AdaCamp: Kill Yer Boss and Take His Job (Day 1, Session 2)

Hi there. I was at AdaCamp DC earlier this week. AdaCamp is a conference put together by the Ada Initiative non-profit organization to help further women in open source and open culture. My posts will reside in the AdaCamp DC category; watch that category if you’d like to read more about the event.
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Note the above photo wasn’t from this session; it was a challenging event to photograph so I don’t have a photos from every session.

Session 2: Kill yer boss and take his job

Despite the provocative name, this wasn’t a session about murder. I was a few minutes late to it, but I think the main goal was to talk about why there is a “glass ceiling” for women who have ambitions to work their way up the corporate ladder, and to brainstorm some strategies for busting through it.

Why are there fewer women in the top ranks of organizations?

The session goers started out by talking about some reasons why women might not be as prevalent in the higher ranks.

#1: Tendency to not want to rock the boat

It takes a lot of risk to work your way up, and there’s an increased reluctance on women’s part to burn bridges.

#2: Job switching for a higher rank / pay doesn’t seem to work for women.

A participant in the session brought up a study of large corporations that she had read about. Among its findings were that when men switch jobs frequently, their salaries increase. This job-switching strategy does not work for women: the study found that over time, job-switching doesn’t have as much impact for women wanting to increase rank and pay.

(I found the study. The article Study Debunks Myths About How To Get Ahead by Kimberly Weisu of CBS Money Watch links directly to the study and provides a good overall summary of the findings. The study was longitudinal and involved following 3,345 young professionals for several years; the participants where from business schools in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. The study was published in October 2011.)

In response to the discussion, another session goer asked, “Is it because the women just don’t ask?”

“They addressed some of that,” the woman who brought up the survey responded. She explained that the study looked at two types of women: women who stayed at a particular location, and women who tried to switch:

  • They found that if a woman stays at the same location, she will start at lower salary and her pay growth would be slow compared to her male colleagues’.
  • If a woman switched to a different position at a different organization, she would have to start from scratch. Women have to prove ourselves when they switch jobs, so they start from zero. It tends to hurt their chances more than if they had stayed, according to the study. Men don’t seem to have to prove themselves as much when job switching.

“Does this apply to women in male-dominated fields like tech?” another session goer asked, “I’ve always found a bump in salary in switching jobs.” The study focused on business school graduates, so the participants may have been involved in many different fields.

#3: As a female, it’s a challenge to negotiate without being pigeon-holed into being ‘nicey-nice’ or ‘bitchy-bitch’ – the sweet spot inbetween is much smaller for women than it is for men.

One pariticpant asked if anyone knew of examples of great women leaders who they thought had found that ‘sweet spot’ and pulled it off effectively.
“There was a woman in my workplace – a project manager – and everyone liked her,” started one participant. “She had a magic for negotiating her salary and bonuses. It was an academic position, so she had a modest salary. She would go to the table, though, and come out with ridiculous bonuses that kept her in that position for a while.” Eventually this woman ended up at another university though, “I just don’t know how she did it or how she made her worth so obvious and made her role so critical,” the participant finished.

Tips for Getting Ahead


We then transitioned into pretty much going around the room and giving each other tips on how we’d made progress in our own careers:

  • Ask a woman higher up in the ranks for career advice.

    We don’t tend to ask other women; going to them for advice gives us the opportunity to talk.

  • Be willing to do boring work.

    One session-goer said that she gravitated towards the work others didn’t want to do. “Sure, it sucks to do boring work,” she said. “It gives you power to negotiate if that work is critical, though. It makes you indispensible.”

  • Take on cross-departmental tasks.

    It’s very good for your work to be seen by everybody. If you work cross-departmentally, lots of people will know who you are. When lots of people are familiar with you, it’s easier to get things done.

  • Connect with your peers on a personal level.

    Another woman mentioned how she uses her Facebook account to friend co-workers up her chain. It’s allowed her to get to know them at a personal level. It helps you be more visible, too.

  • Share the narrative that makes your work meaningful.

    One of the really core things that made things happen for another participants was meaning-making around the work she did. “Give context around the work,” she explained. “Show how your work relates to other pieces. Making these kinds of connections is a really valuable attribute: it helps translate strategy into tactics.”

    Another woman in the session asked for a concrete example of this in action. “In strategic communications work, people want people to know about what I’m doing and directly relate it to the technology work,” she explained. She talked about how using a story to show how the communications tied into the technology work on a project made the entire project more referenceable to clients.

  • Do an audit of how much time you spend on things and take the emotion out of pricing your work so you’re better prepared to charge a fair price for it.

    A participant told us about the confusion she faced when she had to figure out how to price her time as a consultant. “I could only work a certain amount of hours, and the amount I needed shouldn’t dictate what I charge.” She tried look at pricing websites, and they helped her figure it out.

    “We would never charge only server hosting prices for a website. How do I do that for myself?” she asked herself. “I had technical expertise no one else had. Over time, I started getting confident the more things I was taking care of. Once I went to articulate them, I found that writing out the system I knew that others didn’t, how many people I taught how to use the system – a written audit of the work I was doing took the emotion out of it so I got to a place that I had a compelling case for pricing through enumerating what I did.” Tracking her work and making each component discrete totally changed the negotiation for her.

  • Sometimes it’s as simple as just asking.

    When it comes time to ask for a raise, there’s a study that said on average, men will ask for a 15% raise. Women will ask for a 2% raise. “You could easily be making 30k more than you are now,” the participant explaining the study said.

    If you understand how the HR system works, then you can know what you can ask for. Big companies have mid-year reviews that most people don’t know anything about. You might be able to get more money at that mid-year review because it’s more under the radar and budget is more flexible then. Just get someone to explain how your organization works: maybe you can find a manager willing to do it.

    Another strategy: if you know HR people at other organizations ask them how their organization works with salary negotiations. Arm yourself with information. People should get paid what they’re worth.

The pay gap


We moved on from specific tips for salary and raise negotiations to a larger discussion about the salary gap.
One European participant talked about how tax records are a public record for all citizens in her home country. “You can see what everyone makes and how much they pay in taxes,” she said. “In the US, you’re not allowed to tell your best friend what you make.”
“It’s just a polite protocol,” another attendee said. She said you should be able to ask anyway.
A couple of other attendees disagreed, “No, it’s in my employment contract!” one said.
“So how can I close the gap if I don’t know what the gap is?” a participant asked. Some ideas from other attendees:

  • Compete against yourself. Don’t just compete against market trends.
  • Ask your manager point-blank. Ask if you being compensated on par with others.
  • You’re not just asking for selfish reasons. Remember that when you’re asking for higher pay, you’re not just asking for money for yourself. If you’re in a critical job role, you need make a fair wage to do your best to fulfill your role, which helps the organization as a whole.
  • Remember that you start at a disadvantage. When asking for a raise, think about how women are typically make 30% less than men. It should be okay to start balancing the other direction – what’s to stop you from making more than a male colleage?

We had a bit of a discussion about unions, too. “Tech workers don’t tend to be unionized,” someone said. “Are there tech unions?”
“People are unionized make 19% more than those who are not,” said another session goer.
In the US, “union” tends to be a negative word. This isn’t the case in parts of Europe. One of the European participants talked about how she is a tech union member back home. As a union member, she receives base salary increase negotiation and free training courses that are paid for the union. At one point, she was a union representative, but she removed from resume when she started looking for work in the U.S. because unions are seen as a negative there.
“Some unions use different tactics,” another participant brought up. “There are two sides to the story… emotional triggers regarding unions can run pretty deep.”

Dismantling the mountain


“We’ve talked about money, power, promotions,” said the session leader. “How do we dismantle the mountain? Instead of fighting to get to the top of hierarchy, can we change it so there isn’t a strong hierarchy to our work organizations?”
Around the room, various ideas were proposed:

  • Treat people as human beings, no matter how high up they are.
  • Level with people on a personal level rather than talking about work stuff all the time. Break down the work-personal barrier.
  • Happy hours (or working lunches) can be really productive. One participant talked about how she got a lot of work done at happy hour. This isn’t possible with kids, though, as another participant pointed out. So going out to lunch with colleagues was proposed for folks with kids.

    This idea definitely doesn’t work for everyone:

    “I resent the social imperative to get work done,” responded another session-goer. “My personal time is precious to me and I don’t want to have to spend it with coworkers.”

  • Simply listen. Listen to people’s technical problems. “Just listening has helped me with empathy and interpersonal connections,” said a participant.
  • Be aware of the corporate culture. There are many different cultures: San Francisco, Houston, the northeast. There much more of a flatter hierarchy in Silicon Valley than working in an insurance company in Salt Lake City. You might be able to talk to folks far up in your chain without issue in Silicon Valley, but that might be a big issue in the Northeast. The culture shouldn’t completely dictate your behavior, but you should be aware of it.
  • Be friends with your direct reports. It grows with your ability to have difficult conversations with them.
  • Recognize that people lead in different ways. There are leaders in leadership positions, but there are also people who lead from the bottom, or lead through their relationships.

Tactics for Getting Better at Difficult Conversations

The conversation then led into talking about how to handle difficult conversations. The tips we came up with for difficult conversatinos are as follows:

  • Practice.
  • Deal with situation as it’s in front of you: don’t wait.
  • Figure out what you want to outcome to be before you start talking about it.
  • There’s a structure to having challenging conversation. You start with outcomes, and you start by thinking through the assumptions you’ve made about yourself, the other person, and the situation. Plan out how frame the conversation based on this analysis.
  • Own your own behavior in the middle of the conversation. Everything is a two way street, so you have to own your side of it.
  • It helps to know what kind of person you’re talking to, whether they are more introverted or more extroverted. “I had a hard time managing introverted people,” the session goer who suggested this idea admitted. “If you know the type someone is, and know how to get them to loosen up and talk… it helps everywhere, not just at work.”
  • Ask a lot of non-accusatory questions. Inquiry vs advocacy. Have more question marks than statements in the conversation.

