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"Success" should not mean "Management"


We might all say that career success should be measured by how fulfilled you are on the job, but in practice, most people and companies still measure success by how high you climbed the corporate ladder. Clawed yourself near the top of the org chart? You ARE successful. But if you're not on a leadership track, playing the "my number of direct reports is bigger than yours" game, you're probably not. We all know this is lunacy, especially in the tech world, so why do so many companies still have only a single path for promotions? You either move into management or your career (pay, benefits, perks, control, etc.) stands still.

Isn't it about time we quit measuring professional success in one dimension, vertically, and start considering how much your actual work matches your desired work?

And isn't it about time more companies started offering multiple career tracks, where management is no more valuable or important than the highly-skilled work of an individual contributor? (Sun is a good example of a company that offers two clear paths--one for management, and one for individual contributors who'd rather bathe cats than be a boss.)

What happens when a company gives an employee no option for growth other than management? Yes, lots of individual contributors (even programmers) want the challenge of a management role, but some of the best feel forced into trading the work they love best for more "advancement opportunities". How senseless is it to take a star programmer and make her do Gantt charts? How lame it is to take your best designer and make him run budget meetings, review TPS reports, and consolidate time sheets?

This post was partly inspired by Anne 2.0's Where Are The Women Redux, which (among other things) talks about conferences that claim they can't find enough women speakers because their aren't enough women in those top leadership roles. Anne makes a fabulous point with:
"It’s no surprise that you might find more “smart” women speakers elsewhere than in the upper reaches of large tech and media companies. Part of being smart is weighing your options and making tradeoffs. Women face a radically different opportunity landscape than do men. I’m not going to say one or the other landscape is better–they’re different. But if you care about having more women as speakers at your tech conference, you might have to go with someone other than a senior level executive or dealmaker type."

So, yes, I'm thinking that we should wean ourselves from evaluating professional success on management level (even if it's within a company we started and own). Rather than asking about someone's rank, position, job title, number of direct reports, power, etc. we should focus on one simple question: how closely does the work you do match the work you want to do? We should start thinking of ways to make sure that kick-ass individual contributors can be compensated just as well as managers, so that they aren't torn between getting a promotion that sucks (into management) or sticking with what they're good at and love, for less pay.

[And yes, I realize that this is all way over-simplified with tons of big, tricky issues including the whole ugly mess about how some jobs (engineers) are considered so much more valuable than others (teachers), etc. But even if I were smart enough to take that all on (I'm not), we can't do it all in one blog.]

We should start thinking in Venn diagrams instead of hierarchical org charts. But I want to know what you think--I've seen this from only one side--as an individual contributor who'd rather program in punch cards than do an Employee Performance Review.

Posted by Kathy on September 6, 2006 | Permalink


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Yes! "Professional success" is not necessarily the same as success in your life. After all, we should all be doing what we love (http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html)

Keep it high!

Posted by: Antonio | Sep 7, 2006 12:03:45 AM

Absolutely right!
I've been pondering for some years how it would be possible to make this work.
What (and how) do you have to do to companies or the economy or some_other_thing to somehow continuing to reward people for what it is that they are good at.

The thought first came to me when in some engineering management subject (slightly ironic that even back at uni they were paving the way for people to enter management?) they spoke about the "Peter Principle."

The obvious question seemed to me was "if everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence - why don't we stop?"
Of course, the answer to that is basically that if you stop so do all of the benefits that go along with advancement. So what is it that has to change to ensure that you can:
1) affect a corporate change so that it is competence that is rewarded and not vertical position
2) ensure that there is no stigma attached to staying put.

Quite apart from the fact that (as you point out) people feel forced into a management position that they may not enjoy (and which they may not be any good at!), as you push that person into that management role you lose the often considerable ability and _knowledge_ that goes with them.

The other thing to bear in mind is that all of this assumes that the skill set that makes you good at doing something at one end of the org chart by definition makes you good at the other end. But that just simply isn't true! I've had a small number of really good managers in my time - and neither they nor I were under any illusion that they knew the intricacies of what I was doing. And they didn't have to either.
You only need to have a look at the broad results of some personality tests to see that there are vocations that attract small clusters of personality types. Those personality types don't necessarily mean that they are going to be good with people. Or task setting. Or decision making...

