Betting on Promotion

The process of appointing managers in large IT department is shrouded in mystery. The bewilderingly random and illogical nature of the process makes it a gambler's delight, and it's often difficult for workers to resist the odd wager on the outcome.

Phil Factor on why he is happy to gamble on your career…

The process of appointing managers in large IT department is shrouded in mystery. The bewilderingly random and illogical nature of the process makes it a gambler’s delight, and it’s often difficult for workers to resist the odd wager on the outcome. This can bring much excitement to the dull working life of the system analyst.

At one stage in my career, I worked in the Engineering department of a large multinational company, tending a range of Oracle systems. Whenever a management position became vacant, a thrill of excitement would sweep the department. The IT managers tended to mistake this enthusiasm for genuine interest in management comings and goings and in the career progression of their bosses. In fact, of course, the interest was purely in those parameters that affected the odds on the outcome.

At some point, the post of supervisor came up in the adjacent IT area. A book was opened and the candidates for the job were appraised like racehorses. Tips from the stables were considered, and reference to fetlocks, nobbling, front-runners, coming up on the canter and coughing in the stables were passed between the members of staff.

One of my colleagues, Dim David (not his real name), was an amiable chap who tinkered with a whole range of engineering applications written in Fortran. He worked alone, largely, but always bought his round in the pub and was pleasant but dull. When this post came up, he wasn’t one of the likely candidates, as he had none of the required academic qualifications. However, he had one great asset: he looked the part. His brainpower was unremarkable but he was tall, had good hair and whatever he did, he did with a natural “gravitas”.

Whilst chiselling away at my Oracle databases, it suddenly occurred to me that Dim David would be a perfect outside bet for this supervisor post. I immediately called in to see Pedro the bookie, the local trade union rep, who held an undemanding role in the department that gave him plenty of time for other activities. He was amazed when I ignored the hot favourites and put a good sum of money on Dim David. He had a loud laugh, and on that occasion it jiggled the ceiling tiles. I was unperturbed. The decision making process for the management appointment was so extended and diffuse that I believed I could influence the outcome by viral means. After all, I hadn’t been the first to tamper with a promotion race in an unsporting way. In order to avoid a loss on a wager, Pedro himself had once nobbled the favourite for a junior management post. Whilst purporting to give the candidate good interview advice, he had maintained that the managers who were conducting the interview had a grand sense of humour and would appreciate a few jokes about the candidate’s previous bosses. They did not.

On doing my rounds for the next fortnight, I joined in every conversation I could about the forthcoming appointment. After a while I’d interject a phrase such as “Ian tells me that Dim David’s name has come up for that supervisor job” Or, “I was surprised to hear that Dim David is being considered for that job but, thinking about it, he is due for a break.” On other occasions, I’d argue against his appointment with equal vigor, “What are they thinking of, putting Dim David’s name forward. He’s struggling in the role he has!” Slowly, but surely, his profile increased to the point that his manager asked him to apply for the post, which he happily did. Pedro the Bookie observed the progress of this rank outsider with initial fascination. This turned to mounting alarm as David cantered along the rails, overtaking more fancied center-field candidates. He felt sure I was up to something but was not sure what.

I groomed David carefully for the interview. We went through all the right answers, and made sure he was neatly turned out with the correct colour of suit and so on. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you are a candidate for promotion and an analyst starts giving you tips on interview techniques, it is probably only because he has a few dollars on you each way .

You will have guessed the outcome by now. Dim David passed the finish line head and shoulders in front of the next candidate. To all except Pedro, the victory was a cause for a great deal of pride and celebration in the department.

What happened next, however, is painful to recall. Poor Dim David had to supervise friends with whom he’d worked for years. They resented it slightly, and Dim David reacted with bad tempered authoritarianism. He’d learned his management style from a bad role model, and his “school monitor” approach was ridiculous in the workplace. After a while, his senior managers noticed that he was floundering and shook their heads, wondering who on earth had promoted him in the first place. They decided that his difficulties were largely due to having to supervise his old workmates, so they decided to move him to a different team. Suddenly, Dim David was my boss.

I’d had a most harmonious relationship with my previous boss. He understood the technology. He understood his role. He only ever intervened to assist. For Friday lunch he always insisted on buying the drinks In short, he was ideal in every way. Unfortunately, Dim David clung to his autocratic techniques in his new team and felt that I was too rough a diamond to be left alone for very long. There was little left of the amiable Dim David I’d known in the old days. Promotion had turned him into a parody of a manager, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was largely my fault. Soon afterwards, I left the company.

Even now, I find it hard to believe that I affected a decision process as serious as career progression just by viral campaigning. IT workers are largely just flotsam on the tides and storms that are typical of the industry, and I try to console myself with the thought that it was just coincidence. This particular storm, characterised by the usual confusion and unpredictability, had simply swept David into a post to which he was ill-suited. Maybe my meddling actually had little impact in the grander scheme of things. Nevertheless, I wish I could at least finish by saying that I never bet on promotions ever again. Not a bit of it. I am always ready for a flutter. So when, as an IT manager, you gaze out of your glass box at the sea of heads, bent intently over screen and keyboard, don’t be deluded into thinking that all is diligence and harmony. A good proportion of those heads will be gazing keenly at the latest odds in the sweepstake on who will get your job when you lose it.

Phil Factor (real name withheld to protect the guilty), aka Database Mole, has 20 years of experience with database-intensive applications. Despite having once been shouted at by a furious Bill Gates at an exhibition in the early 1980s, he has remained resolutely anonymous throughout his career.