Saturday, February 27, 2010

Career Pathing?

I know that companies have the best intentions. They want to provide opportunity for their employees in hopes of retaining them and encouraging desirable behaviors. They want to reward those who perform well and eliminate the dead wood. Even so, it is 2010 and career pathing is done, like annual reviews is done, like the 80s are done. This is doubly true for agile organizations where the dynamics are so very different.

The old idea was that an employee would join a career path, and that path would lead them to some management or technical position that would provide them with respect from peers and superiors, autonomy (perhaps their own team to lead), and increased compensation. Employees could see if they were tracking or not, and this would provide incentive to excel by doing the things the employer most highly values. This is not a bad idea and it used to make a lot of sense.

Now career-pathing is an answer to a question that nobody is asking.
  • Formal roles and titles have never meant less. Organizations are (thankfully) flatter now, and teams are likely to be mixed groups of seniors and juniors and consultants and contractors. Gone are the days of the guru programmer directing a team of insensate code monkeys. Gone are the days of specialized stratifications. Generalism is killing the career path.
  • The average time a programmer stays with a company is 3 years. Many of us have outlived multiple employers, even. We don't have the long-term stability that the IBMers had in the 70s and 80s. What is the sense in pathing a career for someone who won't be around? Why build a path that lasts longer than your company? Temporariness is killing career pathing within any given business.
  • Programming is not a management skill (as management is practiced), so a path that leads one from writing server back-end code to vice presidency does not really make sense. The Peter Principle explains how much it hurts to promote people out of their competencies. Rising through the ranks is not necessarily the value proposition it was once considered. It still makes sense to groom someone whose interests lie in the area of software development management (Lord knows we need competence there), but in general, the Peter Principle has called career pathing for programmers into question.
  • Career pathing limits rather than expands options. A technical person has many directions in which to grow. They may take a strong interest in IT and tool-building, database management, performance management, systems administration, user interface development, team coaching, technical writing, technical management, human resources, or any other useful skill. Many paths are necessary to move the professional forward in a way that is meaningful to him.
  • There is a means/ends juxtaposition in career pathing. It becomes important whether one is tracking well, rather than whether he is doing good work and producing value for the company's customers. It has happened often enough that the things that make our customers successful are not the things that get us promoted, and can even get us fired. Distracting from customer value degrades the career path.
  • In a typical career path, employees compete against each other for increasingly rare positions at higher levels. Esther Derby has written much about how this defeats morale and teamwork. In some situations one might find the "kiss up, kick down" strategy to be successful, where one panders to his bosses while sabotaging his peers and underlings. By political maneuvering, he is promoted (even "fast-tracked"), at the cost of productivity and harmony within the company. Distructive abuse of the career path discredits and defames the process.
  • Organizations adopt an "up or out" point of view, so that people who perform well in their current position but show no enthusiasm for the next station on their path are devalued. Depriving the company of skilled, satisfied technical workers brings disdain upon the career path.
  • Again referring to Esther Derby's work, we find that it is not possible or advantageous to try to isolate and rate the work of an individual in a collaborative effort. It is sufficiently hard and damaging that career pathing among highly-productive, coordinated teams actually reduces the effectiveness and harmony of the organization.
  • Career pathing isn't even a particularly good way to award respect, autonomy, or compensation. Profit sharing, cost-of-living adjustments, etc have shown to be better ways to award people who work on teams.
  • It's not a lean nor agile way to proceed, as career pathing done well is a complex system that is not needed to produce quality work and increase team collaboration. It is unnecessary to improve quality and morale. It is an expensive waste of time and a distraction from the work of doing work.
  • You already know who the skilled programmers are, who the subject-matter experts are, who the weaker players are, who has leadership potential, who is watching the calendar and the budget, and who is just watching the clock. On a modern team (esp an Agile team) we try not to separate the leaders, but keep them in the team to bolster the weaker players. A strong team member earns respect from his peers by doing good work, which lends him further autonomy. An official tracking system only serves to usurp earned organic authority, which casts further doubt on an official promotion track.
Realize hat the author claims to have no special HR savvy other than having been a human resource for going on 31 years as of this writing. From his viewpoint, the career path is naive, damaging, and irrelevant in 2010. He remains willing to be convinced otherwise, and welcomes all arguments to the contrary as well as encouragement and further mentoring on the subject.


  1. Tim,

    I agree with many of your individual points without agreeing with your conclusion. I agree that it is easy to see the leaders and doers in a team, and that the real contributors shine often in contradiction to the titles of the people in play. But I've also seen teams go into anarchy without the presence of a senior and appointed leader who has the title. Pulling rank is really distasteful, but sometimes I think it has to be done.

    I identify more with the lean philosophy of an active leader who is leading because he has real senior experience and gets his hands dirty, but he is still leading, mostly by carrot but sometimes by stick. This as opposed to the scrum notion that the whole team is equally accountable and has an equal say in decisions.

    I also think career paths are ok if they are applied lightly, and are not overly restrictive. As an example at Deloitte we have two paths one for consultants and one for specialists.