One of my mottos in life is "experience is being able to say 'I think I've stuffed up like this before'" - the problem with pushing people away from the areas in which they have developed this experience (eg. development roles) is that you lose touch with the people who might well be able to solve problems in 5 minutes that it takes less experienced people weeks to work out.

Here's hoping that we can all come up with a plan! :-)

Posted by: omni | Sep 7, 2006 1:03:34 AM

Sun has a cat bathing progression path? What about dog whispering?

Posted by: Mathew Patterson | Sep 7, 2006 1:04:16 AM

I would say that both perspectives apply to some extent. We are all happy or unhappy as individuals, but our environment work like nature to some extent, i.e. survival of the fittest. With scarce resources (money), we are very much aware of people richer or more successful than us, and vice versa. This may just be my venn-diagram speaking..

Incidentally, I purchased a wacom tablet recently, also wanting to get into the mindmapping-game on my mac. But I can't seem to figure out how to make these drawings in mindmanager (the trial version) or freemind, except if I paste it from Ink into preview, save it as an image and insert that into the mindmap. How do you do it?

Posted by: Vincent van Wylick | Sep 7, 2006 3:00:55 AM

My measure of success would be how robust is my ability to move from job to job at will. I've heard it said that real producers tend to view life as a smorgasbord of opportunities and experiences to try out, but I feel that you need a certain level of expertise and training to get to that point, or you're little more than an itinerant. So my criteria for success within a given job is, is it giving me the experience and skills I need to move on to another job I'm more into? Am I getting where I want to go, or am I being locked out of opportunities?

Frankly I'd be happy if I never go into management - I just wanna geek. :-)

Posted by: Matt Moran | Sep 7, 2006 3:53:22 AM

Sometimes, the path to success involves leaving the company, because there is no place to move up. I enjoy my current work, but to get better pay I have to go somewhere else.

My boss is aware that I have been applying for other jobs, and he understands my dilemna. He values me as an employee and does not want to lose me. So, we met and he said, he cannot offer me the same pay as those other jobs, because our work depends on grants and money is tight, but he did say,

"What can we do to make you happy".

Although more money would be great, I was pleasantly surprised by this comment, and perplexed.

One is so used to thinking of success in terms of salary, that to be in a position to come up with other endpoints is much more ..... personal. I am now in the position of asking myself, instead of more money, what things will make me happier in my job.

Still thinking on that one...

Posted by: Mary-Anne | Sep 7, 2006 4:12:26 AM

You have hit right on a nail in my flesh:)

Sure many of us would have loved to go further and further in tech track, but how many people have how many choices with kids to look after and mortages to pay?

Many organizations as I have seen, mostly those mamothian IT houses, pay a great developer a fraction of an average sales guy or deal maker. And they are not ashamed of it nor do they care.

However, the silver lining I found is that many small or mid-size product and tech companies are very open and try to do things differently. But then again, if you are stuck up in an economy or geography with fewer opportunities, you are in a manhole.

To some extent like in art, one got to know when "passion-of-work" succumbs to the "pain-of-survival". Maybe someday Kathy will show us a cute graph where they intersect, when a geek says yes to hierarchy climb and agrees to live his life in ppt hell.

Posted by: s | Sep 7, 2006 6:04:04 AM


Great post. Your venn diagram (circles) looks eeriely similar to the approach that Ricardo Semler (of The Maverick fame) advocates. His book, The Seven Day Weekend is really cool.

Posted by: Radha Mukkai | Sep 7, 2006 7:19:11 AM

A company that truly values deep technical knowledge should allow one to follow technical pursuits without giving up the freedom and reputation that typically come from management roles.

I work for a place called Cigital, and here we have a forked path of progression. The pay scales up exactly the same on either path - but on one path, you get more time to raise business, manage, and really get to know clients. On the other path, you get time to research, write technical books, and otherwise really get into technical detail. Business and Technical managers are expected to manage projects together, but with very different roles.

