On elephant graveyards

Some years ago I heard someone sarcastically say “This is where elephants come to die” in response to me asking them what is such an intelligent person as them still doing in that company.

Since then I have been referring to “elephant graveyards” when describing companies and teams that don’t have room for intelligent people to rise up the ranks and grow as engineers.

An elephant graveyard, when applied to a corporate setting, is a team, company, or some other set of conditions in which otherwise bright engineers are forced into positions or assignments where there is no hope for future career growth. In this post, I hope to define the conditions that must be present for an elephant graveyard to form, how to detect them, and how to navigate them.

Defining career growth

An engineer’s career growth has three dimensions: skills, recognition, and compensation.

Skill growth is a function engineer learning new skills and becoming an expert through practicing newly acquired abilities on real-world projects.

Recognition is a function of showing initiative, applying new skills, and being recognized by supportive leadership.

Compensation is a function of recognition and skill growth.

Conditions required for an elephant graveyard to form

An elephant graveyard forms when the three dimensions of career growth become stagnant.

Skill growth stagnates when the project reaches a certain level of maturity and is either no longer growing or is in a terminal decline. Projects reach maturity when they reach a critical mass in production and are no longer rapidly evolving. When the active development phase is over, the projects are often scaled back. When projects don’t rapidly evolve, there is no room for the acquisition of new skills.

Another reason for skill growth stagnation is presence of The Smartest Person In the Room. The Smartest Person in the Room is either the developer themselves (which means they’ve outgrown the project and are now a toxic influence on it), or someone else (who created the conditions in which only his ideas are good).

The emergence of The Smartest Person in the Room is toxic to the team and good leaders should discourage it. Since only their ideas count, the rest of the engineers can’t grow and earn recognition.

Recognition stagnates when either skills stagnate or the engineer loses the support of the leadership, including due to management incompetence. When leadership is unsupportive no new skills will earn recognition.

When both skill growth and recognition stagnate, the compensation stagnates as well. Well-run companies reward engineers. Poorly run companies don’t have the money to reward them. Companies that create artificial limitations due to parochial title hierarchies run the risk of not rewarding technologists and losing them.

What to do if you find yourself in an elephant graveyard

First of all, try and detect an elephant graveyard before you join the company. Ask questions about team dynamics and the project maturity cycle. Don’t join a company or a team where elephants come to die.

If you find yourself in an elephant graveyard, however, it’s not all over. Evaluate your overall situation. Is work-life balance important to you at this phase of your life? Are you being fairly compensated at this moment in time? Are there opportunities within your company on other projects? Is there an opportunity to shake things up on your existing project?

As long as there is room to grow, there is no reason to be restless. You are not an elephant and you are not in a graveyard. Not yet, at least.