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The Dead Sea Effect In the IT Workplace 396

Posted by kdawson
from the cream-evaporates-to-mix-a-metaphor dept.
Alien54 notes a blog posting by old hand Bruce F. Webster on the current state of affairs in hiring in IT, focusing on what he calls the Dead Sea Effect. "Many large IT shops... work like the Dead Sea. New hires are brought in as management deems it necessary. Their qualifications... will tend to vary quite a bit, depending upon current needs, employee departure, the personnel budget, and the general hiring ability of those doing the hiring. All things being equal, the general competency of the IT department should have roughly the same distribution as the incoming hires. Instead, what happens is that the more talented and effective IT engineers are the ones most likely to leave -- to evaporate, if you will. They are the ones least likely to put up with the frequent stupidities and workplace problems that plague large organizations; they are also the ones most likely to have other opportunities that they can readily move to. What tends to remain behind is the 'residue' -- the least talented and effective IT engineers."
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The Dead Sea Effect In the IT Workplace

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  • Re:Laminated talent (Score:4, Interesting)

    by karnal (22275) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @12:55AM (#23051822)
    Actually, the problem I'm witnessing personally at work is that when one gets promoted within the same department, it isn't as clean of a break from the old job responsibilities as you might think. If the people who are doing your old job don't step up - and you're still in the same general area (even if your title/job duties change) - the old stuff comes with you, and it's your responsibility to make sure others grasp your job.

    Granted, I am not complaining, as sometimes there's really no other way to do this. However, my personal grumble is that the others don't truly seem like they have the time - or the initiative - to step up as I did......

    But they still complain about not being promoted. I can lead a horse to water with the best of them, though...
  • where do they go (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @01:13AM (#23051890)
    Where do the more talented and effective ones go? Google?
  • I have seen this (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @01:18AM (#23051922)
    I have witnessed this first hand. When I started my new job a couple years back, the "youngest" of the bunch had been there 10 years already, while the eldest was sitting at 25. There was very much the attitude of, "Don't rock the boat", and consquently too many things that should have been done years ago hadn't even been looked at. Further, everyone had a paraniod "don't tell them how it works" attitude, in case someone might want to replace you. Which made learning the job 10x harder than it should have been. Documentation? Are you kidding? You write down what you know, and they can replace you that much easier. It was, and in many ways still is, unreal.

    Since I started, I have increased efficiency dramatically by doing simple things like labeling devices ( computers, routers, ect... ), documenting passwords and usernames for network devices, and implementing document storage. And I am a peon, front level line worker. I still have to motivate my "peers" to get off their asses and get something done, elsewise it would be ignored until it blows up in our faces.
  • by AMerlin (1272110) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @01:53AM (#23052092)
    Something else is happening in the Dead Sea. Those who are left behind have an easy time assuming that they are the right ones to inherit the kingdom and will be looking for more like themselves. This may be very appropriate for a time and place so they may not be just 'residue' but it bodes poorly for flexibility. This culture builds until it is the only acceptable culture and the "way we have been and will always be". There is a building self-fulfilling prophecy that can blind a company to other options and stifle the ability to adapt to changing situations. This is fine if the market is on the upswing, but deadly where there is a "self-correction".
  • Re:Laminated talent (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LittleRunningGag (1124519) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @02:10AM (#23052160)
    Many expanding companies see this as training your replacement. If you can do that then you're good for management because you're already kind of doing it.
  • How large is large? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by owlstead (636356) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @02:23AM (#23052214)
    My company manages all that without being large (~300 persons). Are we sure we aren't talking about every company where the CEO doesn't know all the people working for the company? I can talk to the CEO on first name bases, most of us can and may do that, but he wouldn't necessarily know what's going on and how frustrating the working space can get.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @02:26AM (#23052238)
    This has been my experience. Where I am now we used to do a LOT of outsourcing. Management finally realized what we all knew already. The folks overseas are useful as grunt labor but thats about it. They don't have the experience or training for the senior positions. They certainly can't be relied on for any important decisions or critical projects without major oversight. All the leads at my company spend a lot of time up at 4AM hand-holding our valuable outsourced help.

