32 Years Later & You’re Still Wrong

When you’re a student arguing with a professor about some topic in the field, there is always the presumption that you’re wrong and the professor is right. While statistically, I would say the odds do favor that position, it seems dramatically unfair to the student at the time, especially if she is not inclined to grant the authority to the professor’s position.

While I generally had a terrific educational experience, undergraduate and graduate, and ungratefully took it all for granted until much later in life when I realized this was not everyone’s experience, there is still one area that sticks out just because it was unusual. The last time I remember arguing about this was probably my senior year of college. The professor repeated the same party line that we had been given throughout our business education – a good manager can manage anybody. You don’t need to know the business to manage, you only need to know how to motivate people. The analogy we were given over and over was of a man driving a carriage in Central Park. He has never been the horse, he couldn’t do the horse’s job. That is not what matters. What matters is that he uses a carrot or stick to motivate the horse. He is oh so much smarter and more talented than the horse. The man does everything else – marketing, accounting, and, of course, is entitled to all the profits other than the minimal amount needed to sustain the horse.

Although I eventually learned the futility of arguing with my professors, I did not buy this argument then and I certainly don’t buy it now.

It seems no coincidence to me that all of the software companies that continue to be successful these days – SAS, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Twitter – continue to be run by people who could debug a program, write design specifications, replace the memory in their computer and more – ON THEIR OWN. That is a really key phrase, not that they do those things all on their own any more, but when they ask someone to do it, they understand what they are asking. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to work with some managers who had vast knowledge of technology, software and/or statistics. If I had a problem I could not solve, I could go to them and sometimes they had an answer. Even if not, they understood the question. I have also worked with people who put both replacing memory and writing an application in the same grey area of “computers”.  The nadir of these was a manager who would regularly come to our offices and plead with us to “program faster”. This just made me laugh, although more than one of my colleagues either took to profanity or drinking.

Tip for those who don’t know – to replace the memory, you open up the computer, take out the old memory and put in the new one. To write an application you meet with people who will use it, get their input, design a prototype, run that by them, code the prototype, debug it and swear, show the results to the end user, make the changes they forgot to tell you about the first time, debug it and swear some more, show them the end result, walk around the building trying to come up with a way to do the seemingly impossible thing they want now, followed by another episode of coding, debugging and swearing. Eventually, you have your application where users do something and the computer runs a report, produces a graphic, throws up a web page or emails you a video of hula dancers.

I hate that line,

“I may not know how to produce our product or service X,  but I know people.”

What the hell does that MEAN exactly? That you can distinguish a person from say, a naked mole rate or a zebra dressed up in a person costume?

I can barely abide those senior managers who in a meeting try to show their personal knowledge of their employees by asking me about my family and how my daughter is doing training for her third Olympics. So far, I have resisted the temptation to respond,

“She is doing fine, but my other daughter had a relapse after her 47th time in rehab and mowed down 14 people in Starbucks with a chain saw.”

Yes, that is mature of me.

I would be far more impressed if upper management person Y had an idea what Project X entails because if so it would be immediately obvious that at least 60% of the other people in the meeting added nothing, e.g., the project manager who has no task but to see that the meeting has an agenda and minutes that are emailed to upper management as proof that he/she is doing something. At this point, upper manager Y could disperse the various extraneous people to do something useful and if they aren’t capable of actually doing anything useful, get rid of them thus making the unit/ company far more profitable.

So, no, I still don’t agree with what I was taught in business school. I think people who know software inside and out are better at running a software company. People like me who live and breathe statistics, who can tell you how to do a mixed model in SAS, an ordered logit model in Stata and how to find odds ratios in SPSS are better at running a statistical consulting company. They are better at identifying, valuing and retaining the people who are the base of their company’s profits because they are those people.

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  1. The good managers that I’ve had rose to their positions from within the same technical areas they were managing. They managed reasonably well.

    I’ve never had a good manager that was not from the same technical area. I can’t directly contradict the premise of this article, that a good manager can manage anything, but I suspect it is not true.

    I’ve had bad managers from within and without my technical area, and I can vouch for the opposite, that a bad manager can’t manage anything.

  2. I agree whole-heartedly! My advisor/boss, head of a bioinformatics department, still calls me up to his office to sort a table (in Excel!) by whichever column the tea leaves tell him would look best to the reviewers.

  3. Watch out for the Peter Principle. Being a good programmer is not a sufficient condition for being a good programming manager, let alone functioning at higher levels. Remember Borland? They had a CEO who could program and the best code base in the industry. They are dead.

    A good programmer I once knew who became a good manager once commented to me after she made the transition: “I used to think that if someone wasn’t programming they weren’t working. I’ve changed my mind.”

  4. You are right, some people in science, technology, etc. are brilliant in the lab and those are their best skills. There is also the tendency anyone who lives programming has to resist of jumping in and doing it themselves.

    My brother told me his hardest task in his first management position was to realize that yes, he probably could program better and faster than any one of the 8 people reporting to him, but that he couldn’t do it faster than ALL of them. So, he had to learn to delegate and to mentor them so they became better.

    I would say being a good programmer is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good managers of programmers. It is just like the counter-argument to those people who say, “Just because you know a subject doesn’t mean you can teach it.”

    Maybe so, but I can guarantee you one thing, if you DON’T know a subject, you CAN’T teach it.

  5. I also disagree with the general purpose manager theory and also was always at odds with my professors over it.

    Management implies manipulating objects. People need Leaders because people are more than just objects. The best Leaders combine the attributes of vision, positive outlook, servant leadership as taught by Jesus, with the Japanese concept of Sensei (literally one who has successfully been down the path you are traveling before you and is thus qualified to guide you down that path).

    This is a universal principle as illustrated by non-computer company examples. Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation were both turned around by Lee Ioccoca, an automotive engineer who loved driving cars. Union Pacific Railroad was turned around by J. C. Kennefick, a life-long railroader who had started at the bottom and worked his way to the top. They both replaced a string of failing “professional managers”.

    Another example is the greatest coach of all time in any sport, John Wooden.

    After all just how do you effectively manage or administrate, let alone lead, that which you do not understand? How do you keep from doing really stupid stuff? My business school professors never had that answer. And yet they still teach that nonsense!

    “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they are not”.

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