"Here Is My Problem" Volume #1

As a means of doing something fun with readers and seeing if the other readers like reading it, I’m starting a semi-regular “Here Is My Problem” column in which I will attempt to give my advice as to how you should deal with a professional problem. My resumé is I’ve run a company a while and seem to have a good head for these things. It’s also a good time for you to ask specific questions of me.

If my advice is bad, or people hate it, or some combination therein, I will stop doing it. Also, nothing I am saying should be taken as legal or accounting counsel, and if you email me with “Please Help Me” that is your permission to publish your (anonymous) question.

If you need help, please email me at ez@substack.com with the subject headline “Please Help Me.”

The Morality of Success

I've been reading your substack for a few months now, and I enjoy it very much as someone who works in the tech space and thinks most of the people around me are full of shit. I am a manager, and I view my job as one where I am the advocate for people who report to me, and would generally like them to all make more money and have more freedom to do whatever they want. (I am not looking for absolution for being a manager, it is what it is!) I try to work at companies that at the very least contribute a social good, but at the end of the day they would all be better executed as non-profits than as for-profit companies.

That said, my question to you is — how do you cope with balancing working in a field like PR with the moral belief that the entire system is broken? Am I really supposed to quit my high-paying job and go work at a non-profit when I, too, live in a society that means my rent is $2500/month?

So, as we both know, we live in a society. For the most part, our micro-actions will not change the world, for better or for worse. We can only do what we can with what we have, and participating in society does not necessarily condone the system’s unfairness or inequity. Whatever moral beliefs you may have, you still have to pay rent and buy food to eat. While it’s admirable that you question your participation in a system, I would not hate yourself for not being perfectly morally balanced. You are not “supposed” to do anything - going to work for a non-profit is not necessarily a guarantee you’ll be doing good, and taking a good job so you can live around and support those you love is also morally good.

I suggest that you focus on the good you can do with what’s in front of you. In my case, I do not work for arms manufacturers, or tobacco companies, or Big Pharma, and so on. I do right by the people that work for me, and as I have become more successful, I have done everything I can to lift those around me and be generous with what I have.

In the spirit of giving a complete answer, I asked for input from my friend Father Gabriel Mosher OP, a Dominican Friar who has given up any personal ownership of goods or wealth to pursue doing good in this world:

Yes. Human life isn’t perfect. Heck, the monastery isn’t perfect. Anyone can seek to live a good moral life in their chosen career or field, provided the career or field is itself not intrinsically immoral. In fact, it can be its own virtue to try and make positive change in one’s own field when that field is broken.

Can You Make People More Talented?

I am a mechanical engineer turned engineering manager, and I enjoy your thoughts on proper management, both for my own management practices as well as to what I should expect of my own bosses/managers above me.

The question I have for you, that I've been asking myself a lot for the last few months, is how best to grow talent and improve quality within my employees. Certainly a company can hire aggressively in order to acquire new talent from competitors or other industries. But my directors are faced with a stiff budget, and likely they would have to let go of current employees in order to hire new ones. That is certainly an option, but we are a small office (<40 engineers), and I don't think it would ever look good to start firing people while also bringing in new employees.

What I prefer is to give my employees the best training and tools to improve their performance. We were able to issue raises recently. And some of my engineers do show improved quality over time, but many times I see growth begin to stagnate. I have been here long enough to see many engineers continue to make the same mistakes. And in a creative field like design, there are some people who rarely come up with unique solutions, creative solutions that other people with some kind of 'talent' (for lack of a better word) tend to come upon with more regularity.

With your experience, do you have any ideas on how to help people become 'more talented?' Or how to motivate an employee to identify and overcome their common mistakes, and improve their quality*? (P.S. I use the term 'quality' in a technical sense--quality as a measure of consistency (e.g. defects per 100 parts, or mistakes per 100 engineering drawings), not quality as any kind of moral judgement.)

So, what I see here is an attempt to do right by your people that’s clashing with a lack of organization, which may be partly due to the format we’re communicating in.

You are pretty specific about what you mean by quality but not particularly specific about what “growth” means. When you say someone’s “growth” begins to stagnate, I have to wonder if you’re not asking people to do stuff that isn’t necessarily part of their job. And even in the best, kindest read of this, I have to wonder if you’re not asking people to do more work for the same amount of pay, which is unreasonable - even if it’s fiscally impossible to pay them more.

It would help if you quantified what growth is. Is it fewer mistakes? More ideas? What are they growing into? Is it “more quality”? I fear that you may be having vague expectations of people that they’re not meeting, and when they fail to meet them you’re upset.

A mistake I’ve made with managing in the past is expecting my workers to have clairvoyance or being annoyed that they don’t do something I haven’t set an expectation for. Is their job to come up with solutions? Or is it to design? If it’s to come up with solutions, what do those solutions look like, and can you give several examples of what they might be? You need to be very clear what the kind of “unique” solutions you’re looking for - and, frankly, lead by example sometimes. If you can do the job, and want them to aspire to how you do it, then do it in front of them and explain to them.

And, sadly, if they’re making tons of mistakes, make it clear that that’s unacceptable. Talk to them about it, work out why they’re happening, and if they keep making them, make it clear that you require a certain quality. But before you do any of that, make sure your standards are crystal clear and reasonable. And if you don’t have any standards you’ve set, then you have your answer.

There is no way to make people “more talented” because talent is intrinsic. However, there are ways to play to people’s strengths and help them buff off rough edges. What are these people really good at? Can you double down on that? Are there people you have who can be moved around to use their strengths?

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

I work at a company that I really like. It's in an industry that I'm personally invested in, on a product that I legitimately enjoy using and working on. I also really like all the people I work with. This all sounds great, except my current role is kind of a dead end. I have no real prospects of "growing" in my career. For context, I'm a QA Engineer. Currently, I'm doing manual testing, but what I really want to do is work on automated testing / SDET. My superiors have made it pretty clear that there's no real chance of me getting any sort of software dev job at this company, in test or otherwise. 

I've been on the job hunt for a couple months now with no success. Not looking for advice on the job hunt, but more-so on what you'd do in my situation. Am I doing the right thing by trying to get out? Pay isn't really a concern, I'm compensated well enough, I just don't feel like I'm at my full potential just doing rote manual testing, but it seems like my current employer has no intention of trying to "train me up" into a developer role. What are your thoughts? Thanks. 

The first place to start here is with a question: are you happy?

Your work is not your life. If your job is good, and pays you well, and you’re happy, then stick with it. But if you’re asking me this question, I’m going to guess that while you may not be unhappy, you’re also not fully fulfilled by your work.

While you said you didn’t need advice on the job hunt, it is relevant to your question. The fact you’ve been having a lot of trouble with the job hunt could be for two reasons:

  1. The job market is tough.

  2. Your skillset or resumé doesn’t speak to those you’re trying to work for.

If number 1 is true, number 2 becomes more urgent. Being a big idiot who has never successfully learned to code, I cannot speak to the requirements of a software engineering job, but continually I’ve seen people hired based on things they’ve created outside of work. It’s a vague and somewhat flimsy suggestion, but I would suggest doing all you can to create stuff outside of work, creating a meaningful portfolio that can help elevate you above the other resumés and prove you can do the job - you are trying to move into a somewhat-new field cold, and thus there is likely some bias against your ability to do the job, even if you’re going entry-level.

I would also suggest trying to get to know people in the industry/at the companies you want to work at, as well as looking at the LinkedIn profiles of the people that have the jobs you want. Reverse engineer their success - while it won’t always be helpful, it’ll at least give you a vague idea of what it takes.

That networking part will also get you past the army of HR bots that continually disregard people based on their resumés. I got my first job in PR by luck of the resumé draw and every single other job through knowing someone who knew someone.

In conclusion, I think you’re doing the right thing if you’re moving because you want to feel more fulfilled by your work. I do not believe you are doing the right thing if you’re moving on because you feel like you “should” do it without actually wanting to. If you’re happy doing your job and you’re good at it, stick with it.

The Workplace Bully

Please help me. I've been working with a skilled workplace bully for a few years (at a university). She's in a position where she had the power to marginalize me from a lot of my previous responsibilities and perpetuate lies about me to upper management. She's excellent at flattering her prey and has had a meteoric rise almost to the top at our location. Her actual job skills are lacking. She relies on "looking the part" and delegating work to appear competent. I'm not in a position to leave and I don't want to give her the satisfaction anyway. How do I make her stop? It's probably unwise to pick a fight with the next biggest bully in the building...

Thanks for your time,

Experienced in Texas

The person in question sounds like a gigantic piece of shit. I feel awful that you have to deal with her, and I have dealt with similar people in my life.

I am going to give you two options.

The short, and easiest, and most annoying, is to do nothing and accept this asshole exists, and do what you can to avoid them and placate them. It’s annoying, but sometimes you have to accept these people exist and that they cannot be moved or stopped.

And now the second option, which starts with a lesson - these people are liars. That is how you should view them - what they say, what they do, and what they don’t say. There’s a great book called Spy The Lie that I recommend anyone reads because it breaks down the numerous ways in which people lie (even if it d, and explains that lies are not quite as simple as someone saying a thing that’s untrue. I’m guessing here, but I think this person likely loves lies of omission - representing the work “of the team” knowing that they lead the team, for example. They likely avoid specifics, and if they do use them, they intend to cover up another lie, which I’d also guess is about their contribution to a particular thing.

I bring this up because it’s much easier to evaluate and deal with a threat when you know what it is, and the person in question is a noxious creep and a liar. We as human beings want to wish the best for people, and thus we avoid hard labels like this, but I really cannot express enough how people like this feed upon the average person’s general fear of conflict and labeling others as liars. But she is a liar, and should be dealt with like one.

This does not mean you are going to catch her in a lie, making her crumble to dust in front of you. Direct conflict with liars, especially liars that have gained power, is exceedingly difficult because you can build a great many truths on top of lies, and those truths will eventually become a protective shell, despite their rotten foundation. While we all want our Aaron Sorkin moment where the boss fires the bad person, but it never happens, and real life is rarely satisfying or just.

So, the first thing you must do with this person is to document every interaction with them. Wherever possible, communicate in writing. I would caution against recording conversations - though Texas may be a one-party consent state, nobody looks normal or sane producing a bunch of recordings, especially against a passive-aggressive manager. So keep her to email and Slack/Teams/whatever, and keep screenshots of any interaction that you do not like. Never assume a cloud-based log that your employer holds will be accessible.

Sidenote: If you really suspect she’s about to let loose on you in private, maybe record that, but don’t present that you record *all* conversations. Take something truly awful to HR, and don’t be accusatory - simply say “this was said to me and it made me feel deeply uncomfortable.” But if it gets to this point, you should (if you can) leave.

What you’re then going to do is work with her. It may seem counterintuitive, but if this person is rising through the ranks by kissing ass and stealing work, you are going to be the person that they steal the work from. If you really want to undermine someone that has risen through the ranks by lying and stealing, you want to become the easiest form of labor to steal, an indispensable force of nature. Your career will rise on the merits of your work, and their career will rise on the merits of your work. Go out of your way to be helpful, pleasant, and thoughtful. Accept that she is awful, and be prepared to hate every interaction, but soldier on in the knowledge that all of this is in service of your success.

Management loves this kind of story - if lies have been perpetuated about you, you can show your willingness to work with a rising star as a sign that you want to be better, and they will eat it up.

What you’re really going for is more face time with her higher-ups, which is going to be difficult if she sees you as a threat. If you are on “her side,” you will have more visibility, which will likely mean private conversations, which means that you can represent your work on its own merits with her regurgitating it. This will mean, at some point, she will make the mistake of saying that something you did (which the boss already knows you did) was something she did, which is usually a point at which people like this begin to self-destruct.

I will say, sadly, that there are no clear-set or easy paths through these situations. People like this are terrible, and that’s why I’m suggesting this level of political maneuvering.


If you liked this, thank you for reading! Email me your problems to ez@substack.com with the subject “Please Help Me.”