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By Jack Ganssle

Toxic Bosses

Published 10/17/2002

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 do what programmers have done 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 reverse 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. Short-sighted 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.

Threat them poorly now and you'll lose them later.