    Specialists tend to be better propeler-heads than the consultants, but otherwise the responsibility differences are small. More junior practicioners spend more time honing their skills and gaining various competencies, these range from technical, to advisory, to other things we do for our clients. As practicioners get more senior they spend more time mentoring, leading, and managing. Finally at the top of the pyramid resources are expected to help operate the business, make sales, manage accounts etc.

    Thebig point here is resources at all levels can do all things, it's a matter of emphasis over strict rules, if someone can step up to doing something, they are given the opportunity to do so. Likewise even senior leadership is called on to do "real" work depending on client needs. (as a senior resource, I ended up coding in .net for about 4 months last year, loved it)

    larger organizations need some mechanism to separate thethe junior beans from the fossils (that's me), and a couple of ways to identify competency, yet I hear all about how career paths are dead. That's not true in banks, manufacturing, public sector, insurance, energy, so where actually are they dead.

    I think the big probem is that technical resources aren't given a path that rewards them for improving their skills in the technical realm. Current models push people to become managers or architects, which is a shame because Imho it takes a lifetime to get really good at development.

  2. These people who only work at any given job for 3 years... are they generally working for companies without retirement plans or 401K's? It takes 5 or 6 years, depending upon the method the employer chooses, to become vested in a retirement plan or 401K, and if you leave before you are vested the company matching evaporates.

    How do these people plan to survive when they get to old to work? Social Security is already bankrupt. It actually paid out more in benefits in 2009 than it took in in taxes. And the "trust fund" contains only Treasury bills, which are quickly becoming worthless.

    It has long been the case that engineers and programmers end up trapped in their profession. They quickly reach the top of the pay scale for their classification, and then cant get a real raise without changing employers or moving into a management role. (Which is rarely an option.)

    I guess that I just wouldn't be offended by an employer showing an interest in my carrier path. (Deeply suspicious perhaps, given the events that have transpired in my carrier in the past 10 years, but not offended.)

    Have a wonderful day!

  3. Jeff: After repeated readings I don't see anything happening that would not happen without career pathing other than one problem. I know you like your company (yay!) and your position (double yay!) but I don't know that pathing is what made it so, or makes sense.

    Note that I suggested that it's dead for technical people mostly, intending that to mean programmers, where the conditions I listed apply. In other areas of work, it may be perfectly reasonable.

    Wally: retirement plans haven't been very good, with companies and business closing like mad. A lot of younger people either have their own retirement, or keep rolling it from employer to employer, or have nothing at all.

    Agreed, there is something reassuring in the thought that an employer might want to keep you around for 10 or 20 years. Sadly, it is quite uncommon. Even people my age are swapping jobs every few years.

  4. Tim,

    I'm not sure if you have read my post several times if the only response you can offer is cheerleading like chants. This is coming off as a little obnoxious and juvenile, not sure if this is your intent if it isn't then I apologize.

    If you can't have the concept of a career path for programmers, than what are you offering as an alternative? how else is an organization with hundreds or thousands of employees going to handle pay or structure? You seem to be saying that the best system is no system.I think that the idea that there are only two kinds of approaches to handling a programmer's career, no career path in on the one hand, and an overly bureaucratic and abused career pathing system on the other seems naïve.

    There are plenty of options and organizational models that are more suitable to knowledge workers then the typical "top-down imposed by manager" one. Product driven, client driven, technology driven are all possibilities where you can apply the concepts of different levels and seniority. Again you need to apply these concepts lightly, and with good leadership.

  5. Jeff: I failed to reread *mine* several times. :-)

    First paragraph ill-advised "yays" were to say that I'm sincerely, legitimately happy for you and your situation. No sarcasm is intended whatsoever. It may be a juvenile expression of joy, but no ill-will intended. It sounds like a good place to be.

  6. Note that I'm not against having senior people on the team... I think it's absolutely valuable to have people who know what they're doing in a wider context. Having a career path or not having a career path has no bearing on the wisdom of having capable teams.

    Maybe I don't really appreciate the need to separate the fossils from the green beans, or why a career path is an effective way to do that.

  7. Sorry for the bunny trail. I confess that I have no idea what "Career Pathing" actually means.

    I guess I should look it up?

  8. Career Path: A planned, logical progression of jobs within one or more professions throughout working life. A career path can be planned with greater assurance in market conditions of stability and little change. “In order to guarantee future innovations and continual success, forward-looking organizations invest in identifying and preparing employees to be tomorrow's leaders, according to a recent report from research and consulting firm Best Practices, LLC. World-class companies maximize human capital and ensure goal achievement by incorporating leadership training into performance development initiatives.”

    Taken from Business Publications, June, 2003.

  9. Tim

    thank you for the clarification, always hard to tell if somebody's making fun of your being sincere over the web :-)

    I don't think that we should be separating anybody from anybody else especially the junior beans from the seniors, but having some kind of career ladder at least tags people according to their Senior,and gives upper management some idea of what kind of capability they have in their ranks.

    Of course this is just a very general view, and the key point is that any kind of career ladder needs to be applied lightly, for it to be effective...

    A career path modeled after the way craftsman are promoted over time has been suggested by uncle Bob and others, and might not be such a bad thing...