Fantastic Stories of Overqualified Employees

I've had a heavy speaking calendar this month. I knew I'd be home, so I accepted a number of local and close domestic speaking engagements. I've been surprised by some fantastic stories of managers and employees.

First, there's the well-meaning manager who wants a current tester to be “motivated” to do manual testing. “How do I motivate him to do manual testing?” was the question. I asked, “What's that person doing now?” “Automated testing.” “Why would you have the person do manual testing??? If you have someone who is more capable, why would you ask that person to do less than their capabilities?” “Because the other people aren't as capable and  I want everyone to feel like part of a team.”

Asking someone to do less than they can is not the way you make a team. The way you make a team is by having people work together, committing to each other. If you are not sure of the work you need done, you do a hiring strategy and a job analysis.

Next, there's the director who marched an automation expert to HR to fire the expert because he wouldn't do manual testing. Now, I have no idea if this guy was warned or if there were any other issues, but my goodness, test automation engineers are few and far between, and he seems like a reasonable enough guy. Firing someone because you are a bad manager is more bad management. Firing a rare person is the height of stupidity.

And then there is the organization who thinks that they must be the best organization in the world to work for, especially in this economy. They specialize in taking young idealistic people, putting them to work in entry level jobs, and making them turn off their brains for a year. If they are lucky, they get to do something useful the second year. In the meantime, all these bright people can do is see the waste. And look for a new job. And, because they have a year of experience at a known organization, they will get a new job. The organization's HR policies do not allow these bright young people to look for a job inside the organization until they have been there for a full year. By that time, these people are so dead inside, who can wait to look for a new job? They've had their fill of bringing self-important know-it-alls coffee and lunch and setting up meetings, and printing (yes, printing) email.

All of these situations could be avoided by first defining a job strategy and then defining a job analysis. If you over-hire for a job, you will hire someone overqualified for a job. Although, I honestly do not understand how you can have a software product and not need test automation people.

If you over-hire, do not expect to have happy people. Do not think you can do team building by having people work below their capabilities. But you have a very interesting option: building a community of practice.

If you have one “overqualified” person, why not use that person to help bring other people's capabilities up? Is that reasonable? I don't know. Can you use those capabilities in your context? In the case of the software organizations, I know that they need test automation. I'm perplexed about why they would move from automation to manual scripted testing. These are the same organizations complaining about shortened schedules, insufficient people, technical debt, and how it's so hard to get anything done. Why would you cripple a group by removing a tool (test automation) from the toolbox? Why would you remove a person with more capability? There's gotta be more to this story.

Managers, look at yourselves. Do you think you have “overqualified” people? Are you tempted to dumb them down? Consider your other alternatives. You can pair a person with more capabilities with a person who wants to learn. You can create a formal community of practice. You can invite people to learn from each other informally. And that's just three options.

These stories are all true. I wish I had the imagination to make them up. But not in my wildest dreams could I imagine managers thinking this way. Managers, “overqualified” employees are not a threat to you. Great people reflect well on you. They make it possible for you to get more work done. Nurture them. (Ok, if they are jerks, give them feedback, but we all need help on our interpersonal skills. We are technical people.)

I don't recommend hiring people who are overqualified. But if you find yourself in a position where you have people who appear to be more than you need, find a way to use them for the betterment of the entire team. Whatever you do, do not ask them to dumb themselves down, to give up their capabilities. They will leave. And, they will tell people why. Do you want to be known as the organization or the manager who couldn't handle a smart employee?

6 thoughts on “Fantastic Stories of Overqualified Employees”

  1. Sarah Pimentel

    Fantastic post about fantastic history of overqualified employees 🙂
    And you know, that’s so true. I’m seeing next to me a case of under utilization of people. It’s outrageous perceiving that someone has so much to do, so much to contribute, and they are still allocated on tasks that do not value their potential.
    The only point I’d like to bring is regarding your comment “Whatever you do, do not ask them to dumb themselves down”. As you came all along in the post talking about someone that was capable of automating and was asked to perform manual testing, it seems like you’re saying that manual testing is a dumb activity, which I certainly know wasn’t your intention.

  2. Great post Johanna – those are truly incredible reports.

    One to share with you – not specifically related to software.

    A manager found out an employee was going on maternity leave. He didn’t know mat leave in Canada is 12 months (unlike the U.S) and told his whole team “use up person X because in a few weeks she’ll be gone for a year”. This translated into people putting her on their out of office without ever having interacted/spoken to her. Needless to say the employee was surprised and upset.

    The employee decided to investigate with these people and find out what their orders were and where they came from. All sources said it was the manager. She had the courage to confront her manager. He denied it and magically people stopped putting her on their out of office.

  3. Wow. I’ve always heard stories like this and assumed they were apocryphal. That said I find it very easy to believe that this sort of thing happens.

  4. Interesting ideas, and good food for thought. Although I’d like to play the devil’s advocate for a while…

    As a developer, I’ve always tried to stay away from the mentality that I’m ‘overqualified’ for jobs like manual testing, or tech support (or programming jobs which are not in my field of expertise).

    I wouldn’t want to do these jobs full time, because they’re not where my interests and talents lie, but pitching in once in a while helps me gain an appreciation for the difficult work my colleagues are doing (manual testing in my field of work can be tedious or repetitive, but it’s seldom dumb, since anything that could be done with a machine without a brain, we automate).

    And I’m also a big believer, when things get rough, in the “as a part of this team, I’m going to do whatever needs to be done for the project to work” principle. There’s nothing more tedious than an “expert” who goes home early when everyone else is struggling to meet a deadline because he refuses to work on tasks that are beneath him.

    But this principle only works as long as the team really cares about one another, the need is genuine (and not just an excuse for punishing someone too ambitious, or for meeting an artificial deadline for which the team did not commit) and the situation is temporary (if testing is always short a pair of hands, and management is not looking to hire, then you have bigger problems).

  5. As a former automated tester (up to the mid 2000s) who always seemed to end up at suboptimal companies where I got pressed into manual service, I find none of this shocking. OK, I’d expect virtually all new development to be automated test-friendly, but in 2004 I was working with a PowerBuilder 6 legacy system that wouldn’t expose any sort of API and had to be driven by Segue in point-click mode. (That company was incapable of end-of-lifing anything so I’d guess they’re probably still using that PowerBuilder app, and its predecessor, along with maybe 5 successor systems by now.)

  6. “Because the other people aren’t as capable and I want everyone to feel like part of a team.”

    I was told that more than one time in my “career” in government. They made it stick, i.e., I was punished for not slowing down. It happens a lot in government, especially in places where there is a pension system. By the time you learn that you should get out, you are too vested in the pension system.

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