The Virtue of a Manager

November 24th, 2009

I never managed a group larger than 5 people, luckily for the people in the group (perhaps more so for those remaining outside). Good managers are hard to find, which is the basis of my self-motivating motto: "This job could have been done worse". Such is the background for the hereby presented pearls of wisdom assortment. As to "The Virtue of a Manager" title, it's a ripoff of Paul Krugman's exquisite title "The Conscience of a Liberal". "The Private Part of a Self-Important Self-Description" is a great template.


A prime virtue of a manager is the ability to take pride in someone else's work.

No, seriously. We've recently deployed a debugger internally and an algorithm developer had a look at it. I knew it was good, but it's used to debug the sort of thing algo devs hate: code with an anal-retentive performance focus. So the last thing I expected was praise, but praise it the guy did.

Now, I had previously known proud moments from having done things myself, and here I had this proud moment with 90% of the work done by someone else. And I'm telling you, it was just like the real thing.


The defining trait of a manager is the distinctly wide gap between responsibility and understanding.

By far the funniest spot to have a gap at, hence the easiest target for a low blow: try to make jokes about a gap between one's teeth and you'll soon be exhausted, but this here is gold. This is mean-spirited though. Imagine living with a gap between your responsibility and your understanding and everybody laughing at you – how would that make you feel? Show compassion.


One can have the title of a manager or nominal reports for any of a number of reasons:

In a roomful of managers, how do you find the real ones among this variety – not "real" as opposed to incompetent or unimportant, but "real" as opposed to fake?

There are several cues, for example, only real managers can have other managers report to them. But the perfect, if-and-only-if discriminator is that real managers don't write code. (The precise rule is that they can spend up to 2% of their time on a favorite piece of code without getting disqualified.)


The principal function of a manager is being the responsible adult.

Some managers occasionally point this out in frustration, both mourning their technical skills which dry up during their current gig where they only get to exercise adulthood, and because being the adult means getting tired of the annoying kids. A gal who both managed and met literally hundreds of managers during her career in some consulting agency said "Now I really understand management" when she got to babysit.

This is why I have hard time believing management can be taught – you can't teach adulthood, it can only result from people growing up by themselves. I'm not sure if this feeling is fully aligned with reality, but quite some very successful managers never went to a management school (at least one of those is somewhat critical of MBAs), and some of those who went say it was worthless in terms of useful things learned.

The opposite is also true: childishness is fitting for a programmer. We were two fake code-writing managers in a meeting with one real one, and at one point the real one said: "Let's not be childish about this". The technically correct reply to her would have been "I'M NOT CHILDISH ABOUT THIS, HE IS!", but I suppressed it for tactical reasons. Some time later I told her: "You don't want us to stop being childish about this, not as long as you're interested in our output as programmers. Recall: the reason you aren't still programming is because of not being childish enough to truly enjoy this sort of game."

And in fact since she started managing 20 programmers, she's been talking about her work all the time, which she didn't when she was programming. Well, some people like to play and some prefer to babysit. (I'm not sure where this leaves the quasi-managers who write code; presumably some are the elder and most responsible kid while others are the most restless who invent games for the gang.)


I've recently got a driving license. One thing I learned was that someone pushing his (presumably broken) car along the road is a "driver" as far as the law is concerned. I find this counter-intuitive, probably because pushing a car is not categorized in my head as "driving experience", but, at least in Israel, that's the law.

Likewise, doing the work of three people is not what most of us associate with "managerial responsibility". However, if you're given two reports without a drive of their own to work, that's what your responsibility will be.


A manager will have favorite words. For example: acute (critical), priorities, agenda, rationale, integrity (shoot this manager first), responsibility (ownership), stakeholder.

Keep laughing at them. Once you become a manager, you'll have favorite words whether you want it or not – it is useless to resist the dynamics inherent to your situation. My favorite word is "dynamics". Its connotations are deep and its applicability wide – heartily recommended.


Managers get to do a lot of knowledge-free decision making, which necessarily drives them insane. Here's how the manager's bipolar disorder works.

During maniacal periods, the manager is the only one who can do anything around here. This frequently happens when the manager is under external pressure, and he feels that control is slipping out of his hands. He's trying to compensate for his lack of knowledge by immense concentration and willpower. (Managers always have ample emergency supplies of both.) "Concentration" translates to an ability to derive general and far-reaching conclusions from insignificant details, then "willpower" translates to aggression.

Then depression follows: "Don't bother me with details". This results partly from exhaustion quickly arrived at during the mania (especially if reports were wise enough to not argue with the manager, letting his efforts defeat their own purpose.) The manager has delivered his trademark concentration and willpower, so he no longer feels guilty on that front. However, he's overwhelmed by information and (rightly) feels that he doesn't know what's going on. He decides it is none of his business and concentrates on the Big Picture (does nothing). Usually, the cycle repeats upon a new wave of external pressure.

