically because they’re so valuable. Which means that less competent people move up the ladder. This isn’t an agency by agency phenomenon; I’d argue its something that’s likely true throughout much of the industry. That complicates things significantly.Report

          • Tod Kelly in reply to Sam says:

            I think that the SS industry has a variety of factors that work against advancement.

            For one, there’s been a downward pressure on funding for a few decades now, and the line people who provide services to whoever the agency serves are the only positions mandated be filled – which means that over the pst twenty years or so advanced positions have been eroding. And even in those positions that are still there, the potential financial rewards are so diminished compared to the rest of the employment market that they have similar retention issues for qualified employees. (I can’t tell you how many social service agency HR and financial officers I have met who were promoted from an admin role due in large part to the salary. And a lot of those have gone on to train themselves to be great at their jobs, but a lot of them struggle.)

            But I have to say my experience with those agencies I have partnered with is that for the most part when they find an employee they think is the real deal they do everything they can* in order to get that person to stay with the organization. I’ll be out drinking or dining with the executive staff of ABC Agency and they’ll often bring up a new hire that’s just a week or two old that has impressed, and they all start planning what they can do short and long term to get that person to buy in enough to stay regardless of the wages.

            *which due to funding issues can require a great deal of creative empoweringReport

            • Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              and they all start planning what they can do short and long term to get that person to buy in enough to stay regardless of the wages

              Usually these plans work until that person has dependents, at which point they rapidly erode under the economics.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Sam says:

        The sad thing about the depressed economy is that it’s currently-employed people that are most likely to be able to find work.Report

    • Troublesome Frog in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      If you work for someone that strategically promotes poor performers and/or makes it a rule to hire mediocre and poor employees to make themselves look better, “dumbing down” is not the action that is in your best interests.

      One thing that was impressed upon me when I was working for a small and highly productive startup was the phrase, ‘A’ people hire other ‘A’ people. ‘B’ people hire ‘C’ people and it doesn’t get any prettier from there.Report

  10. Jim Heffman says:

    “the New Scientist addressed the never-ending ignorance-as-bliss debate with the following question: If being intelligent was an evolutionary advantage, “why aren’t we all uniformly intelligent?” ”

    It used to be that if you were too dumb to know when to climb a tree, you got eaten by tigers. The result was that everyone who was up the tree was smart.

    We have killed all the tigers. Being dumb no longer gets you killed. (And, in fact, there is massive effort applied to making that continue to be true.)Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      “It used to be that if you were too dumb to know when to climb a tree, you got eaten by tigers. The result was that everyone who was up the tree was smart.”

      No, unless we’re suddenly awarding Nobels to people like Ryan Lotche and Plaxico Burress on the basis that they’re faster, stronger and more agile than Steven Hawking and Umberto Eco.

      “Being dumb no longer gets you killed.”

      Sure it does, pretty much everywhere on a daily basis.Report

      • Jason in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        but being dumb doesn’t prevent you from having kids. That’s what evolution is about–fittest in the sense of passing down genes. (that’s essentially the premise of the movie _idiocracy_). That’s why we aren’t all intelligent.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Oh, I’m sure there were smart slow monkeys, and dumb fast monkeys. But there were a lot more smart fast monkeys than either.

        Although, that said, you can make the case that smart is as smart does. Maybe the clever monkey who figures out that red berries taste better than green ones is so busy figuring things out that he gets eaten by the tiger, whereas the dumb monkey who eats whatever goes in his mouth survives.

        Which is kind of the whole point of the article that Patrick is getting all flames-on-the-side-of-my-face about.Report

  11. Jaybird says:

    There are other rewards than being promoted. If someone exceptionally good at her job is, instead of being promoted, given regular raises, bonuses, and something akin to “seniority”, then not being promoted isn’t a bad thing.

    The problem is that many companies have an “up or out” mentality… and while productivity increases can definitely account for *SOME* of that, it doesn’t account for close to all of it.

    Of course, the companies that do really, really well because they have experienced workers who get treated well have reason to send this information out on the workerbee grapevines rather than in the trade manuals the executives read… I mean, seriously, how much better is it to steal experienced workers than to create them? Let some other company train them and then treat them crappy. Then let them come work for us.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

      This. Some people are good for the front lines and really, don’t belong anywhere else. The problem is that we (I don’t know if “we” is Americans, westerners, or humanity) have a real reluctance to pay some people on the front line a lot more than others, for doing the same job (even if one of them is a lot more productive than the rest). So, to justify a raise, we give them a promotion.Report

      • Fnord in reply to Will Truman says:

        Is it a reluctance to pay some people on the front line a lot more than others on the front line, or a reluctance to pay anyone on the front line a lot more than people in management positions?Report

        • Patrick in reply to Fnord says:


        • NewDealer in reply to Fnord says:

          Both. Companies care a lot about “internal equity” because it always causes morale problems when you find out some is paid more money for doing the same job. Especially if the higher paid person started working later. This is why even companies that strive for meritocracy find that they have to do across the board pay raises every now and then.Report

      • Sam in reply to Will Truman says:

        Will Truman,

        Yours is an EXCELLENT observation.

        We have a reluctance to pay anybody on the front line more than others. Period. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if the ones on the front line are doing the real work; we assume that management is somehow more important.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Sam says:

          and this is why truly high paid folks are consultants. Because they say, “gonna pay?” and corporations say, “yes please!”Report

  12. Burt Likko says:

    Is “management” a skill unto itself?

    Does a manager need to be a subject matter expert in the function she is tasked with managing? If not, what non-zero level of expertise is necessary?

