Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Role of a Manager

Joel Spolsky recently wrote a guest post for the VC funding StackExchange. It's similar to many of his posts on management, following the theme that management “exists to move the furniture around so that [the people with knowledge] can make the hard decisions.“

It's a theme that has been repeated many times, by many writers, and I generally agree with it. But Joel tries to support this theme with an example that I emphatically disagree with.

When two engineers get into an argument about whether to use one big Flash SSD drive or several small SSD drives, do you really think the CEO is going to know better than the two line engineers, who have just spent three days arguing and researching and testing?

The easy answer is “no, the CEO won't know better.” But that's not the point. If you have two engineers that can't come to a consensus after three days, then you need a CEO — or line manager — who can step in an break the logjam. Who can listen to the arguments and discern what actually matters to the business.

Or who can say “I can't tell the difference but we can't argue forever. I'll flip a coin and if we're wrong we'll revisit the decision.”

The best manager that I ever had was non-technical, and knew it. He also had a great bullshit detector, and generally knew when to let his subordinates fight. But when the time came to make a decision, he didn't hesitate to make one.

Too many managers don't have the skills to mediate between equally good options. Or they aren't willing to take responsibility for decisions. In which case, they serve no higher role than moving the furniture around. But the world doesn't need managers like that.

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