Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Absurd promotions

A recurring issue in my past is that exactly those people that I consider in the category “fire them before they can do any damage” are given promotions, influential positions, more responsibility, ... (The reasons for my estimates typically include their lack of knowledge and understanding of the field, combined with a reluctance to learn; inability to think critically, see connections, consider side-effects and long-term consequences; too big egos in too small heads; destructive intriguing for their own benefit; making decisions based on political considerations, instead of the facts and consequences to be expected; etc.) In contrast, people whom I consider worthy of promotion are often left in positions where their talents and capabilities are not used appropriately. This has occasionally, in particular at E4, included me; however, was not the case at e.g. E2. Generally, there are many exceptions to both of the above observations.

E4, in particular, was such a disaster area that my experiences seem almost surreal in hindsight. This is what one gets when politics and intriguing is allowed to roam free, and hiring decisions are based disproportionally more on price than value. Consider:

  1. The original VP of product management: Not a big thinker, not very knowledgeable. In my first weeks as a business analyst (with no previous experience in the field), I was already able to spot blatant problems with her output that she seemed unaware of. (She was, I admit, better than the other product managers, but not actually good.) She seemed to take any kind of feedback as a personal attack, resisted any kind of change, and was generally an obstacle to progress. Generally, she was into “work hard, not smart”—which can be an asset in a low-level employee (e.g. a receptionist) who is told what to do, but is a severe liability in an employee who is supposed to do the telling.

    Notably, instead of discussing her disagreements with my work (as mandated by my VP and the official company processes) with me or my VP in a constructive manner, she complained to the CTO and engaged in passive-aggressive sabotage—including reverting changes to documents that she had previously already done. While it is quite possible that the (newly introduced and untested) processes needed improvement or revision, she did not, to my best knowledge, make any constructive attempts to reach such improvements, but instead tried to kill the messenger, circumvent the processes, and return to the pre-processes stage by subversion.

    She had no place as a VP, even of a department of half-a-dozen employees.

    (In her defense, many of the problems with her are things that I now recognize as very common female characteristics, and that are not necessarily personal flaws of hers. Certainly, with my improved knowledge of women, I would have handled many things very differently today.)


    Side-note:

    The typical distribution of work between product managers and business analysts (including me) was that the former wrote requirement documents and the latter reviewed these documents, pointed out errors, mistakes, unclarities, technically infeasible requirements, ... This feedback was then incorporated by the former, further review followed, etc.

    Notably, the reason the business analysts were instituted (with me as the first) was that the architecture department considered the quality of the requirement documents to be inexcusably poor.


  2. Her successor: Was based in the US (company politics, reasons irrelevant) and I was never confronted with any greater amount of his work. However, he often left issues hanging for months, seemed to focus on making a good impression over actually being good, and did not seem to have a thorough “domain knowledge”.

    May or may not have been a justified choice.

  3. My own original VP: A very nice guy, who did a lot to keep the company politics of our backs so that we could actually work; however, ultimately not up to the task (although I grant that the task was extremely hard). In particular, he failed to take a stand at a sufficiently early time, he gave me advice on how to handle others that turned out to be highly detrimental (both to my own position in the company and to the reaching of his own goals), severely overestimated his own knowledge of how humans functioned, and was generally very naive (as, certainly, was I). Add in that his technical knowledge (as VP of the software architecture department) was merely decent.

    Should not have been made a VP of two dozen people (at least not in a company like E4), but could have made a good team lead or project manager on a small scale. As is, he was in deep over his head.

  4. His successor: Was a better choice, who took a greater stand and tried to change things more actively. However, he too ultimately failed (and has also left the company since, possibly a year after I did).

    My impression is more superficial, due to our shorter time overlap, but he had at least two major weaknesses: Firstly, he regularly wasted time for others by being late for meetings. Repeatedly, he called meetings for e.g. a group of three or four people—only to turn up half-an-hour late. Secondly, instead of explaining an issue where he had an opinion, he immediately went into a pseudo-angry “do what I tell you, because I told you to” mode (as, regrettably, many naive managers do): This is exactly the wrong approach when dealing with people of similar or even superior intelligence—no matter how well it may work in the construction industry (if, that is, it works in the construction industry...) Thinkers wish for explanations and reasoning, and do their best work when they get them (with regard to both ability and to motivation), while playing the alpha-male only antagonizes them.