Awareness of the management cycle on behalf of the manager himself can help soften the cycle but not eliminate it. It is up to reports to apply counter-cycle measures by scheduling most work into depression periods when it is least disrupted. Special attention must be given to long-term projects, frequently characterized by a prolonged depressive apathy period at the beginning followed by a period of maniacal frenzy lasting until the end.


There's a naive brain model in the spirit of "the brain has a reptilian part, a mammal part and a human part". For example, if a student fails to answer a question in an oral exam with his human brain, the mammal brain feels bad about it and complains to the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain then cheerfully replies, "Who's causing the trouble? Oh, that little guy behind the table? Not to worry – I'll kill him". The higher brains then supposedly suppress this – "What do you think this is, reptile – Jurassic Park?", and the tension is translated into sweating.

The manager is the team's reptilian brain; he doesn't know enough to do real thinking, but he's good at "taking responsibility", bargaining, fighting, socializing, etc. A manager doesn't know how to implement the feature, except for suspecting, based on experience, that it will conflict with a couple other features and it will take a week or three for the whole thing to stabilize (with him taking the heat when things break during those weeks). Therefore, instead of technical advice (which he might be otherwise qualified to give), he'll propose something which solves the problem at his favorite social plane:

Do not drag management into anything you actually want solved. Presented with a question, the manager will answer it by killing the little guy behind the table, so only go to him if you really want that. And once awakened, he might take a lot of sweat to suppress. (If he's really a programmer posing as a quasi-manager, the chances for an actual solution can actually be worse: he's more likely to feel guilty about his managerial ability and use the opportunity to exercise and develop that ability, instead of using his technical ability to think about the issue.)


There's this quote from The Mythical Man-Month, supposedly by a pessimistic manager:

All programmers are optimists. Perhaps this modern sorcery especially attracts those who believe in happy endings and fairy god-mothers. Perhaps the hundreds of nitty frustrations drive away all but those who habitually focus on the end goal. Perhaps it is merely that computers are young, programmers are younger, and the young are always optimists. But however the selection process works, the result is indisputable: "This time it will surely run," or "I just found the last bug."

This is backwards. In reality, programmers are the more pessimistic people. Perhaps it's because experience teaches programmers that programs always have bugs while teaching managers that programs always ship. Perhaps it's because the programmer is the one with the actual knowledge, and the ignorant are always optimists. But however the selection process works, how many programmers have you seen saying "it will never work" and how many managers?

A programmer might be more optimistic locally, hoping in vain to have fixed this one piece of code where he has the illusion of complete understanding. However, it is invariably the manager who believes that everything will work out. A programmer can't really believe that because there are so many things nobody even understands that are yet to be faced.

But the manager is used to knowing little and understanding less, and thus has learned to translate uncertainty to optimism. In fact a programmer can learn it, too, in the areas which are of little interest to him. I know a programmer who doesn't care about optimization and who consequently describes others' efforts to fit a program into a given performance budget as doomed to success: "It runs at the word of command" – a programmer's expression of the managerial worldview worthy of a seasoned manager.


We don't know how to test for programming ability. The best tech companies spend 5 to 10 interviews to solidly confirm that the candidate knows what is taught during the first 1.5 years of an undergraduate CS curriculum. Other processes measure less accurately by asking less relevant questions; the inaccuracy is somewhat ameliorated by the lack of precision – the non-uniform quirks of interviewers and general randomness of the process eliminate biases, causing all kinds of good candidates to sneak through the gates.

It is well known that we can't find out during the interview what we inevitably find out once someone gets the job, but what are the corollaries? Here's one I've heard a lot: trust recommendations more than interviews. Here's another I haven't: let others interview and get the new hires, then steal the best.

(Objection: the first recommendation is good for the company while the other is only good for the manager following it. Well, "competition between managers over team members isn't a zero-sum game – it improves teamwork across the company", this one we weasel out of in a snap.)


We have a VIP club at work called Bottleneck, its principal activity being the collective purchasing and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The club operates during work hours (regular meetings held on Thursdays, emergency meetings scheduled upon arrival of packages from abroad). Our room being the headquarters, I'm naturally a member. By now the club has shifted to high-end liquors at prices causing the consumption to contract to a sip per cup of coffee, but originally it was affordable to actually drink.

I noticed that minor alcoholic intoxication has a notable impact on my programming ability. I can still lay my hands on the right variable, but by the time I do I forget what you do next with these things. There's that handy member somewhere in it, dot something, but dot what?

However, managerial ability is not affected. Things I can do just fine following a meeting of the Bottleneck club include progress monitoring, planning, risk assessment, general technical advice, and requirement negotiation. Now that I think of it, perhaps the managerial functions are affected for the better.