A while ago I was inspired by a blog that I saw linked here and cannot seem to locate in my favorites list, but it was in effect a diary of a software engineer taking on a new job at a dysfunctional organization shortly after the dot com bust, and his trials, tribulations, successes and failures in his attempts to stir positive change from the bottom up within an organization.

There were a lot of parallels in my current job but I used my inspiration and ideas from this blog to start preparing a long term strategy to get a band of rag tag software engineers to trust each other, work together and start slowly chipping away at the massive elephant in the room that we are essentially powerless to change.

We have made immense progress and actually function like a team now. We have come up with common process, standards, document templates and sold higher ups on the benefits. We have had a new business requirement guidance and template document approved through committee and I put in extra hours preparing training materials so that the process is smooth and painless for the analysts. New standards on requirements and testing have drastically reduced defects and improved quality in a measurable way. We have a common source control repository, common sharepoint and wiki, regular code reviews, and have even started to demonstrate the power of iterative development.

Our director is sold on all of this now and is a lion for our cause, but his software engineering group is just one cog in a much larger IT project. The IT project itself has been mired in difficulties and failures from the beginning. We had originally partnered with enormous IT conglomerate A and they couldn't get anything started. We ditched them and then partnered with IT conglomerate B who made fantastic promises, then seriously let us down by designing some of the worst database schemas I have ever witnessed in my entire professional career. Now that they are gone IT conglomerate C has the ball in and we are starting to see them start to wrap their tentacles around the organization, holding RIE's, pat-on-the-back way to go meetings, and start reorganizing and setting process and policies for various groups without concern or input for how employees feel about these things.

I am not sure why but somewhere along the line upper management seems to have lost faith in us in particular when in reality it was the previous two consultants who failed the company. My group in particular is being continuously marginalized by not really being represented well in the new org charts and by having childish training classes that make us feel as if we are seen as children. Now without our input they are basically tossing aside all that I have worked on in favor of their scripted waterfall-like development process that has been tried in the past yet has failed. My director is powerless but has been voicing concern which apparently is falling on deaf ears.

  • In this scenario, what steps can I take to try and salvage something from the self immolation?
  • Is it appropriate for me to prepare a document demonstrating the successes of our process improvement projects for demonstration to my directors bosses?
  • I get the feeling that they really don't understand what we have achieved without the consultants. I know going above the chain of command to report a problem is a faux-pas, but is this also the case when you want to report optimistic and positive news? Any input is welcome except for "find a new job".
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  • I edited the title to focus on the specific question(s) – maple_shaft Sep 22 '13 at 3:27
  • If I'm reading this right, your Director is on board and happy with all the stuff you all have done, but seemingly can't make his case to his superiors (or he can, and they don't care), and the superiors have made organizational decisions that wipe away all the good work your group has done -- right? So does your question center around either providing more ammunition for your director to make a better case, or jumping ahead of your director and putting yourself in the line of fire (which would also be vote of no-confidence in the director who appears to actually have your back)? – jcmeloni Sep 22 '13 at 13:55
  • ...(or the director can, but he doesn't care to)... Building on @jcmeloni's point, I think you should consider the possibility that the director hears you loud and clear, but he's actively choosing to not spend his political capital on your cause. – Jim G. Sep 22 '13 at 15:57
  • @jcmeloni Well he doesn't have good communication skills to put it politely. I do believe that he probably tried to make a case but just didn't communicate it effectively. He was an excellent manager of IT personnel previously but has little experience leading a group of mostly software development professionals. I felt maybe going above his head with positive optimistic news about what we have done and where we are heading would be a net positive thing... or perhaps I am being enormously naive? – maple_shaft Sep 22 '13 at 23:47
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    @maple_shaft It would likely be a Very Bad Thing if you went over his head, but you could still prepare whatever you wanted to prepare, and give it to him, and plead your case to present your materials on behalf of the team. Chances are very good, given what you've described, that you're so buried under layers of management (& money) that it's ultimately not going to matter. But preparing something for your director might help you exorcise the bad feelings/help you know you really did do everything you could. – jcmeloni Sep 22 '13 at 23:57

This is a pure demonstration of ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’. What you’re describing is why such a story was written, back in the olden days.

This behavior is exposing a leadership vacuum within your own organization. This is exploited by big IT consultancies. There are large IT contracting groups good at selling, usually to other large IT users, such as federal government agencies, x $billions corporations, and giant not-for-profit universities and hospitals. What is missing is the understanding of how to deliver. What happens instead is a cycle of:

  • Bold promises - ‘we can take care of this, we’ve been in this business since the 1960s and here is our current client list’
  • Top level implementation of architecture - top down mandate
  • Lower and middle project managers ‘from the best schools’
  • Few to no actual developers - given that people actually writing code can’t stand the employer
  • Sale of a lot of ‘accessory’ services such as training classes to users and development teams - often amateurish productions

What often happens in organizations that do this kind of stuff is the team hives off into a consultancy of it’s own on a much smaller scale and seeks more appropriate work. This might be with your old employer, but only for as long as it takes them to hire replacements. High tech towns are marbled with such groups - groups of six to ten core people that specialize in ROR or C++ or customizing Electronic Medical Records.

If any of you own stock in the company, you should show up at the stockholders meetings and raise a ruckus. You can complain to the boards Audit Committee if this is a publicly held corporation, but this presumes the people on that committee have any more understanding than the senior execs. Realistically, your employer is going to go through something pretty wrenching sooner or later, and you would be safer elsewhere when it happens.

For someone 'stuck with this', there isn't much one can do directly. The alternatives are the 'Dilbert' approach, where the developers start to create commentary on corporate life, particularly what they're experiencing first hand. Another good idea is to document everything you see going on around you, strip off the names, companies, specific dates, and so forth, and blog what you see. If you're five levels of management separated from the people that make these decisions, you have to take backroads. Learn how to make what you're seeing funny - there's no shortage of humor in idiocy.

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    Your answer is insightful but doesn't lead me to any real conclusions on how I can improve the situation where I am at currently. I don't think leaving for another employer will make my situation any better. Family ties make it that I can't leave this city and my career progression thus far is such that my specific experience and expertise make me highly sought after by only a handful of companies that according to my contacts all suffer the same problems or have even deeper issues still. Only small development shops are void of this but they tend to pay very little around here. – maple_shaft Sep 21 '13 at 18:46
  • I am being compensated well and treated very well all other things considered. Perhaps I have given up on "the grass is greener" belief because in my career besides pay and benefits, I have never experienced this to be the case. If I didn't believe there was a solution to these same problems I see over and over again then why should I continue in this career anymore? It is the only thing I am good at that puts food on the table. There has to be a solution. No more running from big problems. – maple_shaft Sep 21 '13 at 18:51

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