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We hired a talented engineer "Alice" some time back, and she has excelled at everything we throw at her. If she needs to use a new programming language or tool, she buys a book and learns it over the weekend. Within a few weeks, she'll pick up whatever certs goes with it (if one exists). She is also a very capable mentor/tutor, team lead, presenter; along with her engineering skills. Finding an "ace" engineer is hard enough in our field (new/emerging high-tech field), and having just some of those soft-skills at the same time is even rarer. She is also very ambitious (but does not appear to be vindictive or malicious), and was very blunt during interviews on her plans to make a lot of money during her career.

Sadly, we've run out of "interesting" work for Alice to do (the things advertised in the job description). For me and my team, this is actually a good thing, as she finished 8 months of work in 3 months. However, senior management decided that Alice would be temporarily moved to another team to get things "back in order" (I protested against this, and asked that Alice be given time to work on some interesting side projects or maybe Hackathon ideas while staying on my team, but senior management insisted that this was in the best interest of the company for catching-up and meeting our quarterly deadlines, and moved her). Alice is apparently miserable in the new role, as all she does is fix hideous technical debt and do boring, mundane tasks. I've made arrangements and communicated with Alice that I can guarantee she comes back to my team, with interesting work to do, within 3 months tops.

Unfortunately, Alice's attitude is changing in ways that are making other managers have a poor opinion of her. Some items included:

  • She hosted a team lunch-and-learn on career advancement, and gave career advice like "seek a significant raise or promotion every 3 years in your life, or your wasting your time with the company; learn when it's best to ladder-hop between employers if you want to afford a house and family in your lifetime"; broke out PowerPoint slides on real inflation, "Big Mac" index, etc. Management was pissed when they learned how "uninspiring" (to management) the lunch-and-learn was, and that they paid for the pizza.
  • She has been engaged in technical debates with more senior colleagues on how to best implement certain engineering features. On most of these debates, I'd say she is correct, but these senior engineers apparently discount her topics on account of her age. So she goes ahead and makes a demo of the idea on personal time (can't stop her from doing that) to prove her point. It angers other managers and senior engineers, but has created a sort of following around her among junior managers and engineers.

How do I coach someone like this and get them to ease-up a bit? Frankly, I was impressed with her demos and the blunt (and accurate) career advice lunch-and-learn, and Alice seems to have no problem earning the trust of our more junior engineers. I think she could have a serious positive impact on the company, and we should not necessarily make over-accommodating concessions for her, but at least keep her involved in engaging work. Sadly, my superiors (most of them) don't see things this way (i.e. "we don't get to choose the work we do; we're paid to do the assigned work"). Alice's aggressive attitude changes are also costing most of the support she once had from some senior managers too.

From my vantage point, my superiors are too unbending and myopic (I'm among the younger of the "senior managers"; most of my superiors are one "rank" above me, but are also 20+ years older than me), while Alice will succeed anywhere she goes, as long as she can keep a handle on her temper and ambition. Is there any salvaging this situation? Give the constraints I face, I'm starting to feel the only real option might be to write her a good letter of reference and let her go.

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  • 74
    Can you jump ship along with her? Sounds like you should also run for the hills.
    – Blueriver
    Mar 22 at 13:25
  • 4
    Yeah... they are going to lose a good employee. Or more with attitudes like that. But, as with anything, if management ain't interested you ain't going to right that ship. Icebergs ahead.
    – WernerCD
    Mar 22 at 20:16
  • 23
    She sounds great! What is her LinkedIn?
    – DrMcCleod
    Mar 23 at 15:21
  • 19
    And they paid for the pizza. Hilarious.
    – Tony Ennis
    Mar 23 at 18:57
  • 2
    Does this "hideous technical debt" come from the senior engineers who refuse to listen to Alice? If so, you have right there a great argument to management for how essential she is to the company.
    – lala
    Mar 31 at 8:36

15 Answers 15

235

the only real option might be to write her a good letter of reference and let her go.

This.

Then six months after Alice has left, get back in touch with her and see if she'll put in a good word for you at her new employer. That's the best route for you out from a company where senior management apparently doesn't appreciate great staff.

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    Alternately, you could start your own consulting company, and hire Alice as your star contractor. Then you both could afford houses. Mar 20 at 18:17
  • 107
    "You've got a problem at work so quit" is unfortunately advice that is often posted on this site without any real attempt to address the issues. Mar 21 at 1:09
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    Dissenting voice here. "Great staff" aren't people who will only do fun things and get surly and awkward when there's boring stuff to do.
    – Simon B
    Mar 21 at 9:59
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    @DJClayworth What solution would you recommend? The fact is that a company is hierarchical and run by people who do not answer to you. If your goals (or ideas) and the company's goals (or ideas) no longer align, of course you should leave. Because there's fundamentally no way you're going to be able to change that. Especially if it's more than one person in upper management contesting it. Management will dig its own bed soon enough, and it's better to be out of the digging area when that happens :)
    – Aster
    Mar 21 at 11:14
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    @SimonB "Rewarding" staff who finish early with a worse assignment disincentivizes staff to complete tasks before the deadline. Also, the question shows that Alice is in fact working on the other legacy project, even on her own time, so I'm not quite sure your dissenting voice applies here.
    – Flater
    Mar 21 at 18:26
98

You've got a number of things that you should do.

  1. Sell to upper management that Alice is a great productive employee and that replacing her would cost the company a lot. Give them details about how rare her skill set is, how long it might take to find a replacement. Don't address the issue of finding her interesting work with them. Excuse her behaviour that they have seen so far by telling them she has been demotivated and you are addressing the issue.
  2. Sit down with Alice and find out what she would consider interesting work, but within the bounds of work that would benefit the company, not just be fun for Alice. This level of balance is essential to any relationship between a company and a talented employee - management needs to understand that employees are not just machines to do whatever they are told, but employees also need to understand that they must produce work that benefits the company.
  3. When you've found some work that would interest her and be valuable to the company, pitch it to senior management not as a 'fun project' but as work that would be valuable to the company over time. Pitch Alice as the person to do it because of her exceptional skills. Back up your argument by pointing out that a much less experienced engineer could do Alice's current job virtually as well as she can - the company is wasting resources.
  4. Make sure Alice understands that she still has an interesting career at the company, but that it would help a lot if she toned down what she said when senior managers might listen. Tell her you will go to bat for her, and go to bat for her. Discuss her long term plans and commit to doing something to make them happen.
  5. Find other ways to improve Alice's work life, such as a title bump or a pay raise. Money may not be a primary motivation for her, but it can be persuasive in the short term and may prevent her immediate departure.
  6. The lunch and learn sounds bad, but I'm not clear if it was Alice being (a bit too) honest or her deliberately slapping the company in the face. If the latter then there is probably no hope. If the former then point out to senior management that what she said was actually true, and as long as the company treats its employees well then there is no danger in what she said. In future don't tell senior managers about team lunch and learns.

It is true that upper management is showing signs of not being effective, but that's not in itself a reason to give up on retaining a valuable employee.

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    Point #2 might not be an issue in practice as "star" engineers can easily produce enough benefit for the company purely incidentally to whatever they want to play with. A goal of automating the monthly sales report can easily be addressed as a side effect of Alice implementing a chess engine in an Excel macro. Add to that any informal mentoring that comes with sitting right next to someone really brilliant and the result is that an "Alice" might not have to do any assigned work at all to be worth her salary. Then it becomes just a matter of ring-fencing your Alice from the higher-ups.
    – TooTea
    Mar 21 at 9:12
  • 9
    That's true. But you have to pitch it as "Let's get Alice to automate the monthly sales report" rather than "Let's let Alice implement a chess engine". Silly example but I hope you know what I mean. Mar 21 at 12:44
  • 17
    @TooTea: As much as I'm not on the side of the company in this particular question; not every company has the budgetary freedom to let a rockstar roam freely and hope they bang out a hit once in a while, nor does every company's business context lend itself well to serendipitous discoveries.
    – Flater
    Mar 21 at 13:58
  • 12
    @TooTea But even if "incidental" contributions can be worth her current salary, she (being very ambitious as well as talented) will soon find another company where the "real" work is interesting to her and so she can be paid much more because her passion and productivity will be strongly aligned with their business needs.
    – nanoman
    Mar 21 at 15:11
  • 3
    OP already tried #1 and it didn't work. #2 also didn't pan out seeing as they already moved Alice to her current position against OP's council. OP already did #3 seeing as they anticipate their team having "interesting work" for Alice within the next three months, but Alice might not be willing to wait. The ship may have sailed with #4 seeing as Alice is already fed up with her current position and with how she has been treated by upper management. And as for #5, Alice didn't do anything inherently wrong, and management might even be in the wrong for wanting to reprimand her for doing it.
    – Abion47
    Mar 21 at 16:32
61

How do I coach someone like this and get them to ease-up a bit?

