Do Nice Engineers Finish Last in Tough Times?

Monday Jan 19th 2009 by Eric Spiegel
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A tale of two IT professionals, one nice, one ruthless. Which one survived the wave of pink slips?

We all know this is a tough job market with unemployment on the rise. Just because you have technical skills does not make you immune.

The global economy, along with cost cutting, is pushing CIO’s to look offshore again, just when the tide was turning in favor of the convenience of local resources. Or they are simply cutting staff and putting more burdens on those left to steer the ship.

The fact is that people in software development and IT in general will be getting pink slips. What I’m wondering is, if you were a manager that was tasked with determining who stays and who is shown the door, how would you make this decision? There are many managers right at this very instant who are struggling with this dilemma.

Of course some of these decisions are easier, such as cutting the underperformers who are paid more than they are worth on the open market. Some like to call that trimming the fat, which frankly should be done regardless of the economic conditions. Then you have the Welch (former CEO of GE) theory of cutting the lowest 10% performers based on whatever ingenious rating scale the HR department came up with. Again, just another version of trimming fat.

But what if times are so tough and budgets are so tight that trimming the fat is not going to cut it? (pun intended).

What about those who perform above average, who are getting paid what they are worth? How would you decide who stays and who goes? Allow me to relay a story to you so that you can think about what decisions you would have made.

An acquaintance of mine who manages a server farm for a large retail corporation recently went through an interesting and, to me, a disheartening experience. He managed a few engineers that make sure all servers and applications are running smoothly. We’ll call him Stuart.

Stuart is a good guy. Very nice and well liked by his coworkers. And to my knowledge he is very competent as well, having worked his way up from a support engineer into management in a just few years at the company.

Well, Stuart has a peer manager who took care of networks and security. We’ll call him Doug. According to Stuart, Doug was not so nice. He was rather conniving and was constantly taking credit for his team’s accomplishments and sometimes other teams -- especially Stuart’s team. Stuart on the other hand always gave his team credit for their work and praised his peer’s accomplishments. He basically ignored Doug, only dealing with him professionally as necessary.

Even worse, Doug consistently called out his team members in front of upper management when things went wrong. If a virus made its way from someone’s thumb drive onto the network, Doug could be heard screaming at employees down the hall. When one of Stuart’s team members made a mistake, he would take that opportunity to teach them and would take full responsibility for the error with management.

Ok, you get the picture. Stuart – nice guy. Doug – not so nice guy. Both delivered results and both were paid the same. Their years of experience were identical and both had college degrees.

Their manager was the Director of IT. We’ll call her Kelly. Kelly’s boss was the CIO, who had told all of the upper management team to reduce their staff by 50%. The retail business for the holiday season was a disaster, much worse than anticipated. Drastic cuts had to be made – and fast.

Next Page: Who got laid off?

Kelly gathered her team of managers and asked them to rate their employees and then she would work with them to determine who would be laid off. What she didn’t tell them was that she was rating her direct reports because managers would be on the chopping block as well.

As usual, the layoff rumors started as soon as the holiday sales numbers were reported in the press. Doug came into Stuart’s office soon after and asked if he thought management was at risk. Stuart said he wasn’t worried about it; instead he was focusing on fairly rating his team and even thinking about where he might be able to help them find jobs elsewhere. Doug just smirked and left the office. (Kind of guy you want to have a beer with right?)

Later that day Stuart saw Doug go into Kelly’s office and close the door. At the time, he didn’t know exactly what was said. But later he found out. I’ll get back to that.

The next day, Kelly calls Stuart into her office. She asked for his team’s ratings list that he had compiled. Then she gave him the bad news. He was also being let go. Doug would be made the manager of infrastructure, taking over Stuart’s team. When Stuart asked why him, Kelly just shrugged her shoulders and said “tough decisions had to be made.”

He asked one favor of Kelly. He wanted to be the one to give the bad news to the selected members of his team that they were being terminated. Kelly agreed. (I wonder if HR knew about that?)

The first person Stuart informed handled it pretty well and said he appreciated everything Stuart had done for him. Then this engineer said “I think you should know something. You know how my cubicle is up against Kelly’s office wall? Well, I overheard a conversation between her and Doug.” (Evidently Doug doesn’t know how to talk softly while stabbing someone in the back.)

What the engineer disclosed was that when Doug had that closed door conversation with Kelly, he went in there to make his case to take over Stuart’s team. The engineer quoted him as saying “Really, Stuart is too nice and isn’t capable of making the tough decisions that will be necessary for us to survive this downturn. I will be ruthless and make you look really, really good Kelly.”

So what would you have done in Kelly’s shoes? When times are tough, do you need to keep people that are tough as nails or nice like Stuart? Should Stuart have been more proactive about making his own case to Kelly?

I’ll leave you with this. The remainder of Stuart’s team went to Kelly and told her that they would all be looking for other jobs if they had to work for Doug. Not a smart move in this economy, but I’m sure they felt strongly about it. Should this have persuaded Kelly? I can tell you that it did not.

Ah, the life of a manager! Writing code looks better and better. But I’ll stick to writing articles – for now.

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