Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Topping Out

We're coming into that time, at work, when we have to put down goals for the next year, which will in turn provide the basis for our performance assessments at the end of the year. I've been in my current job for three and a half years now, and although that's not a terribly long time to be at the company, it is longer than many people within the company stay in one role. Moving from job to job within the company is fairly common, and people consider it to be a good way to get to understand lots of different aspects of the company.

No one, however, is particularly eager to see me move around to another job, because running the pricing team is seen as specialized enough that they're concerned if I moved elsewhere there wouldn't be someone else who could do the job as well. At the moment, that's fine with me. I have three great people working for me, and we all get along very well. I enjoy my work, and people seem to think that I do well at it.

And yet in an odd sort of way, this takes some getting used to and represents a change in my life, at least professionally.

My BA is in Classics. I never went to business school, never took a course in finance or marketing, and never got an MBA. The way that I got where I am now is a crooked path, the turns of which are mostly defined by looking around for things that weren't going well, problems that needed to be solved, and then offering to help. Along the way, the selling point I've always tried to push is: I can learn quickly.

We need a database for product information? Okay, let me go look at a book on database design. Need a website? No problem, I'll pick up a book and figure it out.

In a department in which most adhoc reporting and analysis is done in Excel, I apparently pass for an Excel guru. Every so often people ask me for advice on classes to take in Excel, but I've never really taken one -- and so far as I can tell virtually none of the other "experts" have either. We're just the people who read the help files and Google around trying to figure out how to do something.

So I picked up skills and I picked up responsibility and I was always looking for what new thing I could do in order to get ahead.

But somewhere along the way, I learned pricing. I originally got a job on a pricing team because the manager needed someone who could build a database, and he knew that I was good with databases. By the time I'd build our pricing tools, I'd learned a fair amount about pricing. So long as you can think analytically about problems that have several different dimensions, learning about pricing is honestly not hard. With my high school level math skills and my self trained database and Excel abilities, I'm able to pass for an expert now that I've had almost ten years of experience in it. Maybe anyone can do that. Maybe that's how paternal grandfather managed to turn a WW2 era job dealing with building airplanes into a career in aerospace engineering without ever actually going to college. But not everyone does do it. I did, and now I'm "the pricing guy" around here.

Last year about this time I sat down with a mentor and former boss to talk about career moves, and I started talking about how I needed to make sure that someone on my team was developing into someone who could replace me, so that I could in turn rotate to some other job in the company and develop the generized experience that would allow me to be promoted. He basically said two things:

1) If you're a specialist, why do you think that you need to move into some other part of the company instead of sticking with your specialty?

2) If you were promoted, you'd be a vice president. Do you want any of those jobs and do you think you can do one them?

I've been chewing on these for nearly a year.

The first took a lot of getting used to, because although I'd got my last two jobs on the basis of having experienced in pricing, at some level I still thought of myself as a generalist. I was a generalist when I started doing pricing work, and I still have the same ability to learn that I had back then. But what I did with that ability to learn things was to learn a specialized field and get promoted a couple times on that basis. I was hired to be the head of pricing at my company, so maybe it's time to admit that I'm now a specialist.

The second has also taken some reassessment.

Graduating in the middle of the burst of the .com bubble, with a degree in Greek & Latin, I had more than a few people tell me that I would be able to ask "Do you want fries with that?" in three languages, who of which were dead. In other words, I had no marketable skills. My first jobs didn't pay a whole lot, and we were living in Los Angeles where our one bedroom apartment was costing us over a thousand a month. (I'm sure they cost even more now, but where we live in Columbus you could still get a place for half that.) So understandably, I was very, very focused on getting ahead. I'm not sure I ever answered a potential boss's query "Where do you want to be in three to five years?" with "Your job," but it's always what I thought.

For a long time, my definition of doing a good job in my career has been "getting promoted."

Well, here I am. I manage the pricing team. And as I look around at the people who are a level above me, I'm not sure that I'm particularly qualified or eager to have their jobs.

This may be as high as I go.

It's not a bad thing. Honestly, it's a great job. It pays well, and the work is interesting. But after always thinking about the future in terms of "When can I take the next step up?" it's odd to think that this might be the end of the line. Yeah, experience changes thing. If there comes a point when I've been running the pricing team here for ten years instead of three, I'll probably be deeper into a lot of issues and consulted on more things. There would be a gradual expansion of responsibility. Or perhaps someday I'll end up going to another company to run their pricing function, with all the challenges that come with mastering something new or building a new team. And no matter what, there's always more to learn, more projects to work on, more ways to apply the basic skills and techniques of my professional discipline.

But there may not really be any "up" in a formal sense from where I am. And in the process of adjusting to that knowledge I've been realizing how much of my thinking about work over nearly twenty years has been built around the idea of advancement. I need to learn to think in other ways.


Rob said...

Unsurprising given our ages, but I am going through some similar things. One thought I've had recently--and perhaps it has crossed your mind as well--is that in another five or ten years there may not be anyone else as qualified to step up to the next level. You may be Ambrosed into the job.

Topping out is relative and (maybe) temporary!

Rebekka said...

It seems to me that moving higher up means more administrative tasks, and less actual work in the sense of interesting, hands-on stuff. But maybe that is my more clinical perspective. As it is I'll take specialization over administration any day!

Michael said...

This was so very interesting. We're going through some soul-searching in my engineering design org, as it's quite a flat, parallel organization, and there's not really any practical way to make more levels to promote people to. Managers don't really leave either. I'm happy to stay at the individual contributer level and avoid the extra politics and administration of management, and never saw my career path as any sort of progression through promotions. Then again, perhaps I'm just complacent and unambiguous, which is my defect in my spiritual life too :-/

Jenny said...

