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.

1. SergeyNov 24, 2009

Really liked this one. I wonder how long does it take you to write an article like this one?

2. IlyakNov 24, 2009

The interesting thing about driver, so I've heard, is when you drive along with instructor, he is considered driver and you're the passenger.

A very clever and programmer-way circumvention of the principle that every driver ought to have driving license.

3. Yossi KreininNov 24, 2009

@Sergey: This particular one spent a lot of time in drafthood, so I don't know how many hours actual writing took, but almost certainly more than 4 hours since that's how much stuff written in one sitting and published immediately takes.

@Ilyak: Well, the instructor does control the higher-priority brakes and when that's not enough, they're quick to grab the steering wheel, so I wouldn't call their legal status a gross hack to the code of justice; perhaps there's even a legal design pattern for shifting responsibility this way (The Delegation Pattern?)

4. MottiNov 25, 2009

I'm not a manager but I still have a favourite word, it's "semantics."

5. Yossi KreininNov 25, 2009

You're on your way to management then.

6. EntityNov 25, 2009

Yossi are you sure your not suffering from Peter Principle?

7. Yossi KreininNov 25, 2009

So many answers to choose from. "No, I'm enjoying it". "Not nearly as much as my reports".

This is a public blog, so obviously I won't seriously discuss my private life, nor will you be able to guess much (correctly) about it.

8. EntityNov 25, 2009

That came from left field.

9. gus3Nov 27, 2009

"We don’t know how to test for programming ability."

Anecdote from a friend of my family, whose mother was a COBOL programmer when COBOL was less than 10 years old:

When she (the COBOL programmer) was a math major in college, one of her profs approached her to take a test given by a major USA bank (National City Bank, IIRC). The purpose of the test was to find skills useful to computer programming. It consisted of five questions, and the candidates had three hours to complete it.

Scores of 4 or 5 would result in interviews. Scores of 1 and 2 obviously didn't. And scores of 3 usually indicated cheating.

The woman whose daughter told us the story got 4. She went on to work for that bank until she retired.

One of the other candidates came in hung over from a late party the night before. He scored a 5.

How I wish I could see that test.

10. Yossi KreininNov 27, 2009

What, absolutely no details about the questions themselves? This is teasing. It's still interesting how they used few hefty questions instead of many small ones, the latter being the modern IQ-tests-inspired wisdom aimed at statistical significance.

11. YonatanNov 29, 2009

I can think of at least one manager – a VP for that matter – who doesn't fit the bill.

And I want in on the Bottleneck club.

12. Yossi KreininNov 29, 2009

I don't know which bill you mean but I think I know which VP you mean; superhuman abilities are outside of the scope of this blog.

Bring a bottle of admission fee to room 401 and you're in.

13. gus3Nov 29, 2009


I know. Like I said, an anecdote. When I pressed the daughter about the test, she admitted total ignorance about it. She knew only what her mother had told her on the matter.

Then again, if her mother had any reticence to go into detail about it, I can understand completely. She took the COBOL listings with her on seaside vacations, and one time, that was a *good* thing.

In the "early days" of programming (I use the term loosely), it wasn't well understood how such a vocation based on symbols and abstract math could disrupt one's life outside the office. Some managers are still not up to speed on that, so I recommend "The Mythical Man-month" to them, just to shake them up.

14. AntiguruDec 3, 2009

Hmm, I think for management MBA is worthless enough but a finance degree is probably the best bet. In a way it's better to have complete ignorance than to have half ignorance of technical items when it comes to management, so you don't have expectations when you ask people what is possible and what kind of time and resources it takes and how much use it is to you. Then you don't get bogged down in technical matters, which are not your function and you are sure to have a team where all that can be done for you.

Just put everything into Project and you keep track by what each person says and use that to determine in the future what the real expected cost and benefit of anything you do will be. For some people it might be 2.0 for others more like 4.0. Instead of trying to unravel things like who is smarter or where things went wrong over time you will see to a good degree in a quantitative form just how much use people or departments are to the company. This is usually used for larger projects and especially when bids for big money projects are involved, but it works with a group of three to four people just as well. As long as you can assign valid numbers to the benefit section you can easily determine whether a project is worth doing or how well an employee is working out given enough time. Anyway, that has seemed to be the only really effective way I have seen things done, other than that it should be largely hands off. And of course, never tell anyone this is how you do things so they don't try to game the system and don't go into a panic when they realize you have their worth measured down to the cent.


Unlike management, finding a good programmer is still an open problem. I have only at most suffered through four interviews and can't even imagine someone with other options sitting through ten interviews, and after I realized I had completed a whole business model for them I've decided two is the absolute limit. If someone is willing to put a random stranger through that kind of hell what will they do with their employees?

I guess with trivia questions, you at least know they have learning ability, but there is grave danger here. The semiautistics can go into some seriously messed up and elaborate coding 'paradigms' and with a language like C++ where you need to be conservative in the use of its features to maintain a pretense of stability the problem goes from irritating to insanely dangerous very quickly.

