20 Dec What to do when your tech employer doesn’t know what you do
It’s a common situation in Midwest technology employers and even to some of us doing very esoteric technical work: the person who’s supervising you has exactly zero understanding of how you spend your time.
There are a handful of reasons why you might be managed by someone whose functional or technical knowledge pales next to yours. One is that downsizing or reorganization has reduced the number of managers to the point where people manage functions they don’t really comprehend.
Another is that you’ve been included in a non-intuitively and logically related department because of some special skill set that you have. You may therefore find a high-level technical person in a manufacturing group or stuck in the corner in the marketing department.
I’m not saying these arrangements can’t work. For your own sake, though, you need to work a little harder than the average bear at getting your boss to get you.
This condition – the “my boss is completely in the dark about my work and, as far as he knows, I could be online with my bookie all day” – is worth a couple laughs with your buddies in the lab or over a round of drinks at the bar. In other ways, though, it’s not ideal.
We can poke fun all day at the clueless suits who know Jack about technology, but if your boss is in the dark about the nature of your work, the fact is you’re at risk for a couple different reasons.
The first one is that your contribution to the organization won’t be and can’t be valued appropriately if your boss has no idea what you do.
You may find it frustrating that he or she can’t adequately represent your point of view in management meetings or that your requests for equipment take forever because you have to conduct a mini-seminar to educate your boss about the need for every new purchase.
These are the minor points. If your boss can’t say why you are a key contributor, you’re in a precarious position.
Should there be some upheaval in the company such that jobs are at risk, yours might be among them. In that case, you’d hate to have to rely on the sketchy understanding by your boss of your value to the department.
The other way it’s dangerous to have a boss out of the loop is in the area of broad decision making. If your boss doesn’t understand your work, he or she can’t intelligently weigh in on decisions that may affect you mightily.
Your boss may trot into the lab following a big meeting and blithely report that he allowed the CFO to cut a major piece of your project out of the next year’s budget. You’ll scream: “How could you do that?!?” He’ll reply: “I didn’t know it was important.”
You don’t want this to happen.
The best way to educate your boss about your role is to view yourself as a consultant to the company (in the sense of explaining your projects step by step). After all, your boss is the client. He’s paying the bills.
Your manager may tread lightly with you and give you a wide berth because he’s intimidated by his lack of technical knowledge. If the chips should be down at some point, all that professional respect will evaporate in a heartbeat.
Instead, use every interaction with your manager now to gently educate him or her about the nature of your projects. You don’t need to condense your years of technical training and experience into a crash course for dummies in order to accomplish this.
You can concentrate on two areas:
That’s the bottom line. What are you the best at (or the only person in the central U.S. who can do it at all) and why would the company care? Here’s an example of a way to get those points across:
Boss: “Hey, Charlotte. How’s the project coming along?”
You: “Pretty well, Nate, but we have a couple roadblocks that are vexing us right now.”
Boss: “Oh, bummer. Well, good luck with that.”
You: “Thanks! While I won’t bore you with the details, we’re struggling to get the client’s database to speak to our application. This is my specialty. I have done more database integration than almost anyone I know. It’s pretty unusual for me to be stumped. Getting these databases to talk is critical to the implementation.”
Boss: “Ah. Should we talk about this some more tomorrow?”
Don’t allow the arm’s-length boss relationship to continue. Without suggesting that your boss must have anywhere near your level of expertise, make it clear that this stuff is important and that you are the right person to be tackling these issues.
We have one more piece of advice in the boss-can’t-understand realm.
There are undoubtedly other people in your organization who can and do comprehend the set of tasks with which you’re charged. Keep your relationships solid and up to date with these people.
If your boss is fuzzy on the details, make sure there are other leaders who get what you do and why you’re so good at it. If a sudden downturn converts the jokes about the clueless suits into a scramble to keep your job, you want to have more than one person in your corner.
You can always still tell the jokes.
Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.