Wednesday, July 24, 2002

On the need and capabilities of managers

People in different professions (and especially IT) always grouse about how their managers seem to never make that connection so vital to the success of a project. Of course, good working code is important too so that your product can sell, but another important factor that goes into the making of a good product is how cohesive the team is. How much they know about each other, how comfortable they are, how open they can be. A team that lacks this bonding portends an Orwellian dystopia, where each member walks in every morning and begins yet another day in communal aloofness (helped greatly by a pair of good headphones and online/offline music streams).

A manager can help prevent (note: I said prevent not remedy) such situations. Curing such a scenario is something very few people can do well (and they can proudly claim the title of Good Manager). Prevention is relatively easy -- but you as a manager need to invest a lot of time and effort in making sure that each member of the team remains a part of the team, both in mind and body.

What's the most difficult thing to take care of? Never lose touch with the kind of stuff that you have your immediate juniors do... It's great if you are comfortable with the work at each level of command. Most managers fail when they succumb to the Law of Inverse Achievements (LIA): the higher you rise in the corporate echelons, the less technically sound you are prone to get. In the context of IT, this would mean that fresh graduates/programmers suddenly discover that their Technical Manager has nothing technical to boast about and relies on hot air and helium to mask the inadequacies. It doesn't take long to shatter this illusion and the result is a frustrated group of people who have just lost their valuable enthusiasm for a new job. In trying to widen the barrier between them and the group (as a consequence of succumbing to the LIA), managers also enjoy the growth of the hot air balloon we refer to as the ego. Now they cut a sorrier figure: that of a person who now not only knows much less than you do but also compensates by pushing you around and trying to tell you how to do what you do (in the wrong way, needless to say). The result: chaos. This is a syndrome that affects large organizations as well as growing companies.

The larger you grow, the more you tend to adopt a convenient hierarchy of control that is apparently in direct proportion to merit and experience. The skills to climb such ladders are of course legend for being anything but the requisites. This was one of the not-so-popular reasons for startups being popular. They betrayed a flat hierarchy (aah the contradiction in terms) of command and there was no way you could shoot your way out with a gun filled with blanks.

The path from being an ambitious startup to becoming a successful medium-to-large enterprise is the best time to be with a company. Sure there are risks, but this is the time you will learn a lot about what goes on at the peaks of the mountains of command that you have to negotiate in large corporations. Gives you enough fuel (if you are paying attention) to drive your way up there and show the world what a (hopefully good) manager can be.

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