Managing People

From the heart, not the book

By on August 07, 2007. Filed Under: business, development

One of the serious dilemmas you face after working in software for a bit is the management/technical career choice. On the one hand you want a big salary, fancy car, funds for your particular vice/hobby, etc. but on the other hand it’s hard to let go of actually cutting the code and seeing things happen. As an ex-manager of mine once said - you don’t see many fifty year old programmers. Personally I think that’s a shame, because hackers that have been around the block a few times are so much more productive than comparative rookies. Lots of development experience teaches you that code can be cheap (if you can knock good software out fast enough) which really helps when you’re trying to be agile. Most people in IT, that I have time for, got into it off the back of being a bit of a nerd at home, and many love that oh-it-works feeling as much well into their dotage as they did when fiddling with that Mallard Basic program on a now rusty old Amstrad PCW.

But management is a necessary task. People want to know what to do, where their careers might go, how they’ve done recently, and so on. It ain’t very technical, but it does have to be done. I am one of those people who prefers managers to have done the job that they oversee others doing, rather than being just ‘managers’. The danger of the non-technical manager is that they run around peddling a lot of common sense that isn’t complete bollocks, but isn’t really all that useful to the issue at hand. I’m sceptical of the MBA qualification for this reason. Some of my most respected colleagues have them, but whenever I probe into what you have to understand to have one, it always feels like a lot of common sense. Useful no doubt, but does it make a great manager out of a dolt? I don’t think so.

I’ve tried to eat my software cake and to have it for a number of years and it gets very very hard to do at times. In trying to be everything, I’ve felt like a terrible manager, a terrible coder, too meddlesome and too strategic, depending on the problem being solved. The secret, of course, is only to work in organisations that are small enough to play all these roles at different times, and only to do any one role when you can do it to your own desired level of quality.

Managing people properly though takes time. Lots of time. Just listening to the general gripes and moans can eat up most of your week, and that’s before you set about addressing them. It’s not uncommon to get to Friday and to have done nothing but hold meetings either listening to woes or relaying said woes onto other relevant parties. If you’re the kind of person who got a kick out of writing space invaders made out of percent signs on a ZX81 in 1982 this is probably not what you went through college for.

But it can be worth it in the long run, because if you feel demoralised managing people for more money, when you’d rather be hacking code for less (except your wife/kids/vice won’t let you) - it’s because you have passion. And that’s the magic ingredient you can’t get from an MBA.

I read once that there are three ways to lead a team of people: you can bully them, bribe them or inspire them. Anyone can do the first two following simple instructions, because they’re both generically about measuring something and reacting to the results (with either a stick or a carrot). You can’t learn the third, unless you have a natural passion and enthusiasm for that chunk of time that makes the third of your life called work.

I don’t suppose I could stand to go on holiday with Steve Jobs, or even take a long car journey with him, but he could do a presentation on his favourite lawn mowers and I’d be rapt. He’s inspirational to me because he truly believes he’s changing the world for the better. Even if he isn’t, it’s enough to get me going on projects of my own.

Tommy Flowers was an electrical engineer during the second world war, who came up with a design for a machine to crack the German Lorenz cypher (far more complex than the better known Enigma security). The British establishment, being the collection of short-sighted old farts that it still is today, didn’t give him the backing to build it (apparently they backed him with plenty of words, but no sign of any cheques getting written). So he just did it himself, with his own money. He begged and borrowed the parts, and just made it happen. After the war they gave him a monetary ‘reward’ (his manager no doubt had read the book on bribing) which barely covered what he’d already spent. The impact that cracking that code had on speeding up the end of the war must be nigh on immeasurable. How inspirational is that? Now I would like to go on holiday with Tommy Flowers, but alas he died in 1998, having followed orders, destroyed his machines, and kept his secret long after the war, even as he watched others reinvent his ideas. So not only is he an inspiration in can-do spirit, he was deeply honourable to a fault too.

So there you have it. If you love the job, don’t give up your passion to the whims of middling meddling management. If you feel the desire to climb the greasy pole then so be it, but do so with full remembrance of the job you manage. Care enough about the softer side of management to feel empathy when the team is depressed, that’s what keeps you human, but remain energised enough to bounce back yourself so that others can too. Get hands-on in work time, when it makes a positive difference, and stay hands-on in your own time when it doesn’t. Tommy would expect nothing less.