    An acceptable choice, but not my ideal candidate.

  5. The VP of project management: Had a similar profile and behaviour to the original VP of product management. I am not in a position to judge his quality of work; however, it is clear that he did not prioritize competence and quality in his subordinates, who made mistakes covered in any introductory text on project management—nor, extraordinary for a VP of project management, adherence to the newly introduced company processes. Further, I repeatedly heard highly negative things about his competence level from others (but I stress that such second hand reports tend to be unreliable).

    As someone who believes strongly in “content over appearance”, I note with fascination that he actually wore make-up... Indeed, based on various conversations with and statements made by him, I had the impression that he was male bimbo, with corresponding intelligence and knowledge levels. (Notably, he was married: Had he been a professed homosexual, I would have read less into it. As is, he should have spent his time and money on a book on elementary project management instead.)

    He was not a good VP; and left the company some time after I did (I am uncertain whether he was forced out, or left voluntarily).

  6. The CTO (“my boss’s boss”): Seemed entirely driven by political considerations, and more interested in helping his allies than in doing his job. I cannot judge his actual level of competence, but my overall impression was not positive. I am aware of several occasions where he lashed out in writing in an inexcusable manner against various employees (one of them involving me). It is also quite clear that he did not understand the character of the product manager vs architects conflict that went on in Cologne (notably, he spent most of his time in the US); and his attempts to do something about it were both misguided and ineffectual.

    I would rate him as poor in the areas where I had sufficient contact to judge him; however, I acknowledge that there are other areas, e.g. customer contacts, where I can only speculate and where he may have had partially redeeming qualities.

    He may have deserved the original chance as a CTO, but he did not shine. I note that he was forced out of the company some time after I left.

  7. The COO (CAO? I am uncertain about his exact title): Widely acknowledged as a criminal asshole and a liar—an opinion that I do not only share myself, but have heard expressed with that severity from at least three other employees, with many more using less harsh language in the same direction. In particular, he was in the habit of negotiating salaries with new employees orally, and then making one-sided changes when the agreement was put in writing—I myself lost about five thousand Euro over the five quarters I worked for E4 (and had I had the original agreement in writing, I would have taken legal action). It was not uncommon for employees to begin work without a signed contract. Employees hired for fixed terms or in a free-lance position had particularly severe problems with renewals, in at least a few cases going about their work without a contract for a non-trivial amount of time.

    This man belongs in jail. He has no business holding any kind of position anywhere.


    Side-note:

    But was he not smart? He did save a lot of money for the company.

    He may or may not have. These short-term gains caused dissatisfaction and demotivation which may have out-weighed the gains several times over. Add in the risks of public bad-mouthing and legal actions, and he did everyone, except himself, more harm than good.

    Further, what he did was both illegal and unethical: Robbery, too, may be a good way of making money—if one has no sense of right and wrong, and is willing to take the risks involved. Certainly, I will condemn any company that considers his behaviour laudable.


  8. BA2: Was hired together with BA3 to round out the analyst sub-department that had previously consisted only of me. She was possibly the greatest pain in the ass I have ever encountered. Incompetent, irrational, unwilling to learn, demotivating, exploded over nothings, relentlessly insisting on having everything her way (no matter how hare-brained), ... In addition, she was another of the “work hard, not smart” philosophy. Those who have seen Gilmore Girlsw can picture a Paris Geller without the high IQ or a Taylor Dooze without the superficial charm.

    In particular, there were repeated occasions where she did something idiotic, well-deserving a severe reprimand, where I held back my anger and tried to explain her error in a diplomatic and constructive way—just to have her proceed to give me a scolding...

    I walked on egg shells for about six months after her hiring, unable to do many of the internal improvements I had intended to do, for fear of her temper and trying to avoid internal conflicts—hoping that with my promotion to “chief analyst” at the end of my half-year probation, she would fall in line and be more constructive (she showed strong signs of subordination towards people with better titles). Through this time there were some half-a-dozen occasions where I had to restrain myself to the utmost not to lose my own temper and just (literally, physically) put her over my knee—if she knew how narrowly she escaped that scenario...

