back to article From corporate bod to startup star: The 10-month gig that changed everything

For pretty much my entire career as a techie (variously a developer, manager, and consultant) I’ve worked for very large, usually global, companies, most of them in the financial industry. A couple of years ago I decided I needed a break from that world. After taking some time off to de-stress and pursue a few personal projects …

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A cracking read this - and indeed, sums up one key problem in many a firm. If you want the pay rise you have to get promoted, the old Peter Principle then comes into play.

You think more firms will realise that perhaps there's nothing wrong with having the guy in the middle or the bottom of the management ladder being the highest paid if his work is amazing.

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Yes there is plenty wrong with that. In an ideal world, people are paid consummate to the value they deliver, linked with the rarity of the skills they offer.

A middle manager, doing a fantastic job of managing a team of software developers has a finite limit to what they can achieve, even if they are 100% 'on their game'.

Meanwhile someone higher up the tree may be responsible for decisions that can affect the company by millions of pounds a year. This person is always going to be worth (and paid) a lot more than that middle manager doing a sterling job.

If you have middle management (or even bottom management as you state) earning more than people higher up the ladder, your company is a messed up.

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Anonymous Coward

@Fido L Dido

I completely disagree with your comments - and in fact you clearly disagree with yourself too!

As your opening paragraph says, people are paid commensurate (not consummate - that puts a whole different meaning on what you're trying to say!) to the value they deliver and the rarity of the skills they offer. There's no reason that, for instance, a few highly skilled developers do not deliver more value and have more scare skills than a manager one or two levels above them. Middle-ranking management are often interchangeable and more easily replaced than people with highly technical skills underneath them.

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Roo
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"If you have middle management (or even bottom management as you state) earning more than people higher up the ladder, your company is a messed up."

With all due respect, that is twaddle.

"Meanwhile someone higher up the tree may be responsible for decisions that can affect the company by millions of pounds a year. This person is always going to be worth (and paid) a lot more than that middle manager doing a sterling job."

That is a natural consequence of self-interest (aka greed) and feeding the money in at the top of a tree and letting it trickle down to the minions. It is possible to imagine other ways of distributing wages that have different properties. For example, I think it likely that many celebs earn *more* than their management team.

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Re: @Fido L Dido

I've seen many a skilled developer, who left to his own inventions produces a lot, most of which is of little or no value to the business. The skilled manager who keep these people on focus and on target are always going to be worth much more.

I've met too many software developers who think they know best, on *any* subject whatsoever. I rarely meet this sense of superiority (specifically superiority about others' disciplines) amongst other classes of job.

I would acknowledge a seed change though with younger developers, who appear far more eager to learn as opposed to an "I know better than you" attitude.

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Re: @Fido L Dido

" The skilled manager who keep these people on focus and on target are always going to be worth much more."

The what?!

"skilled" + "manager" ?

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I disagree with your greed explanation. I'm sure it's true in some cases, but it is not the predominant reason. You really think greed determines levels of pay more so than skills, experience and the rarity of those two?

I'm sure celebs do earn more than their management. The management can be replaced with relative ease compared to the celeb, because it is the celeb that is delivering most of the value.

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I disagree

Fido L Dido - I have to disagree with the idea that you can't have those in the middle earning more than those "higher up".

I started life as a techie as well, and have now moved into management. I now run a department with revenue running into the £16m space and staff spread across multiple countries. However there are people working for me who are paid more than I am - I don't see this as wrong in any way, indeed I was the one who put them on those salaries.

The salary you give is, as you say, based on the value someone brings to the organisation, along with the ease with which they can be replaced, and that is the key point.

Now I consider myself a good manager, we have grown well, I have kept the team on track and kept focus, I have made those multi-million pound decisions. However if I look through my teams, there are a number of other who could also have done that, and indeed are part of my "hit by a bus" succession plans. There are also people who have skills that are not easily found and no easily developed, therefore they are paid more.

For me, the question of salary isn't about "rank" or status, it's about skills, commitment, and the ease with which those skills can be replaced. Management, for me, is an easier skill to replace (even at a high level) than a true hairy arsed techie who can plan whole datacentre architectures and migrations or can handle mission critical infrastructure where there are million pound SLA penalties on the line.

Just my opinion of course.

