Tuesday, January 13rd, 2015

Being A Manager Is Lonely

Management is new for me. I have spent a lot of time focusing on the craft of programming, now I focus on the people who focus on the craft of programming.

During the fifteen years I’ve been participating in something I’ll call a developer community, I’ve seen a lot of progress. Sometimes we wax nostalgic with an assertion that no progress has been made… but progress has been made. We, as professionals, hobbyists, as passionate practitioners understand much more about how to test, design, package, distribute, collaborate around code. And just about how to talk about it all.

I am a firm believer that much of that progress is due to the internet. There were technological advancements, sure. And there have been books teaching practice. But that’s not enough. There were incredible ideas about programming in the 70s! But there wasn’t the infrastructure to help developers assimilate those ideas.

I put more weight on people learning than on people being taught. If the internet was just a good medium for information dispersal — a better kind of book — then that is nice, but not transformational. The internet is more than that: it’s a place to discuss, and disagree, and watch others discussing. You can be provocative, and then step back and take on a more conservative opinion – a transformation most people would be too shy to commit to print. (As if substantial portion of people have ever had the option to consider what they want to commit to print!)

I think a debate is an opportunity; seldom an opportunity to convince anyone else of what you think, but a chance to understand why you think what you do, to come to a more mature understanding, and maybe create a framework for future changes of opinion. This is why I bristle at the phrase “just choose the right tool for the job” – this phrase is an attempt to shut down the discussion about what the right tool for the job is!

This is a long digression, but I am nostalgic for how I grew into my profession. Nostalgic because now I cannot have this. I cannot discuss my job. I cannot debate the details. I cannot tell anecdotes to elucidate a point. I cannot discuss the policies I am asked to implement – the institutional instructions applied to me and through me. I can only attempt to process my experiences in isolation.

And there are good reasons for this! While this makes me sad, and though I still question if there is not another way, there are very good reasons why I cannot talk about my work. I am in a leadership position, even if only a modest and subordinate leader. There is a great deal of potential for collateral damage in what I say, especially if I talk about the things I am thinking most about. I think most about the tensions in my company, interpreting the motivations of the leadership in the company, I think about the fears I sense in my reports, the unspoken tensions about what is done, expected, aspired to. I can discuss this with the individuals involved, but they are the furthest thing from a disinterested party, and often not in a place to develop collaborative wisdom.

This is perhaps unfair. I work with very thoughtful people. Our work is grounded in a shared mission, which is a powerful thing. But it’s not enough.

Are we, as a community of managers (is there such a thing?) becoming better? Yes, some. There are management consultants and books and other material about management, and there is value in that. But it is not a discussion, it is not easy to assimilate. I don’t get to interact with a community of peers.

On the topic of learning to manage, I have listened to many episodes of Manager Tools now. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s helped me, even if they are more authoritarian than makes me comfortable. I’m writing this now after listening to a two part series: Welcome To They: Professional Subordination and Part 2.

The message in these podcasts is: it is your responsibility as a manager to support the company’s decisions. Not just to execute on them, but to support them, to communicate that support, and if you disagree then you must hide that disagreement in the service of the company. You can disagree up — though even that is fraught with danger — but you can’t disagree down. You must hold yourself apart from your team, putting a wall between you and your team. To your team you are the company, not a peer.

There is a logical consistency to the argument. There is wisdom in it. The impact of complaints filtering up is much different than the impact of complaints filtering down. In some sense as a manager you must manufacture your own consensus for decisions that you cannot affect. You are probably doing your reports a favor by positively communicating decisions, as they will be doing themselves a favor by positively engaging with those decisions. But their advice is clear: if you are asked your opinion, you must agree with the decision, maybe stoically, but you must agree, not just concede. You must speak for the company, not for yourself.

Fuck. Why would I want to sign up for this? The dictate they are giving me is literally making me sad. If it didn’t make any sense then I might feel annoyed. If I thought it represented values I did not share then I might feel angry. But I get it, and so it makes me sad.

Still, I believe in progress. I believe we can do better than we have in the past. I believe in unexplored paths, in options we aren’t ready to compare to present convention, in new ways of thinking about problems that break out of current categories. All this in management too – which is to say, new ways to form and coordinate organizations. I think those ideas are out there. But damn, I don’t know what they are, and I don’t know how to find out, because I don’t know how to talk about what we do and that’s the only place where I know how to start.

[I wrote a followup in Encouraging Positive Engagement]

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