    The sum up example would be the "star outsourcing employee" was stumped for two days on a project because he didn't know how to add a directory to his path and couldn't figure out why he couldn't run a certain binary. And for whatever reason didn't ask anyone for help.

    Or how about the guy that locked out over 30 different systems from a gateway host because he forgot his password and tried 50 times from 30 different boxes before deciding to send an e-mail asking for a password reset.

    Seriously. You get what you pay for. Cheap labor is... cheap.
  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @02:33AM (#23052262)
    Costs are down...

    Catastrophic failures are up. Staff productivity is way down.

    Combination of SOX, offshoring & out-hosting of our hardware.

    When things do fail- there is an increasingly small staff (last time one guy worked 48 hours straight to save the company (multi-billion dollar co)). If he had told them to shine on each day after putting in a 10 hour day, the company would have lost millions. And yet... they are still probably considering continuing to outsource to the people who could do nothing to help us when that happened.

    They seem to think, if you looked at the code 2 years ago, you are going to be competent to keep it running in a crisis.

  • Re:Laminated talent (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eagle7 (111475) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @03:02AM (#23052356) Homepage
    That is why one of the keys to being promoted is never allow yourself to become indispensable in your current job. As another reply stated, always be training your replacement. Its common advice from hundreds of "career help" books, and it makes sense precisely because of what you described.
  • by dvice_null (981029) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @03:53AM (#23052514)
    > What about those of us who love our jobs and love to excel in them, but don't want to make work our entire life?

    They are called average.

    Programming is my life. I work as a programmer because that is an easy way to pay the bills. If I had enough money I would probably stop working, but I wouldn't stop programming.
  • Re:not just IT (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @04:27AM (#23052638)
    As a tech manager, I can confirm this has been the case. My ability to reward good employees is limited to trinkets and nominal raises. However, if someone quits and the job rec stays open long enough, I can get the salary bumped 20-30%.

    Realize that HR is tasked with keeping the payroll down moreso than keeping great employees happy. Because of this, as an employee, one should always realize that the best raise is across the street.
  • by hazem (472289) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @04:31AM (#23052658) Journal
    I'm sure there were many employees in the American textile industry who said exactly the same thing. Unfortunately for them, all but the tiniest fraction of the entire industry is now located somewhere not in the US.

    To make it worse, while it can be argued that outsourcing IT abroad is not as cheap is it appears on paper, there is still downward pressure on wages/salaries because you have more local people pursuing a decreasing number of jobs.

    In an analogy, it's like having a bunch of farmers, so some great, some good, and some not so good. When the soil is fertile and the climate is good for growing, everyone does well. But throw in a 5 year drought, and even the great farmers will find themselves out of work.

    So, while I'm sure you're an excellent, innovative, and adaptable employee, once companies and even whole industries move abroad, there's not going to be much for you but to take a lower paying job, probably not even doing what you enjoy. If anything you'll get stuck where you are because you already cost too much to be promoted and you'll be surrounded by the dead-sea residue that this article talks about... at least until the economy finally starts to swing in a more active direction.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @05:30AM (#23052854)
    Yes, ultimately bad management is the issue, but outsourcing and layoffs are some of the few things good lower management can't screen you from. A good manager has a large bag of tricks they can and will dig into to shield their groups. But outsourcing is one of those decisions that's made in secrete on high, and often your manager finds out the same day you do.

    I'm in the same boat as the grand parent. For the last 8 years I've been employed by one of the top 50 in the fortune 500. I'd say there is a lot of truth to the article.

    So why have I stayed for 8 years? Because for the first 7 I had a very good manager. She shielded us from a lot of the corporate bullshit. Because of this she was able to hold together a group of fairly skilled people. I enjoyed working with them, and that's why I stayed so many years even with the ever increasing corporate stupidity. But, last year she pissed off someone higher on the corporate ladder (fighting for us). Our team was disbanded, and she was tricked into leading a group that had already been selected for outsourcing.

    I should have quit then. But, one of my former teammates convinced me to join his team on another application (he's just a team lead, not true management). I've been regretting that decision ever since. The distribution of skills in the new application follows that described in the article, and there is little shielding from the corporate bullshit. I've spent a large part of the last 6 months trying to push through a small tool that took around a week to write. In my previous group, it would have been a small side project that would have been handled outside of the usual process (it's just a small tool to aid the test team). I've held on as long as I have because my old teammate is a good friend, and he was convinced he could change things.