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Re: @Fido L Dido

> I've met too many software developers who think they know best, on *any* subject whatsoever. I rarely meet this sense of superiority (specifically superiority about others' disciplines) amongst other classes of job.

Beautifully put, and I'll tell you why software developers are so overwhelmingly like that: they almost all think that because they have big brains and do a mentally difficult job, they could therefore do other "easier" jobs brilliantly, no worries.

Like I used to.

They're wrong, of course, because those other jobs (like managing people, or UX design, say) require other human abilities and human empathies that their brains often don't have.

And if you don't have those things, you don't understand their importance. ("But hey, there are retrained nurses managing things and designing things, so how hard could *that* be?")

[me: coder, designer & manager of all kinds of people]

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Roo
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Re: @Fido L Dido

"I've seen many a skilled developer, who left to his own inventions produces a lot, most of which is of little or no value to the business."

You have seen skilled developers produce valuable stuff despite being given no support or guidance as to what the business requires. In those cases the business got more value than it should expect in the absence of effective management IMO.

Ask yourself : Is it reasonable to expect stuff of value if you don't communicate what you actually want ?

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Promotion

I've always resisted being a bureaucrat manager. It's so much more fun doing "real" work, rather than writing reports, budget applications and attending meetings where nothing actually happens.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Promotion

The problem with the management side is that it invariably involves plenty of arse-kissing and bs office politics which is really a grown-ups' version of a playground power struggle. Pointless and is invariably of little benefit to the employer save for the owner of the arse being kissed because they now feel just so high and mighty.

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Interesting stuff

The question is: how do you prepare for this? Do you need to have x% of your house paid off, x000s of pounds saved, etc? Practically, how do you get there, and then how do you do the next bit: starting a company, or joining a startup?

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Re: Interesting stuff

Dear Robert,

Back in 1997 I had my first job with Halstenbach ACT, back then a small-ish software development company with the desire to get into Eiffel. I left them after a year because the boss and I had a different opinion about getting a shed for my bike in the office building. Small beer, for sure, but "yes" means "yes"...

In 1998 I switched to CSC in Cologne, worked in 6 or 7 different projects all over Germany and left CSC because they did not want to cover inflation with pay-rise. I felt it was unfair, and I looked for a new opportunity.

3 years into my career I decided it was better to go at it alone. That was in the year 2000, August to be precise. I had no savings, no nothing...

I got a job at EMC Germany to teach Perl to some Symmetrix guys, and got into storage admin etc.

I've setup my own company in the meantime, and do only work on those contracts / jobs that I want. Currently getting to grips with Ireland for my main customer, joined a JV between 3 guys to setup a new web-based service, and that JV has now grown to 5 guys, and the next web-based service is being developed in my sparetime by me.

I do what I want, I am not accountable to anybody about my actions. I respect the people I work with, and I *love* the work I do. I always say "Cycling is my biggest hobby after work". The obvious implication is that the work I do actually is my hobby...

You don't need anything, except for self-confidence, total sense of fairness, a good understanding of your niche in the IT space, and an incredible attitude towards work: willing to take ownership and to do something about somebody else's problem / proposition. And of course, a bit of luck finding the contract / role that *you* want.

Oh, I must confess: between August 2000 and now I have been 14 or 15 months without job. Scary average, I know :D So job security reasons do not really come into play...

You want to know more, contact me privately ;)

Regards,

Guus

php dot guus at gmail

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Anonymous Coward

Re: You don't need anything, ...

Hmm. Many people have things like mortgages and families, and so it is unlikely to be always as simple as that. You also have to also mitigate the risks of not being as successful as you hope.

Anyone want to share anecdotes about bold but disastrous forays onto an alternative career path to balance the picture? :-)

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Re: Interesting stuff

In terms of prep, I'd recommend Googling for 'Reid Hoffman ABZ plan'. It basically explains knowing the worst case scenario by which you'll call it a day on your venture and go out and get a job. You can and should define this before you even start, and by doing so makes it easier to do.

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Re: You don't need anything, ...

>Anyone want to share anecdotes about bold but disastrous forays onto an alternative career path to balance the picture?

Well, my impression is that the author is currently in the 'honeymoon' period in a new job. From my experience I can fully comprehend the feelings of liberation etc. in leaving the corporate world and entering the 'heady' world of start-ups. However, from my experience the real challenge is what to do next, when the option of returning to the corporate world is no longer such an easy option.

