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I have a BA degree in computer science with a few years of professional experience. A few month ago I started working for a humanitarian NGO (with US-American origins) which is active in some lesser developed countries. For two weeks, I am now in the designated country somewhere in Africa. The position I have signed up for is called "head of the IT department". In the organization, there is one guy who I am officially the supervisor of. My supervisor has the title "director of the technical services". That means, he is also the supervisor e.g. of the "maintenance manager" and the "logistics manager". My supervisor is not around here physically. He is in his home-country for some health issues since a few month and is very likely not to return anymore, so we are communicating via internet.

Now my supervisor has next to him (in the organization) a guy being the "technical assistant". Let's call him "Joe". Joe is a retired computer scientist working as a volunteer. Joe is doing IT projects here like upgrading and maintaining the network and is referring directly to my supervisor.

Actually I do find that irritating, because if I am supposed to be the "head of the IT department", I think he should work with me, and not directly with my not specifically IT-related supervisor. I have already made the request to my supervisor that Joe should be in the organization as my technical assistant. He simply refused. The thing is: I am quite new here, but Joe is here around for about six years and has gained a lot of trust.

Additionally, Joe does behave like THE BIG BOSS here (as far as IT goes). He is giving me orders all the time. Twice I dared to question his (non IT-related) orders and he shouted at me: "WE WILL NOT DISCUSS THAT! YOU WILL JUST DO AS I TOLD YOU". When I have some other opinions on IT-related topics, he will just tell me for half an hour why his way of doing that is the only correct one. There is no way that he would ever accept any other opinion or point of view than just his own.

I have tried to explain my supervisor last week in a rather careful manner that Joe seems not to be aware of me being supposed to be the "head of the IT department". He apologised and told me, maybe he has forgotten to give him the memo, so he will do that right after our (virtual) meeting. Of course Joe is in fact completely aware of that for almost two years now. (I was in touch with this NGO and Joe for some years now putting in a lot of effort until finally it became possible for me to get here).

Today evening (almost a week later) Joe has given me a quite elaborate schedule for the next week of what I have to do at what time. (Pretty much exactly in the same manner as you were given a schedule by your teacher in the elementary school). As I said, my job description I have signed up for is called "head of the IT department". Even though this schedule would be pretty much an insult for any adult.

Joe does clearly not mean this as an insult. Actually he is very friendly (as long as everything goes as he wants) and he just thinks this is the most helpful thing he can do for me and certainly that I should be very thankful for all the effort he is putting in. He actually did helped me a lot with some visa issues while I was trying to get here, lent me money as long as I was not able to get some local money for myself, spending a beer after work, etc. pp.. This does give me the feeling of being in his debts, which makes the situation for me even more difficult.

What would you recommend me to do in this situation?

EDIT:

I had some talks with my supervisor since. He understood my situation, apologized for not having overthinking the situation enough in before and may have not communicated it well to Joe, too. Also he had some talk with Joe.

Since a few days Joe is clearly making an effort to not command me around but sell it as proposals. As his proposals do make sense and he is a lot more experienced with the overall situation here I am very happy with how the situation has evolved since.

I thank you for your answers. Some of you gave me thoughts that made me rethink some aspects and communicating certain aspects better to my supervisor to avoid some of the misunderstandings I could see in your replies. It is difficult for me to mark one answer as the correct one though, because by itself all responses were reasonable and had good points for the way I tried to describe the initial problem.

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  • Are you questioning his requests privately or in public?
    – Donald
    Jun 21 at 2:14
  • At the IT office where the other IT-Guy is around, but in a language just Joe and I understand.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 21 at 5:57
  • It's worth pointing out that everyone is very friendly when everything goes the way they want. It's only when things don't go the way you want that your real characters shows up.
    – Erik
    Jun 21 at 8:38
  • 1
    Does the power structure make more sense if you think of Joe as a "consultant" rather than an "assistant"? From what you've written, I'm pretty sure that's how Joe sees it. Jun 21 at 10:04
9

You're in a difficult situation. I know this situation from the other side.

You're in a developing nation, this chap is worth a lot more than you and probably has a lot of connections you're unaware of and is making a lot of money you don't know about. He doesn't particularly care about the hierarchy, most of them could be replaced easier than him because it's a developing nation and his skillset and experience are both rare and locale specific. Don't underestimate a professional tech in a developing nation, the top tier is tiny but they may have a hugely broad experience that you just cannot get in the First World.

I'm mostly retired but when I do work I report directly to the top and no one else. I like foreigners and do what I can to make them comfortable, but mostly I just hope they don't break too many things before they go back wherever they came from.

Unfortunately he also appears to have a chip on his shoulder. Keep pushing gently, but don't spring ultimatums, this can get you sent home on some trumped up rubbish. There is a mindset in developing nations of newer people needing to prove themselves, qualifications are a lesser interest. There's a big reluctance to just hand things over as people from overseas are a problem waiting to happen sometimes.

9

Titles sometimes count for very little. For instance, you're "head of the IT department", which seems to contain two people (yourself included)?

You should try working with Joe as best as you can, because if push ever comes to shove, it's you that are going to get moved, not Joe. In a NGO, you keep volunteers happy, and you keep employees paid.

2
  • As someone who has a lot of experience both as a volunteer and a staff of NGO, you really got to learn how to get your stuff done. My "Director of IT" is on the ground, does a lot of OT, hooking up TV, on the ground running wires, climbing on ladders installing projectors, and even voluntarily stepped in when a hot water heater contractor was trying to pull a fast one to get a 2nd tank installed. This "Director" does everything.
    – Nelson
    Jun 22 at 8:24
  • This is a very good point. I have found that out a few years ago already signing up for these kind of assignment means to be a general troubleshooter aswell including climbing around on burning hot attics during daytime, and so on and so forth ...
    – IT Guy
    Jun 28 at 12:06
2

Honestly, you don't have legitimacy to be "head of the IT department". A BA with "a few years experience" includes about 95% of the IT workforce. Even I, with ~6 years of experience, wouldn't imagine to be head of any IT department. #1 it's a managerial position and I know from experience that head of departments usually have no IT experience outside of their managerial expertise (such as people who have a Master's in Business Administration or that possess longtime tenure at a company where management positions are divvied-out). Heads of departments have decades of not only technical skills but also people-skills to pull from- which you clearly don't have. I suspect you were only given that role since it's you and one other person holding a programming title, so they felt they could shelp that on you. It clearly enticed you to take the position, which was their intent. A professional organization does not give out such grandiose titles to someone with a few years of experience.

My first job I was introduced to someone about to retire- 30+ years experience in IT, highly qualified and respected- but he was sidelined for IT Chief Operating Officer to a guy that worked in the Supply Room. The justification was the Supply guy used to own a restaurant, so he must have had experience managing people. His side business actually failed but they decided to overlook that fact. Even in professional organizations, unqualified individuals can be put in charge, or given a title they don't deserve.

Don't expect to hold that position for very long and get learn whatever you can from your coworker.

4
  • Interesting point of view and makes me reconsidering some aspects of the situation. Nevertheless the qualification you need to be "head" of anything depends pretty much completely on the society you are in and the company itself. I know a company where they made a guy without ANY work experience except for an internship the "head of IT department" as soon as he has gotten his BA (he had four subordinates without university degrees). Probably don't need to mention this guy became extremely cocky after a short while and this company having an awful working climate whatsoever.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 27 at 12:41
  • I have been able to gain experience as a volunteer team leader for several years at another organisation. I always had a very cordial interaction in the team and I never had to yell at anyone to be respected or get the work done. They respected me because I contributed a lot to the success of the organisation and they were willing to help me with that. I do respect Joe of helping this NGO out for quite a while and even me personally and I would like to work with him, but there are some certain things in his way of leading I do find unaccptable.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 27 at 12:48
  • I don't think you're the worst IT director ever either. To put this in perspective, IT Directors I have worked for do not code. If you're writing, proofreading, or compiling any code whatsoever then you're not a real IT Director. Directors do exactly what the name implies. They direct other managers who in turn manage their subordinates- who code. Managing a single employee is the task of sub-level manager. A analogous situation I can think of is a General with no officers. You can single-out and yell at a top ranked enlisted soldier all day but that's not your role nor what you're paid to do.
    – Zorkolot
    Jun 28 at 12:34
  • I think I do get your point. For me it seems you have gathered your experiences in larger companies. For me it was most of the time smaller companies or even startups. They usually can not afford a real IT Director who is not coding himself or doing any directly IT related work. For larger companies on the other hand I do understand managing the IT Department is buy itself enough work for a fulltime job.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 30 at 19:38
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Well his rude behavior is not helpful for both of you.
But despite all job levels, consider that being employed as head of department doesn't mean one knows everything from the moment the contract was signed. There is friction between those who know how things run in the company and those who are new and come as a superior.

Of course "we did it that way for ages - without an idea why" is not a good approach to do things.
But "let's do everything differently than before - again without an idea why" isn't better at all. Especially when there is not plenty of time to learn new subjects and experiment with them, including error corrections and rollbacks all over the place.

WE WILL NOT DISCUSS THAT! YOU WILL JUST DO AS I TOLD YOU

Perhaps Joe made experience with superiors before that made decissions by job level but not by knowledge and experience.
Now as he is retired and working as a volunteer, he might not (no longer?) want to change his way of working for no obvious reason but decide to either do them his way or no longer at all.

My advise is to learn from him, discuss your ideas with him and work with him, not against him.
Neutrally explain him that it's your job to discuss things or at least to know why he does things his way.

0

Inform him that his behaviour does not represent the values your organisation possesses, and his services are no longer required.

So, NGOs usually represent some sort of ideology or cause (whether that's political, religious, or humanitarian), and that in turn means that they hold to a set of higher ideals and values, unlike businesses that ultimately only value monetary profit.

As such, the behaviour of all employees and volunteers should reflect those ideals and values, and it's likely that respect is one of them. As such, if he continues to act in a disrespectful way towards you, you should begin whatever process your organisation has for getting rid of volunteers who fail to adhere to your organisation's system of values.

Then, once he's gone, hire employees to take over whatever work he was performing if you can't find volunteers who are willing to do so.

In the mean time, if he tries to boss you around, simply thank him for his suggestion and tell him you'll consider it, but that as a volunteer, it's not his job to make decisions for the organisation. That's your job, as the head of IT.

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  • 1
    It's very unlikely that "respect" for hierarchical relations determined by managers features highly in the "ideals and values", especially as most people only submit to those for profit. And if the organisation has any means for getting rid of people at all, then it may be the OP who is found not to fit and gets outplaced, especially if his idea were to replace self-motivated unpaid volunteers with many years' experience under their belts, with a fresh complement of paid staff.
    – Steve
    Jun 22 at 11:50
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You are DEFINITELY not reading this situation correctly!

At this point, Joe is effectively your boss. Maybe not in title or officially. But your manager has had to delegate a lot of their duties due to health issues... and who do you think they delegated them to? Hint: it's their assistant that's been with the organization for years. Not the person who's brand new.

Realistically, you should've treated Joe, from the beginning, like your substitute boss.

Instead, what did you do?

"Joe, I think it'd be better if you reported to me, and was my assistant instead of my boss' assistant."

You actually tried to get them demoted and folded in underneath you instead of your boss. I'll repeat that: you went to the person who's effectively your boss at the moment, and tried to get them demoted underneath you in the org chart.

So: put yourself in Joe's shoes for a second. They're trying to deal with the responsibilities for the ailing boss. There's this new kid, who you buy a beer for and help with some visa issues...

... who then turns around and tries to demote you, argues with you about IT decisions, and demands to be referred to as the "Head of IT" - even though they only have one person beneath them in the org chart.

At that point, I think the only advice is: try to reset things between you and Joe, and come at all of this from a blank slate.

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  • "Joe, I think it'd be better if you reported to me, and was my assistant instead of my boss' assistant.": This is not how the situation was like. My supervisor made it clear to me Joe is not supposed to give me any orders. Both of us should directly report him and work on their projects. As it was clear Joe is not going to accept this, I thought a simple change in the orga chart could help me. I do see it was not a bright idea from todays perspective, but it was nothing more than my supervisor answering me: "no, Joe shall report to me directly, as you". It was not a big deal.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 27 at 13:09
  • "argues with you about IT decisions": In quite a few answers I get this is assumed, but actually I NEVER did that. It was clear the whole time this would not work with him, so I never tried. In my question I have written: "Twice I dared to question his (non IT-related) orders and he shouted at me [...]". This is a completely different situation. Actually this aspect beeing misunderstood by the stackoverflow-community helped me in the talkings I had in the meantime with the management to be more cautious how to explain the situation to avoid this missasumption.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 27 at 13:10
  • "... who then turns around and tries to demote you" Actually I never tried to demote him but to work with him. His style of commandment (of which he was not supposed to do so at all) brought me in a situation where I had to reconsider every option I had.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 27 at 13:11
  • "and demands to be referred to as the "Head of IT"": Not even that. How my position is called here is not so important for me. As someone else has already pointed out in his answer, NGOs are about an ideology. I am here because i do want to support this ideology in any ways I can. It is not about beeing the boss here for me. I admit it may have sounded different in the original question though, because I tried to approach the situation from the "official" perspective of what my jobdescription states.
    – IT Guy
    Jun 27 at 13:11
  • @ITGuy - I get the feeling you're missing the point of this answer, which is: you need to start thinking about things from other people's perspectives. The "Actually I never tried to demote him but work with him" is a great example. You still haven't looked at this from Joe's perspective, have you? You tried to take someone, move them down the org chart, and slot them as the assistant for one of their junior coworkers. The fact that you can't see what you did as a demotion definitely lets me know my answer is on point: you're not reading this situation correctly.
    – Kevin
    Jun 27 at 15:09

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