The Thinker

Management: A Blessing and a Curse

For 47 years I’ve avoided management. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it undoubtedly came from emulating my Dad. He was an electrical engineer and stayed an electrical engineer for his nearly forty-year career. Occasionally he was nudged toward the management track but he always said “no thanks”. Maybe he was a geek at heart. Maybe he just wasn’t a people person. Maybe he had enough stress at home with eight of us rugrats running around and didn’t need the ulcers of management too. I think he wasn’t all that ambitious about advancing his career. He was satisfied with a modest life and didn’t think it would be improved with a fancier house and twice the income. But mainly I think he knew his own weaknesses and limitations. Motivating groups of coworkers simply wasn’t something he believed he could do well. He was true to himself.

As an employee I’ve been watching managers for a long time. It didn’t take long for me to agree with my father’s observations. Having someone else responsible for deadlines was pretty comforting, but mainly management didn’t look like much fun. I’ve run across very few managers who were actually good at managing. To me an effective manager has to be proactive. But managers I knew were continually reacting. Their boss above them was forever giving them grief. So they spent their days running around hassling their employees. Often it was to meet an arbitrary deadline or vindicate some higher up’s biases. The results were usually not very pretty. Employees sensed it was all BS and as a result were rarely motivated. Rather these continual events turned them into cynics.

It’s a shame there are so few good managers in the world. But because demand for managers seems to continually exceed the supply, the management ranks seem to be populated by the ineffectual. Often those who become managers don’t become one because they want to manager. Rather they want the extra money, or the prestige, or they want to be able to pay for the kid’s braces.

Until two weeks ago I avoided the dread title of “supervisor”. But for years I’ve been a project manager. Ironically I was not hired in my last job to be a project manager. I was hired as a technical expert for an organization that needed someone who really understood information technology. It seemed a good fit. But after a year or so I realized I had been hoodwinked. We are all project managers. We spent our days trying to get others (mostly contractors) to do our bidding. It would have been well and good except, of course, our contractors too were multitasked. Some other project manager’s tasks often trounced your particular needs for someone’s talents. As you might expect the results were schedules that often slipped. After a while I stopped feeling guilty about it. After a much longer time I also realized I didn’t care too much whether my projects got done or not. After all if my supervisors couldn’t care enough about my projects to give them the priority I thought was necessary, why should I?

But it seemed better to be a project manager than to be a supervisor or one of our quasi-supervisors called “team leaders”. The poor things were constantly being hassled. Their days seemed to be spent shuffling from one pointless meeting to another. It seemed like a kind of creeping death to spend one’s professional life moving in a suit from one conference room to another. Give me my desk. At least I could surf the web if I could not get motivated.

After six years of project management though I realized that there was a serious problem with project management in my organization. I had responsibility but I had no real authority. I was cruising through life instead of grasping it by the shoulders and shaking it.

I did though have one project early in the tenure of my last job that was different. I had a team of about half a dozen people. They were all mine. I could direct their work and things would move because we had deadlines to meet. It also helped that in addition to being the project manager I was also the system engineer for the project. I did a fair amount of the programming too. That project was such a kick. Unfortunately after a year it was gone. And I was back to managing lots of little projects with cross-matrixed employees.

At my new job I am a real supervisor. I delegate work, approve leave, assess performance and try to meet fairly well defined goals. But I am still worried about whether this is something I will be able to handle in the long term. I work in information technology. Perhaps you remember what Bill Gates said about programmers: “Managing programmers is like herding cats.” Truer words were never spoken. Just two weeks into the new job I can see that I’ve got a lot of cats working for me. I have crusty UNIX curmudgeons. I have people who love to write Perl programming hacks, but one guy who just can’t get Perl and will only write in Python. I have others who are transfixed with the Java programming language and want to start creating SOAP-oriented web services. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to know what this means.)

Now overall it appears to be a great team. They’ve been running a real time mission critical government web site for years now. Despite being geographically separated between four time zones they have shown a high degree of organization and innovation. Since most of my team is geographically located hundreds or thousands of miles away, we do biweekly telephone conference calls. Minutes get updated in real time by refreshing a web page. I sometimes wonder why they need a supervisor at all.

But because I am their supervisor I hold power over them. Some seem to lay out their all cards. Others keep them close to their chest. Ah, the people problem. I have to figure out a system more complex than the hundreds of thousands of lines of code they maintain. I have to figure out the social network, the eccentricities of each of my employees, their turn-ons, their turn-offs, figure out if they are being productive or just slacking off.

My supervision is complicated by the fact that we are renting more than half of my team. For these folks I am not really their supervisor, but we do buy their time. And I can’t look over their shoulder when they are thousands of miles and many time zones away. It’s hard to measure productivity. Lines of code are not a good metric when most of their work is user support and chasing obscure bugs. Many of them are civil servants and thus impossible to fire unless they engage in incredibly egregious behavior. How does one manage effectively in such an environment? Or is it in the end really an exercise in futility?

Keep reading my blog to find out. Right now I am not making any significant decisions but using a lot of my time learning and observing. I spend my time sniffing around the edges of people. Those I can meet with personally I sit down with. I watch what they do. I ask their opinions about things. I don’t want to stomp on anyone if I can avoid it, but I don’t want to be perceived as weak or wishy-washy either. I think I want to lead by consensus but that takes time and I like to do bold endeavors when I can.

Nor am I completely confident that I am cut out for the management track. But for now at least I’d rather feel empowered. In the process I might be perceived as yet another pointy haired boss. I would prefer to be thought of with some regard and respect. But I know the fact that I wield power is bound to cause a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety.

One irony of all this is that I am taking on all this extra responsibility for no increase in salary. I retain the same grade I had in my last agency. This new job was not just about shrinking a 25-mile commute to a 3-mile commute. It is also about me being excited about my work again. And if that means I have to supervise others then so be it. Meanwhile I will count my blessings. I appear to have a well-motivated staff and a boss who wants to empower me then let me go. If I am going to do this management gig the conditions could hardly be more favorable.


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