The Great Divide

There's much to learn when you turn the tables on yourself.

It's been 9 months since I last called myself a product manager. Having faced my qualms with the profession as a whole, the transition to a more technical role felt like a natural choice. Keeping true to startup culture, that 'role' has proven not to be a role at all, but rather a collection of roles, from engineering, to software architecture, to systems administration, depending on which coworker you ask. If it sounds strange that a manager with a background in product could so quickly and violently fall into the most unapologetically technical aspects of software development, I’ve found first-hand that it is.

For what felt like the first time in weeks, I had just managed to pull myself away from a computer screen. I was becoming consciously aware that my isolation was threatening my own humanity... for a brief evening, 'team building' after hours became my highest priority.

You're not like most 'IT' guys, I like that.

Being the first direct feedback I had received in 6 months, it was a relief. Thankfully I hadn't alienated myself from peers just yet. "Yeah, you know," he continued, "I feel like most IT guys have a certain personality. On-edge, abrasive, you know what I'm sayin."

In the past I would probably resist agreeing with the generalization, but the statement resonated with me. Regardless of what others saw, I've known for a while that my internal dialogue has been slowly shifting to that of constant frustration. While I may have been "me" as a product manager, that version of "me" seems like an obnoxious hotshot to whoever I am now.

Taking a path from "manager" to "managed" has put me in a strikingly unique (and perhaps lonely) position. The reverse of this path is almost always the norm: talented individuals begin their careers talented, and naturally expand their knowledge to include people management and relations. It's hard to imagine anybody starting their first day without submitting the benefit of the doubt to process and preexisting team dynamics.

Until a few months ago, my career had been fully dedicated to maximizing the talent of teams. As I'm kickstarting my software engineering career with nearly a decade of understanding others, I'm finding there's a lot more to be learned about people when you willingly turn the tables on yourself.

We Weren't Always This Way

I never assumed that I would fully understand the psyche of a programmer while serving as a PM, but I did my best to try. Empathy is sometimes the only tool one has to try and understand an exacerbated breath. I may have gotten close, but the flavor in which full-time development begins to shape and change ones state of mind is something that can only be experienced, it seems.

The best example of this being articulated was perhaps a post which graced HackerNews a few years ago. An engineer had documented his inner dialogue throughout the night of a dinner party he had attended with his wife, having just stepped away from actively troubleshooting an app he had been building. Even though physically present, his mind was stuck deciphering the complexity of his most pressing bug. Life itself becomes a backdrop to this internal dialogue of problem solving. To a preoccupied programmer, life’s moments sometimes become mere random data points which alter our frame of mind just enough to solve larger problems. Eventually the guy ran home to solve the problem.

I don’t respect the notion that introverted personalities are something inherent to us. Work culture has dismissed the reality that nobody is born being frustrated, abrasive, or socially awkward. Emotions are temporary reactions to circumstances; if members of your team seem constantly unarguable, you have not done not enough to dissect the circumstances which put them in unfavorable circumstances, day after day.

The nature of highly focused work lends itself to a 'distant' personality, because the mindset needed to solve complex problems is the polar opposite of the mindset we use to make small talk. Why is it then, that we seem to build companies of experts and forcefully subject them to distraction?

The 'Work' Place

Open floor plans, Slack, constant meetings, you know the drill. The developer's criticism of work environment is well voiced, but it is absolutely not being well heard.

I waste most workdays responding to questions or sitting in meetings. Having "just a second" to create a user or look in to this one thing destroys all potential for productivity. Let me make this clear: this is not an exaggeration. I've barely just stepped away from management. Take it from a PM that you are absolutely annihilating any chance or productivity by over-engaging your talent. Every time you've made the decision to ask instead of try, or meet instead email, you've hindered your entire team's chances for success. The more you do this, the more you team will learn to hate you. They should. You're actively obstructing them from completing goals they committed to you, and you probably have the audacity to ask them why dates are slipping.

Paul Graham has already spoken to this point effectively enough to not require further clarification. What has shocked me is the complete dismissal of this problem by the majority of managers. Work environments were clearly designed to benefit non-creators. Anybody who lacks the empathy to realize this is fit to manage other beings.

And those are exactly the personalities currently dominating middle-management positions.

Why do we need Managers?

Managers

I knew the problem was bad. I've mentioned in the past that candidates which survive manager-level interviews are overwhelming screwed towards strong personalities, as opposed to domain knowledge. It's worse, way worse, and the rest of our industry is taking notice. Even the Harvard business review has their own take on this:

A small organization may have one manager and 10 employees; one with 100,000 employees and the same 1:10 span of control will have 11,111 managers. That’s because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers. In addition, there will be hundreds of employees in management-related functions, such as finance, human resources, and planning. Their job is to keep the organization from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity. Assuming that each manager earns three times the average salary of a first-level employee, direct management costs would account for 33% of the payroll.

In my opinion, this is even a conservative estimate. Especially in younger or millennial-dominated companies, ideas and personalities are far overvalued. My favorite depiction of this was none other than a director of engineering at Google, who explains the havoc caused by rewarding young extroverts with praddle without practice:

...I also see a major extrovert bias, which might seem a little funny for tech. But, again, product managers (or, God forbid, Sales people) are all really subject to the “let’s just get some people in a room” style of planning and problem resolution. I firmly believe some massive amount of productivity is squandered from people choosing the wrong communication paradigm — I think it’s often chosen for the convenience or advantage of someone who is either in an extrovert role or who is just following extrovert tendencies. Massive problem at Google, which is ironic given their composition.

My personal life examples of bad management now are too many to count. I watch as rooms of 10 or more people attempt to explain the products I've created, to no avail. Knowledge of what agile development truly mens is simply lost. Management ladders are endless: by my count, I have somewhere around 5 or 6 mangers and directors whom I all report to, none of which communicate with one another. Mind you, I had started as a manager myself. To my count, there may be nearly 10 managers to producing employees. It's a parody that nobody else seems to notice.

"You're Great. Please die for me."

The most strange lesson I've learned in an engineering role is just how contradictory all feedback to engineers truly is. The praise is plentiful as your impossible projects are crowned successful, only to be followed with another absolutely absurd request, completely disrespectful to one's own humanity. This is the equivalent of saying "I greatly appreciate your knowledge and self-sacrifice for my benefit. Now please repeat this again, only faster.

Unfortunately I don't have much of a takeaway or a solution to this problem. The attitudes which have spawned over-management and under-accountability have been ingrained in our popular culture for decades, which is only exacerbated by social media. Everybody wants to be Ari Gold, or Anna Wintour, or Steve Jobs. Everybody loves the stories told at bars where our friends tell us they do "basically nothing" at work, and we laugh. We only praise Tony Stark and Elon Musk because their intelligence is simply enables them to have outlandish personalities.

Self-obsession has been packaged and sold to us for years, and we've been buying. It's only a matter of time before unchecked narcissism and self importance catches up to us, and companies will crumble in the process.

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Todd Birchard

Todd Birchard

Application Architect New York City

Application architecture at WeWork. I build contraptions, automate boring stuff, and make lives easier. Python, data, robots.

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