    But, there have been rumors flying around for a week that upper management is looking to replace our application (actually longer, but there's been more substance lately). And now I have a meeting request on my calendar from our manager with a subject so vague there can't be any doubt about it's purpose. That's it, I'm out. I have my resume open in another window, time to get back to work.

  • by LKM (227954) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @05:46AM (#23052914) Homepage
    Perhaps they go and start their own shop? It's something I see in the Mac business. Lots of people leaving larger (thinks Apple) or even semi-large (think Omni Group) companies to start their own software companies. It's easy for us developers to do so, since one developer can produce a full, finished, sellable product within a reasonable timespan (like half a year) with minimal outside help (some graphics design, some translation, probably some money and law stuff).

    As a developer, if you can put away enough money to survive half a year, you can start your own company with minimum risk.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @05:47AM (#23052916)

    they're pushing to do it more because the costs are down
    Hey, at least your managers have a logical excuse for it, then! Where I work, management is outsourcing like crazy, except they're paying significantly more for the outsourced work than it would cost to do the job in-house!

    The excuse given is that their contracts impose financial penalties on the contractors if the work doesn't meet set standards, whereas if it was done in-house (at 1/5 the cost) there wouldn't be anyone to blame for failures. No doubt this makes sense if you have an MBA instead of a brain.
  • Re:Privatization (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Matey-O (518004) <michaeljohnmiller@mSPAMsSPAMnSPAM.com> on Sunday April 13, 2008 @09:51AM (#23053862) Homepage Journal
    We're centralizing all of State IT under one organization. The idea that a whole state can negotiate contracts better than a dozen smaller seperate shops, that three departements at a single location don't need three seperate IT infrastructures.

    Typically this is done to cut bodycount, but we're already down 10-15% due to retirement and staff leaving the state.

    One of the new tenets is 'internal service providers.' A talented internal staff will _always be_ cheaper than outsourcing, as they know the environment, have a desire to keep their house in order (ideally), and don't have the overhead of the golden parachutes and Sales-force of a consulting firm.

    And frankly, the success rate of those huge, top tier contractors (the ones that advertise down entire terminals of airports) is hovering around 0% here.

  • by bfwebster (90513) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:27AM (#23054024) Homepage
    Thanks for all the great comments, though I suspect many of you didn't ready anything more than the brief extract posted here at Slashdot. :-) Because certain themes keep coming up again and again, I thought I'd address them in a single post (I also posted this over at my website).

    Here's a response to the main themes that I see coming up there.

    The Dead Sea effect isn't unique to IT. True enough, though I could say the same thing about just about any project management issue regarding IT. What is unusual about IT (shared with other engineering disciplines) is the degree to which individual talent and other factors affect productivity and quality [brucefwebster.com]. And what is unique about IT (as opposed to, say, civil / mechanical / chemical engineers, architects, etc.) is that there is no standard (state-run) professional certification, so there is no assurance of minimum education and competency.

    This is obvious/common sense/trivial. So are most of the problems in IT. Fred Brooks [amazon.com] and Jerry Weinberg [amazon.com] pretty much nailed down all the essential issues in IT project and personnel management more than 30 years ago; yet, amazingly, the problems haven't all gone away! There is a profound lack of professional and institutional memory in IT; almost everyone who writes about IT project/personnel management [bfwa.com] (myself included) is looking for new ways to cast or explain the core issues in a touching hope that maybe this time someone will actually listen and fix them.

    The Dead Sea effect is just the Peter Principal (or a corollary thereof). No, it isn't. The Peter Principal [wikipedia.org] is that a given person rises to her/his level of incompetence (I'm actually old enough to remember when 'the Peter Principal' first came out). This has nothing to do with promotion within the IT organization; it has to do with self-selected removal from that IT organization, not due to a lack of promotion or opportunity, but just because there are greener pastures elsewhere.

    Not all IT shops are like this . I would certainly hope so. In fact, there are IT organizations where just the opposite occurs; the quality of the IT engineers is quite high, and engineers who are mediocre or disruptive either don't get hired or don't last long if they are. I worked in one such IT group (Pages Software [brucefwebster.com]) for five years. During that time, we had only one voluntary departure (the network admin); we had two others who were dismissed due to problems, and a few others who were (painfully) cut in downsizing.

    Not everyone 'left behind' is incompetent . Again, this syndrome doesn't apply to all IT groups, and it doesn't apply to the same extent to all IT groups. Turnover in IT personnel is common (though it can be reduced by intelligent management), and just because good engineers have left a given IT group doesn't mean that the rest are, in fact, residue. What I'm talking about here is a very real syndrome, typically found in large corporations and government organizations, but it's certainly not universal.

    The IT hiring process is broken. Amen. Not only is the IT hiring process broken in many organizations, the entire approach to IT is often broken. It is rife with empire-building, 'heroic' project management, and an 'interchangeable code monkeys' mindset. As mentioned in the comments
  • by jedidiah (1196) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:16AM (#23054292) Homepage
    Quite so.

    Even if you are obsessed about your profession, it doesn't necessarily mean
    that you want to do it for your corporate overlords 24/7. You may also want
    to persue your own chosen projects in your field in your downtime.

    Eventhough my "day job" is in my chosen profession, it still remains quite
    distinct and separate from my chosen profession.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:23AM (#23054344)
    You should be. I spent the better part of the past 9 years developing the IT department from a 1 person shop (me) to a 37 person team spread around the globe. We managed to bypass the HR department to do our hiring (in other words, we hired based on actual ability rather than some standard that HR used to filter resumes before we got them) getting the people with the skills that we needed to build the strongest team possible. And we spent a good portion of our time developing relationships within the company that helped us make sure that we were doing the right things at the right times for our end users.

    During that time period, I managed (and managed is just another word for led - we were all hands on) and trained 3 different teams in our IT group - server engineering, network engineering and one of our coding groups. I also worked two full time jobs for over a year in the company, starting a new division from scratch with only two other people to help. When the facilities department was gutted, I picked up the slack, spending nights going through facilities contracts with another IT director to save the company millions of dollars. All the while having the highest retention rate of any department in the company (we didn't have anybody leave the department for over 4 years).

    But then management starting making even more brilliant decisions than usual. First they decided that with all the free time that IT had (first clue they were in fantasy land - they didn't even know were the IT offices were to have this discussion), we should be made into billable staff and start doing work for outside customers as well as our normal jobs. Then the company changed direction from commercial clients to government and started acquisitions. Which meant that we needed the person leading the IT department to come from a government contractor so the made the lead IT person from our first acquisitions (3 person IT department, 65 employees total) our CIO. That decision was rapidly followed by divesting the commercial entities. At this point I was among the longest serving employees in the company.

    And then it happened. The last commercial division was sold, even though I was corporate I was included in the sale along with my senior server engineer and a senior support person. The new owners decided that outsourcing everything (and I mean everything - engineering, support, end user interaction, etc) to a datacenter was the way to go. For the 6 months that I worked for the new company I was basically tasked with how to migrate 400 people to a new network/domain/phone system. During that time I only dealt with consultants, never actually meeting my boss. Heck, I didn't even know who my boss was. As soon as I said something about what a mess the consultants were making to the head of IT of the acquiring company, I was terminated for failure to produce results (ie - I was termed because they didn't listen to me and continued to futz around with their $250/hr consultants who, for some reason, were unwilling to hurry up the transition). That was in November of last year.

    Since then I've been unable to find equivalent work. I've now got my own startup going, but am still not making money. It's ugly out there for qualified people demanding a salary right now. Sure, I could pickup entry level positions somewhere, but those positions really don't pay the bills when you have a family with two very young children, housing prices that are so overinflated that people are burning them down so they don't have to pay their mortgages and gas prices that make it an extremely expensive proposition to commute any distance to work.

    And I'm not looking for jobs in one of the "slow" markets, I'm in Seattle.

    Don't be too cocky - I was and have now ended up at the bottom of the barrel believing that anything could happen to anyone.
  • Yes, mod parent to +5.

    "It's NOT about making things better..."

    It's about non-technical managers outsourcing so that they can say that technical things are no longer part of their responsibility. It's about avoidance of responsibility, and has nothing to do with improving anything or cutting costs.

    The manager who outsources can blame someone else when projects fail. If things get really bad, the manager just goes to another company.
  • by Cid Highwind (9258) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @01:19PM (#23054996) Homepage
    Talent flows the other way in Mac-land too. Sometimes a startup develops a neat product and gets bought (Coverflow) or has their best programmers hired away (Delicious Library) by Apple.
  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @04:33PM (#23056036)
    I have to agree with this. I have 10 years experience so far, both at small and large companies. I prefer the large ones, only because the work is steadier (despite all the layoffs), the pay and benefits MUCH better, and the amount of work generally less. It's rather demotivating at times, because of all the stupid corporate politics and decisions by upper management, and the total lack of importance of my work (projects generally get canned a lot), but the pay and 8-hour workdays more than make up for it.

    I just don't see the benefit of working for startups, as the other poster talked about, unless you stand to really gain from it monetarily (by being a co-owner). You work really LONG hours, your pay sucks, and for what? Feeling like you've contributed something? If I have to live in a shitty apartment and get lousy pay, I don't care what I've contributed.

    I've found that at big companies, the work is pretty steady. It's hard to get fired unless you're truly incompetent, or there's a big lay-off. And when that happens (the latter, not the former), you just go to one of the other big companies that's located right down the street and get a better-paying job there, rinse and repeat. When I worked at a small company right out of college and got fed up with the long hours, horrible pay, and and bad treatment, when I tried to leave, the only other company nearby was doing the exact same kind of work, and couldn't hire me because of a stupid non-compete, so I had to pack everything and move. Now, I stick with big companies, and don't sign non-competes (and big companies never ask this anyway, only stupid little small companies). The pay is good, the treatment of employees is exemplary (except when they lay off a whole division of course, but at the individual employee level, my observation has been that treatment always errs on the side of giving the employee the benefit of the doubt), and while you can't expect to stay at one company for your whole career, you can generally stay in the same city by moving around between the companies as they have lay-offs and hiring frenzies.

    The whole situation really sucks, though, IMO, and if I didn't have a plan to start my own very small (1-man) company, and have a very supportive wife with a good career of her own, I'd be wishing I had never gone into a technical career at all. To me, the key to happiness is to get away from being a wage slave and become a contractor, or have a 1-man company at home (frequently the same thing), perhaps selling stuff on the internet.
  • by Gr8Apes (679165) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:41PM (#23058700)

    ... with the right perks, like no travel.
    I fail to see how "no travel" is a perk. Who in their right minds would turn down an opportunity to see new places, especially when your employer will foot the bill?

    What are you, some sort of a small fish in a small pond?
    You're funny. I've done 100% travel for 2 years straight. Leave on Sunday, return on Saturday. It makes it real difficult to maintain a relationship with your wife, much less your friends.
  • by deroby (568773) <deroby@yucom.be> on Monday April 14, 2008 @05:00AM (#23060788)
    Having done years of "travel", I can tell you that it's not half as fun as it sounds.

    Yes, there's some good parts about it like making more money and seeing other places... but in retrospect, whenever someone asks me what's to see in eg. Milan (Italy) where I spent about half a year, all I can give them is a list of some really great restaurants, tips about taxi's and the airports and some too-expensive-for-non-business-needs hotels. Apart from that I've seen the outside of most interesting buildings in the city, but never had the time to visit them during opening hours as I was at work right then.
    Additionally, your social life comes to a grinding halt too as you usually arrive back home really late on Friday, try to make the most of Saturday to do chores and errants and get together with friends or family. On Sunday I usually tried to have a 'lazy day' (go to the library, cycle around, etc etc...), catch up with what I hadn't managed to do the day before and by the evening make sure to get at the airport again in time... Weekends quickly became too short & cramped, while weeks were slow and lonely.

    Fun for a while, extremely boring (and even frustrating) in the long run...

    Oh yeah, and I hope you like reading too, because you'll likely be doing a lot of it while waiting for planes, trains, people, ...

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