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The Danger of Hiring Stars

By David Poole,

Introduction

In my father's day employment was simple. You joined as an firm after leaving school at the age of 14 and at the end of 50 years you got a gold watch and the brush off. The company accepted that it had certain responsibilities and you understood that they expected loyalty and hard graft.

Moving jobs was frowned upon and seen as a sign of someone prepared to betray those loyalties. Almost as socially stigmatising as someone changing the football team that they support!

In Britain this changed in the 1980's in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The employment market was shaken up forever and in todays climate we are expected to be more flexible and to be prepared to change at the drop of a hat. The upshot of this is that you are likely to have several changes of employer during your career.

Let us suppose that you are a successful DBA. Being good at your job you may find that you are head-hunted by another company. If this is the case you should be careful because there are some things you need to think about.

The only three questions that you are ever asked in an interview

No matter how many questions you will ever be asked in an interview the recruiter is only really trying to answer three questions.

  • Can they do the job?
  • Will they do the job?
  • Will they fit into the organisation?

No matter how many questions you ask in your interview (and you should ask several) you should seek to answer these questions for your own personal benefit.

  • Can I do this job?
  • Do I really want to do this job?
  • Will I fit into the organisation?

Let us assume that as a DBA the "Can I do this job?" questions is a generally yes.

What makes you successful?

You are a being head-hunted because you have a reputation as a successful DBA but do you ever stop to consider where that reputation came from?

It is not such a daft question as it sounds. I read an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled "The Risky Business of Hiring Stars" which asked why it was that a high flier recruited from one company performed disappointingly in their subsequent company.

How much of your success is due to the people you work with?

Your skills may be your own but the way in which your colleagues support you can make a big difference. When I joined my current company I knew a fair bit about SQL Server but not an awful lot about web applications. The people I worked with were keen to learn from me and were equally keen to teach me. The result is that I thrived.

The Harvard Review article quoted one executive as saying that when a company gains a new employee it is a bit like a body receiving an organ transplant. A perfectly good DBA joins a perfectly good development team but they reject each other. The DBA does not fit into the organisation.

The example given in the article was of resentments caused by the head-hunted employees high salary and preferential treatment in terms of resources. It leads to the employee being ostracised by their colleagues and therefore unable to function within the organisation.

How much of your success is due to the resources you have available to you?

I recently had a contract to work in a company where there were dual monitors on the developers desks. It took some getting used to as I usually work on a laptop but the benefits of having Books on-line on one screen and Query Analyser on another were obvious. Moving back to my laptop I feel as if I've lost a limb.

How would you cope if your favourite 3rd party tool was not available to you? This rather sounds like a "Can you do the job" question but there is another element to this.

Assuming that your prospective employer does not have an equivalent tool, will they allow you to purchase your favourite tool?

I have worked in large organisations that wouldn't provide their employees with anything other than out-of-the-box tools and some that couldn't afford to. On balance I would prefer the latter because in the first there is nothing you can do to change the organisation's policy where as at least in the second you can earn the tool by improving productivity.

The questions being asked here are "Do I want the job?" & "Will I fit in?"

How much of your success is due to the processes and methodologies in a company?

I worked for a company with a very flat structure that one consultant called an "ad-hocracy". Productive work was done as a result of meetings in corridors and at coffee machines. Decisions were fast and working was flexible.

That is fine for a small organisation or a department developing small projects, but if the organisation grows beyond a certain point the lack of formal structure will be more of a hindrance than a benefit.

It is a two edged sword. If you are moving between a rigid, formal environment and a very flexible one then the culture shock is going to be severe. If you thrive in a rigid environment then will you cope when that structure isn't there?

Again, a point raised in the Harvard Business Review was that head-hunted staff tended to be less flexible in their thinking, principally because the way they worked before was successful and therefore they tended to hang on to their old way of working as a tried and tested method. They were slow to recognise that their old ways of working were a poor fit for their new environment.

