Why Middle Managers Hate the Numerati

There are two kinds of people in organizations; those who can count and those who claim to have “people skills”.

When David Wechsler created the most commonly used intelligence test in America, the results gave two IQ scores, Verbal and Performance Intelligence. Dr. Wechsler said he had noticed that there are some people who were good at using words and some people were good at solving problems with things, and that those were both types of intelligence. Steven Baker, wrote an interesting book about one subset of those people, those who control and analyze data. He called them the numerati. I used that term here to describe everyone high on Wechsler’s second intelligence score, because it was simpler than saying “technologists, mathematicians, statisticians, engineers, scientists and people like them”. Besides, I liked the term and it’s my blog.

In a great many areas, from the BP oil spill, to global warming, to curing diseases like AIDS or cancer, to genetic engineering to technology start-ups, many people in American society can be heard to say, “Scientists can certainly find a solution for this”, sometimes prefaced by “If we could send a man to the moon… ”

Listening to the news, my husband, an actual rocket scientist type, has responded sardonically more than once to these comments,
“Well, your faith is touching but… ”

Yes, it would seem we LOVE scientists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, computer programmers, all of those people who are going to figure this stuff out, right? I consider myself to be very fortunate to often be right in the thick of machinery that powers science. I get to help people create propensity scores to quantify mortality risk, write macros to create simulated data for parallel analyses, modify programs so they run on a supercomputer and a lot more fun stuff. Some nights I leave the building hours later than I had planned or go home and work into the morning because I am chasing a problem and lose track of time. What’s not to love about that?

And yet, when I look at who is supervising our technical staff, the engineers, physicians, and scientists, it is often a different story. You would THINK, that the bright young people coming up would be the ones you want to encourage. And yet ….

There once was a technical support center with some very savvy technical staff. The kind of people who took computers apart just to see if they could put them back together again or who would run thirteen virtual machines at a time just to see what would happen. Their department supervisor was pretty decent with Unix and even better hacking into the Windows operating system. When he left, some of the staff applied for his position as well as some very good technical people from outside. The new supervisor had no technical expertise but “people skills”. The training to teach the staff more about Unix, more about systems administration was limited to guest lecturers. Recently, I was copied on an email to the staff regarding the proper “phraseology” for answering the phone and telling people how happy you are they called.

This troubled me enough that I mentioned to an executive for that organization how misguided I thought it was. I pointed out that when people call technical support they want their technical question answered. Further, since this is an entry point for many people, it was a great opportunity to train and develop people who already have some skills and talent to be successful. I was told that while, yes, for people like ME, this was true but these technical people did not have MY abilities (whatever those might be) and thus what they really needed was not an explanation of the difference between a 32-bit and 64-bit operating system or parallel versus serial processing. What they really needed was signs saying, “Smile when you answer the phone.”

For a while, when people from tech support would call me, I would answer the phone with,

“Hi, this is AnnMaria, I’m very fucking happy-ology you called.”

Then I would answer their questions. They seemed to be very fucking happy-ology about it, too.

Except for one middle manager type who overheard me and told me I was wildly inappropriate and asked me what if it had been the president calling me. I pointed out that I have caller ID and unless Barack Obama happened to be visiting technical support, borrowed someone’s phone and called me just to ask a question about logistic regression, it wasn’t very likely to be an issue.

So, we’re not mentoring those with potential to be up-and-comers. What about the existing “numerati”?

At the university level – sadly, for the last thirty years, the number of tenured professors in all fields has been dropping dramatically . The proportion of classes taught by full-time professors has been dropping. There is a rising new group called “clinical professors” who are paid only to teach and don’t do any research at all. Then, there are the for-profit universities, a rapidly rising group that takes up almost a quarter of all federal student aid. They don’t support any research at all.

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed discusses both the fact that the tenure track isn’t all it’s cracked up to be “you can’t speak your mind for seven years” and the number of positions is declining anyway.

From what I have seen, in technology companies SOME SUBSET of the numerati are well-treated. A software company may esteem its programmers but disregard the market research staff that can hold some whiz-bang statisticians. A pharmaceutical company may treat very well the clinical researchers but completely ignore the programmers who run their accounting and inventory systems.

Doesn’t this make sense? Isn’t it the old cliche about staff versus line positions we learned about in business school? Maybe, maybe not but certainly it is stupid. Those professors, I would think, would be “line jobs”. As for the accounting, market research and inventory folks, if you let them apply some of those equations they might make or save you millions of dollars. Why do we generally think that science and technology are the answers to all of our national ills but overlook those skills in specific situations?

An organization planned to expand the software licensed. A new purchase, available to all researchers, for a very modest fee, would have given them the capability to easily do decision trees, neural networks, survival analysis and more. The purchase was stopped because the vendor’s attorney and the client’s attorney could not agree on a phrase in the contract. This was reviewed by two managers and two attorneys, none of whom actually knew what the software could do for the organization.

