An ‘IT’ Bull In An Organizational China Shop

This post is an analysis of sorts in regard to circumstances that I’ve butted heads with for nearly the entirety of my IT career – how does an organization handle an employee that accelerates their career more rapidly that their organizational structure can handle?

If you were to look at my personal resume, you’d see that I tend to change jobs every year or two. This isn’t an unheard-of concept in the IT industry today – turnover is naturally high and many engineers frequently explore other options due to the level of competition as well as the price a company will pay for exactly the right person.

​Changing jobs on such a frequent basis is a result of a couple of things for me. Firstly, as few IT staff would find surprising, there’s a lot of really bad companies out there that underpay their IT staff, can’t adequately staff due to budget or mismanagement issues, force insane work hours out of their IT personnel, etc. Secondly, few companies are actually designed to work well with people who grow substantially faster than their peers in their jobs.

Our study will touch on both of these points. It’s my hope that you might be able to glean some useful tips out of my successes and failures in this area, as well as be able to make judgment calls for potential jobs as to if they’re really what you’re looking for.

The More Common Company Structure

Office politics are an inherently evil, yet mostly necessary part of many companies. Regardless of what many would say, emotions are present daily in workplace interactions – and along with those emotions, a moderate degree of ego.

​Let’s examine the typical adult, along with typical adult dreams and aspirations. Getting married, perhaps starting a family, owning a decent house, having nice vehicles, money to fuel a few disparate hobbies, etc. All of these things are fairly commonplace in American society today because they’re a large part of what many consider to be the “American dream”.

The takeaway that I want you to note from the “American dream” is that all of these things are a combination of time and financial commitments. Those commitments often occupy a large portion of what a person would otherwise have as “free time”, and can also produce a desire to work overtime in order to get additional pay to fuel some of these commitments in the short term, among other things.

Before we go any further, allow me to clarify that I don’t believe any of these commitments or pursuits to be inherently “wrong” in any way. Matter of fact, they’re quite admirable in many regards.

Because the pursuit of these things is the norm as opposed to the minority, many companies design their structure around the concept of employees who:

  • Don’t have an incredible amount of personal time or desire to further their career beyond what the daily workplace puts in front of them.
  • Because of other commitments people commonly have, it takes them more time than it otherwise would to pursue certification study or skills building.
  • Are generally more stable in terms of ability to otherwise relocate or accept a better position elsewhere, as it would incur a level of risk for them personally as well as for dependencies such as loan payments or families.
  • Perhaps are more pay-dependent, and may be living paycheck-to-paycheck or fairly close to this line.

These traits are generally characteristic of employees who stay in the jobs they’re hired for, and don’t advance rapidly within the company structure. This provides longevity for the position for the company, as well as giving them a higher chance that they’ll end up having a number of overqualified people in lower level positions than they’re technically skilled for, which is good from a purely practical business perspective as long as it can be maintained.

For many industries, these characteristics are more of the “norm” than the exception to it. With that being the case, most companies design their employee structure around these traits in that they cater to them and don’t look incredibly favorably on outliers that move faster than the system can comfortably accommodate.

If this is the expected norm, what happens when it’s deviated from?

The Case Of Seniority & Team

Let’s suppose that we have a team of five engineers who are all hired at the same time in order to start a new business project unit. They all have roughly the same field background and a lower level of real-world experience.

The difference is that one of them is single, with no children or previous marriages, lives in an apartment, and does a lot of engineer-type things related to his job field in his spare time – and he’s also 10 years younger than the others. The other four are the opposite of the aforementioned employee in all respective areas (have houses, have families, no free time for career study, etc.).

The single engineer with fewer commitments and much more free time is naturally going to excel in his field far faster than his peers – and frankly, you’d expect him to. He’s trying to invest in his life early on in order to set himself up for a better position down the road, and he has the resources to pour into his craft to grow incredibly rapidly.

He overtakes his peers in terms of raw ability within the first year of working in this team. Sadly, this passively has caused some personal divisions among the team because of the knowledge gap that has invariably formed from having an imbalanced ability team, as well as fewer shared hobbies and things in common. A dislike bordering on distrust has also been built up by the four older engineers because this “young hotshot” is now in a more prime position for a promotion than they may be, which causes some rough social edges among them because the general mentality is that they need the promotion (and subsequent pay increase) more because they have more obligations.

This is a VERY familiar story that not only have I played out in multiple workplaces personally, but have also witnessed it played out by others in organizations that I’ve worked for.  It causes a degree of political tension because management usually sees a lot of this passively going on, and to be honest, the easiest path to a win condition for them is to let the “young hotshot” go.

But, wait a minute, you might say. Let him go? But he’s excelling on his team! He’s got a lot of value to potentially provide to the organization if they can accommodate someone like him. This is true, but he’s:

  • Making other people look bad, sadly due to no inherent fault of his own.
  • Granting him a bonus or promotion over his peers would cause political unrest, as noted prior.
  • Can’t be propelled further into an age disparity in a group over him that is likely older still than his current peers.
  • In a spot where doing any more for him would go against others than have more seniority in the company than he does, which would once again be a political debacle.