In a purely technical IT role this might not be a major problem after all SQL is SQL. If you are being head-hunted as a DBA then the chances are that you are moving beyond the purely technical towards a more managerial role, in which case you need to consider how flexible you are, or how flexible you are prepared to be.

This is a "Will I fit in?" question.

Are you a round peg in a round hole?

Think very carefully about this question particularly in the context of the previous three.

If you say to yourself I am successful because

  • I work well with my peers and colleagues and enjoy doing so.
  • I have the tools I feel I need to do my job.
  • I am comfortable with the way in which I have to work.
then frankly you need to ask yourself why do you want to move?

Why do you want to move?

Assuming it is not a choice forced on you by circumstance you should consider this question very carefully. If you get it wrong then the chances are you will be moving again within six months of the initial move.

I have worked for two organisations that I have been very glad to leave. With hindsight being 20:20 moving to these companies was a mistake.

Even looking back at the preceding companies with nostalgia and the knowledge that I should not have accepted jobs in the companies that I moved to, the decision to move was the right one. I simply moved to the wrong place because I didn't ask the right questions.

The mix of factors that influence the decision to move jobs are complex.

Money

It is flattering to be offered a high salary. The prospective employer is saying that they value you and there is the subliminal implication that your current employer does not value you as highly as they should.

Don't be blinded by the salary. If someone is offering a telephone number salary there has to be a down side. It is easy to say that you can put up with a lot for the right money, but you would be surprised at how small "a lot" can be.

It is also easy to say that the salary will by you a better lifestyle but the hours you will probably have to work to earn your salary will give you little chance to enjoy it. I know someone with a surround sound cinema system that would impress George Lucas, but the dust on it is inches thick!

At the risk of sounding old I can tell you that in my twenties I spent my money acquiring the usual toys a young man collects. In my thirties I realised that the things I spent so much on and considered important are not worth a damn.

Career progression

This is probably one of the best reason for changing jobs. It is a chance for you to extend yourself, to take on new challenges and responsibilities.

The downsides are that with extended roles and responsibilities comes additional pressure and demands on your time. You may move from a job you love to one you love less.

I once worked for an ambitious American boss who once said to me that he used to think that being number one would be the most satisfying position to be in. He subsequently found out that being number two for a good number one was by far the more satisfying position.

Chance to learn something new

In the IT field this is a very important consideration. That is providing the "something new" is an industry standard or up and coming technology. Alternatively it could be a change to learn a new career skill such as project management.

If you are seeking to learn a new technical skill will it play to your existing strengths? For example you may learn about some new data access technologies that are an enhancement to your SQL skills.

If you are moving to learn a new career skill other than a technical skill how do you feel about potentially gaining the career skill at the expense of losing some of your technical skills?

Change of scene

There are some people who enjoy change for changes sake. In the IT world we call them contractors.

Why do you want a change of scene? If it is to escape a general malaise then you should try and identify the source of that malaise otherwise you will have dealt with the symptom not the cause. I've made this mistake myself and regretted it.

Does the change of scene mean a change in environment? Such a change can be enormously beneficial but you need to ask yourself if the change would suit you. For example if you are a country person then would a move to a city area suit you?

To benefit your family

Robert Heinlen defined love as a condition experienced when the well-being and happiness of another is essential to your own. What he didn't say was that your happiness should also be intrinsic to theirs. In other words love is a two way street.

Changing jobs in the mistaken belief that martyring yourself will make your family happy is a sorry mistake to make. I don't know many people who are totally able to disconnect their work life from their private life. If you are in a stressful situation at work you will inevitably bring this home.

Conclusion

Reviewing this article it sounds as if I am suggesting that as a successful DBA you should stay put. This isn't the case at all. If you don't push yourself you will never find out where your limits lie. What I am saying is that the decision to change jobs needs to be taken with your eyes open and that you need to be brutally honest with yourself.

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