I don't have any firsthand experience with this phenomenon because, as we all know, my career was the bridge to nowhere. But I have seen close family members wrestle with the problem.

My father is a co-owner and president of a small structural engineering firm. They have 20 or 30 employees, something like that. His story is the classic, start at the bottom, work to the top story. He was asked to start buying into the company and moving into management positions about the time I left for college. My parents decided to pursue the ownership path because that's where the money is. Now by money, I don't mean the mega-big bucks, but he would have never broken six figures if he didn't buy in. I am fairly certain even now, as the top dog, his total compensation is around 150K. He spends most of his time now with ownership and management issues, works a lot of hours, and does much less engineering. He hates it and is counting down the days to retirement. (Seriously. If I called him right now, he could tell me immediately how many days are left.) He always knew he would rather be an engineer than a manager, but they picked the money.

My brother-in-law, who is an HR manager for a large national company, has reached the top of his promotion line without going into the executive level. He has looked at their responsibilities, time demands, and travel expectations and has decided the money isn't worth it, even though at his company the next levels really start to be megadollars. He does not plan to accept any promotion that would demand more from him. He currently spends a lot of time planning out where he can go if his employer gets tired of having him in his current position because they, too, like to move people around a lot. They tend to view the desire to stay put as unambitious. Meh.

Now what is interesting about my father and my BIL is that they make about the same amount of money, much to my father's consternation. A lot of the decision about whether you can afford to decline executiveship is industry-based and what the ceiling on a non-executive salary might be.

John Beegle said...

Have you thought about moving more into the data science field? You're already doing data science in your pricing analyses using Excel, but there are a very broad range of additional datasets, tools, and methodologies you could explore. You might be interested in looking at the Coursera/JHU data science certificate (10 courses). There is a tremendous demand for good data scientists, and I think moving from Excel and VBA to R and Spark/Pig/Hadoop would be a very natural progression for someone like you.

Darwin said...

I don't know how clearly this came across in the post, but in the interest of honesty, I should be clear: Even if I'm right right I top out at the level that I'm currently at in terms of job title, it's honestly a pretty sweet deal that I've got in terms of having a lot of responsibility, good pay, not only have to travel 3-4 times a year. So the adjustment is more to an approach to my career in which I'm not constantly looking for the next way to scramble a step higher.


I have the impression that my field (or at least the way I lead my team) is a bit different from the way that a lot of science or engineering teams work in terms of the doings vs. administration split. Yes, I do get stuck with a bit of manager work (writing performance reviews) and project management, but I also get to direct the way all of our projects are structured at an analytical level, even though I no longer get to do all the work. (And the fact that I'm the best SQL coder and a little more confident in learning other languages fast means that I get to stay in a lot of the most technical stuff.) Also, pricing kind of has two parts: doing the actual data analysis, and then an educational and leadership component where you try to explain what you've learned to the people who actually make decisions and influence them. Our team hierarchy basically means that I'm in charge of convincing and influencing the highest level people, while the other people on my team spend more of their time working with the mid level people in the sales and marketing teams we work with. This certainly results in some frustration (I'm the one there when we get shot down) but it also means that I'm never in the frustrating position of doing all the leg work and then not being there where it gets presented (and maybe feeling like if only I'd been the one to explain it we would have won.)

Darwin said...


Yeah, the "right place in a big company" thing can make a big difference, partly just because when you solve a mid-size problem at a large company the financial impact can be a lot bigger. Ten years ago, I was doing some freelance web programming to try to make ends meet, and I would have to do massive amount of work to make a few thousand dollars. There's been some cases at my current company (annual sales around $3 billion) where we've done a couple days worth of moderate analysis, made an executive presentation, and made a change in what we're doing that will make the company an additional $1-2M in profit. (Usually it takes more work than that get the company a million, but it has happened.)

John Beegle,
I do have a lot of interest in wider data analysis. There's a data analytics group at our company which, if I were to get a promotion, the logical step would be for me to take that over in addition to pricing and run both. They're a newer group, and their leadership isn't very technical, so I think it would help to have someone who can actually do analytics over it.

Right now our tools are a mix of SQL, Access, Tableau, PowerPivot and Excel. I used to do some SAS work, but I'm rusty. I'd like to play with R and Python if I can ever find the time. Since we have less direct consumer contact, we probably don't have the kinds of data that would really benefit from Hadoop, but I seem to hear from Hadoop consultants every week, so I start to feel like I should know more about it simply to fend them off better.

But yeah, there's definitely stuff out there that would be interesting to keep working with, and I think that's how I need to think about it more. Truly analytical jobs don't necessarily go any higher in rank than mine (I'm a director, and even there it's fairly unusual for a director to code and do data projects the way I do) but there's a huge amount out there to still learn and grow in that sense.

Mark said...

At my company technical roles nominally top out at the equivalent of the Director title, but promotions to high level, technical roles are becoming increasingly rare. HR is becoming slightly more open to admitting this, but they still what to paint lots of rolls as technical that are not in order make the career paths look more balanced. I made peace with this early in my career because my work is so much more fun than the management roles. Also, I don't think I would be a good people manager, at least not as good as I would want to be. I know I can be really good at what I do, but I would not be happy being an average manager even if the pay was higher. There is always a higher position (even the CEO might look to be CEO of a bigger firm) so at some point you have to make peace with topping out. On the other hand, if you are valued enough maybe you could craft a VP role that would be more fun than the current ones. I reinvent my role on every project, but that is not too hard in R&D and it doesn't involve any grade changes so HR doesn't get involved.

TS said...

Interesting work that pays well seems pretty good. By the way, thought you might be interested in this if you haven't already seen it: