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Good Engineering Managers Just "Don't Exist" 312

Posted by timothy
from the oh-you-wanted-good-too dept.
hype7 writes "Here's a provocative article; the VP of engineering of a Sequoia-backed startup in Silicon Valley makes the case that good engineering managers aren't just hard to find — that they basically don't exist. The crux of his argument? The best engineers get all the benefits of being leaders, but without needing to take on the rather painful duties of management. So they choose not to move up. Compare this to the engineers who aren't as strong, and use the opportunity to move up as a way to get their voice heard."
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Good Engineering Managers Just "Don't Exist"

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:45PM (#46241611)
    So... the good engineering managers are leading by example and managing through informal means. They are out there but since they do not have titles they do not exist. Only a manager would think like this.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      The engineers are leading projects, but no one is managing the resources.

      I'm saying what I have seen to be true, but I can't imagine why anyone would go in to management to begin with in spite of some of the importance of the above statement. The biggest issue is taking responsibility for my boss (and so on up the chain). Bottom line: wall street can go fuck themselves, I won't represent that their shit doesn't stink, that it's a good idea, or even necessary. But once you have product and customers, they wa

      • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:24PM (#46241895) Homepage Journal

        Go back about 40 years ago, before CEOs gathered obscene salaries, bonuses, etc for doing sweet fanny adams, and you had generations of managers who rose up through the ranks and knew the work of their associates, as they once had done it themselves. They were gradually replaced by career managers who knew nothing about what the engineer was doing, but how to play the management game and crawl up the ladder. IMHO this is why so many companies are in such trouble all the time, they are run by people who do not understand what is actually going on.

        There's a saying: Those who can't do, teach.

        My variation on this is: Those who can't do, teach, but those who can't teach manage.

        • by James-NSC (1414763) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:42PM (#46242001) Homepage
          I'll second that observation. Ever since "manager" has become a career option in and of itself, it's attracted "those who can't do anything else and who don't produce anything of value". Prior to that being a self serving career path, managers were people who worked their way up the ranks and carried with them both the experience of being "worker bees" and the knowledge of what the pain points of the bees were. Once they became management, upper management benefited from their experience of being a worker, and the workers benefited from their experience of being "one of them" - everybody won. These days, you have managers (we have one where I work) who have never done anything else and as a result, bring absolutely nothing to the table.
          • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:50PM (#46242067) Homepage Journal

            I'll second that observation. Ever since "manager" has become a career option in and of itself, it's attracted "those who can't do anything else and who don't produce anything of value". Prior to that being a self serving career path, managers were people who worked their way up the ranks and carried with them both the experience of being "worker bees" and the knowledge of what the pain points of the bees were. Once they became management, upper management benefited from their experience of being a worker, and the workers benefited from their experience of being "one of them" - everybody won. These days, you have managers (we have one where I work) who have never done anything else and as a result, bring absolutely nothing to the table.

            I learned these lessons from my father, who was an engineer. His manager was a managing-engineer. The person above him had been a managing-engineer. Two presidents I knew the children of, they attended the public schools, had been engineers at one time. Now the top tier of the company is a bunch of pros who live off the wealth prior generations brought to the company.

          • by jhol13 (1087781) on Friday February 14, 2014 @01:49AM (#46243487)

            In essense, good managers work for the engineers, bad managers work for upper management.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Quirkz (1206400)

          You don't think technology's pace has played a part in this? There's not only more tech and more complicated tech, so that it's hard for one person to know it all, particularly while also learning how to manage people, but it's also changing such that even if you were pretty technically sharp early in your career, by the time you've had a chance to rise to manager you're completely out of date, or quickly get there. I wonder if the environment is stacked against managers learning to be both good leaders and

          • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @10:01PM (#46242803) Homepage

            If you're ever completely out of date, you're doing it wrong. Sure, you might not stay at the cutting edge of the latest fads, but the good new tools and techniques take 5 to 10 years to get established. If you're so out of touch that you can't pick up the buzz of something worthwhile after 5 years, and take the time to learn and master that yourself, how did you ever get through engineering school in the first place?

            Also, if your company "needs" new tech that didn't exist five years ago, maybe you are too old for that game. There's plenty of worthwhile work out there that doesn't involve gambling on picking "the next big thing" before it happens.