While you do see the value of Alice, I find it surprising that you then end up concluding that it is Alice who should temper her behavior.

She has been engaged in technical debates with more senior colleagues on how to best implement certain engineering features. On most of these debates, I'd say she is correct, but these senior engineers apparently discount her topics on account of her age. So she goes ahead and makes a demo of the idea on personal time (can't stop her from doing that) to prove her point. It angers other managers and senior engineers, but has created a sort of following around her among junior managers and engineers.

I refer back to your own point:

Alice is apparently miserable in the new role, as all she does is fix hideous technical debt and do boring, mundane tasks.

Taking this into account, read the previous paragraph again. Does this not suggest to you that Alice is engaging with the work that has been put before her - a project steeped in technical debt - and trying to improve the codebase to avoid this debt?

Because that's sure what it sounds like to me.

Technical debt is there because the developers let it build up over time. One cannot fix the problem of technical debt if not at the same time addressing the source of the technical debt, i.e. the project's developers.
Those are the same developers who are opposing alice's refactoring. Alice then goes above and beyond the call of duty to already perform the refactoring on her own time and ends up proving that her advice was in fact correct...

...and then the company not only fails to appreciate the improvements she introduced (on her own dime, no less), they also turn it on Alice in a negative fashion.

Sadly, my superiors (most of them) don't see things this way (i.e. "we don't get to choose the work we do; we're paid to do the assigned work").

And yet Alice doing precisely the work she is assigned, including going above and beyond the call of duty, somehow leads to it negatively impacting her reputation, even after she is proven to be correct.

I cannot make any other reasonable conclusion than this project (if not your company at large) having a hugely toxic culture where the landed development team and management balks at any change to "the way things are" and has no apparent interest in actual improvements, even if they are already on offer.

She hosted a team lunch-and-learn on career advancement, and gave career advice like "seek a significant raise or promotion every 3 years in your life, or your wasting your time with the company; learn when it's best to ladder-hop between employers if you want to afford a house and family in your lifetime"; broke out powerpoint slides on real inflation, "Big Mac" index, etc. Management was pissed when they learned how "uninspiring" (to management) the lunch-and-learn was, and that they paid for the pizza.

Given that management paid for the pizza; I assume Alice was given consent to host this event on the company's dime. At which point did the company verify what the topic of their own event (since they're paying for it) would be? This part is hugely unclear.

If Alice actively misled the company about the content of the event; I could agree that Alice is at fault here.

However, if the company never asked about the content or failed to sufficiently vet the event in advance; then Alice is not really at fault here for providing genuinely helpful information.


You make a very relevant observation:

Frankly, I was impressed with her demos and the blunt (and accurate) career advice lunch-and-learn, and Alice seems to have no problem earning the trust of our more junior engineers.

In my opinion, based on what you've described of your company, they sound like they are stuck in their ways and balk at innovation and modernization. This suspicion is then further confirmed by Alice consistently delivering provable improvements to any and all projects she works on, on top of getting along better with junior engineers.

Junior engineers tend to bring a breath of fresh air due to their lack of old habits. If junior engineers as a whole agree with Alice's approach; it is more than reasonable to question how outdated everyone else at your company is.

Is there any salvaging this situation? Give the constraints I face, I'm starting to feel the only real option might be to write her a good letter of reference and let her go.

There are two ways for your company to manage to retain a go-getter like Alice. Either the company accepts her input and keeps up with her; or they crush Alice's spirit. It seems like they're trying to go with the latter option here.

Unless you can find a way to make your upper management more receptive of an employee with a proven track record, consistently demonstrable achievements, who is ahead of the curve and willing to go above and beyond the call of duty; you won't be able to keep Alice. If the company can't even manage that, the company is setting itself up for a frankly embarrassing failure.

And no, not in a million years is crushing someone's spirit an acceptable solution, but I'm not worried here based on Alice's statement during the event. It suggest she knows her own worth well enough and will seek a better career opportunity when the time comes.

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  • "I find it surprising that you then end up concluding that it is Alice who should temper her behavior" OP arrived to that conclusion after realizing the upper management wouldn't change, so the other option to keep her on board is to make her (politically) comply with what the manager expect from an employee
    – Josh Part
    Mar 22 at 21:07
  • 1
    @JoshPart: "I can't fix the actual problem" is a very real obstacle for OP; but its solution is not to shift focus to Alice therefore needing to yield purely because the other party doesn't. When done, it creates an environment that fosters stubbornness and the unwillingness give even an inch. (I'm aware you may not be advocating for blaming Alice, but are merely objectively pointing out that OP has chosen to do so. This response is targeted at whoever concludes that Alice is the one who has to yield).
    – Flater
    Mar 23 at 10:19
28

I had an excellent manager who could often be very blunt in speaking the truth. He was coached by his mentor:

You’re making the right points, but you’re not getting what you want.

Aha, you need to learn how to affect change in the organization.

This is where you can help Alice. These are not the academic or technical skills she’s used to learning. When you have 3 or more people, there are politics.

The good news is that Alice is smart and can learn — and master — these skills.

Since she reads books, you might give her The Ropes To Skip And The Ropes To Know and perhaps the Dale Carnegie classic, How To Win Friends And Influence People. Plus coach her on better ways to work with others to influence change.

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  • 6
    affect change or effect change?
    – Steve
    Mar 21 at 18:34
  • 4
    @Steve My standards are so low I'm just happy blackeneth is aware of the usage of "effect" as a verb and that the spelling "affect" is somewhere in their dictionary because I never see the error in this direction. I always see it in the other direction where people using "effect" as across the board as a noun and in place of "affect".
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 21 at 20:00
  • @Steve - or both. Mar 22 at 14:42
  • @DKNguyen I've always seen affect used in place of effect, as shown here. Weirdly, effect (as a verb) means to create/cause an effect (noun). I can't remember seeing effect used in place of affect (v), which means, roughly, to participate in causing an effect (noun), without being the primary cause.
    – employee-X
    Mar 22 at 16:34
  • 1
    When you have 1 or more people you have politics...
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 23 at 13:38
15

Wrong Question

Your problem, IMO, is that you're asking the wrong question. Your problem is not: "How do I manage Alice?" I mean, it is understandable that this is your question, given that you are a manager, and managing direct reports is literally your job description. But you recognize that your situation falls outside of the conventional scenario, which means you need to start looking at everything unconventionally. And I would start by questioning your job description.

The right question is: "How do I manage mid/upper management?" Stop trying to manage downwards, and start managing upwards. Instead of stifling Alice, you need to emulate her. She is clearly doing something right, and everyone around her pushing back is clearly doing something wrong. So why are you trying to defend the status quo and put down the reformer? The first thing you need to ask yourself is: "What do I want?"

Identify Goals

If you just want to live an easy life and have a mediocre career that involves minimal conflict, then you have to let Alice go. You cannot retain her. The only way she will stay is if the company crushes her spirit and she fails to do the job-hopping that she openly threatens. Be thankful you got to see her in action, and enjoy the fond memories of having managed a rock star for however long you had her. Use what you learned from her to identify future diamonds-in-the-rough and recruit them out from under the noses of less perceptive hiring managers.

If, on the other hand, you are determined to maximize the opportunity before you, then you have to be willing to take some huge risks, just as Alice has. Which means you need to speak truth to power, just like Alice has.

Go For Broke Strategy

Upper management sees a rock star and sees a hammer which will pound all their inconvenient nails. That is small-minded thinking. Managers say: "Paying down technical debt is the best use of her talents to move the business forward." Only the most unimaginative cretin who is utterly clueless about software engineering would say that. This is the speech of an opportunistic, mid-level manager that is trying to clean up the technical managerial incompetence of himself or the person he replaced. Call that BS out for what it is.

You need to imagine the most effective project that the company should be doing, if it had a rock star dev team to run it. I'm not talking about some incremental crap project that some other mid-level manager has been hyping. I mean, pretend you are the CEO, and you can allocate enough budget to drive this hypothetical project to make a real difference in the company's bottom line. What would you come up with? How much would it cost? How much resources would it consume? What would it deliver? How much revenue could it make? You have to invent some numbers, but everyone who goes through this exercise makes up numbers. Yours just have to be barely believable.

Even if the project is too big for one team to deliver, you need to describe this project in as much detail as you can muster. Stop wearing your line manager hat, and put on your SVP hat. Or maybe your CTO hat. Make sure you can identify enough teams in the company that could reasonably deliver this ambitious project, if only it were adequately resourced. It has to be possible. Then start selling it to the highest level you can. Whatever level is above all of the folks who are currently grumbling, you need to target that level, whether it's a VP, the CTO, or the CEO.

Your sales pitch is this: "A year ago, if someone tried to sell this project, it would get laughed out of the room. I know a lot of folks think it is just pie-in-the-sky fantasizing. But that's because most of our programs are bogged down in technical debt, late on deadlines, and starving for code velocity. Instead of throwing more good money after bad, we need a fresh start. We need to deliver this project I've just described because we all know this is what leaps us forward. And it's possible. Today. I can put together a team that delivers it. I've outlined a roster right here. I think you've all seen Alice's handiwork. She crushed my 8 month project in 3 months. She's introduced half a dozen new technologies to our department. And I know that with her and a handful of other devs I've selected, we can deliver on this project. I just need the go-ahead."

Tactics

Now, as with any sales pitch, the most important thing to do is describe how the person you are selling to is going to win. A good portion of the beginning and end needs to be devoted to just that. You need to make it clear that if this VP/CTO/whoever greenlights your project, they can/will sell it as their own idea both upwards and downwards. All you need is the permission and resources to execute it.

Of course, they will already know that Alice is a problem child, and will be wary of expending too much political capital pulling her away from the managers who already have their meat-hooks in her. So be prepared to compromise in a variety of ways: "I know Alice is already assigned to the Maintenance Squad of Death. Let's make a deal where she works 50/50 on that and the new project for the next 2 months, then she goes full-time on Shiny New Thing." Be creative, be flexible, be fair. Alice has to pay her dues in the trenches, too.

But make it clear that if the Big Boss does not pursue this path, they are squandering the biggest resource they have, and other people will begin to notice. It would be like suddenly getting an aircraft carrier in your navy and using it chase boats that are illegally fishing. That reflects poorly on leadership at all levels, and you are going to begin pointing that out to folks until they recognize it. You are offering a path forward that makes use of the increased horsepower available to you. Everyone who joins this path will come out smelling like roses and looking like managerial geniuses. This is the idea you need to sell. You are enabling a new capability for the company that simply didn't exist before, because you know how to harness the power of a true rock star, which your company clearly does not know how to utilize.

Endgame

Once you have secured a shiny new project for Alice, yourself, and your hand-picked A-team, you need to sit down with Alice and explain the new terms. You appreciate the fact that she's shaking up the system, learning quickly, and teaching others. You recognize her outstanding work, and went to bat for her at the highest levels of management, expending considerable political capital (possibly all of it) to do so. You got her a sweet gig delivering the highest-profile project in your department/organization. Now, she needs to deliver. But first, she needs to pay her dues. She needs to suck it up, fix some crappy legacy code, and teach both the new junior devs and the old seniors some new tricks about testing, maintainability, refactoring, documentation, and code review. That's part of the deal you made with upper management, and if she's as smart as you say, she will recognize that this is the price to be paid for entry to the big leagues.

Also, you are going to work with her on how to press for change without alienating all of her potential allies. You will go through scenarios that have occurred and write practice emails where she expresses her ideas, and you refine them to be more diplomatic, so she learns how to communicate effectively but less abrasively. You will use all of your manager skills to teach her how to manage her colleagues, because this is the area where you are an expert and she is a student. This work is less exciting and fun for her, but you need to make it clear that it is every bit as important as the coding. This can include role-play where you are the obstinate senior dev and she is trying to convince you to adopt a new technology. Teach her to ask questions which lead to the desired result rather than making claims. Show her that she needs to produce an outcome that lets everyone win without losing face. Give her concrete examples of wording, body language, etc. But also teach her that building personal relationships with other engineers can also smooth over disagreements. Ask her and some of the senior devs to go have afternoon coffee and try to find common ground between them. Give her the assignment of finding some work that they've done that she respects or appreciates, so she has something positive to say to them. There's lots of ways to smooth things over with people you disagree with. Your job as a manager is to brainstorm those ideas and present/teach them.

Of course, after your team delivers on the project, you will ask for a promotion/raise for both yourself and Alice, for a job well done.

8

Answers are always based on a "read", which could be completely wrong. Here's my read and my suggestions:

Alice knows upper-management has shoved her into a low-status job when there were better options. And it was so casual it cements how they don't see her as a high-flyer -- more like a workhorse who should know her place. She also knows your opinion doesn't matter, since sexist upper management is making the calls.

Suggestion one is that yes, maintaining old code is low-status in the worst way. Working with old tech puts a stink on you. The person leading the shiny new project is the one considered for promotion. But for real, keeping up old code takes more talent, has unique challenges, and brings in more money. And you can't trust a programmer who's never done it. A common strategy for fast-track promotion is rotating an employee through all vital areas of the company, and maintenance is definitely one of the areas they must know.

Suggestion two is to get clear on Sr. management's attitude. If she's going to be the person who cleaned-up this legacy code when no one else could, and that's going to be a big deal, that should be made clear to her. You've promised her more fun stuff in a few months, but she knows you get overruled. Let her know they've bought into that plan.

This is where a manager earns their pay. So she told employees to get out ASAP, but so what? Her example is what matters -- if she stays then that pizza conference has 0 lasting negative effects. She argues too much -- well, they overruled her manager to give her a crappy job; so that's even. Settle the misunderstanding and it's water under the bridge. You can advocate to your Sr's that she's not that out-of-line, is maybe due an apology (and at any rate, it couldn't hurt and cost $0) and see if they buy it.

And see if you can get her an intern, or just any other employee also doing it. Because there certainly are super-boring parts of updating legacy code and being completely alone on the worst job doesn't feel great.

3
  • Good points, but I would take out the “sexist” part, because (1) we don’t know that that’s a factor here; (2) we don’t know that this person is really named Alice and we don’t know that the person is actually female; and (3) I’ve seen this very thing done to many talented male programmers by male management.
    – VGR
    Mar 23 at 2:30
  • 3
    @VGR Thanks, but I assumed a feminine alias was specifically chosen, and that a perceived glass ceiling could be one of the issues (esp. in a tech company). Mar 23 at 15:00
  • 1
    @OwenReynolds Also got that vibe, especially the repeated references to this woman as "aggressive," which is classic sexism.
    – RCA
    Mar 24 at 20:50
4

I'm going to give you a piece of my mind and offer a purely opinionated suggestion. For what it's worth, I'm very similar to Alice. Savant-esque. I absorb information like a sponge. Granted, I'm nowhere near as motivated as she is, nor ambitious, but I have a gifted mind. So.. here it goes...

Alice is a human being, you cannot control them. If you do not like what they do in your work place, remove them. But do not try to dominate them. Human beings are free creatures. Granted the gift of free will by whatever power enables our ability to think and act.

With any attempt to contain or direct someone as ambitious as her, you are hurting yourself by way of influence. Alice will be far more likely to stay and work with you if you continue to offer her challenges. But if you run out, and it sounds like you have, she will move on. The lunch-and-learn is a manifestation of that attitude. She knows she is worth more than what you're offering and is encouraging others to do the same because she see's their inherent value as human beings looking to be paid what they're worth.

Management doesn't like changes in employment because it costs money to train new workers, it costs money to hire people who expect more pay, it costs money to feed the workers pizza. But here's the thing about investments, they aren't free. Stagnated workers dig ruts in their behaviors and become rooted. Have you worked with someone who has been with the company for 20 years vs 20 hours? Big difference. But how many promotions and raises did the person of 20 years receive? Just enough to get paid more than the person you just hired. It's a scam. Business is all about the scam.

So, here's my idea, the one you don't want to hear. Pay her enough to want to stay, or let her go and be happy for her. If you think paying someone what they're actually worth is "over-accommodating" then you don't know how to invest. If you can't afford her, then she's beyond the capabilities of your company.

In summary; If you wish to keep "Alice", value her as a person, coworker and hard worker, as you have described her, and pay her for her diligence and abilities. If you cannot, or will not, pay her what she is worth, then perhaps you should start looking at spending money on training a newbie.

2

Alice is too much in a hurry for her present organization. She needs more than just a job at Google among other smarties.

I don't think that even leading in a project group within a company like Google would satisfy her. She'd overachieve - as usual - and start pushing management for a more senior role rather than start a whole new project.

I think she has a need to lead a small enterprise of her own.

There she'd soon find out the limit of what a single person could do. She'd also find out about managing smarties like herself: yes, everyone has to do their donkey-work - and this covers a lot more than refactoring and bug elimination.

If Alice wants to succeed in her own outfit, she'd have to learn about human beings, motivations, relations and privations. And, by logical extension, about herself.

1

It sounds like you've answered your own question:

Alice is apparently miserable in the new role, as all she does is fix hideous technical debt and do boring, mundane tasks.

How about you figure out some way for Alice to do something that is not that? You have a very obvious problem, and a very obvious solution, so what are you doing asking us for?

Clearly, the problem here is not Alice, nor is it you. You know the answer, and Alice knows the answer, but somebody above your head isn't able to put together "We are pissing Alice off" and "Alice is pissed off" and come up with the correct answer, which is "stop doing whatever it is that is pissing Alice off; maybe someone should actually ask her if they don't know already?".

This is your responsibility: If you are privy to the conversations that management is having about Alice, tell them what you know, that Alice is super talented, that she loved being on your team, and that she is furious with having been put on bug triage duty, and that angst is what is putting the company at risk, vis a vis all these "outbursts" or "inappropriate activities". That is where your responsibility ends.

After you have told management the full and true accounting of details, it's up to them what to do with that information. If their answer is "yeah, but we really need Alice on bug triage duty", then they'll not only end up with nobody on bug triage duty, but they'll also end up with no Alice at all. Maybe that's a cost they're willing to live with: 2-3 weeks of Alice on bug triage duty, and then no more Alice ever again, and maybe that's fine for their business. That's not the choice I would personally make, but it's one that upper management is free to choose; after all, it's their prerogative to run the business in any way they choose, including directly into the ground if that's the direction they happen to prefer.

So do your job: Tell upper management (or whoever will listen to you) that they are at serious risk of losing Alice, who is a star engineer, over some stupid bug triage work. That's all you need to do.

After that, there are a couple more asides that you can also do:

  1. Based on the way upper management treats Alice, you should make your own decision about whether or not to stay at this company. If, despite that you have emphatically declared that Alice hates bug triage work and is at risk of leaving the company over it, and upper management says "whatever, don't care", then perhaps you may want to consider if you may be placed in a similar position in the future, having to do work you hate for a period of time without anyone caring about it. Is that a position you want to be in? Food for thought.

  2. Alice is absolutely right about finding a better salary at another company. If your company is underpaying people, you shouldn't work there. The thing is, people are always paid what they are worth. If your company is paying you crappy, you are worth crappy. If you think you are worth more, then you should demand more from your company, or you should switch companies to get paid what you are worth. If your company wants to pay crappy salaries, then they can be stuck with crappy employees, as all the good employees find other, better jobs to pay them what they are worth. If this is going on at your company, you may want to mention to upper management that their salary ranges are out of line and they should increase compensation, or risk a mass-walkout. This is also your responsibility, to point out this problem (and then, again, if management chooses to do nothing about it, you know they think you are a crappy employee because they are paying you a crappy salary, and you may want to find a place that doesn't think you're crappy instead).

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Alice sounds like the supposedly-much-desired Rockstar programmer who brews bits in their coffee, does a bit of white-hat hacking during lunch, and spends three hours in the evenings on two separate side-projects that each have more than a thousand stars on GitHub (but of course she doesn't do it for the stars!). According to recruiters, employers should be falling all over themselves to hire her and doing everything within their power to keep her happy and chugging away at Programming Inc.

Of course, the reality is far different from this so-called "ideal". Talented programmers are incentivised by the same thing all of us are incentivised by: money, social prestige (notwithstanding that this prestige may look far different for different social contexts), and interesting work -- usually, though far from always, in that order. You have already given evidence that Alice is feeling demotivated by the first and third motivations, namely by her lunch-and-learn over career development and her direct complaints about her current tasks. As others have said, if Alice hasn't done so already, she will almost certainly find a more suitable employer or a venture capital firm to fund her own endeavours. But she hasn't done so yet, which means you may have an opportunity to retain her, and to advance both of your careers in the process, should you be interested.

Consider discussing with her what sorts of problems and technologies she is interested in; if she is amenable, collaborate with her on how solving these problems and using these technologies brings business value to your company, and come up with a plan for selling this work to management. The emphasis here is on selling -- management doesn't care about the technical details or, honestly, how it will fulfil Alice to work on these projects; rather, they will respond to how much money these projects can earn or save them in the short, medium, and long runs.

If you play your cards right, and Alice has no interest in managing a business, you two can become something like cofounders of a "startup" within your own company, with you being the COO and she being the CTO. With trust, diligence, and luck, your new department could grow to become a bonafide division with its own employees and management structure which you and Alice oversee as actual C-level executives of the base firm.

This would require buy-in from management and Alice both, of course, along with vision from you; if you are happy with your own position and merely want to mollify Alice, you will lose her sooner or later to a more lucrative, more rewarding, and/or more challenging position. But if you feel you are up for the risk, you have the opportunity to build such a position from the ground up.

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Alice knows that the technical debt is crap work, and the residue of the very same people who have been shining her on. The company doesn't see value in making those same people clean up their own messes, but is instead assigning that work to a star performer.

The work does need to be done, but Alice knows that there's a dangerous precedent being set where basically she's being turned into the maid; literally the clean-up woman. You should interpret the subject matter of the lunch-and-learn as a "shots fired". Alice is more or less alerting the whole department as to what her plans are! And instead of senior management considering the ramifications of her following through on what she proposed in the meeting, they're angry. This is foolishness.

OP didn't state what line of business the company is in. If technology is a secondary work product, there's no way that the management slowpokes are ever going to keep Alice satisfied, because she's always going to be way ahead of them. Alice would do best at a Big Tech (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oracle) business or consulting firm where her work ethic and innovation are the lifeblood of the business. The longer she stays in the current situation and is doing unsatisfying work, the more acute the situation's going to become. It'll be double acute with the insecure managers trying to suppress her.

"How do you solve a problem like Alice?" (to the tune of the old Rogers and Hammerstein song): "How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?"

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Does Alice want to stay in your company?

Rather than trying to find out how to keep her, that is the first question you need to address, and of course, with her! That will require some psychological skills so that you can read between her words, catch her facial expressions, as she may not provide a clear answer to that question.

If you can infer that she has her own carrier in mind (which somehow your description of her seems to imply), then she will likely leave anyway and before doing so, may do more harm to your company than good.

If you understand (being certain you make no mistake) she wants to remain in your company (the enterprise, not your company as a person), then discuss about what she would like to do, and make it happen.

There are few things to keep in mind:

  • In a high tech company, no one is indispensable (skilled senior engineers left Tesla, equally skilled folks left Google, ... without these companies being harmed in any significant way).
  • You should consider the good of your company as a whole, not that of a single employee or team (yours), no matter how skilled or extraordinary the employee is
  • nowadays, success is a collective endeavor even in small teams, very rarely that of one single individual
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This story shows a glaring difference between a boss and a leader.

Alice is a natural born leader, good and pure at heart, smart, hardworking, leading by example, a 10x engineer.

The management on the other hand... Yikes.

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That presentation... Yikes!!! While that situation is rather funny, I can see why the senior management would NOT be happy with it.

learn when it's best to ladder-hop between employers if you want to afford a house and family in your lifetime**"; broke out PowerPoint slides on real inflation, "Big Mac" index, etc. Management was pissed when they learned how "uninspiring" (to management) the lunch-and-learn was, and that they paid for the pizza.

You seem to have rose tinted glasses with you view on Alice, perhaps because you value her technical skills.

Finding an "ace" engineer is hard enough in our field (new/emerging high-tech field), and having just some of those soft-skills at the same time is even rarer. She is also very ambitious (but does not appear to be vindictive or malicious)...

Does she really have soft skills? And is she really not being vindictive and malicious? She is literally telling other employees they aren't getting paid enough and should job hob. It's one thing to say that to your friends, but saying that publicly is a distinct lack of soft skills and IS being rather malicious.

There seems to be a big gap between her expectations and the expectations of the your companies leadership. It just seems to be a bad fit both ways, I don't think there is anything yo can do to bridge that big of a gap.

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Send Alice my way! Plenty of challenging work! ;)

It sounds like she has her head on straight as pertains to both technical discussions and the realities of workplaces today. Management may feel uncomfortable with those realities, but it is on them to catch up and neither be mad at employees for acknowledging them nor educating their peers.

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