I don't mean to advertise. I say this because it makes a real difference, helps us grow and attract fun people to work with, and these are things you can use to convince your managers who miss writing code.

Posted by: Ben Walther | Sep 7, 2006 7:21:34 AM

venn diagrams rock: http://indexed.blogspot.com/

i think in some places management is a necessary evil. it seems like that how life goes... you learn all this stuff from the people on top, your mum, your teachers, your trainers... and then once you've learned it you go on to have your own little babies/students/trainees. or something. but only in some places. and why can't there be exceptions? it would be really cool if my dad could make as much as he does as head engineer for doing the underling jobs he likes much much better.

Posted by: amelia | Sep 7, 2006 8:31:12 AM

Brilliant post with general applicability... I would liken climbing, grasping market competition to the corporate hierarchical model for career success. And the venn identity success model when applied to organizational goals doesn't require dominance as a measure of success. I love your quick insightful grasp of complex matters, Kathy.

Posted by: Frank Paynter | Sep 7, 2006 8:49:26 AM

Amen. That is exactly the message of Marcus Buckingham. He has an impressive web site:


I just bought the film, which is quite powerful. I've always felt the key to career success is to find a place where you can do what you do best, and love doing... and have someone give you money for that!

Posted by: Paul | Sep 7, 2006 9:09:36 AM


I agree entirely. I posted a few months ago - http://www.bellubbi.com/wordpress/2005/12/09/how-successful-are-you/

"To try and quantify it we could use a simple equation: happiness = a/b where, a = number of tasks that you do out of your own volition (tasks that you enjoy doing) and b = number of tasks that you are forced\asked to do without your complete approval

If the number you come up with is greater than 1 – You’re lucky! and more importantly I think you’re pretty happy in your job. If you find the number is less than 1; find out what you think your spin is on money, power and popularity and you can start framing the answer to the question we started off with – What does it mean to be successful?"

Posted by: Kiran Bellubbi | Sep 7, 2006 9:16:18 AM

For some of us, the answer comes by splitting our time between two (or even more) positions. Since I like food far too much to ever want to be a starving artist, I've taken a part-time job. My job tasks are not heinous, my co-workers are a blast, my pay is steady (even though it's not very high), and my insurance needs are covered. And the best part is that I have half a day every day to do my artwork and market it, pray for sales, etc etc. According to the Venn diagram, my circles are probably about 3/4s overlapped, thanks to my RWJ being so pleasant.

Posted by: Cyndi L | Sep 7, 2006 10:24:13 AM


So true. Back in the 80's I was a Director of a software company and hated it. I so wanted just to be left alone with vi.

The president of that company had the same idea: "Why not have a technical career path with the same opportunities for advancement as a management career path?" But he didn't have time to implement that before we were swallowed by much bigger fish (first Convergent, then Unisys).

Posted by: Sterling Camden | Sep 7, 2006 10:39:33 AM


I'm not sure if you're familiar with David Maister. He's the guru of professional service firms, and he's recently talked about this topic quite a bit. He argues that most top professionals make subpar managers because the traits needed to succeed are so different. [And he proudly admits that there will never be an "and Associates" behind his name because he knows he doesn't want to be a manager!]

I think the central challenge to breaking the hierarchy is measuring the economic benefit of different types of work. It's EASY for HR to do comparative surveys and establish artificial grades and pay scales - essentially creating a set of pay buckets that managers can subjectively sort people into. Measuring the economic impact of each of a set of developers is trickier. Most large companies make the economic choice of having a simpler value judging mechanism vs. losing potential top performers who know they're worth more. In areas where measuring value is easier (e.g., Sales), compensation is more directly tied to that perceived value. There's also the issue of regulatory compliance that makes the complicated bucket system more attractive, but that'll get me started on a rant. So I'll stop now. Great post as always!


Posted by: Mike DeWitt | Sep 7, 2006 11:19:09 AM

Timing could not be better. just had a obligatory "performance review" today. and as an side-effect started to think about my own career development (or the lack of it) in traditional terms.

Posted by: jps | Sep 7, 2006 12:13:11 PM

This really hits home for me as an entry level software engineer who is trying to decide which path I eventually want to take.

I'm not at that crossroad now, since I'll need to be doing what I'm doing for a while anyway, but it is something that I think about a lot.

For me, I might enjoy the challenges of management, but I already enjoy what I'm doing, so I'm not sure if I would really change anything. One thing that I know is that I don't want an entry level salary for the rest of my life, and I'm pretty sure that a software engineer's (even a senior one) salary won't compare to a manager's.

I would absolutely love it if your idea here became true. It would be like professional sports (like baseball), where it's the PLAYERS that get paid the big bucks, not the managers (although the managers get paid pretty well, just not as much as the players).

Posted by: Sean C. | Sep 7, 2006 12:25:31 PM

Since in all fairness a manager has to earn more than his employees, whether or not a reluctant techie moves into management depends on whether or not his greed outweighs his desire for job satisfaction. This has always been the case. I think it always will be the case.

I don't believe there is a technical job that doesn't command a salary well above the national average so the only reason for not making the mortgage payment on a techie salary is that you bought a house that was too expensive. Greed. We can't escape it. It's why so many IT and engineering managers are jerks. Well, that and the fact that managing techies is really stressful.

Posted by: S. | Sep 7, 2006 12:36:17 PM

S. posted:
"Since in all fairness a manager has to earn more than his employees..."

With articles about challenging assumptions still fresh in my head...

Why? Why do they?
And if they currently must, what things/attitudes have to change to make that not the case?

Posted by: omni | Sep 7, 2006 4:59:04 PM

About career tracks, Steve McConnell uses an interesting model at Construx, or at least, did when he published "Professional Software Development: Shorter Schedules, Higher Quality Products, More Successful Projects, Enhanced Careers". The model is described in one of the late chapters of the book.

To summarize, the employees are encouraged to develop their skills in different knowledge areas (inspired by SWEBOK), but they decide which areas they want to evolve in. Management is just one skill among others.

It's probably one of the most interesting books I read over the year (kind of pleased my software engineering undergraduate ego).


Posted by: Louis-Philippe Huberdeau | Sep 7, 2006 5:04:19 PM

Maybe we should start using these companies that we shape our lives around by being their employee(slave) as a stepping stone for running our own businesses. Then implement our beliefs of how people succeed at work into our business.
Not so easy.
If the position were leader and not manager maybe people would feel more successful. Managers make sure people do the work. Leaders inspire people to do better work.

Posted by: Devion Ayers | Sep 7, 2006 10:55:41 PM

This is a very large and complex issue...

Years ago I worked with a fellow who was offered a prized promotion, only to turn it down because he liked 'making widgets' and 'didn't want the increased stress'.

I understood his decision, having made a similar one a while earlier, and congratulated him on his choice. Most others in the company were confused, some upset and a few outright angry. In the end, it was accepted that he was 'giving up' the climb and settling in till retirement (over 10 years away, but I always find it interesting how decisions are excused).

This fellow knew what you are talking about, knew what he wanted, and was happy to stay where he was. He also knew that in making this decision his pay and conditions would stay the same. In that company, at least, little has changed.

This is just the start of what I think is a very long conversation...

Posted by: Michael Vanderdonk | Sep 8, 2006 1:59:02 AM

Utopia, pure Utopia.

People that share your view (myself included) are a very small minority and due to that belief never (seldom) reach positions where they can actually make a difference.

Humans strive on dominating other humans so as to payback the harm that has been done to them by people in similar situations in the past (stupid considering they should be harming those who harmed them). The cycle is self-nurturing and will not break anytime soon.

Posted by: CV | Sep 8, 2006 5:49:31 AM

I think you set a good bar here for those of us who want to be managers. :-) My goal is to help craft strong teams working on a good goal, and I need to work on making sure my team gets the opportunities they need to grow professionally.

On the other hand, I am aware of a number of people who don't want to be managers, or, particularly, be managed. And that's not OK. All jobs require some level of management, and if you don't want to do it, you need to learn how to work with people who do.

(I'm not saying, of course, that you have to respect the Pointy-Haired Bosses who climb the org chart because it's there. Only that you ought not assume that every manager is one.)

Posted by: Joe | Sep 8, 2006 5:59:06 AM

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