    And of course, is promotion to a managerial or even supervisory level position the only way available to a hierarchical organization to reward subject matter expertise?Report

    • Patrick in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Is “management” a skill unto itself?

      * Yes, management is a skill unto itself. It’s a whole skill tree, in fact; managing budgets isn’t the same thing as managing projects isn’t the same thing as managing a department isn’t the same thing as managing problems.

      Does a manager need to be a subject matter expert in the function she is tasked with managing?

      * Oy, the ultimate can of worms. My answer to this question has been “No, but odds are very very good that the less you know about your subject matter, the astronomically higher the probability is that you’re a terrible manager”. Ultimately, one of the most important jobs of the manager is to adjudicate the argument between two or more subject matter experts. You’ve got two people on your team who think you should approach a problem two different ways, each with advantages and disadvantages. In the long run, with proper compensation for the respective disadvantages and proper leverage of the advantages, maybe either approach will work out (maybe not… maybe one of the two people isn’t a subject matter expert at all, but an idiot masquerading as one).

      But if you can’t grok all that and make sure that you’re doing the compensating and leveraging (or you can’t suss out who is full of crap and who isn’t), you’re going to make very poor decisions. That is very difficult to do without subject matter expertise. It’s not impossible, but all the techniques you can use to compensate for a lack of subject matter expertise are proxies, and can turn in your hand.

      Is promotion to a managerial or even supervisory level position the only way available to a hierarchical organization to reward subject matter expertise?

      Practically? No. Culturally? Very often yes.Report

    • Barry in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “Does a manager need to be a subject matter expert in the function she is tasked with managing? If not, what non-zero level of expertise is necessary?”

      Let me answer it this way – if you needed a coach for your basketball team, would you hire a good basketball coach, or a great baseball coach?Report

      • Patrick in reply to Barry says:

        I’d hire a great basketball coach.

        But a great basketball coach needs to be great at understanding coaching basketball, not be great at actually playing basketball.

        Some of the best basketball players make terrible coaches. So, there’s a difference there between “being great on the floor” and “being great on the sidelines”.

        Similarly, there’s a difference between “being great on the line” and “being great behind a desk”.Report

  13. Jim Heffman says:

    From the article:

    “A New York-based property developer says that instead of constantly arguing with a partner who bi-weekly comes up with impossible schemes, he responds as if he has no objection with the proposed idea whatsoever. So the business partner wants to walk away from a $500,000 project? Sure! Let’s do that. Great idea. Then, he says, he quickly pivots into implementing the plan — asking which four employees they’d need to can, what orders should be cancelled, and so on down the list of implications. Invariably, the partner reconsiders.

    By acting as if he was unable to marshal a strong argument against an iffy plan, the developer let his partner maintain a sense of superiority and spared himself the fallout from a potentially long and drawn-out conflict.”

    Except, y’know, this isn’t “acting dumb”. This is “show me actual numbers that say why this won’t work, instead of just being all YOUR PLAN IS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD”. This is “let’s make an informed decision about this instead of letting our prejudices and first impressions decide what we’re going to do”. I’m pretty sure that in about 2003 it was an Impossible Scheme to think that music companies would ever allow large-scale download-only sales of single tracks at high quality. And yet the iTunes Store started anyway.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Jim Heffman says:


      Jim, you can data mine pretty much anything anybody disagrees with for a germ of truth and hold it up and say, “See, this one part that’s right is why you’re a stupidhead!”

      It’s not really very compelling commentary. You want to dissect the whole article, go ahead. You want to just disagree with something I’m not saying, well… knock yourself out, but it’s a waste of everybody’s time.Report

  14. M.Z. says:

    If one read the point as proposing one should just be stupid, then it is bad advice. The more subtle point is to rarely take responsibility for things that won’t get you credit if you are successful. I don’t know becomes shorthand for I don’t want to spend four hours chasing a rabbit hole to give you a proper answer when it is your responsibility. It is the difference between solving problems, a management skill, and making your boss’s life easier, a lackey’s skill. It is the difference between getting a piece of work done – a decent enough skill – and being able to fairly represent your own interests.Report

    • Patrick in reply to M.Z. says:

      It is the difference between solving problems, a management skill, and making your boss’s life easier, a lackey’s skill.

      Heh. I would consider “solving problems” to be a line worker’s skill more than a manager’s skill, and “making your workers’ lives easier” to be one of the primary manager’s skills.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Patrick says:

        and “making your workers’ lives easier” to be one of the primary manager’s skills.

        More than half of my previous bosses would disagree with that assessment. And I think I’ve had a disproportionate number of good bosses.Report

        • Patrick in reply to Will Truman says:

          Um. Well, let me clarify that last, I was being off-the-cuff pithy at a cost of accuracy.

          It’s not your manager’s job to make your life easier, but it’s certainly their job to make your work more productive.

          Typically, the best ways to do this involve making your working life easier.

          Institutionally, granted, this is often not the case.

          But there’s a reason why decently-sized organizations tend towards inefficiency. Sometimes you can have a halfway decent manager in a perverse organizational structure who can’t really do their job.Report

          • Michael Cain in reply to Patrick says:

            …but it’s certainly their job to make your work more productive.

            This. When I was managing a bunch of prima donna MTS, all semi-brilliant at the job in their own unique way, the question I always asked when we were having a work review was “What’s keeping you from doing your job as well as you can?” I expected to hear things like specialized training, high-end equipment, and the like. A surprising number of times it was something that I could fix trivially with a phone call.Report