However, given that we are both able to and being expected to work longer, a transition to an alternative career path is likely to become more common.

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Did the same myself

This sounds almost exactly like my career. And I'm not looking back! I ended up massively depressed at the sheer pointlessness of the entire industry. Layers and layers of people in jobs through chance project openings and booking code requirements rather than because of their skills or desires. And ultimately, the majority of the stuff being produced was doing nothing to further humanity - it's just about justifying the need for big teams that can generate big turnover (not even profit). Crazy, crazy.

Now, I work when I want using whatever I like with people I respect and trust, who also respect and trust me (I hope!) and enjoying life in general more than I have in years. Wish I'd done it earlier. The only thing that held me back was the job security paranoia. However, after turning down several other dull looking corporate roles that gave me the confidence to realise that there's always stuff around if you're reasonably competent.

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Seperation of Powers (of thought)

A few years ago I did a contract working in a small civilain corner of big defence company, specialising in radio & radar systems.

They had a very enlightened set of career path options. Technical (R&D) and Managerial. Two distinct parallel streams with well defined steps on each.

The technical route expected people to achieve recognition in their subject by research and publishing papers which IIRC reached the top of the tree with the title "World Authority".

The company recognised that both set's of skill were required and being good at one did not mean you would be good at the other but both needed rewards.

For an example of great project management I point you to Gary Kildals book 'soul of a new machine' about the building of a new Data General mini computer. The project manager sensing his team were getting a little touchy under the pressure; packed them of to a trade show in a bus with a crate of beer. He then joked to Kildal now that the office was quiet he could "get on with designing the plug" looking after the troops and attention to detail; good guy.

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Re: Seperation of Powers (of thought)

'The technical route expected people to achieve recognition in their subject by research and publishing papers which IIRC reached the top of the tree with the title "World Authority".'

With respect, this is not as enlightened as you think. It imposes an alternative narrow path. Either you become a manager/bureaucrat or you become a publish-or-perish academic. Some of us aren't cut out for either of those paths. What about the third way, simply being very, very good at building software?

Oh, and 'The Soul of a New Machine' was written by Tracy Kidder. Gary Kildall (note two ells) created CP/M and founded Digital Research.

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Great fun and all...

...but did you actually deliver on time, on budget and most importantly...did it work?

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most Wall St tools...

Couldn't put it better myself.

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Anonymous Coward

As a quick point

In my current and immediately previous job, I'm paid more than my manager, as a tech.

I directly provide more value to the company, though they're in control of more assets and budgets, so it seems fair to both parties (though he'd not turn down a raise, obviously). No party in this arrangement could be said to be poorly paid.

This in turn means techs have to properly earn the respect of their management- and management tend to get on better with the techs rather than when they adopt the condescending view I've found in other companies.

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Pay versus value. Managers versus IT

I could rant all day on this but from a perspective on both sides as I've worked in this industry for 25 years+ as a techie, consultant, freelancer but lately as CEO at a startup.

IMHO there are two things that determine your salary, in the small-mid private sector, no matter what you do. Market Rate and Value. If you are getting paid above market rate it means you deliver superior value if you're getting paid below it's because you are mediocre (and you believe so or why are you still there). If you are on market rate why should you be paid more?

Value is determined by your ability to contribute to the bottom line, because if the business makes little to no money, due to high fixed salary costs, the shareholders/investors will pull the plug as it's their money you are burning and maybe they can get better return on their investment elsewhere. The person likely to get paid the most in a company, even more than the CEO, is a star sales person because bottom line is they deliver more value.

I believe our profession has an over-inflated view of our worth due to skills shortages holding up salaries compared to salaries in other professions with more professional training requirements, responsibility, stress and accountability.

In general as a profession we also have a disparaging view of people who deliver other essential elements of a successful business, customers, suppliers, sales, marketing, administration, finance, debt collection, legal, recruitment etc. all of which need dedicated professionals to be in place for a business to be successful. Many of which are likely to be paid less than the average IT professional.

Bottom line, if you want to be paid above market rate, deliver more value to your employer. There are some star tech professionals that do this and believe me they get paid more than their managers.

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Read it and wept

I have been thinking 'why did I get dragged up into management when my heart is in development?' and have assumed I am a victim of my own (modest) success. But I have been really inspired by this. I am spending too much time doing something i don't like very much not very well, when I could do what I love pretty darn well. Thank you for the light at the end of the tunnel.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Read it and wept

Thank you for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Train..

