Sunday, January 13, 2008

Winston Smith, the Peter Principle and the Threat of Talent

Back in 1997, I got a call from my old friend Mark. He was going on an interview for a web design job. He told me he didn't think he'd take it, but he'd told them he had a friend who might be interested. That friend was me.

Mark had roped me into doing web design about a year before that. No matter that I had no training or knowledge of how to do it. He gave me a sheet of codes and taught me how to pull up "View Source" from the toolbar in Netscape, which allowed you to view the code of a web page (it still does). Before I knew it, he was paying me 25 bucks an hour to do work for him.

We went to the interview. Sure enough, he begged off on the job, but I took it. It was all the way in Oakbrook Terrace. That meant getting the clutch fixed on my 1987 Toyota Tercel. It was well worth it, though; the pay was $35 an hour. And I desperately needed the money. I was engaged in the biggest fight of my life. My son's mother had tried to cut off my relationship with him in order to "punish" me for leaving her. I had been taking out credit card advances in order to pay for a lawyer. Suddenly, I was making more money than I ever made in my life.

I worked at a workstation that belonged to the son of the president of the software company I was working for. The son was doing a college internship for college graduation. And when you're doing your internship for dad's company, guess what? You don't have to bother showing up for work. I actually met him only once, when he dropped by to get something out of his desk.

I did have an officemate. Jeff N. was a quiet kid who'd grown up in the suburbs. He was an interesting guy. His hobby was snow sculpturing-- making sculptures out of snow. He'd come in 2nd or 3rd in a state competion. He was very, very intelligent.

Our boss there was a lady named Kathy L. She was a case study in the Peter Principle; that people rise in organizations until they reach their level of incompetence. They can't move forward and won't be demoted, so slowly, positions fill with people who can't do their jobs. Kathy had been the editor of the company newsletter, until the company had discontinued it. The decision was made to have her run the company website-- never mind that she didn't know HTML from Shinola.

She loved to have meetings. Meeting after meeting after meeting. Often, I sat for an hour or two waiting, surfing the net, making a ridiculous amount of money while she had a meeting with the regular staff discussing things that had already been discussed or simply didn't need discussing. Often, she just held court, bragging about her 14 hour workdays-- workdays that were easily 50-75% wasted time.

Since I was a hired gun, I just kept my head low. I badly needed this money. Had it not been for that job, there's a good chance that I would have had to give in and settle for less than joint custody of my son. Yet another thing I'm forever indebted to my late friend Mark for. But Jeff was another story. He could barely conceal his contempt for Kathy and her rank incompetence.

One day, he asked my opinion on something. He explained to me that branding is important, and that it's especially important in a product that is invisible-- like computer software. He pointed out Microsoft makes sure to put a sticker saying "Powered by Microsoft" on every computer that carries its software. Intel also puts stickers on computers. He proposed a sticker for the software company to put on computers. He showed me three or four designs he'd come up with, and asked me which one I thought was best. He was going to go to Kathy with his idea.

While I was there, Jeff got a poor review. This was preposterous-- Jeff was great at his job. Clearly, Kathy was threatened by him. I kept in touch with Jeff for some time by email after my time as a hired gun was done. Within six months, Jeff was fired.

Remember in the book 1984-- Winston Smith's officemate is a guy who is working on Newspeak. The guy was intelligent, talented, and, Winston realized, doomed. He was too intelligent, despite his usefulness to the government. Sure enough, one day he is "disappeared."

Years later, it dawned on me, that the day Kathy decided she was going to get rid of Jeff was the day he went to her with the idea of the stickers. He was, she realized, intelligent, talented, and a total threat to a talentless hack like her.


The Lady Who Doesn't Lunch: said...

This is rampant in companies everywhere and so frustrating. If you have a great idea, some hack steals it, or if you speak up and/or go over the heads of the Kathys of this world you run the risk of getting fired.

Over the years I've learned to always have interactions with Kathys in mixed company so there are witnessess. I also save all of the Kathys emails for evidence, if needed.

Good post. It struck a nerve for me.

The Idea Of Progress said...

I've never heard of the Peter Principle, but I certainly recognize it.

What is truly amazing is when you're working in a job that only requires a very basic set of skills, and people there have already reached their level-- places I've worked, like a warehouse, or restaurant work...

Bubs said...

Great post. I find stories like this oddly encouraging--it gets easy to think you're the only one stuck in a place surrounded by suck monkeys and hacks.

A few years ago I saw a rising star in my organization, recently promoted, get put in charge of a line-of-duty death funeral for a younger officer. He did an amazing job and got a lot of recognition. Within months he had fallen out of favor and had been excluded from the circle of political up and comers he had been associating with previously; they all saw him as a threat to their own advancement, and resented the attention he got for doing such a good job. It was a disgusting spectacle.

Natalie said...

I am new to the label "Peter Principle" but very familiar with its workings. It is certainly the downfall of many a promising company and hundreds of promising careers.

SkylersDad said...

Good post JY, I have seen it happen again and again!