What should I do about my PHB?
September 27, 2005 10:33 AM   Subscribe

My boss is the classic PHB (pointy-haired boss). He knows little about what I do every day and comes up with random and often dumb tasks for us to work on. What should I do?

I work at a dot-com as a programmer. There has been a lot of turnover in the management here, thanks to the VCs. My latest boss, the director of engineering, has no clue about how to write code or use any of the tools we the worker bees use on a daily basis, such as CVS. As such, the policies and procedures he puts in place are sometimes strange, misguided or just plain wrong. He is also unable to judge the quality of our work. This leads him to reward the people who write the best looking word documents, as opposed to the people who write the best code. Let me give you an example; Can you view the source of this webpage? If you can, congratulations, my boss couldn't.

My question is, what should I do about this? Should I just do what they tell me? After all, they pay me to do what they say, regardless of how dumb I may think it is. And I do get paid handsomely, even for the silicon valley dot-com industry.

I could also find another job, but in spite of my boss it's kind of nice here. Having a dumb boss also has it's advantages, he has no idea how hard I'm working, or if I just surf metafilter all day. You could say I'm comfortable, but sometimes get frustrated. Also, while the job market is picking up for dot-commies, it's still hard to find a position that would pay me what I'm making now.

I could talk to the CEO, but I don't exactly know what I'd expect him to do. I think these managers were hired by the board of directors, so he can't exactly fire them. Aside from that, it isn't a very nice thing to do. My boss is an OK guy, and I don't wish him harm, but it would be nice if I didn't have to work for him anymore.

Finally, I've thought of getting him a job somewhere else, but I can't figure out how to do this without him knowing that I'm involved. Perhaps I could post a copy of his resume to various job boards and hope someone gives him a better offer?

Any advice on what I should do about my little PHB?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total)
Yep, enjoy getting paid for doing useless stuff, and spend as little time as possible doing it. It sounds pretty clear that the company is going to implode in short order. Make contingency plans for when your job no longer exists.

If you really want to change the world instead of selling sugar water, quit and do something else, or work on your own projects on company time.
posted by trevyn at 10:44 AM on September 27, 2005

Live like a college student and save the big bucks you're making so you can start your own business and never have a phb again.
posted by leapingsheep at 10:48 AM on September 27, 2005

Your problem is my daily life. I work as a freelance designer / programmer (and as a teacher). Most of the people I work for are clueless. I don't think of this as a problem. It's my expectation. Of COURSE they are clueless. That's why they want ME to design for them, program for them or teach them.

Yes, in a perfect world, managers would understand the mechanics. But it's an imperfect world, and they're not being paid to understand; they're being paid to manage. (Yes, I know, you can only manage well if you have some understanding of what the people you're managing do. Alas, that's not the way things generally work in reality.)

YMMV, but I think it's a bad idea to just be happy that you have a "dumb boss." Sure, you'll be able to get away with some goofing-off that looks like work, but ultimately it will bite you in the butt. You'll spend 400 hours working on a project and your boss will tell you to "just make this one simple change." Of course, the "simple change" will take you another 400 hours. Had he just specified that he wanted the background to be blue instead of yellow at the beginning of the project, you could have saved yourself a lot of work.

Here's what I recommend you do:

-- Communicate often. Without sounding condescending (and without burdening your boss with techno-speak), explain AHEAD OF TIME the constraints that you'll be working under. "I'm going to make many decisions based on the form that our data is in. So if we decide later to change from a flat file to database, I'll have to rewrite a lot of the code, and that might take me weeks. So before I get started, can we make a decision about the data?"

-- Put that sort of question/statement in WRITING so that you're covered. Later, if you're asked to make a massive change quickly, you can (gently) refer to your email.

If this stuff is hashed out in face-to-face meetings, write up an email after the meeting so that you're covered: "Dear boss, based on our meeting today, this is my understanding of where our project stands..."

-- Blame software and hardware. The great thing about machines and applications is that have no feelings. Really! If you prick them, they do not bleed. So if your boss says, "WHAT? You're saying you can't instantly update every record of the database so that it magically knows all the info I have in my head???!!!", just say, "Yeah, Oracle is a really stupid program. They should really update it to make it better. It sucks that we have to work with it. Oh well..."

I'm serious about this. Most non-techies have an us-vs.-them mentality about computer people. And you DON'T want to be one of THEM. Take your bosses side and let the machine be on the other side. Be the guy who is willing to be brave and fight with the horrible ogre computer.

-- Never immediatelty say that something is impossible. If your boss asks you to program his computer to make him coffee, say, "Hmmm. What a great idea. Let me research it." Then, maybe an hour later, get back to him (preferably via email) and say, "I've researched the coffee thing and unfortunately it doesn't seem to be possible. Here's why." At this point throw a little bit of techno-speech at him (or throw in some links to a couple of technical websites). He'll tune it out.

If you immedately say, "That's not possible," he may get upset. He probably thought it was a swell idea and he doesn't want his bubble burst. So let him down gently. And agree with him that the IDEA is good. Keep his hope alive: "I'll keep looking into it. Maybe someone will develop something that will make it possible. I'll keep you in the loop!" Make him feel like you're working for his best interests.

-- GIVE YOUR BOSS CHOICES! Remember, managers are paid to manage -- to make decisions. If they aren't making decisions, they feel like they're not earning their paycheck. So they WILL make decisions. And if you're not careful, their decisions will impact you negatively.

Before I understood this, I used to be baffled by some of the things I would be asked to do. I would present a client with a web design, and he would say, "Hmmm.... I like it... I like it.... But can you just change the text color to a slightly lighter blue?"

Often these "decisions" seemed utterly random. Like my clients were deciding something just to decide it. Which is exactly what they were doing. IF YOU DON'T PRESENT THEM WITH A DECISION, THEY WILL MAKE ONE -- AT RANDOM -- AND IT WILL PROBABLY SCREW UP YOUR WORK.

So say to your boss, "Hey, can you help me out? I'm trying to choose between these three colors." Secretly, you like all three colors, and you don't care which one is used. Your boss will furrow his brow, pace back and forth, sigh deeply and say, "I'm glad you came to see me kid. Go with the green and you'll never be sorry." Thank him for his expertise and design with the green that you liked all along.

Your boss will feel like he did his job. He'll probably show the green to all his friends and say, "See that. I picked that!" And you won't have to stay late on Friday.
posted by grumblebee at 11:10 AM on September 27, 2005 [6 favorites]

You paint a picture of overall contentedness with some frustration, for which you are paid very well - likely better than you could aquire somewhere else. You wish there was more merit involved in the kudos that are given out but overall are happy in your day to day life.

I think most people would describe this as getting to live in nirvana with a small pebble in your shoe.

If that's the long and short of it, I agree with the first two comments - save your dough and decide what you Want To Do With Your Life. You'll never get another situation that comfortable to be introspective again.

However, watch out for stagnating in your skills and marketability. I stayed at a job far too long once for reasons similar to yours, if not as nice. But I worked in a technology that was being left behind and wasn't getting any exposure and experience in ones that were becoming dominant.

When the time came to find a new job I found myself repeatedly called in for interviews to work on legacy projects everyone wished didn't exist. I could have taken those jobs for money not quite as good and continued to get less marketable or I could do what I did, which was take a bit of a hit and get back into more mainstream tech. Was the money I lost in that time offset by the overpay I got in the previous time? Probably not, and I missed on better sounding projects because of it. So be conscious of what would happen to you and your worklife if you had to go get a job tomorrow.

On the issue of the cruddy reward system, look at it as a challenge. A lot of people in our field have shit communication and personal skills. This is an opportunity for you to flex your socialization and bullshit muscles. We all wish the world didn't work this way but it does, and not just at your job. Learning how to draw attention to your achievements, put a good face on your product and minimize your failures is a useful thing. Being overpaid to develop it... winner!
posted by phearlez at 12:03 PM on September 27, 2005

This too shall pass. Most likely it won't be long before PHB is moved somewhere else and you'll get another PHB, he may be better or he may be worse, you just can't get away from them.
posted by Justin Case at 12:35 PM on September 27, 2005

Learn to write better word documents?

As someone who left a PHB to find other better work, then just ending up with a even pointier headed boss.. I would say stay where your at.. Hope someone notices his douchebaggery and then take his job and be as round headed as possible.
posted by JonnyRotten at 1:36 PM on September 27, 2005

grumblebee and phearlez:
Awesome advice even for non-tech people.
posted by desuetude at 2:12 PM on September 27, 2005

grumlebee, I am in awe of your office-fu.

I want to echo phearlez' and trevyn's advice. Spend some of your dead-time at work honing your skills and learning modern languages, systems and tools (you can pass it off as work-related research you're doing on your own initiative.) The world moves too fast for programmers to stop learning.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:21 PM on September 27, 2005

By the way, JonnyRotten, it's pointy-haired boss. Think short hair wil some sort of gel or mousse in it. Note: a PHB doesn't necessarily need to have PH.

posted by intermod at 8:23 PM on September 27, 2005

posted by intermod at 8:24 PM on September 27, 2005

You should make your opinion known to anyone who is intelligent enough to understand, and powerful enough to do something about it, and sane enough not to freak out and blame you.