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What about DevOps?

It seems a lot of your frustration has come not just from moving out of tech and into management but actually from working within very restrictive IT environments. Naturally, the governance processes adopted within larger organisations are going to be more onerous than in a small start up, but that is necessary, to a degree.

You talk about how exciting and refreshing it is to do development on your laptop, using your own tools and being able to get what you want when you want. But in a larger organisation that needs to scale, a certain amount of standardisation is necessary to avoid other issues further down the road.

I have seen a relatively high profile project developed on someone's laptop/mac go live in a production data centre to almost disastrous results as the development did not take into account the deployment environment soon enough.

At our workplace, we are working very hard to implements a DevOps culture where infrastructure personnel are embedded in agile development teams so the Devs can get rapidly deployed dev environments including sandbox virtualised dev environments on their laptops, and the infrastructure teams get the automation, scalability and supportability that they need. This is still likely to be a little slower than leaving the devs to their own devices, but ultimately the organisation as a whole should benefit.

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Flame

I started out 25+ years ago as a developer feeling very keenly that the "problems" with failed products/projects that I was exposed to could be traced back to technical deficiencies in the implementation. I think a lot of devs do. "If only they/we had built it this way, the product/project would've been a success".

In reality, the majority of software written is not product for sale, but boring one-off custom applications or integration "plumbing". As an old colleague once said to me, "remember, there is no project until somebody signs a cheque" - or in other words, it doesn't matter how good a coder you are, without sales & marketing there is no project to succeed or fail. The other learning I had is that a project/product well-matched to customer/user requirements can succeed spectacularly in spite of poor code, but a brilliant piece of code will never succeed if it doesn't do what people want it to do.

Bottom line, software devs are rarely the difference between success and failure - its all about understanding the need, framing the solution to match the need, and selling the vision so that people will pay for it. Sorry, as a dev, at best you can influence customer satisfaction down the line, but only if you implement well what those management bods (yes, the ones you hate) are asking you to.

The "build it and they will come" approach to product development has spectacular but very rare successes. Among these, cases where software devs have ignored their managers directions and built something other than what the market feedback indicated are rarer still.

Get over yourselves, you aren't the enlightended few working among a pack of turkeys, by and large you are the ones that have little clue about the total business of funding and delivering software, and you (we) all just come across as arrogant fucks when we behave as if managers (the pointy headed boss) are all idiots.

(Said by someone who started, and continues to be, a developer)

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Anonymous Coward

EvilPixieMan

That's very eloquently put, and outside the world of start-ups, you are absolutely right: it doesn't really matter a bugger how good or how appalling your developers (+ requirements people + project manager) are. If there is one guy that you absolutely want to be a star, that's the salesman. That's the one who deserves all the money he can get (and since he's usually on commission...)

Me? Various hats, but now speaking with the "technical consultant" one on. Thanks to my agent's negotiation skills I get paid significantly more than everyone else in the company, including the CEO. I deliver great value, so I'm told, but if I were to walk away from the product tomorrow, it would not make one iota of difference to its success or failure in the market.

Start-ups, that's a completely different story, I agree.

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Re: EvilPixieMan

I've worked on several projects where the Sales people have sold the customer a brand of perpetual motion. Then you have the fun of explaining what you mean to a middle manager who doesn't care.

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Working through iron bars

Don't get me started. Security in big organisations is (in my experience) mandated by professional arse-coverers. They can quite ISO standards verbatim but couldn't tell a certain item of network equipment from the homonymous tool found in a carpenter's workshop. They are the kind of people who force web developers to work on IE6 because newer versions may have undiscovered bugs (and that's a real example)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Working through iron bars

Sounds like you need some carpet, and a shovel.

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Straw man

You're right that developers of that nature need guidance (or placement) by management to maximise their value, but, there are yet better developers out there (I've met many) that can bridge the gap as described in the article.

These guys are your stars and deserve commensurate reward, probably better than many managers in your average big org.

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Economy of hell

If there are 100 devs to 10 managers (including the whole hierarchy) ratio (imaginary), it's bound to happen over time that 90 of the current devs will be left out of the managerial posts no matter how skilled they are. So, it's unreasonable not paying them more because they are still coder.

So, what this author did is the only viable option for a fair play economy. Well played.

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