Two recent events have reminded me of the Peter Principle - the one that says everybody is eventually promoted to their level of incompetence. If someone is good at a job, they are promoted to the next rung of the ladder, and so on, until they are overcome by vertigo. Thus, the competent major becomes a bungling colonel or the stalwart chief clerk, or a struggling bank manager.
Even if they never reach the incompetence stage, many of the best performers in a job spend little time doing it, before being whisked off to pen-pushing positions where their hands-on skills are largely wasted - good teachers become head teachers, good sales people become area managers - get the picture?
The government has acknowledged this, at least within the NHS, by creating a grade of super nurses who will continue tending the sick, but will be paid a decent salary for doing so. This should reduce the temptation to chuck their vocation in favour of something useless but lucrative - estate agency, say, or management consultancy.
A salesman friend of mine has gone the other way. He ran his own publishing company, with a dozen or so sales and administration staff. But he got fed up with managing other people doing a job which he felt he could do better himself. So he sacked the entire sales force and reduced the company to a one-man band, with himself as chief salesman. In effect, he has reversed the Peter Principle, demoting himself back to his level of competence.
My friend's case is a little extreme. But many IT professionals go through much the same process, quitting full-time employment to become freelance programmers, engineers or consultants. Sometimes it's for the money or the freedom. But often it's because they couldn't otherwise progress their careers without giving up the skills which made those careers possible in the first place. You can't blame them.
Those who stay in technical jobs are perceived as dead-end no hopers or socially-retarded anoraks with personal hygiene problems. So the better they are at cutting code, interviewing users, providing support or writing manuals, the sooner they have to stop.
I've never thought that pushing one's most talented workers into management or freelancing was a very sensible way of running a business. Perhaps now, in these times of skills shortage and millennium panic, the IT industry will begin to agree.
It should be prepared to pay its best technicians, sales people, help desk operators and other junior staff a decent whack for continuing to do what they're best at - and give them the recognition and status they deserve for doing so.
There's no reason why IT people shouldn't be promoted into management. I've known some very lousy techies who have made excellent managers. But I've also known a number of excellent techies who made extremely lousy managers. And it wasn't their fault either. It was the fault of the system that pushed them too far up the ladder.
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