Toxic Bosses -

Toxic Bosses

I've noticed an interesting trend in my email in-box. There are more developers than ever unhappy in their jobs, but who intend to stick it out till the economy improves. Then they are gone, history, off to greener pastures.

“I can't take the risk of quitting”, one correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “my job sucks, the boss is an a**, and he treats the programmers like dirt. There are like no jobs out there. Here in the Valley I'm lucky to be employed at all. If this economy ever improves most of us engineers are out of here so fast it'll make management's eyes spin.”

Trust me: the economy will improve. Jobs will materialize. Hiring will once again resume. Once that happens expect a massive employee migration. Developers will leave in search of better salaries and working conditions. They'll take their unique knowledge of company products. Sure, they can be replaced, but at what cost? Managers will — if they are lucky — hire new folks who will need a year to learn the intricacies of the company's 500,000-line code-base.

Or, as is so common, the new hires will react the way programmers have since the dawn of the computer age: “This code is crap. I'll have to rewrite it all.”

The crummy economy means even in the best situations fewer developers are doing more work, often one person taking over projects left unfinished by a number of laid-off colleagues. The virtual collapse of datacom has hit the embedded space especially hard. Stress is high. Fear of job loss increases the stress.

“I feel like an indentured servant”, another reader wrote. “It doesn't matter what happens at the company, I've got to put up with screaming bosses and insane management. I have no options and am hating life.”

An article in USA Today ( shows that college enrollments in computer-related fields are down – a lot. College-bound students saw the dot-com collapse and the surplus of technical people, so are going to different fields. That means we'll likely experience a shortage of developers in the next few years.

And perhaps it won't be long before frustrated developers have plenty of places to go. The American Electronics Association released figures that show whopping job losses (437K in the 18 months starting January 2001), but only 700 lost in the most recent May-to-June period. That's the second consecutive month of slowing job cutbacks.

An improving (hopefully soon!) economy with fewer new graduates will precipitate reversed roles. Toxic bosses and companies will lose their stars and find replacements few and expensive. No doubt this will create another surge in H-1Bs — another subject of ire to many engineers.

Wise management will invest in their people today so they'll stick around tomorrow. Shortsighted bosses who overtly or implicitly use fear to motivate will find their engineering departments suddenly vacant. That giant sucking sound you hear is the vacuum left by your departing R&D folks.

Treat them poorly now, and you'll lose them later.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback

While the bosses aren't screaming yet, the last year has brought layoffs, cutbacks in benefits, a salary freeze, worthless options, forced vacation days, high paid business consultants working without a budget, and just the other day the VP sent out an email telling us we need to put work above our families.

I'm an engineer partly by choice, and partly by necessity(cursed with a geek's personality I guess). But had I known what I would have to endure(all of the above, in addition to tools that never work right, and schedules that always shrink) I would have chosen another career. I love engineering, but the costs are beginning to outweigh the benefits.

San Diego Embedded Software Engineer

A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items infront of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a verylarge and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks,rocks about 2″ in diameter.

He then asked the students if the jar was full? They agreed that it was.So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them intothe jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled intothe open areas between the rocks.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed itwas. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Ofcourse, the sand filled up everything else.

He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students respondedwith an unanimous — yes. The professor then produced two cans of beerfrom under the table and proceeded to pour their entire contents into thejar –effectively filling the empty space between the sand.

The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you torecognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are theimportant things – your family, your partner, your health, yourchildren–things that if everything else was lost and only theyremained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the otherthings that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand iseverything else. The small stuff.”

“If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued “there is noroom for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If youspend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never haveroom for the things that are important to you.

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play withyour children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner outdancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give adinner party and fix the disposal. “Take care of the rocks first — the thingsthat really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beerrepresented. The professor smiled. “I'm glad you asked. It just goes toshow you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always roomfor a couple of beers.

Bill Murray
Baseband Hardware Engineer

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