Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Most important advice

The most important single advice I can give to anyone who is inexperienced with or naive of company life is to read Dilbert (http://www.dilbert.com/e, free of charge).

Dilbert is not just, as I naively thought until around thirty, an attempt to gather odd experiences and blow-them-up for comic effect. The tragedy is: The comic is actually an accurate description of how the majority of all organisations, managers, and employees (mal-)function—caricatured, yes; but still accurate.

Some examples:

  1. The pointy-haired manager is unusually dumb, but not by as much as a newly graduated engineer would believe—and his priorities and behaviours are quite common.

  2. Asok, who by far has the most potential of the characters within the company, is a lowly intern—and will never be considered “high potential” in the sense managers use it.

  3. The most competent character is likely the garbage man—make of that what you will.

  4. Catbert may not be a realistic HR manager in that they are not actually evil; however, many of his actions are those of a real-life HR manager.

  5. Dilbert’s own meeting experiences are spot on: The voice of reason that points out idiocies, will be considered the idiot (or otherwise make it self unpopular).

In the beginning of my career, I worked in typical engineer settings. During this time I saw cases of management incompetence and naivete, was occasionally surprised by personnel decisions, encountered the odd case of intrigue, ...; however, the amounts were sufficiently low, and I sufficiently naive, that they did not really register as more than the occasional blip on the radar screen. In many ways, I was like someone unable to hear the ticking of the clock on the wall—even knowing that there were clocks elsewhere that ticked.

Then I moved to a room with a far louder clock; and after once being able to hear the ticking, I can now hear any clock: I started to work as a business analyst at E4—and found myself living in Dilbert-Land. Intrigues and backstabbing everywhere; managers and project managers that had no clue what they were doing; an almost consistent promotion of the people who were least suited for the responsibility; decisions made based on political considerations, not reason; people, documents, ideas, etc., being judged by their covers, not their contents; and so on. The intrigues on the highest level of the company even repeatedly made into the Financial Times, e.g. when the investors hired guards to physically keep the CEO out of the building... On lower levels, the CTO and half the VPs present when I signed on were forced to leave their positions and/or the company within roughly two years.

(Additional information can be found at e.g. a discussion of promotions at E4.)

Hanging on to my naivete for too long, I tried to act sensibly: I focused on content—and became unpopular, because I did not help keeping the covers beautiful. I tried to be forgiving of people I considered idiots—and found that they in turn were entirely unforgiving. I tried to nudge others in the right direction, instead of confronting them or involving superiors—and found them entirely oblivious to my nudges and keen on badmouthing me. I trusted my boss, when he told me that things were getting better and that personnel changes were coming—and found out that he was just as naive as I was. I followed the same boss’s advice to not explain why I did things in a certain way (as per the official processes of the company!) to our contacts in other departments—with the result that people misattributed what they did not like with the processes to me personally.

(I stress that this boss was not a Dilberterian manager. As far as I can tell, he was just completely out of his depth—a problem that was worsened by neither of us having realized it. Particularly annoying is that I made the gross mistake of relying on his statements on how to handle people, rather than my own, as it turned out, superior knowledge.)

The perhaps biggest irony: Based on my experiences in the first few weeks, how incompetent most people around me were, what people had managed to become vice-presidents, etc.; I actually thought that I had landed on the career fast-track, with my own vice-presidency just a few years away... As it turns out, incompetent colleagues are a disadvantage, not an advantage, for the competent; and with time I ended up with less responsibility than I had had at 25. The Country of the Blind by H.G. Wellsw says it all.

Eventually, I found myself unable to take the situation any longer, quit my position, and started a sabbatical. During this sabbatical, I proceeded to analyze my experiences both in “Dilbert-Land” and with my previous employers. What I found was disquieting: What I had thought were exaggerated jokes, were reasonably accurate depictions of real life. I cursed my naivete; I cursed how I had known about these depictions since my early twenties, yet had failed to truly understand them; I cursed how many signs of Dilberterian management I had seen at earlier employers, yet had failed to recognize; I cursed how very different my career would have been had I had the appropriate knowledge at graduation; ...

For anyone who wants to avoid my mistakes—in particular, if he is a rational thinker, who thinks that competent people come out on top—the best advice I can give is: Read Dilbert; take Dilbert seriously; pretend to yourself that whatever absurd situation depicted just happened to you in real life (as likely as not it either will or already has, even if you do not know it); consider Dilbert a map to navigate through the traps of company life.

Again: Read Dilbert!

It took me an overdose on mismanagement to understand the truth. Save yourselves the trouble and do not wait for that overdose in your own life.