As I hear these stories, and many, many more like them, I wonder what exact “people skills” these middle managers bring to organizations. If the skill is to develop people, you’d think they would bring in people to train them. Maybe they would look at data that showed the greatest areas of need. If it was to support existing researchers, you’d think they’d ask them what it is they need and try to ACTIVELY promote new technologies rather than “Say no and see if anyone screams”.

In looking at some of the behavior (think the phraseology example and the fact that this individual was hired) it shows an active distrust, disrespect and dislike for the technical staff.

I cannot state for sure why this happens in some organizations (certainly not all), but this distinction between “people skills” and “research skills” got me thinking of the difference in security.

What are technical skills? The ability to conduct an experiment, diagnose a patient, write a program. Generally, these are very portable. As a consultant, when I leave one client and go to the next >95% of what makes me valuable goes with me. Yes, the next client may have some specific system I need to learn, but the definition of a training dataset, how to select a stratified random sample and all the programming languages I know go with me. The same is true of anyone in a technical or scientific field. The more you apply your skills, the more value you have and you take that value with you wherever you go.

I’m a bit confused by the “people skills” that some middle managers supposedly have. As a friend of mine commented about the manager for his department,

“They say he was hired for his ‘people skills’ and not his expertise. Well, we’re all people in this department and we all think he’s a dork. “

People skills include the ability to motivate and communicate. Those are a lot harder skills to document. How do you know your staff didn’t succeed despite you? For middle managers, a good deal of success seems to depend on connections. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I say that not in a perjorative sort of way but because I have noticed that many middle managers LOVE meetings. The point is, as I have been told many times,

“So we can all get to know each other.”
and I wonder,

One reason middle managers and the numerati don’t get along is they seem to think differently. Take meetings. My view on most meetings with a middle manager with a Gantt chart is

“Why are you here?”

I’m not talking about the person from the department we are supposed to serve who can tell me about how the data are stored, what questions they hope the data can help them answer and problems with data quality. I totally get why she is there.

I also understand people at a higher level of management who have an enormous project and need to parcel out parts of it to different teams, who need to set priorities for resources. I understand what they are doing and why we need them.

What I DON’T get is the guy in the middle who organizes meetings, requires agenda and minutes so they can be forwarded to “upper upper management”.

Here is what I am thinking:

“My team and I are going to do the absolute best we can. Tell us how much money is available and when you need it done. Then, go away.”

I really, really don’t know what the middle managers are thinking. What I deeply suspect, though, is that when I read about people in the New York Times who used to have a job that paid $60,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 a year and now they have been unemployed for two years, that I am reading about THEM.



Fish Lake – it will teach you numbers and it’s fun

Our games are like push-ups for your brain.

Similar Posts


  1. First of all, I totally sympathize and I have been trying to figure these things out for years.

    My view is that It’s all about trust. These meetings are not just about sharing information, but about sizing people up as well as building relationships.

    People like to work with people they

    1) like being around, and this includes annoying irrelevancies such as “fashion sense” I feel lucky if I get out the door with matching socks.

    2) can count on to find without having to ping them excessively.

    3) enjoy being with.

    I suspect that learning how hierarchies work across different cultures might give me a clue. I’m not sure.

    Some days I think “people skills” are like lovemaking or driving skills, where 80% of people think they are above the median level.

    There clearly is a tipping point, though. Without this human connection, a company is just a huge neural net passing bits from node to node.

    On the other hand, you have too much middle management, which creates absurdities like the ones you’ve described in this excellent post.

    I do think society has undervalued these facilitation skills that you dismiss, and I hope they make a comeback.

  2. I don’t know if facilitation skills in general have been undervalued but I whole-heartedly agree that most people probably over-estimate their people skills, facilitative skills or whatever you call them. Part of it is the ambiguity. I can point to a program and say, “I have good programming skills because I wrote this and it does A, B and C.” Further, I can explain why I did it that way and how it works.

    A person who comes to meetings and asks the four people who are already there for an agenda, meeting vision statement and minutes may point to those documents as proof of his/her facilitative skills but I think that proof is more debatable than the working program.

    It reminds me of Dave Barry’s article on choosing a college major where he recommends against fields like chemistry that have actual answers and insists that you get the same answer as every other chemist and if you say hydrogen and oxygen combine to form Nilla Wafers they get really snotty about it.

    Maybe I just have an uncharmed life but I see LOTS more people who want jobs doing facilitation than making stuff that doesn’t break. As a result, I have seen more organizations with too many of those people with too few. However, I’m sure my personal experience isn’t a random, representative sample of the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *