Friday, 1 September 2017

Management Expertise


This is a WIRED story about tech software startups in the Denver area.  In it a man who has an idea about buying insurance online has become a 'TECH CEO' even though he has no idea of what it is he is actually building.  With no background in technology hardware or software development, this guy is trying to launch a tech-startup with an idea and little else.

The quotes below are from the article.  The bolding is mine...

ROSS DIEDRICH HAD gone pale and raw-boned. The CEO of a year-old startup in Denver, he’d stay at his office until the middle of the night, go home and sleep for about five hours, then chug a spinach smoothie and start again. He was just 27 years old, but he felt wrung out.

He still didn’t have even a basic version of the software that he could demo—an “MVP” in coder parlance, for minimum viable product. Chris was still holding down his full-time job; he didn’t want to quit until Covered had some funding in hand. The lead development engineer that Ross had brought on, a big, quiet nerd named Jonathan Baughn, was juggling a bunch of projects and wasn’t as available as Ross had expected. But Ross didn’t want to put too much pressure on Baughn. As a contractor, he was within his rights to work for others. A junior software engineer Baughn had brought to the project, Reyna DeLogĂ©, tried to manage on her own, but they kept blowing past their self-imposed deadlines.

He navigated to the demo site, typed in his password, and tapped on the mousepad. Then he tapped again. Nothing happened. The demo was broken. “What the heck is going on here?” he murmured.

I'd feel wrung out too if I was building something that I had no idea of how it works and kept blowing through deadlines.  Demoing it and having it fail to launch and then having no idea why would be exhausting.

I would posit that you need at least a passing acquaintance with the technology you're pedalling before you try to claim ownership over it.  An automotive executive who has no idea what is under the hood would be a poor manager.  A head chef who doesn't know how to cook would be a poor manager.  A general who has never stepped foot on a battlefield would be a poor general.  A principal who was a disaster in the classroom would be a poor principal.

The film Steve Jobs does a good job of examining the contradiction of a manager who has no engineering skill:

Where Jobs diverges from the disaster described in the WIRED article above is that he surrounds himself with the most knowledgeable engineers - an orchestra of expertise, and then focuses on having them produce their best possible work.  An argument could be made for a manager like this, but not at the expense of engineering, never at the expense of engineering.

Your ideal manager must have some technical background if they are to work with skilled labour.  In the clip above Woz tells Jobs that he can't do anything, which isn't really true; they met and bonded over their shared knowledge of electronics.  Jobs may not have been able to engineer the devices he helped create, but he was very aware of the technology and how it worked.  With that knowledge he was able to gather experts because he could appreciate their expertise.

A manager who is only an expert in management is best when not managing people who perform skilled work, whether that be engineering or teaching or any other complex, skills based process.  Matt Crawford does a great job of examining this in The World Beyond Your Head.  In the book Crawford distinguishes between the skilled labourer who modifies or 'jigs' their environment to better perform their profession and the unskilled script follower who does what they're told in a prefabricated production line.  Being free to manipulate the physical environment in order to perform your expertise is a foundation stone of professionalism in Crawford's mind.  A lot of the downward pressure you see on worker valuation in education and employment in general is because of the Taylorism of workplaces into script following routines.  Making the end goal of education a result in a standardized test plays to this thinking perfectly.  In those prefabricated and abstracted workplaces skill isn't a requirement, obedience is.

An effective manager of skilled labour acknowledges and cultivates expertise in their people.  You can't do that without having some kind of handle on that skillset.  Being oblivious to how reality works and managing complex, skilled labourers who work in that demanding environment like they are a production line is the single greatest point of failure in management, unless your goal is to chase out skilled labour and turn your organization into a mechanical process where the people in it are little more that scripted robots.  There are financial arguments for that, but they aren't very humane.  We might not perform as many repetitive job tasks in the future, but if we remove human expertise from the workplace it will damage us as a species, and any financial gain from it would be short lived.

Related Readings:

Shopclass as Soulcraft: IT Idiocy, Management Speak & Skills Abstraction
Taylorism in Edtech
Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Education
A Thin and Fragile Pretense
How We've Situated Ourselves