If this one person is the problem, and you like your job otherwise, then the above is the best course of action. If, however, you find that there is no one to complain to (and honestly there may not be if this doof ever became director of eng for a web company without knowing how to view source) then you actually should quit because he is NOT the only problem.

You have to pick your battles with this stuff. Complain inasmuch as you have credibility with those around you, but not so much to create a stink you can't manage. Make your observations known, but keep doing your job as best you can. Be sure to frame any criticisms in terms of his ACTUAL failings by the standards of COMPANY OBJECTIVES and not in terms of snooty-programmer-thinks-he's-smarter-than-his-boss-because-snooty-programmer-knows-how-to-use-CVS-and-boss-doesn't.

Frankly, your manager doesn't need to know CVS to manage you, any more than you need PowerPoint to do what he tells you.
posted by scarabic at 8:52 PM on September 27, 2005

It's fine if the boss doesn't understand what CVS is doing, as long as they know they don't know, and don't try to make decisions they can't. It sounds like anonymous' boss is of the other sort, who doesn't know what they don't know.

One of my old bosses was also of this sort: didn't understand the technology, or even the general sub-industry, and any time it didn't match their preconceptions, it was a failure of process which obviously needed more meetings to resolve (not by learning about what was going on in the project, of course, but by forcing it into the wrong-shaped mold the boss happened to have). Ugh. Especially annoying since the preceding (and following) bosses did actually have a clue, so I couldn't even console myself with the engineer's usual fiction of "it's like this everywhere".

On the other hand, my current boss, while not terribly technical, does have a good idea where the boundary of his knowledge is, and we can work together.
posted by hattifattener at 11:42 PM on September 27, 2005

Bah! I meant to type Pointy Haired..
Must have had Zippy on my mind.
posted by JonnyRotten at 5:53 AM on September 28, 2005

I totally agree with grumblebee's great answer. I might also add wrt impossible projects... very few projects are "impossible"... if your boss wants you to program his computer to make coffee, why, that'd take a custom-built computer-to-coffeepot interface, a new device driver, documentation, etc and would probably cost $20,000. So tell him that, and he'll decide to allocate resources somewhere else.

And, he got to make another decision, so he's happy!
posted by Daddio at 10:12 AM on September 28, 2005

I think that there is some good advice posted here. No matter where you go you are going to be dealing with some PHB. Even if you work for yourself, you will dealing with some pointy-haired client.

I've dealt with some truly horrible bosses and ended up getting along pretty well with them by the time I left the job. It's difficult to manage people and I think people forget their bosses are just people trying to do the best they can and they are dealing with their own PHB's. Here is what I think when I am in these situations:

(1) Your job is to make your boss look good - That is why you are being paid. It might seem like people don't notice that you are doing the work, but your boss knows. And their bosses figure it out. And when you help someone succeed, they keep you close and you succeed, too.

(2) Give short answers - I used to write long detailed explanations to things. I realized that I could explain everything in two sentences and then provide detailed info after for my bosses to read if they cared. They never did.

(3) Provide choices - This has already been mentioned, but it is so key.

(4) Never say it can't be done - Managers hate to hear that, especially from tech people. They think they are lying or are just being lazy. Even if something is a really bad idea, it is smart to first seem enthusiastic about it. Usually there is some way to create something similar to the manager's goal without screwing up everything in the process. You can provide him the choice,"So I was thinking about our idea - if we do it like we first thought we would have to blah blah blah, but another option is to do blah blah instead. We can accomplish pretty much the same objective but in half the time and with half the team." This goes back to the choices.

(5) You can't be miserable - It seems tempting to just slide by in your job, but you just make yourself miserable in the process. You spend so much time working, you have to do something to make it personally rewarding - even it would be easy to slide by and do your personal projects in the free time. I don't work in the US anymore and something I really miss is the flexibility in the workplace there. You could come up with ideas, present them, and people would go for it. There are so many countries where the workplace is so much more rigid and there are so many other factors and laws that make it hard to innovate. There is always a way to make something good even out of the worst situation.
posted by BigBrownBear at 1:49 AM on October 4, 2005

I just wanted to say that Grumblebee's advice is great, and it reminded me of some very similar advice I've seen given by a screenwriter dealing with bad suggestions from studio executives. In turn, I thought that the screenwriter's advice might be applicable here.
posted by yankeefog at 2:08 AM on October 10, 2005

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