A lot of these problems ultimately stem from negative traits about human nature as well as companies that aren’t designed to deal with someone who accelerates so rapidly. That’s my humble opinion, but I can’t otherwise find a logical reason for why this situation keeps recurring in so many different workplaces. Think about it a bit.

The Case Of The “Black Company” & Personal Shaming

If you’re not familiar with the term “Black Company”, it’s a term that originated in Japan and refers to a company that grabs younger employees straight out of college and places them under intense hours and stress simply because they know they can’t realistically leave – they need the reputation and experience on paper that their first real job can provide, and have little choice but to endure the hellish burden that’s imposed on them for a few years in order to obtain this.

​With that preface, let’s look at the case of an employee we’ll call “Bob”. Bob is an IT engineering major who has a single semester of classes left before he graduates with his Bachelors degree. He has a few entry-level IT certifications from major vendors that not only prove he knows what he’s talking about, but also establish him with a degree of industry value in terms of vendor discounts his potential employment could help facilitate.

A local business reaches out to him before starting his last semester, and offers him an entry-level IT job not too dissimilar from his major. Bob relishes this offer, as he’s heard rumors that it’s often difficult for graduates to land jobs and it instills him with a sense of confidence. He accepts the offer. The offer entails a few more obvious warning signs an experienced tech might have caught, such as:

  • Salaried pay, as opposed to hourly pay.
  • An incredibly vague description of on-call rotation, as well as after-hours support commitments that the position entails.
  • The opportunity to work on systems above the technical level that the position is at the core, although a seemingly dismissive explanation of pay raises for this level of work, if sustained.
  • Verbal acknowledgement of certification or IT conference reimbursement, but nothing in writing in terms of how this is followed-through on or applied.

While the first few weeks of his new job seem to go well, over time, Bob starts noting that he rarely works only 40 hours a week anymore, with 50-55 hours being more of the norm. In addition, he also notices that he’s having a degree of difficulty with discussing certification exam reimbursement with his boss in regards to the next test he’s looking to take – he’s getting an amount of pushback in terms of getting hard numbers about pay raises or benefits to getting certified, although his employer is very verbose in that they want his certification ID tied to their business account regardless. Waving these considerations aside, Bob continues on his working path, and graduates with his degree.

Upon graduation, Bob continues to not only notice the prior trends continuing, but also that he’s struggling to get his employer to increase his pay now that he has his degree – even though he’s performing incredibly well at his job to the point where he’s pulling away from some of his peers. While he’s starting to feel the pains of discontent with his career choice, he believes he can’t realistically leave his employer since he only has a year of experience with them right now, and surely things will smooth over eventually, right?

Further on, Bob has decided he has to get away from this employer and this job. He’s resorted to alcohol to try and keep himself sane due to the incredibly long work hours he now has to endure, and management is philosophically stomping on his career. He’s gained a minimal raise in spite of everything he’s put forward for his company, and has suspicions his coworkers have slandered him in private in an attempt to oust him to prevent him being promoted over them.

Bob gives leave notice after finding a better-paying job for his skills elsewhere, and is shortly brought into the H.R. Director’s office for a “consultation”. He’s verbally belittled as “not caring about the future of his fellow employees” and that “his former business unit won’t be able to survive without him, and the lives he’ll impact by leaving will be sizable”. Pulling himself together from the emotional barrage that’s being thrown at him, Bob responds that even so, he can’t bring himself to stay as he’s losing what’s fundamentally making him human by staying. The H.R. Director’s expression immediately turns cold, and he fires Bob on the spot, afterward ordering him to immediately clean out his desk as he’s a “liability to the organization” and needs to be removed. 

WHEW! That turned bad fast, didn’t it? While portions of this story have been the case in my career with my first job, I can also attest that many others I’ve spoken with have had similar circumstances cross their paths as well. After all, to have a term named after this phenomenon in Japan means that it must be somewhat widespread, right?

Bob’s situation is sad in that he has the potential to do so much more for someone else who will treat him fairly, but he’s stuck in something of a rut that he may not even be consciously aware that he’s in. His situation is all to familiar, and the black companies out there that would exploit such a person are all too common – in many cases, they’re often the businesses that you see featured in local newspapers and magazines as being successful. Because, after all, while this practice is essentially soul-crushing to the employees that suffer through it, it makes logical business sense as long as you can shut out the part of your humanity that morally opposes it.

Seeing Through The Smoke?

It’s extremely difficult to sniff out in an actual interview whether or not you’re stepping into an environment that might start to show the any of the warning signs we looked at. I’ve had hiring managers and technical team leaders outright lie to me in a number of interviews regarding job descriptions and work/life balance just to try and get me in the door, and the only way you can really cut through all the lies with them was to dig far enough down.

Always probe deeper in interviews when answers to your questions are either very vague or there’s no hint that the answer you received is documented or verifiable. An example of this would be in an interview I had with a local business years ago who promised me in the interview that I would only be on-call for one week a month. I then asked them if in the job I applied for I was going to be the primary SME (Subject Matter Expert) for any organization functions or platforms, and was told that I would be for several. Putting two and two together, one can then easily see that I was going to be on-call constantly since I was the primary point of contact for several platforms outside of the on-call rotation – that’s some nice fine print for you!

Businesses these days love to force long hours out of their IT staff by design. By design, you ask? Yes! In a messed-up, roundabout way of thinking, if you’re forcing enough work hours out of your IT team to prevent them from otherwise studying for certifications in their free time or building their careers to either try to advance in their positions or leave, you’ve now forced longevity out of your staff that otherwise wouldn’t have naturally been there. The money you’re shelling out for additional pay actually overcomes the cost of having to find a replacement employee within three years or so. With turnover across the board in IT as high as it is, we’re starting to see this trend more and more lately – especially in small businesses.

Resources such as Glassdoor can be invaluable in getting an idea ahead of an interview (or even just applying for a job) what the employer or team will be like. Scoping out things such as marketing videos, customer base and product base vs. the amount of staff a company has can give you insight into whether or not long hours are the norm for their employees. Do they have a client(s) that are international or are open 24 hours? Well, then if you’re expected to support that account, expect to get regular after-hours calls, etc.

Other notable facts, such as employers who offer at-work incentives such as game rooms for break time, drinking alcohol on the job, or giving tremendous flexibility in work hours tend to be plagued by at least one of the following traits:

  • Incredibly high turnover rate
  • Unsatisfying work environment
  • Lower-than-average pay
  • Minimal possibility of position advancement
  • Poorer benefits packages

I mean, let’s be honest – unless a company is offering these things to their employees purely because they want to keep up a good public appearance, these things otherwise hurt them and hinder overall performance and productivity. So, there has to be some kind of a tradeoff that these at-work incentives are otherwise trying to cover up or smooth over. I’d challenge you to do some digging into companies that operate this way and see for yourself if it’s not the case – in all of my interview and employment opportunities, I’ve found that it is​.

The traits that I tend to look for in companies I apply with is:

  • Working under a manager who was a former technician or engineer prior to being a manager
  • Very low employee turnover rate
  • Working alongside people who are very tech-savvy in their roles, as they’ll challenge you to grow
  • Pay that is above the industry average – if you want the right people, you HAVE to pay for them
  • Documented facts regarding work/life balance, and have this included in the employment contract
  • Supporting a product or service that you genuinely believe in; otherwise each work day is misery

Most of these should be fairly self-explanatory. My experience has been that if the company in question has at least three of the aforementioned traits, they’ll be a good employer for me  – if they have more, even better!

Avoiding Growth Obstacles, In One Easy Step

Contracting.

That’s pretty much what it comes down to.

If you aren’t technically part of an organization’s internal structure, then you can’t have that aspect of your employment held against you for discrimination, right? It also allows you to comfortably “migrate” between jobs far more often, because contractors aren’t expected to stay at a position long-term, after all.

To be honest, while it has positives and negatives to it, this is the work environment that I’m going to be in until I get Otaku Central off the ground and can work full time with it. It gives me the freedom to move around to “shortcut” the system to where I can immediately get the jobs and pay increases that I want, at the tradeoff of losing many workplace benefits and not being able to fully develop many interpersonal relationships to the extent I otherwise would.

In my situation, I have little alternative. I accelerate so rapidly that I outpace many of my peers in a matter of months regardless of what my employment situation is, and this situation shows little signs of changing. For what I need to be able to do with my life, this must​ be the way things are.

This might sound as if I’m the one in error, or as if I’m feeling sorry for myself for the way things happened. On the contrary – I’m on the cusp of making more money at this point in my life than most people who are twice my age are making, and have the level of knowledge and character to overcome nearly every challenge that’s put in my way because of the constant hardships I’ve had to wade through. The tradeoff is that I don’t fit in in many organizational environments because my hobbies and interests have been entirely shaped by my career progression, and it causes an imbalance.

For years, I was verbally beaten down by managers in the various jobs that I held. “You’re the problem”, “you simply aren’t patient and forbearing”, or “the fact you’re changing jobs constantly is a very negative mark on you” were comments that I frequently received from H.R. directors in interviews and in personal conversations with family and friends. But, the fact I’ve finally realized is that they all had families, houses, and other commitments that prevented them from being like me. Without those commitments, I wasn’t like them and couldn’t reasonably be expected to move forward like them – it gives me the potential to grow at a pace others can’t match.

Contracting removes most of these considerations from the equation entirely. In many cases, your contracting agency can even assist with easily setting you up with better contract opportunities once you grow your skillset to the point where you can accommodate them. The agency can also make things such as relocation or temp work substantially more do-able than they would be in a normal FTE employment situation.

Summary

These findings and thoughts aren’t for everyone. Truth be told, they probably won’t be applicable to the majority of workers in the IT industry because I’m trying to grasp somewhat at how to deviate from the norm, not define it.

If you’re in a spot where you have very few personal commitments, are possibly a younger person, or are otherwise in a position where you both want to fast track your career and have the resources to pour into this endeavor to be successful in it, this may be interesting reading for you. I truly hope I can help others avoid some of the pitfalls that I’ve made in choosing jobs that didn’t set me up for fast track success when I really needed it.

Caleb
Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, old-school guitar and amplifier builder, and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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