But people who posture well or are conmen are good at talking the talk and most techminded people who might interview them are probably not great at weeding out people who are very good at this because they can see what the interviewer wants and take control of the interview.

So there's no perfect system, but I think you could make an arbitrary but very fast method that's just as accurate as anything used to date. Just have all the applicants fill out a list, or rather two lists. Things that suck, and things that rule. With the broad instruction every item should be three words or less and should somehow convince you to hire them for the job at hand.

Then have your techie people argue over the list for technical merits, and have the managers sanity check it just to make sure they are not an actual serial killer and you are good to go.

15. Yossi KreininDec 3, 2009

Regarding "complete ignorance being better than partial ignorance" for a manager: contradicted by most empirical evidence I know; even top managers of many successful tech companies are very technical (Microsoft, Amazon, Google), not to mention middle management.

Regarding "measuring worth down to the cent" based on numbers without being able to comprehend the subject matter: a tested recipe for disaster if you ask me. This is more or less how investments into the US subprime mortgage derivatives were made. Bogle said something along the lines of "never invest into things you don't understand"; I think "never manage things you don't understand" holds just as well. (The manager is necessarily doomed to very incomplete understanding, but it doesn't mean he can do with none at all.)

Regarding "semiautistics": pop psychology is the worst thing since non-sliced bread. I might blog about this sometime.

Regarding "conmen": an incompetent candidate posing as a programmer wouldn't last 15 minutes with a competent programmer interviewing him. The open question is how to rank reasonably competent people – those who know the basics; currently about the only way is to hire and see.

Regarding the list of things which rule and suck – interesting. The input to the candidates doesn't vary so they could prepare really well, and it isn't clear what to make of "XML sucks", but still interesting.

16. AntiguruDec 3, 2009

The management above is a bit novel and not used in the same scope. This is not your decision making manager, but middlemanager. No decision to make a project or any idea comes from him, hr id just the project manager, which is where most software projects get wildly mismanaged. Someone above says what to do, or it's something people are offering money to do.

The real benefit with the lists would be there would be to avoid internal strife like ms vs linux warfare. Mostly I just like its arbitrary nature and would be interested to see what people put on lists. My list for applying for a C++ programming job would be something like:
definable languages
exceptions (not C++)
simplifying problems

heterognous inheritance
exceptions (C++)
long interviews
sliding into chaos over time

17. Yossi KreininDec 3, 2009

A "Microsoft fan" and a "Linux fan" should be able to work together and most do, or so it seems to me. On the other hand, rules/sucks lists may leave the reader unenlightened when the reasoning is kept out of them. What if I like const because const globals map to ROM and you hate const because of issues with const correctness and the C++ type system and stuff? And I like STL because it's the only way to display containers in my debugger and you hate it because of build times? Would it be reasonable to conclude that we shouldn't work together 'cause of fighting over this all the time, when (1) we should be able to get over it if we are sane, (2) almost every pair of people will have several incompatibilities in their rules/sucks lists and (3) some of those incompatibilities actually come from weighing costs and benefits of things differently because of differences in experience justifying the corresponding rules of thumbs of both people – which you don't see from the short lists?

18. AntiguruDec 4, 2009

I suppose you are right. It is a silly idea, though I'd like to mention I had some items on both lists. It would be interesting to see what sort of things I came across.

19. bobDec 9, 2009

I think a very good programmer, is the one who can find someone elses vulnerability and tell them about it, thats one. When he codes he has to worry, well for many reasons am i making this vulnerable,very few will have that ability. How clean his code is. Back in the day, i remember when programming challenged me, if i cant be challenged enough, I simply wont code. Ok they took the math out of it, ill simply say it. Not all programmer do it for money, thats not there reason for programming, its the challenge they thrive for. Thats why most of the games, that they call games today bore me, i dont care about the graphics im worried about the challenge, the harder the better. If you had a programmer that thought like that, just imagine how good he would be, but for some reason companies dont care about that and they should or there product wouldnt be full of holes. I guess the moral of a story, having someone that can find vulnerabilitys on other software's is a good thing,and to be able to code at the same time and then thing about his code, well thats something unique, i use to have a hobby before i coded,well it was the reason i learnt to program. was to find vulnerabities ways in, i wouldnt do it to harm, its just what i like doing, i know of one operating sytem if you tell them of a vulnerability, theres a good possibility you'll get arrested "Personal Experiance" here's my conclusion why this happen. 1 – They found me a threat, yeah i could see that but that wasnt why i was doing it. 2 – They have noone that can fix it, The good programmer dont even have to have degree's. heres what i do in a job interview, before they hire me, the first thing i ask can i try to penetrate your software "The reason i do this, theres more than one i test them, if it takes me 2 minutes to penetrate there software, then i simply find them unworthy to work for and will even walk out of the interview, because they dont care whats important, but i guess that isnt what sells there product and ive noticed this. its a operating system, got more holes than swiss cheese, what sold it it isnt because of the programming ability, it was the buisnessman and brilliant he is for that. Has made it a sucess, noone would of ever thought, not because it was programmed better, if it was it wouldnt be so vulnerable. because of the buisnessman who sold it, people like easy, my operating sytem of choice is linux, but im not on linux right now. The way i prove this. You take someone who uses windows and isnt use to having to work, 99 percent of the chance, he will not like slackware. Ive seen windows users say linux isnt possible of that, when in fact it is. theres many who do this and will go to the point of even saying they used linux for years. alot of people dont know this Linux is the kernel the core, and what they really have is a distro of it, convincing someone of that its a endless battle, Linus Torvalds, Awesome Programmer, you should see the art of his code, he doesnt code everything in the kernel now, he reviews it if he dont like it, it dont go there, and its been seen over and over when noone cant accomplish something on the kernel, theres only one who can. Linus. If you got a programmer and right off the bat he ask how much you gonna pay me, then you know he's only programming for the money. Great Programmers do it because they love it and pay isnt a factor, if he directly tells you that, hire the man, he will do wonders and even have ideas,because thats what all flows in our heads is ideas,security and the way its programmed. But programmers like that well, lets say are hard to find and such programmers have never been to school for it. Ask him what are his ideas even though you might think its stupid, let him try and it might make you tons. I like how google hires and people will argue, why did google come to our university and not hire just a few people, and microsoft hired several. you can have the highest grade in class, that doesnt make you good, they look for something else. Btw ive heard programmers at google are treated very well they even have a chef for there employs. i mean who could ever dream of such a job. They have a idea and its in beta right now thats brilliant real time email, called googlewave its now able to recieve email right now outside googlewave but again its beta. It's impressed me i might actually get rid of my instant messenger, im waiting on my friend to get on and invite him to it and i will. so when i dont have wave up ill get his message and i can answer it, and he will still have the email and know what he asked, or if we both have it open we can chat interactive, i can add more contacts to the conversation and decide when they dont see the conversation, i can talk to 3 people, when theres 20 in the conversation and the others wont see but them and it be email at the same time,thats brilliant that isnt all thats brilliant about it and new things are added all the time, when it gets finished its gonna be awesome. I actually dont know when this will be completed, but there gonna change the way your used to email, that you would of never thought possible. Well i think all things are possible, if i cant do it maybe someone else will, ive even went to the extent of telling a employ at the time of interview, I want you to enterview alot of people and then if you find me a access to your company, then you hire me and you must tell me why, it has to be something im wanting to hear, if they get it right then ill get a job or its something i havnt noticed and they explain it to me then and i understand it and only then i will take the job. because i like working for a company that knows how important i am to them and will respect me for it, it does wonders at the workplace and yes the company makes money because of it. First question you should ask a programmer, why do you program and he answers this, for the money, you better send him walking because thats what he cares about nothing more, now if you get this because i enjoy it and i like it. then continue and ask him as a programmer what are some ideas youve had, just listen because you think its dumb at the time, doesnt mean its a bad idea, a programmer thats doing it for the fun of itand he likes it, chances are he will do more for your company and if he is full of ideas all programmers like that are. Having a programmer like that is good for you. Just look what google is worth it will shock you they are catching up with microsoft. and they were the most of the time a search provider. google has projects going everywhere, there programmers even while not beeing paid, as something to do made there own programming language, i havnt tryed it but i will id like to see what can be done with it. thats my main goal. bit to have programmers do that when they dont even get paid is something in itself, Probably because they dont program for the money, i hope that isnt the reason you do it.

20. EntityDec 10, 2009

bob wall of text is scary, paragraphs are your friend.

When you write, you don't write for yourself, you write to help the reader read what you're saying.

21. Kragen Javier SitakerDec 21, 2009

If I edit bob's illiterate screed into something comprehensible, will you post it?

22. Yossi KreininDec 22, 2009

I don't quite see why you'd want to pick it as a starting point, nor what do you want to pick it as a starting point for. If you find this interesting though, we could discuss it via email.

23. Kragen Javier SitakerDec 28, 2009

I have no idea what it says. I just thought that if I had to do the effort of picking it apart to see if there's anything good inside, it wouldn't be worth it unless other people benefited too. Kind of like how cooking for one person can't justify much more than a sandwich.

24. Yossi KreininDec 29, 2009

I actually gladly spend half an hour or more to make a meal just for myself, however, um, not unless the ingredients appear appetizing...

25. DmitryFeb 3, 2010

I'm not a manager but I often catch myself minding word "implementation".
That's how you/he/she want the things to be done and how you/he/she actually implement them.

26. Nikolai KondrashovJun 1, 2010

This is very insightful and funny at the same time. It is also very educating to me, thank you :)

It also got me worried: I find myself playing less of computer games recently and replacing it with working on a personal project. Is it because I just find programming more challenging (so I'm reinforcing the child in me) or because I'm finding gaming to be a time waste (thus becoming more adult and manager-like)?

I wouldn't like the latter, I'm afraid :)

27. Yossi KreininJun 1, 2010

Well, I'm the last person to judge – neither because having never played that much computer games nor because having never invested that much in personal programming projects, but because in anything psychological, I find that I fit not as an expert but as a data point.

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