There is no room at the top for the hired help

Avinash Kaushik recently addressed a question perenially on our minds — how to make more money as a web analyst — by offering some very specific advice on how to choose a career path in web analytics based on your strengths and aspirations.  It’s a long post but definitely worth a read if you’re in the field.

But the subject of career path has been on my mind for awhile. Over time I’ve observed that most companies (or possibly business units if we’re talking about very large organizations) offer a rock-star career path for only one specific skillset. That is, before you can answer the question “How can I get ahead?” you’ve got to answer the question “Where can I get ahead?”

I spent more than five years at GTE Yellow Pages, which became Verizon Information Services (VIS) early on during my tenure, and which is now Idearc Media. Working at VIS was a formative experience for me, particularly in regard to my exposure to and the GTE Labs folks — GTE still had one of those serious internal research groups doing world-class research. But what I quickly learned was, VIS was a sales organization: marketing, product, printing, and the marketing services groups were all there to support sales. My career reflected as much: after my second performance review, my salary was finally bumped up to match our MBA intern’s, who I was actually supervising. I was finishing my Ph.D. dissertation, so I had both more education and more experience at the time. I know that story may sound familiar to a lot of people.

At the time I was frustrated, but over the years I’ve come to highly value that experience. I’ve come to understand that if your skillset supports your company’s core competency, but is not exactly the same as your company’s core competency, your upward mobility is likely limited. The contributions of your group are highly valuable, but the contributions of any one individual are simply work for hire.

At a law firm, legal assistants don’t make partner; lawyers who’ve passed the bar make partner. At an architecture firm, the IT guy doesn’t get the big bonuses; registered architects do.

After Verizon, I spent the next five years at working on some very interesting analytics, predictive modeling, and compatibility modeling. (The online dating industry, by the way, is an incredibly interesting place for analysts to work; I definitely recommend a tour of engagement.) (much to its credit) encouraged all its groups to propose business cases, so my group did just that — we proposed and successfully implemented the highest-grossing projects in two successive years. Tens of millions of dollars in incremental revenue, but the bonuses were… just OK; the raises were lackluster; the promotions, nonexistent. Why? Because was fundamentally a marketing company. They’re fantastic at it. But that meant web analytics would always be a marketing service function… second fiddle.

There is no room at the top for the hired help. But a lot of us stand in front of that elevator, pushing the button, waiting for those doors to open.

So: What kind of company is your company?

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