The Peter Principle

August 19, 2016
Reading Time: about 6 minutes


During my time at Teradata, I reached out to other employees in hopes of learning from their perspectives. Here’s some lessons I learned from each.

Daniel Hoffman - Software Engineering Manager

I reached out to Daniel after he and several other managers held a Q&A session for interns. He first hosted a luncheon along with several other managers on a smaller scale, then a private lunch with me. Throughout, I learned several important aspects of working towards a managerial position. To start off, most majors allow you to graduate then immediately begin work in your field of choice. Unfortunately, nobody really wants a new college grad manager. In order to combat this, he recommended two main tracks. The first is to assume a project management role, then leverage a technical background into technical management. The alternative is to work as a software engineer then transition to a architectural role while beginning to delegate tasks to others.

On the way back, he told me to look into the Peter Principle.

Peter Principle
People rise to their level of incompetence

The idea behind this is that people often look at who does well in their role for promotions. However as burdens increase, people become unable to perform at their current level and no longer get promoted. At this level, they tend to fail which is why people seem to be inadequate for their roles.

In order to put yourself in position for a role you want, you need to excel in the role you don’t yet have… not only the one you’re currently in - Daniel Hoffman

He also introduced me to the daily life of managers. As a software engineer, my typical day consists of taking issues that have been assigned to me and working them through. I have complete control over when to work on what, and am solely responsible for my own performance. Meetings take a relatively small portion of my time. On the contrary for a manager, his days are typically filled with meetings, scheduling and preparing for meetings, finding methods to redelegate tasks and leverage supply/demand of his team’s time vs. what other teams want. He stressed the importance of simultaneously serving as a buffer for the team so they can work efficiently, and removing blockers for his team members to proceed as efficiently as possible.

Dee Horcasitas - Senior Technical Recruiter

Dee showed me that there are two sides to everything - just because I think getting opportunities and internships is extremely difficult, she has the opposite view. At any given point, she has roughly 55 openings to fill, most of which with different managers and targeted skill sets. Although my experience is that there are far too many people with a scarce job market, she finds that managers want all the best candidates working for low prices… yesterday. I also noticed that ironically, recruiters at top companies probably have the easiest time finding suitable candidates while theoretically also being the best recruiters. On the contrary, recruiters at lower level companies also have a smaller selection of candidates.

John Poetzinger - Senior Storage Engineer

John was a software engineer who recently switched into management. He stressed the importance of networking, since managers typically look to people who are actively communicative and open with the rest of the team. Additionally, he brought up a recent trend where people switch companies every few years, thus accelerating their promotion rate.

Oliver Ratzesberger - EVP and Chief Project Officer

Oliver is the president of Teradata Labs and reports directly to Teradata’s CEO, Victor Lund. With my newfound interest in management, I imagined his perspective would be vastly different, since he has a higher level overview and greater influence on the company. My friends and I were astounded when he accepted, even building on our lunch offer by hosting catering as well.

Lunch with Oliver
Lunch with Oliver

At lunch, Oliver was unexpectedly down to Earth. He understood problems and issues of importance for people at all levels while discussing how he made critical decisions along his career path. Several main points stood out to me: First, his biggest emphasis for the company wasn’t about which technological direction to bring the company, or which specific areas to further strengthen. Rather, he focused on improving company culture to foster collaboration and innovation - something strongly emphasized at his previous workplace, Ebay. He wanted to bring people together and share ideas and gave, as example, several key ideas he was pushing for the company to make. First and foremost, he pushed for 2 years to redesign the building… complete with new furniture, open space, break rooms, outdoor seating/relaxation areas, etc. Next, he pushed for hackathons which people apprehensively approached, but eventually accepted and embraced. Third, he recalled from his own experience times when he stayed up for ~70 hours working on a product. As a result, he emphasized the importance of work life balance, encouraging other management executives to accept and endorse vacations spanning multiple weeks as a norm (as opposed to 1 week max breaks). Finally, he spoke passionately about the importance of diversity. With diversity comes different approaches to problems and improved collaboration while simultaneously breaking barriers on traditional stigmas.

We also discussed other topics such as promotions and jumping companies. Throughout, I realized two interesting points. He didn’t seem to focus on promotions or pay, as long as it was sufficient. However in each position, he would seek to push his own vision (such as diversity and open collaboration through socialization), which would result in his exceeding expectations. Second, he stressed the importance of not jumping ship too soon in search of promotions. In his experience, it takes around 1-2 years to begin making meaningful contributions - a sentiment shared by several other managers I spoke with as well. Rather, switch positions internally such that your knowledge about a product builds up.

Finally, we asked him about his daily life. He responded by showing us how he keeps up with technology - through his pet project. At home, he installs sensors for different types of actions spanning from seismic activity to the lights currently on in his house. Two years ago, he heard about the rise of Python and decided to use it to automate and remotely control everything in his house. Raspberry Pis run Docker Swarm while a Mac Mini serves as a parallel processor for 28 different types of devices that update every few seconds. To me, his engagement and personal interest in technology was astounding, even with his packed schedule at work. He mentioned his past - he started tinkering with technology when he was 11, and specialized in technology as his high school (integrated with B.S. in Austria) track.

In summary,

  • Fun work/employees who enjoy the work they are doing work better
  • Collaboration trumps individual effort easily
  • Push for cultural change 2 years
  • Home network
  • Don’t worry about promotions, but do more work than expected to fulfill your vision
  • Don’t burn out - time your work and maintain work/life balance
  • It takes a week to fully relax and remove yourself from work (ex: Ebay had 4 week sabbaticals for people every 4 years)
  • Culture/collaboration breeds innovation
  • Move around in the same company; don’t jump. You don’t make meaningful contributions until around 2 years in.