        • by tomhath (637240)
          It's not clear what you base that on. I suspect what we see today has always been true. And CEO's have been very well paid for far longer than 40 years.
        • +50 insightful!!
        • by AlphaWolf_HK (692722) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @10:00PM (#46242797)

          This isn't true at all, it's actually quite the opposite. The older line of thinking of organizations was to have a pyramid of managers, which gave line workers less autonomy. Today line workers are more empowered and organizations tend to be flattened in comparison.

          Proof: http://www.nber.org/papers/w96... [nber.org]

          In the early 1900's the highly bureaucratized management structures were largely a result of Max Weber's business principles, which started to fall out of favor in the 70's, and newer businesses try to avoid that system as much as they can. Some workers need to be micromanaged (yes, believe it or not most minimum wage workers can't tell their ass from a hole in the ground, which is why they make minimum wage) but firms where you're paid a higher salary want to avoid that as best as they can so that their employees can maximize their potential.

          And before you go "aha you sound like a manager" no, I'm not in management, not interested in it either. I'm not morally opposed to being a manager either, like some who post on slashdot are, rather I just don't think it's a very fun thing to do. I'm actually the type who prefers to simply be handed a problem and asked to solve it within the defined parameters. You do that with management (especially project management,) but a lot of times you're bogged down with accounting, and I hate accounting (and things like it, such as logistics.)

      • by khasim (1285)

        I'm saying what I have seen to be true, but I can't imagine why anyone would go in to management to begin with in spite of some of the importance of the above statement.

        Different personality types. Some people love code more. Other people love interacting with people more.

        Also, the manager usually gets paid more than their most expensive person being managed.

        So what would drive someone who loves code to trade time coding for time attending management retreats? Aside from the money? And the prestige of manag

        • by Fubar420 (701126)

          I've found that just because a manager likes interacting with people does not mean people enjoy interacting with them. A manager should be value-add to the organization -- being "good with people" isn't a skill if you're not actively paid to deal with people you can't fire.

        • by LDAPMAN (930041) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @09:57PM (#46242779)

          Actually, I've seen many situations where the top person (or people) on a team make more than the manager. It's actually pretty common in tech.

    • "They are out there but since they do not have titles they do not exist."

      No. Since they get away without having to do the dirty work of management, they are not managers.

    • by funwithBSD (245349) on Friday February 14, 2014 @01:17AM (#46243415)

      This is why IBM has two lines of advancement: Technical, and Line Management.

      Line Management does HR, resource management, business goals, budget, etc.

      Technical line does technical work and leadership. Project Managers are not management of personnel, but of projects.

      That at least, they get right.

  • I'd say that is applicable to medium and large business, but in small business where the engineer is also the proprietor or partner, it's a different story.
    • I think you're onto something, even though the summary's premise is a bit of an over-generalization. It's a different level of care and concern when an individual has a stake in ownership and presumably profit sharing.

      There is an inverse proportion of managers who place the company's well being above their own the larger that company becomes. Not everyone's give-a-shitter is broken at even the largest outfits, but an entrepreneurial engineer managing his/her own baby is properly incentivized.

      It also st

      • Re:not exactly (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Grishnakh (216268) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:22PM (#46241873)

        The most talented might have some other quirks, such as not enjoying endless meetings, pointless bureaucracy, idiotic politics, and this would render them unsuited for a job in management. Of course, the other managers rephrase this as "doesn't play well with others".

        • Indeed. The most talented hands-on guy probably feels like this is a total waste of his valuable time.

          Truth be told, he is quite likely more valuable to the company not attending bs meetings, too.

          But for whatever reason, corporate evolution has been nearly lockstep on this issue across trades and specialties: that political/social part of the company exists, even flourishes. Hopefully, they're really doing something proactive.

          • by Grishnakh (216268)

            It flourishes because it's all the MBAs are good at. They go to school to be managers, not engineers, and all they're good it is talking and going to meetings and playing politics, so they've put themselves in that position in corporations. The people in our society who are good at talking but not at doing anything productive have found they're good at BSing their way into management positions, saying they know how to lead and manage people, and that's how our corporate cultures have evolved. Good engine

  • It's personality (Score:5, Insightful)

    by docwatson223 (986360) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:47PM (#46241629) Homepage
    The best engineers I've met in 20 years can't deal with people or their problems. The best managers I've met have enough engineering to know what's going on and when to get out of the way.
    • by jgotts (2785) <`jgotts' `at' `gmail.com'> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:24PM (#46241887)

      No, those aren't the best engineers. Those are terrible engineers, people who have done a great job memorizing their university textbooks and they probably got all A's and can tell you 100 useless computer science facts about trees.

      The best software engineers were child prodigies who began programming as children, saw the forest for the trees at the university and didn't care much about their grades, people who have done hobbyist software work throughout their lives. These people can explain engineering to a child, admit when they make mistakes, and you can discuss with them any subject whatsoever. These people find what they need using Google, because they are great general problem solvers.

      • by kzadot (249737) on Friday February 14, 2014 @12:13AM (#46243259)

        Heh I agreed with the first bit. But I thought the second bit was going somewhere else.

        The best engineers are self managing, communicative, get on well with others, have a customer focus, understand the market and the domain and have an understanding of how knowledge work flows through a product development system. They understand risks and can make decisions. They don't get bogged down in the details of the latest tech toy, and are able to deliver, constantly what the customer wants with high quality.

        Good engineers can still fall short in one or two areas, that is why we need managers.

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      The problem is probably that those managers you speak of are a small minority, and rather rare. They exist, sure, but they're not the norm by any means. Most engineering managers either don't know what's going on, or don't know when to get out of the way, or both.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Three traits define a "good" manager.
      1) They observe and know what each member of their team is working on without being intrusive by setting clear and achievable goals,
      2) They discover what their team needs to meet these goals and gets them the resources to accomplish them without needing to be asked,
      3) They contribute their efforts when and where it is beneficial, and the rest of the time stay out of the way.

  • I know one (Score:5, Interesting)

    by n1ywb (555767) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:53PM (#46241675) Homepage Journal
    I have met exactly one excellent engineering manager. Of course he was a licensed professional civil and HVAC engineer, and he didn't know anything about software engineering, but it turned out that didn't matter, because he was awesome at project management, documentation, using the right amount of process, and he really "got" engineers and engineering in general, and trusted us on the technical stuff. Then he got unceremoniously shitcanned by a blowhard asshat VP who didn't want to hear what he was saying, who himself proceeded to jump ship a year later. *sigh*.
    • Re:I know one (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:03PM (#46241743)

      Ah yes, the other reason there are no good engineering managers: someone who is actually focused on managing their team well, rather than playing corporate-politics games in the higher echelons, might well get fired.

      • by Maltheus (248271)

        Yep. Best manger I ever had (by far) got demoted for some mysterious reason. Worst manager got promoted for her obvious lies.

      • Re:I know one (Score:5, Insightful)

        by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @08:02PM (#46242127)

        Ah yes, the other reason there are no good engineering managers: someone who is actually focused on managing their team well, rather than playing corporate-politics games in the higher echelons, might well get fired.

        "Not a team player."

        But which team and what game is never directly stated.

        The "team" is not the people you manage. It is the other managers and the executives. You burn "worker bees" to protect the people on the real team.

        And that is the game. Protect the careers of the managers and executives. That's why there are management meetings and executive retreats and golf games. So you will be able to bond with the people who will be protecting you and who will expect your protection in exchange.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by sacbhale (216624)

        I have seen this in three multiple previous jobs.

        The manager was awesome and everyone on the team loved him. The product the team produced became a hit and all the career managers in the organization wanted that on their list of successes. They played political games (re-org) and stole the project from under the good manager. The team withered away and all the best people left under the new leadership. The product carried on the previous momentum for a while and then joined a whole list of other mediocre pr

  • Uh huh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Sorry, but good positions for engineering managers dont exist.
    Source: I have an MSc and an MBA. I've heard that those are rare qualifications. What I have found: there are NO positions that want both. It's either one or the other, but never both. Business and technical are always very firewalled from each other in job postings. There are not positions that want both skill sets.

    • Re:Uh huh (Score:4, Interesting)

      by hemanman (35302) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:10PM (#46241793)

      Correct, I know what you mean, having the same credentials myself.

      However, having both is what enables you to enable your team to work pure magic in projects, a shame it is invisible to all but the ones that take the credit for it, when you yourself is looking the other way being stuck with some technical detail.

      Being technical, which requires quite a bit of IQ, also comes with a high sense of right and wrong, that makes you somewhat backstabbing impaired, and every time you get screwed over you loose a little bit of willpower to try again.

      That's why you don't see any good engineering managers, they just gave up at some point along the road.