    Unfortunately, for unexplained reasons my promotion was repeatedly postponed—and several months later given to her instead! (At which time I lost my last shred of motivation—and she went from very bad to even worse.)

    An absolutely inexcusable promotion: Even BA3, fresh out of university and with the assertiveness of a wet sponge, would have been a better choice—she, at least, would not have been likely to actively do harm.


    Side-note:

    How about my own assertiveness? Much too low. I was still very naive about how people, in particular women, ticked, and misjudged the right way to handle the situation. In addition, the amount of conflict between analysts and product managers, resp. our VPs, made me too intent on avoiding internal conflict. I should from the very beginning have made it clear that she had to shape up or leave, and that her immature behaviour had no place in the office. Her failing to improve, I should have turned to my VP to have her fired—the worst thing that could have happened was that I, myself, was forced to leave; and, without any doubt, even then I would have been better off.

    Generally, I make no reservations in stating that I can spot very many errors (from a pragmatical, “play the game” POV) in my behaviour back then, based on my current knowledge of psychology, human relations, and women. I maintain, however, that my actions were the correct from a rational POV and assuming a world filled with rational people. (This last assumption being what broke my neck.)

    Would things go differently, if I could go back in a time machine to do things over? (Discounting the possibility of my never joining E4 in the first place...) Hard to tell: Even after E4, I have had problems both with tolerating incompetent people (in particular, incompetent bullies, who abuse their position in a company to boss people around—exactly those with whom it is most important to be friendly) and with keeping the prevalence of incompetence in my mind. Despite my experiences, I tend to subconsciously view incompetence as the exception, not the rule, which has made me too optimistic in my dealings with others.


  9. bimboPM: A gorgeous, but deeply incompetent, product manager. Her quality of work was poor, her ability to cooperate was low, and she had an entirely skewed self-image—being a stereotypical “spoiled princess”. As far as I can tell, she relied almost exclusively on her looks—she certainly got nowhere because of her brain. A notable sign of her behaviour is that she, being South-American, did not speak German, made no attempts to learn it properly, and necessitated us to hold every meeting she participated in in English—even when everyone else was fluent in German. (The more odd, because I did hear her speak very fragmented German on her cell phone on several occasions: Had she started to make an effort in the office, language-wise, there would not have been any need for extra consideration.) Similarly, during a company excursion, paddling rafts along the Rhine, I never saw her touch a paddle, even when everyone else was making an effort—when we arrived at the site of the ensuing party, however, she was so “tired” that she had to ride on the back of one of her male colleagues...

    After the product managers changed VP (cf. above), guess who was made the Cologne deputy of the new US-based VP...

    Again an exceedingly poor choice, lacking both in competence, maturity, and “team spirit”.

    She, too, was forced out after my leaving. As my third-hand information has it, she went to London on a business trip, refused to return to Cologne, and was subsequently fired. (This information may very well have been distorted before reaching me; however, the scenario is entirely in line with the princess behaviour I observed in person.)

  10. The CTO’s assistant: Shortly after I joined the company, a product manager was made assistant of the CTO—not, per se, a promotion, yet still a position of considerable indirect influence, and (considering his age and personal contacts with the CTO) a potential grooming for later work in upper management.

    The problem: His work as a product manager was abysmal. He seemed entirely unable to write a coherent text, had no understanding of what he was doing, and was generally uncooperative. The few requirements of his that I had to work with cost me several times the effort (per page) that any other did—and even then I had to engage in guess-work.

    Assistant of the CTO? NOOO! Receptionist? Possibly...


Side-note:

As a particularity common to many of the above: If the work done by subordinates is considered dependent on the quality of the boss, then additional stones have to be throw. The VPs of project and (original) product management were particularly poor in this regard.

What can be said in their defense is that E4 generally had a hiring policy that took the cheapest reasonably adequate-seeming candidate it could find, and that they may not always have been able to influence this.

In accusation, however: They did have influence on hiring decisions and pre-selections; they could have influenced the work by reviews, mentoring, and similar; they could have got rid of the worst team members in the probation period; they could have correctly informed the team members about the official company processes; etc.—but they either did not, or did so displaying a lack of judgment.