Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Bedtime stories about the world of work - Chapter 1: The Rise and Fall of Gerald the Programmer

Once upon a time there was a lovely chap called Gerald. Gerald was a senior software developer and a very happy one at that. He had lots of friends and a nice wife. None of them actually understood what he did at work, but he seemed happy and they were pleased for him. His wife was particularly proud of him, as more and more often his work was recognised as being the best there was. He was the go to man for anyone with a problem - if anyone could fix it, and fast, it was Gerald.

Its true that Gerald's project management skills weren't too hot - but then they didn't need to be, there was someone else to take care of that bit. And occasionally he would scare people who inadvertently disturbed him while he was deep in a world of code. But everyone knows that programmers (like creatives) are just "a bit like that", so they forgave him. After all he was mostly a very nice guy, when you actually got some non-tecchie conversation out of him.

After a couple of years of this very happy situation, Gerald's boss decided it was time to move on. The company weren't sure how to replace him at first but then they looked at their superstar Gerald. They wanted to show him how really valued he was, so they decided to show some trust and promote him to Head of Department. After all, everyone liked him, and who knew more about software development than Gerald? Gerald's wife was so proud!

Soon though, Gerald's friends started to notice he really wasn't very happy anymore. You see Gerald didn't really get to do the things he was good at once he was promoted. He started out ok when he hired a really very good developer to replace himself. And for a while he was content in dreaming up new ways to make the department run better - but for all the same reasons as his predeccesor, he found them hard to implement. And all his time got taken up with meetings and people! People had never been Gerald's forte, and suddenly here they all were wanting time with him and expecting him to be a different person to who he was before.

It seemed that although developers and creatives were allowed to be "a bit like that", managers didn't really get any allowances made for them at all. As HoD people expected him to have answers, to be diplomatic, to have opinions on the department's place in the wider business.
Although he'd never been much good at project management (easier to hit the deadlines than plan them) Gerald was suddenly in charge of project resourcing - and no-one ever seemed to be totally happy with whatever plan he came up with. One girl actually came into his office and cried. Cried!

Gerald was lost. He didn't feel appreciated, or clever, or important - or any of the things he'd felt when he was the superstar programmer of the moment. He began to yearn for the days when he had time to be involved in projects.. in fact surely the new developer would benefit from his help wouldn't he? Perhaps he ought to ask for a project update and see what he could add. There were bound to be a few things the team had missed...

And then the team weren't very happy with Gerald either. They didn't need another developer - they had plenty of those. They needed Gerald to trust them and leave them to do their jobs, but to be there for advice if it was required. They needed him to know what to say if they went into his office and cried, and to fight the team's corner in HoD meetings. They needed him to be cool and diplomatic and to give their department a good name throughout the rest of the business. They needed a manager.

"Oh dear", thought Gerald, "I'm a brilliant software developer, but not a very good manager". "Why is it that there couldn't be two equal paths of career development? Where managers and tecchies were each rewarded and recognised for their own skills, and the top tecchie and the top manager had equal pay and status?"

Why indeed. Its a tricky one this, but time and time again I hear about managers who never really wanted to be in charge of a team ending up frustrated, and their teams more so. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them - its clearly not a simple problem to solve!

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