      -H

    • by n1ywb (555767)
      This has sadly been my experience as well, in medium to large commercial orgs. I remember once I was given the choice, and shown a chart, with two career tracks, management and engineering. The management track went through through the usual layer cake. The engineering chart went Engineer -> CTO. Of course there can only be one CTO, and he wasn't going anywhere, so basically it was their way of preventing engineers from ever getting promotions. But they did offer me management track. I'm not sure if I sh
      • by rwa2 (4391) *

        When I worked at Boeing about a decade ago, they actually had two tracks... Levels 1 - 6. Above level 5, you had to pick between the management or technical track, which would target what kind of training you'd get. And above that they had executive leadership tiers along both tracks.

        The technical path also had a "technical fellowship" that would meet for conference presentations each year. I went to one once and it was pretty awesome, kinda like a live edition of a Popular Science magazine.

        Haven't re

        • At Sysco they always talked about a technical track but never supported it.
          In the end they laid off 90% of the employees* and replaced them with Infosys indians working some kinda of scammy "L" visa business where they got paid indian wages while living in the US for 6 months.

          * After working them 60 to 72 hours a week for 2 years with implied promises of great jobs after the big push.

          I hear the same thing happened at Shell.

          If you company starts asking for 60-72 hour weeks and starts using Infosys, I'd leave

  • by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:54PM (#46241689) Journal

    Managing needs a fundamental rethink. Lot of managers act like kings or generals, not partners or guides or communicators. And that's doing an injustice to good kings, who understood that they could not be slave-driving dictators. Engineers should have the authority to fire managers. Vote the bad managers out.

    The West prides themselves on being fair democracies. Yet corporations are still handled with medieval traditions. Most are even passed on to heirs, under the odd medieval notion that, like entire kingdoms, a company can belong to an individual bloodline.

  • I was in design engineering for 30 years and had about ten managers over the course of my career. One of them was excellent. Of course, he got promoted...

  • Give the technical leads assistants to manage the scheduling, report writing and staff management. That way you get the same work but without the managers salary. You can also try using the right tools. Too many managers use spreadsheets to do project management.
    • by n1ywb (555767)
      I've worked as an engineer in a partnership with a project management guy and I've found it to be highly effective.
    • by Carewolf (581105)

      Yes. I was about to say the same thing. An engineering team does not need a manager, they need a secretary. Someone to organize, journalize and report. The best managers I have met act like the teams secretary or assistant, but many seems to get their role in the team confused, and it seems a waste to pay them more than an average company secretary.

  • by jcr (53032) <jcr@nOspAm.mac.com> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:00PM (#46241727) Journal

    I'm not at all surprised that he's not able to recruit good engineering managers to work on yet another waste of venture money. It's not a company that develops anything new or different.

    -jcr

  • I see his point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rilister (316428) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:04PM (#46241745)

    Having worked as an engineer and a manager in Silicon Valley, I see his point. But I've also worked in Germany, and it's interesting to see how many senior business leaders in Germany are engineers. I personally think that as a culture we (American engineers) devalue and even laugh at leadership skills. We think they're irrelevant to being a good engineer: call it Dilbertism.

    Culturally, German engineers (in comparison) see leadership of people and teams as one of their natural requirements. Engineers are reknowned for their high-handedness and taking lead in any given situation. I remember trying being in an informal situation setting a large number of tables for a party: when I started suggesting a plan, two german language students started saying "look at the engineer, taking over as usual".

    So, again, as an ex-engineer, I think our mutually reinforced disparagement of managers is part of the problem. Leadership is something we should be naturally good at, and all engineers offended by Juan's assertion should take it as a challenge, not an insult.

  • Impossible? No. Very difficult to get both people management and engineering skills in the same person? Yup. That's true, but that's why you take care of that person when you find them.

  • by hsmith (818216) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:15PM (#46241825)
    The first thing on their website is:

    currently hiring: Director of Engineering

    Sounds like a great place to work with blowhard like him there.
  • My view (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I work in a division of nothing but IT/IS guys (and girls) and our manager is a brilliant programmer. He's also a terrible boss. You want to be a good boss to your IS/IT/Engineering gang, here's how you do it: (1) Trust them to make the right decisions. This part alone is 90% of being a good manager. If you trust your employees, then number (2) won't even come up (2) Don't be a micro-manager. If you hired good people, give them a task, and sit back and let them do it. Quit getting in the way, it just bre
  • by Sarusa (104047) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:21PM (#46241863)

    I work for one of them. I've worked for two others previously.

    Current boss likes being able to have his fingers in all the design pies, which he can do because he doesn't have to code any more. That could be a disaster if he were a micromanaging ego driven tool who wanted to own everything, but he knows what he doesn't know and defers to the area experts/leaders. He comes up with very good ideas or ties it together with another part of the project, so he's also contributing.

    He spends the other half of the time doing all those horrible managery things the rest of us don't want to do. And for that he makes more money.

    Everyone wins!

    Of course this /requires/ someone who can manage his time and his ego effectively to work well, but they do exist.

    • I worked for one. This fellow was extremely smart, gregarious, and just naturally comfortable leading people. ALSO, he was the one who handled the really tough problems, along with the lead programmer. Interesting thing about the lead programmer versus this manager - both extremely smart but two very different personality types.

  • Kind of right... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RocketScientist (15198) * on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:21PM (#46241865)

    People go into engineering to engineer. Not to tell other people how to do it. Let me explain my day:

    Meetings: 2 hours, minimum, per day. Every meeting starts 2-10 minutes late, depending on the most senior person in the meeting. The more senior, the more they impress by being late to the meeting to demonstrate their importance. "Sorry I'm late, had to stop in the bathroom, fill up my coffee, and blah blah blah don't care". Anything discussed in the meeting could have been done in a 5 minute conversation or 10 minute email composition, but nobody "has time" to read email and comment, because they're in meetings all the time.

    HR Crap: Wanna hire someone? That's at least 40 hours of solid work to pile through the paperwork, which by the way changed completely since the last time you did it, WHY ARE YOU DOING IT THE OLD WAY YOU MORON! Doing annual objectives. Doing semi-annual reviews. Approving timesheets. Approving expense reports. Sitting in on interviews for other teams so they have enough feedback to fill out their paperwork, so they return the favor when you need it. Touchy-feely manager training. Sexual harassment training. Diversity training. Interviewing training. Training training (not kidding).

    Stupid Management Stuff: Talking to every single person on the team, asking about their kids, their favorite sports team, whatever. Every day. 1 hour/day or so. No, I don't care, but *I* get reviewed on that stuff as well. Dealing with making sure people are happy so you don't have to spend the 40 hours of interviewing and HR crap to hire someone else.

    Bureaucratic Crap: Buying things (Budget approval, another approval to actually buy the thing, approval to install it, and security team approval to actually get access to it). Borrowing things. Getting office space, computers, and computer upgrades for the team. Putting in tickets when phones don't work, when people need security access to new systems. Acquiring software is the WORST, I work for a multi-million dollar corporation that has sales people expense accounts for a week over $20k, and it's taken me 8 weeks to get a $10k software acquisition approved.

    Building things: fill out forms to make something. Spend a lot of time reviewing forms and approving them. Don't spend any time actually doing things, that might be fun, you have to delegate that onto your team. You might get some design work in, but you should leave that to your Architect, aren't you late for a meeting?

    Mentoring: The only fun part of my job that's left. 2 hours per day. Max.

    All of this and what do you get? Better pay? Nope, I got a guy working for me making the same money. An office. Well, yeah, sure...untilNO. YOU HAVE TO BE SENIOR MANAGER TO GET AN OFFICE. Until then, a cube like everyone else. Respect of peers? LOL.

    Honestly, being a manager is a shitty, shitty, shitty job. It simultaneously doesn't pay enough and can't pay enough, so it doesn't even try. You don't get to do fun stuff anymore, and you get yelled at if you try. I got roped into it because everyone else took a step back faster when they were looking for volunteers.

    Why yes, I am sending out resumes. Why do you ask?

    Honestly, the best thing to do in IT once you hit a certain level is ask yourself "Do I want to be a manager". If the answer is no, you essentially have to quit and go be a consultant.

    • by hibiki_r (649814)

      2 hours of meetings per day, minimum? I've worked at places where that's the bare minimum for programmers! 30 hours of meetings a week seems closer to the average.

    • by dbIII (701233) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @09:35PM (#46242681)

      Sexual harassment training

      That's the problem with you Americans, you need training for everything. Australian managers on the other hand do plenty of sexual harassment without needing any sort of training.

    • by mtippett (110279)

      Firstly, I bow to your low 5 digit user number. You are an old hand...

      I won't bite at all the points that are worth biting.

      The mentoring part is the leadership part of management. When I have an engineer in my team go "wow, I've never done it that way" or "that was inspiring" it is all worth it. For reference, the two quotes were for "techniques for estimation" and "requirements analysis".

      The managers role is to get the team as efficient and effective as possible. This means taking experience (from in t

  • In any technical project requiring more than a few people a small number of the people assigned will gradually emerge as the technical leads, the alpha geeks. This isn't by designation. It's a meritocracy in action. Even though there is no official process, the results are fairly objective. Lower levels of management retain some vestiges of requiring technical competence but, the higher you go, the more the results of who gets promoted are governed by how well an individual shmoozes, kisses fanny, acts

  • I know of several managers who were excellent engineers before they were promoted and have made excellent managers as well. This guy is just projecting his own personal view onto the rest of the world. His argument that good engineers won't accept a promotion is complete bullshit since there are many good engineers who would enjoy the increased pay and/or power. In general, money and power are the ultimate motivators, even if it isn't the case for this author.
    • by BBF_BBF (812493)
      Spoken like a true Manager, and not a true Engineer.

      Some Engineers actually LOVE doing Engineering things, and will forgo a "promotion" to a higher paying or more powerful job so they can stay technical. It's a quirk that, in my experience, Engineers tend to have more than say people who get Business degrees. For those types of Engineers, being able to direct a project in a way they technically prefer *is* the Power they're looking for.

      It's just something that a non-techie just can't grasp because it
      • Spoken like a true Manager, and not a true Engineer.

        I happen to be one of the engineers who would rather continue with engineering than take a promotion to manager, but I'm not naive enough to think that every other good engineer would make the same decision as me.

  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:44PM (#46242021) Homepage

    Medium-sized company, small groups, but nevertheless excellent managers. And, incidentally, willing and able to pitch in and do some of the work occasionally. One of the interesting things is that both of the excellent managers always chose to use the slowest, oldest, hand-me-down PCs.

    I've also... ONCE in my career... gone to engineering planning meetings led by the VP of R&D, who insisted on doing everything in detail with Microsoft Project, and... you'll never believe this, never... actually used the tool to get a picture of the overall project and the critical paths. Someone would say something like "So, according to the chart, we're going to be three weeks late here," and he might say "Well, that's when marketing says they want it, but they don't really need it and I'm pretty sure I can push that back."

    Or he would stare at another part and say, "Well, this looks like the critical path, and why is it going to take eight weeks to get this lens made?" And the optical engineer would say "That's what XYZ in Rochester is quoting us." And the VP would say "Hmmm... is there any way to get that faster?" "Well, we could get it in five weeks if we placed an expedited order but that's very expensive." "How expensive?" "It will cost $22,000 instead of $8,000." Pause. VP says "Well, it looks to me like we'd better do that, then."

  • Good book, and one of the central tenets is that in a technical organization there will be a competence inversion. Good engineers will defy the Peter Principle by way of "Creative Incompetence", such that excellent technical leaders will stay at the bottom levels due to bad personalities, poor hygene, and similar.

    Excellent book, but expect to be depressed as you see the behaviors it talks about in your own organization.

  • by geekoid (135745)

    I've know a lot of really food engineering managers.
    I've know a lot of really bad ones as well.

    Managing includes a set of soft skills, as well as not being passive aggressive. So you need those skills as well as engineering understanding.

    • by dacut (243842)

      I've know a lot of really food engineering managers.

      Obviously you meant "good" here, but it made me pause: is there a correlation between food and good managers? I've been reading more than a handful of materials (e.g. Peopleware [slashdot.org]) which have mentioned eating together as a helping to build strong teams (arguably the most important job of a manager). A number of companies have caught on, from the big (like Google [howstuffworks.com]) to startups (one of my favorites, The Omni Group here in Seattle even has a full-time kitchen staff who are listed by name on their about us pag [omnigroup.com]

  • Tom Kelly, Werner Von Braun, Sergei Korolev and Kelly Johnson.
  • Management is a different skill than engineering. If less than stellar engineers move into management, their skill in engineering should have no bearing on whether they can manage engineers. If they try to micromanage, that makes them bad managers.
  • by Virtucon (127420) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:59PM (#46242115)

    In organizations where they're not burdened with a lot of Bullshit and Bureaucracy. They're not found however in organizations that have leadership that's based in Finance or the MBA world of idiocy.

  • by david.emery (127135) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @08:04PM (#46242153)

    I've had the good fortune to work for several good managers, either as direct supervisors or as senior managers, up to the Corporate VP level. That includes people in small companies, in Fortune 500 companies, and even active duty Army officers.

    What I've observed is that the top levels of management DO NOT want to listen to what the good engineering managers try to tell them, about topics like staff training and retention, schedules or resources (e.g. hardware/capital expenditures.) Instead, the CxO level people promote those who tell them what they want to hear. It's not universal, but many of the good managers I've had are products of deliberate leadership/management training, rather than being promoted from 'nerd' to 'boss' and left to figure it out on their own. Part of that training is how to talk to the CxO level and how to make arguments in terms of corporate business case, objectives, etc.

    The only good news is that at least in this millennium, the number of top managers/CxOs who actually know something about software, has increased. They're still a minority, but you may well find a VP who understands that software isn't "that crappy stuff that always makes our systems late, so we'll 'fix' it by throwing more cheap bodies at it." (I got really tired of the engineering VPs whose experience was in hardware, and whose ideas of software systems engineering was framed by "that FORTRAN course I took in college...")

    One interesting model that was popular in the early '90s may deserve another look. Some research labs* split managerial duties, separating technical leadership from administration. Where some organizations got into trouble with that model was not treating both classes of managers as equals. The technical leaders too often got marginalized, because the administrators were the ones that talked about the kinds of stuff CEO/CFO wanted to discuss. It takes a tremendous investment at the CxO level to institute a program that recognizes and grows technical leadership as distinct from, frankly, beancounting.

    * It runs in my mind that DEC's Western Research Labs was one of the organizations that implemented this approach successfully.

  • Pournelle's Iron Law
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Pournelle#Iron_Law_of_Bureaucracy [wikipedia.org]

    I'm fairly sure that is a facet of that law. You have a less than stellar engineer who goes into management to cover his sins with real engineers flesh. They do tend to keep an organization alive. It would be helpful if there were a clandestine organization that assasinated upper level beurocrats in both government and quazi government entities but that's never going to happen.

  • Moving up? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Chelloveck (14643) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @08:30PM (#46242331) Homepage

    Maybe the author should consider that engineering and managing are different skill sets. A person can be good at one of them without being good at the other. Or can enjoy one without enjoying the other.

    I'm not sure why it's always considered "moving up" to go from engineering to management. Ideally they're two separate but equally important roles in the creation of a product.

  • by Afty0r (263037) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @08:52PM (#46242461) Homepage

    The best engineers get all the benefits of being leaders

    *All* the benefits?

    I don't think so, I think it's just inertia. Our industry pays middle management comparatively poorly. In software engineering / web development which is my line of work, manager get paid barely more than senior engineers. Now I'm not one of those people who feels it's wrong to have an engineer making more than his boss (I've managed people earning more than me before, they were all awesome) but if you want the best people to step up and take a lot more pain you need to pay them a lot more.

    In most other industries managers earn significantly more than their reports. Take a look at retail, at sales and many other professions. Someone in retail in the UK earning £16k/annum on a checkout line will have a manager who earns around double that - 30k or so. Same for customer services.

    So, take a software engineer earning 55k/annum in London - his manager probably earns around 65k-70k, and has a MUCH more stressful and less enjoyable job, and almost certainly longer hours. His pro-rata take home is probably only around 5% better.

    So how about we pay our Development Managers 100k? I bet you'd have a few more of the stronger candidates stepping up to the plate.

    Yours sincerely, a (fairly, IMHO) good Development Manager in London - considering taking a step down or sideways because the money just doesn't justify the extra hassle...

    • by mtippett (110279)

      Both are leaders.

      Managers are Organizational Leaders.
      "Senior"/"Staff" Engineers/Architects are Technical Leaders.

      Different focus, but similar soft leadership skills. They are peered, and should have a similar work load and a similar amount of hassle...

  • But all the manage to do is to stay engineers without being promoted or outsourced.
  • "The best engineers get all the benefits of being leaders, but without needing to take on the rather painful duties of management. So they choose not to move up. Compare this to the engineers who aren't as strong, and use the opportunity to move up as a way to get their voice heard."

    Truest thing I've ever read on /.
  • by Theovon (109752) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @10:45PM (#46242943)

    I currently work as a CS professor, but I still do some tele-consulting for a company I used to work for full time. Because I do tops 8 hours/week, I now consult under someone who used to be my subordinate while I was there. That may sound awkward, but it isn’t. My supervisor has a CS degree but his engineering skills aren’t rockstar, so he gravitated to organization and leadership roles, and that was precisely the best thing for him. I find him very easy to work with because he is technical enough that I can communicate with him, he listens to what I say, and because he manages me at exactly whatever level I need for any given task. If I’m having trouble keeping track of what I need to do (because it’s easy to lose track when I work for him once a week and have a whole other day job to do), he’s right on top of it. If I have a really clear idea of what I need to do, he gives me space and is available to answer questions, discuss strategy, etc. I’m used to being the babysitter, keeping junior engineers and grad students from getting off track. This guy does that for me, but he does it in a way that isn’t awkward at all; in fact, he makes me feel respected for the work I do. (Incidentally, he also directs an engineer that used to be an owner of said company before it was sold, and they have a very good working relationship as well.)

    My point is that the technical skill of the manager is only somewhat important. Even more important is people skill and the ability to keep track of all the high and low-level details necessary to keep employees on track. You don’t have to know all the implementation details in order to maintain a clear vision of what everyone is trying to accomplish and help them get the resources to do it. In the most successful companies, “managers” spend little time “directing.” Instead, they primarily work to serve the needs of their subordinates, insulating them from company politics and ensuring that the engineers have all the tools and support they need to work effectively without distraction.

  • by uncqual (836337) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @10:58PM (#46242989)

    So, he's a manager (VP Engineering) and it appears he thinks he's not a very good engineering manager (since such beasts don't exist in his view). So why does he think anyone would care about the views of an inferior engineering manager on what constitutes a good engineering manager? Very odd argument he has here!

    And, he's not correct. Good engineering managers are hard to find, just as good engineers are. But, to assume that the only reason someone would go into management is because they can't cut it as an engineer is naive. It's not unusual for people to be very good at something but actually prefer to do something else (which they may also be very good at). I, for example, am very good at a wide variety of menial tasks (washing windows, vacuuming and the like) because I am careful, through, and have high standards for doing a job well - however I avoid doing them whenever possible because I really prefer to do other things that I'm also good at.

  • by Geeky (90998) on Friday February 14, 2014 @05:31AM (#46243961)

    It may be true that good engineers don't have to become managers because they get the benefits (usually financial) while being able to remain technical.

    However, bad engineers don't make bad managers. The best boss I ever had worked his way up from programming. He was a completely hopeless programmer, but he recognised good talent and was a fantastic man manager. He sought out a quality team to work for him, and insulated us completely from the politics coming down from above. If anyone in the team cocked up, he'd never place blame in public, just discuss it one to one. He trusted the team, and we trusted him.

    Management is just such a different skill set it can't really be compared.

  • by ScrappyTheObscure (82234) on Friday February 14, 2014 @12:39PM (#46246917) Homepage

    I work on the east coast and I am (I admit) a manager, though I write code about half the time. I completely understand the class of people this guy is talking about. The power hungry incompetent douches exist. No doubt. But there ARE those of us who are not project managers, but dev staff managers whose job is
    a. figuring out who should be on which project so that people learn from each other and good work gets done
    b. making sure that when a programmer comes up with a really good process or tool it gets propagated to the rest of the teams.
    c. making sure that people who need mentoring because they're on a problem outside their expertise get it even when they're too stubborn to ask for it
    d. making sure that when programmers have expressed an estimate of the complexity of a problem, the over-eager PM who is probably NOT a software person doesn't over-reach and try to push some bullshit schedule.
    e. defending my team against idiotic business requirements and pseudo-experts.
    f. fighting for budget, headcount and training
    g. really working at finding ways of making our distributed team collaborate more effectively.

    Maybe in the rarified air of San Francisco there are so many fantastic programmers capable of concentrating on both the big picture and the small that all of these things get done magically and in a self organizing way by the 1st among equals in the dev staff. Maybe. But I believe in the service I give my team. I took a hit to stop writing code so much because it needed to be done at the time, we didn't want an outsider who was apt to be douchey and I'm good with the people involved. The extra money doesn't mean that much and god knows I hate the sense that every programmer who doesn't know me assumes I'm an idiot until they've worked with me. I wouldn't do what I'm doing if I didn't believe it actually made my team a better place.

    So thanks, a LOT for making it harder for real dev managers to exist, by declaring we don't.
    We all appreciate your eye rolling world weary lack of belief.

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