“Professional” Managers – Do They Need to Understand?

By Jim Karabatsos
Principal Consultant

I recently read an article by Joel Spolsky over on Joel on Software (a site you really should bookmark). Joel reminisces about the time he had his First BillG Interview where he had to present the spec for what was going to be Visual Basic for Applications to Bill Gates. It’s a good read, and Joel’s writing style is very entertaining. While Joel and I have differing opinions on some things, I certainly respect his experience and knowledge, and I suspect that the things we disagree about are simply related to the fact that he takes some concepts too literally (especially with regards to such Agile concepts and no BDUF, buts that’s for another post).

Towards the end of the post, Joel makes this observation:

Bill Gates was amazingly technical. He understood Variants, and COM objects, and IDispatch and why Automation is different than vtables and why this might lead to dual interfaces. He worried about date functions. He didn’t meddle in software if he trusted the people who were working on it, but you couldn’t bullshit him for a minute because he was a programmer. A real, actual, programmer.

Watching non-programmers trying to run software companies is like watching someone who doesn’t know how to surf trying to surf.

“It’s ok! I have great advisors standing on the shore telling me what to do!” they say, and then fall off the board, again and again. The standard cry of the MBA who believes that management is a generic function. Is Ballmer going to be another John Sculley, who nearly drove Apple into extinction because the board of directors thought that selling Pepsi was good preparation for running a computer company? The cult of the MBA likes to believe that you can run organizations that do things that you don’t understand.

Hear! Hear!

You know, it’s not that I don’t respect management as a discrete set of skills, a separate discipline if you will. Managing anything successfully requires a particular mindset and approach that is quite specific to the task of management, and the actions that a manager does (and the skill required to carry them out effectively) are specific and distinct from those needed in other endeavours (like, oh, I don’t know… developing software, for example).

That does not mean, however, that those skills are all that a manager needs in order to be effective.

I guess it is theoretically a possibility that somewhere there is an activity that can be managed by someone who has no understanding about that activity. (I am not saying that there is such an activity, just that there might be.)

But developing software is not it.

It is simply not possible to manage a software development business without a reasonable understanding of software development. I am not going to try to justify that statement here, because quite frankly either you know that this is true, or you can’t possibly be convinced that it is. What I will say, after 32 years in this game, is that whenever I have had to work with a “manager” that does not understand software development, the end result has invariably been sub-optimal. And by “sub-optimal” I mean a disaster, except where this was avoided by those who did understand and who went far beyond what could be expected of them and worked around that manager to get things done.

While it is not necessary (indeed, it may not even be desirable) for a manager in a software business to be the most technically competent developer, it is an absolute requirement that he or she be able to understand if something is easy or hard, if it is high risk or low risk, if it is reasonable or unreasonable, if it is obviously wrong, obviously right, or just plain not known. He or she needs to understand whether an estimate is reasonable, or whether it is too optimistic or too conservative.

If the manager can’t do these things, then how can he or she manage? Can you imagine this scenario? If I were asked to manage a banana farm (an activity I know absolutely nothing about) then here is a conversation with the farm workers:

Me: The buyers want bananas that are more uniform in size. How can we do this?

Workers: You can’t. Bananas have a certain variation in size. Indeed, the particular species we grow is internationally recognised as the most uniform in size.

OK. Now what? Is this true? What do I do next?

Worse still, the previous day, in the meeting with the buyer, the conversation had gone like this:

Buyer: Our consumers are complaining about the variation in the size of the bananas. We need them to be far more uniform.

Me: Oh, I’m sure that is not going to be a problem. After all, we employ world best practice farming techniques. I am sure we can do something about that. So if we add a clause to that effect into the contract, you will sign an order today?

Buyer: Yes, but only if you can assure me you can have a smaller variation in the size.

Me: No problem. Sign here, please.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, welcome to my world…