Mentoring and being a mentee in career advancement


“If you are a boss or have been a boss,” asked a session-goer, “what kinds of things stand out to you about a person that inspires you to want to help them advance?” This question lead into a mix of both tips to help you make yourself easier to mentor to tips on how to better mentor others yourself:

  • Encourage your mentee to do stuff that is not in their job description. Build your team across the job descrpition, managing and utilizing people in the same role in different ways.
  • Recognize when people were ready to move on and give them the resources the make the transition. “For example,” one session participant explained, “I asked one of my reports if they had considered taking management classes, to make sure they realized we had that resource within the organization.”
  • If your team isn’t successful, you won’t be either. If your reports want to move up, help them do it. If they don’t, let them chill out.
  • Make sure your goals are known – it makes all the difference in your ability to accomplish them. Again, not everyone wants to move up the ladder. Verbalize your desire to move up to make it more likely to happen: so few people are likely to say it out loud
  • Don’t push folks who don’t want to work their way up. Sometimes programmers are happy where they are, so it’s not good idea to push them forward. If you don’t see the hunger to work up the ladder, it does not mean they aren’t good and shouldn’t be in the role they’re in. In the US, people assume you want to go up, but sometimes people are perfeclty happy right where they are.

Successful relationships build on reciprocity – for example, wives and husbands in long term marraiges. How do both parties influence each other? If influence only flows one way, a marriage is less likely to survive. similar in mentor relationship. You can be influenced and changed by people you mentor, so mentorship is a useful leadership practice.

Transitioning from a technical role to a management role

From the mentorship discussion, we moved on to talking about how exactly to move up the ladder when you’re in a technical role. A participant mentioned a study she had read about how programmers have a time range like atheletes. Early on in their career, they prefer and enjoy programming, but at a certain point they may want to gravitate towards more of a strategic roles. This can depend on their personality type, though. The transition from development to management is really tough, though:

  • We do a poor job of developing leadership skillsets in our society. We expect our leaders to think outside of the box and that they must be excellent communicators, for example. These skills require a higher level of development than our society is good at developing.
  • Programmers don’t tend to receive the support they need in acquiring leadership skills. It’s hard for anyone to develop them without adequate structural support, because they aren’t getting it from society.

“I’ve seen five of my coworkers go from individual contributors to managers,” one session-goer said. “It has a five stages of grief trajectory.” The shift from isolated and analytical to soft skills is really hard for technical folks and her coworkers received very little training and prep for that shift. The reward is that the ones who stick the management role out encounter bigger problems. They get bigger the further up you go: they’re more challenging, but they also can be more rewarding to solve.
“It’s a little weird to assume anyone can be a manager, it’s a bizarre thought,” another partiticipant pointed out. “It requires particular personality traits – there are people who won’t be good at it because of their personality. You can’t just take anyone.” She pointed out that it’s possible for an individual contributor to make more than their boss, and that a promotion doesn’t mean you make more money.
Some people think they want to be a manager because they want to have control – but a current manager in the session said that’s the last thing it’s about. “You do not have more control, you have way less,” she said. “You’re managing fights with people, you’re not doing technical development. I switched from front-end development to hacking people.”

How to be a good manager

We then dived into some tips of how best to manage others if you’ve made the transition from development to management or if you’re considering it:

  • The best managers trust people and allow them to do their job. “I once worked for a micromanager and lost all of my leadership skills,” admitted a session goer. “When I started a new role, I found I was trained to ask for permission before sending out an email.” She had to relearn all of her leadership skills all over again and it was really hard to do.
  • Learn that your way isn’t necessarily the best way. It takes hard work to learn this. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
  • If you’re a micromanager, you’re not doing your job. You’re doing everyone else’s job, and that is not the job you’re supposed to be doing.
  • Learn to give up control of everything. It’s really hard to give up control. Some new managers cope by trying to do everyone else’s job, working long hours, and getting completely burnt out. They don’t like being in that position – it’s an insurmountable amount of work – but being in control of it feels safe. One woman in the session talked about how she would redo the work of her direct reports if she didn’t think it was perfect. “Sometimes you have to step outside of your comfort zone and do something dangerous,” she recommended, “give up that control, as dangerous as it seems to do.”
  • Set limits on your time. You want to please the people who work for you, so you spend too much time managing them. You want to be available to them and approachable, but you have to learn to set limits. It’s the only way you can be a good manager.
  • Ask people what they need from you as a boss. It can be a really powerful thing for a direct report to say, “I need you to…”

I hope you’ve enjoyed these session notes. Did we come up with any insights here that you think you might be able to build on? Are you ready to work your way up the ladder now?
Check out my other posts on AdaCamp.

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