Oct 042016


Usually, this is what happens to me:

I am hired to be a developer. I work reasonably hard, am decently talented at programming, and bring a lot of energy; I am “Type A” when I am at work. Soon I am being asked to take on more responsibilities, and rather rapidly, invited to take on a leadership position. Before long, whatever I am working on is completed, or the business goals change, or the company’s stock tanks, or whatever, and (what has become) my team is disbanded or I move on, starting all over again in the next place.

It is not always like that, sometimes the employment period is shorter and there is not enough time for the normal cycle to occur. Other times I am hired to be a leader right from the get-go. But generally things follow the same course.

I believe that this is an odd pattern. I believe that most people spend more time in one place. I believe most people spend less time in leadership positions, but when they attain them, they tend to keep them. Maybe these facts are related; my energy and drive make me a good candidate for leadership but at the same time make me a more visible target.

It is also possible that I am the Peter Principle come to life. The Peter Principle states that people rise to the level of their incompetence; one is promoted for doing good work until one reaches a place where one is over their head, unable to perform, the work suffers, the promotions stop, and there you remain, stuck at the level where you became incompetent.

The Peter Principle is talking about a timeline that scales across one’s career, but maybe I do all of that really, really fast. In a year or two. Over and over again.

Or maybe I am just unlucky.

On the plus side, whenever I lead a project, the project itself is successful. Every time, 100%, throughout my career I have always delivered a completed project that did what it was supposed to do and was accepted into use by the customer. This is also unusual; most software projects fail. Maybe the skills and personality that cause me to go through this cycle so often are also uniquely suited towards achieving successful projects. Maybe I am the perfect guy for getting one thing done, even when that one thing is a really hard thing that will take a few years and cost a few million dollars.

Or maybe I am just lucky.

I imagine the truth is simpler than what I am writing. I am probably just better with software systems than I am with people. Which is an interesting segue into where I am today.

In my current position I was again hired to be a developer. New technologies to learn, new ways of doing things, all of the things I love about working in software. I dug in and started pumping out the code, happy to just be working 9-5 and not worrying about anything other than the software.

Except it happened again. I was offered a leadership position.

More than offered, to be frank, because at the same time the company “went in a different direction” and shut down the project I was hired to code. The leadership position seemed like a shotgun wedding sort of thing where really my choices were limited to take the offer or move on, again, and find yet another company with which to start over. Again.

So I took the position.

But this one was different. Software leadership has changed. No longer is one person in charge of engineering or architecture or really anything. Now software development is led by the teams themselves, cooperative leadership, self-organization, self-management. It sounds very touchy-feely. And it is.

If you are in software management today, you make certain broad decisions, but are mainly administrative. If you are in software leadership today, you are probably not making any decisions at all, but rather instead are helping the team to identify decisions and make them themselves. The leaders have no authority at all.

I am responsible for everything, but in charge of nothing.

This is called “servant leadership”. I call it “all people skills, all the time”.

It is quite the reach for me. I am accustomed to using my experience and judgement to discern the best path, and then visualizing the best way to follow that path, and then tasking people to get the work done. Now instead, I analyze data about my team to see where they can improve and then sort of urge them to improve in that way. I task no one. My experience and judgement are still functioning, I still know the best path. But I have to learn how to get the team to find that path themselves, and be at peace even when they ignore the path or choose another one altogether.

I am not confident that I will be successful in this new milieu. I am treating it as if I had to learn a new technical skill – getting books, reading, taking classes. I’ve become certified.

But I have decades of experience to unlearn and unwind and it is difficult. Last week I tried to make a change on my own. A simple change, and one that had good reason to be made. But no, I am not empowered to make changes. Only the team may decide when and what to change. It went poorly.

Today I have to try again. Except this time I am not going to change anything. I am going to show the team a list of things that need to be changed, without including anything about how to change or when or really any specifics at all. Just a list of things that need improvement.

I am going to try and get the team to put those things in a priority order. Some of the those things I can just fix by myself without involving the team. Many of those things involve people outside of the team, elsewhere in the organization; those are items I can take too.

Maybe if the team sees those things being improved they will be more serious about improving those things that are internal to the team too.


If I can get them to participate in the prioritization at all.


Part of me misses the days when I could just tell them to do what needs to be done. But this can be better – I have always felt that multiple brains are better than one – maybe we can do this all together and come out the stronger for it.

I have to hope, right?

Otherwise it is off to the next place to start again. Again.

🙂 😀 🙂

  2 Responses to “Leading From the Rear (and Feeling Like an Ass)”

Comments (2)
  1. So, you’ve become that fine hireling, Zeran? 🙂

  2. The key to resolving the Peter Principle is in understanding the phrase, “What got you here, won’t take you there.”

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: