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I'm a manager at a medium-to-large corporation in Arizona. Some details have been anonymized, including the state.

We recently hired a Junior Software Engineer with about 1 year of experience several months ago who is baffling our management and other developers. In most cases, he is able to vastly outperform Senior and Principal Software Engineers without even trying.

He came here despite not knowing our technology stack, and learned to use it better than many of our current employees within a month. To make matters more interesting, he is repeatedly discovering, documenting, and fixing security holes that would've cost our business a tremendous amount of money if exploited.

We've tried to give him very difficult tasks, and even one we've deemed impossible, and he's completing them very quickly. We assign hundreds of hours for him to complete a programming task, but he's completing them as fast as 1 hour on some occasions. The hardest one, when he was still learning our technology stack, took him only two weeks; we were expecting it to take anywhere from 3 to 4 months.

His projects are finished perfectly. He's the only one merging code that actually works correctly the first time, unless there's a problem on our end. He does exactly what he's told.

Unfortunately for him, management feels the need to capitalize on his impostor syndrome so they won't have to give him a raise. He's starting to realize his value, but management is not having it.

We've even gone as far as having him work on four different teams, but he's finishing his assigned work before everyone else. The result is that he sits around doing nearly nothing all day because there is nothing for him to do. He keeps asking for projects, and we continually try to challenge him, but he's completed more than a dozen projects in just 8 months. Our average yearly workload is about 4 or 5 projects.

To make matters worse, he was recently caught watching videos on YouTube, and was written up for it. He's one of the lowest paid developers on our team, and unfortunately, upper management doesn't want to pay him more, or give him a higher, more important position.

How can I convince management to stop taking advantage of him, and let him do his own thing when there's nothing to do?

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    Don't try. Make friends with this kid, and see if he will give you a good recommendation for any job openings when he lands a job worthy of his talents. – Wesley Long Mar 9 '16 at 0:34
  • @JoeStrazzere Unfortunately, I am only managing one team. We report to several other managers along the way... and those are the ones who are causing the issue. – Joshua Mar 9 '16 at 0:48
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    It's good to see a manager having this sort of concern. The absolute best thing you could do is become that kid's mentor. Teach him to navigate the workplace, watch out for company politics, make friends with just the right people. Take him out to lunch - very privately. Speak to him and tell him that he needs to play his cards right, build a resume, and get the heck out. Point him in the right direction - Google, Microsoft, or Apple. He apparently has the potential to make it very big, and he will thank you later for guiding him along the path to success, rather than taking advantage of him. – AndreiROM Mar 9 '16 at 14:39
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    Is this guy really good, or is your current development team really bad? Perhaps management fosters a culture of putting in 60% every day? Based on the fact that management doesn't recognize this persons worth somewhat suggests that to me. – The Muffin Man Mar 9 '16 at 23:20
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    This is normal. As Steve Jobs pointed out, there are ordinary decent engineers and the occasional "good" engineer. Bizarrely one "good" engineer is worth about 20 "normal" engineers. {I forget the exact multiplier Mr Jobs asserted; we think it's about 20x.) – Fattie Dec 26 '18 at 14:19
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You can't, and honestly, probably shouldn't.

It's inevitable that he'll figure out his worth (or at least figure out that he's worth a lot more than you guys are paying him) and move on to somewhere that appreciates his abilities and will pay him commensurate to his abilities. The fact that it should be a no-brainer for your company to see his value doesn't alter the case - if anything, it makes the situation harder to resolve the way you want. If, in fact, they're trying hard not to see or acknowledge his value, any attempt to change that will result in a lot of pushback, at a minimum. So, even if you succeeded, you'd end up fighting a battle for a guy who's inevitably going to leave anyway, and that's not good for you. It also sounds like staying there isn't good for him either, so the only benefit would be to the company that's not treating him right in the first place.

Best option for you is to be one of the managers who mentors and helps this kid out while he's there - when he does move on to bigger, better and higher-paying things, that will put you in a position to personally benefit from his career advancement as well. (Maybe he brings you over with him, maybe you can get a referral fee from a shop that's a better fit for him, maybe he just opens up doors and provides connections you wouldn't otherwise have, but there's a lot of ways this could be advantageous to both you and him... just not at your current company.)

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    During my career, I have worked with two unicorns like OP's case. They both left the companies in less than a year and for a far higher title (and presumably remuneration). Think mid-dev to senior architect(!). And I have no reason to doubt they are doing a fine job in that position. They were truly a marvel to see working - basically just checked the vague ticket descriptions and immediately knew perfectly what was to be done. And they delivered in a matter of hours a complete implementation with no bugs in the years to come. – Juha Untinen Dec 25 '18 at 23:56
  • You may also consider having an 'off the record' discussion. Tell him how much you love working with him and really value his talent, but you superiors do not and you will insulate him as much as possible, but you won't be offended and would actually be happy for him if he found the right opportunity to move on. Maybe if you know somewhere that would value him you could even quietly refer him. – Bill Leeper Dec 28 '18 at 17:39
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It seems clear. Your management (by your own words) thinks management is about exploiting resources (people) to the maximum benefit of the company. That's an approach that doesn't retain top talent.

I'd expect that after about a year or two of this behavior, the junior employee will understand how they've been handled and either:

  1. Move on to another company.
  2. Attempt to get the management to deliver better compensation

And with management having two years of practicing how not to deliver better compensation, they'll start writing the employee up to make the "leveraging the impostor syndrome" seem more real. The write ups will be based on "soft skills" or some other metric than performance.

Being an overachiever, the new hire might pivot and try to prove his soft skills; but, being totally arbitrary, he'll never succeed. So, eventually they'll leave the company anyway.

The only success scenario I see is if the manager has a sudden change in their personal philosophy. This often happens when a traumatic life-changing event occurs, like being harshly reprimanded for losing quality employees, which is unlikely to happen on your schedule (and odds are the upper management doesn't even know they are losing good employees, as they are presented as "not really good" by the manager that's losing their future stars).

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Calculate the value of this guy's work.

If he's trimming development costs (time value of money) by a factor of ten, then it clearly shows that the new hire is worth the value of ten employees, and should be paid at least 25% higher at a minimum.

Is your company competing with a key competitor? What would be the risk of loss should someone else court him for their workload at a higher rate of pay?

  • While you are probably right about the worth of the employee. Your reply doesn't answer the OP's question - which is why I suspect you were voted down. – Peter M Dec 26 '18 at 22:29
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How to deal with upper management that's taking advantage of an excellent hire?

Just because he's doing an excellent job doesn't mean he should get special treatment on things like youtube. Rules are rules, if there is a policy against it, he deserved the reprimand.

If he has nothing to do and he's as bright and keen as you portray him, then suggest to management that he attends some upskilling courses at company expense to maximise what they can get out of him. Say that it's an investment that will pay off longterm and they might be able to expand their business in more directions if they keep this guy.

Many people react very well to this and as long as they're becoming more qualified and learning so they don't get bored, you get excellent value for money.

I pay for any exams my people want to take, and I'll even buy the training materials if I think they're worth it. With some common sense restrictions of course. This helps me retain good achievers so my tiny company has no problems competing.

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    The best videos on improving software quality are on youtube. Perhaps management is already harming their company by blocking youtube. I worked at a place that had a form you could fill out to have a person review a video an unblock the specific video. In four weeks time you could watch it. It was a monumental waste of effort. Better to trust your employees, as a culture of mistrust will have the employees doing other untrustworthy things, worse than watching videos. – Edwin Buck Dec 26 '18 at 13:54
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    This is the only sensible answer here - so of course it was downvoted. – Fattie Dec 26 '18 at 14:19
  • From a practical point of view, the company should be figuring out how to keep this guy long-term and give him more work. This is more important than rigidly enforcing company policy. The reprimand increases the chances that he'll go elsewhere. – David Thornley Dec 26 '18 at 18:04
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    No, it doesn't matter how good he is. A bad example will spread like a virus and you can't let it happen (not that I do not see this too severe, in this case). However you should solve the root cause and both reward him and keep him busy. You'll keep him, set a target and an example for the others and improve company value... – Adriano Repetti Dec 26 '18 at 18:23

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