Recently I replied to an article “DevOps Cuts Out The Middleman” that excoriated Middle Managers as a cancer. I commented that I disagreed. Nicely, I was invited to make further comment as the loyal opposition. I guess that makes me a sanctioned Troll. Hopefully I am informed enough to make a useful comment. FYI, I have developed software since the time of using x86 assembly gotoxy to move the cursor location on an amber screen. I consider MVC wonderful, but trivial. I have seen many, many projects, much good, much bad, some serious ugly and I have patiently watched like a Troll does. Worse than any Troll, I recently published a book on Philosophy, so asking me a question is generally contraindicated. Sew, you say Middle Mangers are an evil waste of time. May I politely disagree… and go down hill from there. The entire vision is deeply flawed and note they were described as “cancer”. How emotive. From strength comes weakness. From weakness comes strength. Know your weaknesses so they don’t bite you in the byte.
In a perfect world, no, we would have no use for Middle Mangers. The philosophy behind that critique of them was based on that. It is not a perfect world though and managers provide critical, useful leadership.
The description of a DevOps team in the article was the description of a machine. Why not? Machines are notoriously efficient and who is to argue with that? Except that we are humans and on deep levels trying to imitate a machine is something to be very cautious about. In the long run, it is a disaster. Machines are different. Machines are static, humans are not. Humans are far more random, so the system itself has built in risks. Face it, we’re developers and we are often best at imitating machines, which has its own liabilities, but we are not machines and even machines have problems. Human systems have problems sooner than machines, especially when acting like machines and trying to provide the performance of one. Managers are the repairman and lubricants of human based machines. They do the Configuration and Release Management for the team. They are the long term employees that know what is going on and how to handle the unexpected. Their job is providing continuity that only they can. They have the breadth of view that we lose at our keyboards. They smooth things over when a shock to the company comes like loss of a critical system or employee. Someone has to take responsibility. Who do you want it to be… Oh, stake holders. Yah right, they never did before they were called stake holders and still usually don’t. Another thing middle management can do (and I have seen this repeatedly) is when upper management makes a mistake (and they do), it is only the middle managers that can compensate. I won’t mention training and entry level, but obviously there is no consideration of that no matter how critical it is in the real world.
I will just refer to a Middle Manager as a manager, because in this day and age, you have management that are financial planners and you have management that produce a product, whether you call them managers, middle managers, project leaders or what not. That kind of manager provides many functions, hopefully. Think of it this way. Their importance is illustrated by the disaster that ensues when they fail. We all dread that. Leadership is a great skill and of great value.
The article assumed that everyone was proficient at their task. No, that is not the case. Skills and knowledge vary. I used the predecessor to .Net, the C++ Builder, but I am still learning C# now (await). Always a manager’s job is to get the job done with the resources they have. You may not have a team made of master developers. I have always appreciated a good manager, defined as one who gives me direction. A great manager is one that makes me more than I am. A good manager can make very good use of a weak employee and if the employee has the potential, a good manager can make them a strong strong, valuable asset. I know, Brian did that for me.
Developers are not known for our people skills. Those are the skills of a manager. Managers must be psychologists. Developers are smart and most know how to cooperate, but don’t tell me ego problems don’t arise. You can’t even get in the same room with some of the Prima Dona egos I have worked with. In any decent team, you likely have one Aspergers and likely a couple people with a problem dealing with it. Is it possible that anyone is immature? So, do you have someone who refuses to go to meetings? By the arguments of the article, meetings are very like Middle Managers. Then there are team members who need to catch the 4PM bus in Mumbai as well as the one who may not even speak English. Software development is like science. People think it isn’t personal, but it is. Someone has to manage the personal. Managers are a lubricant and without it, the gears of the machine are very likely to rub and grind. They can make a team succeed that could not operate without them.
A manager is a brain. Most team members are necessarily working on the details. Even the designer is swamped. The Scrum Master, besides being a Middle Manager anyway, has varying degrees of authority. An enforcer is needed. Someone has to tell people what the standards are … and enforce them. Someone has to decide how exceptions will be handled consistently. It provides its own efficiency. Chaos is never efficient. The manager provides the focus and order. That is their function. They must provide a focus that no one else on a team can provide. Systems help, but like there are no perfect laws, there are no perfect systems. Who enforces code reviews? Don’t tell me they just happen. I’ve been on great teams that were not under pressure and sorry, they were lax. How many times have I heard “we didn’t need to go down that rabbit hole”. A manager is like a judge that interjects the essential human element to a non-human system. A good project manager makes sure that the project is delivered. That is the preview of all team members, but just as we all have our special strengths, A good project manager will be the one that keeps the project focused and is going to deliver it come what may. We all know just how common a skill among developers it is to be able to interface with senior, non-technical management. Sure, anyone can do it or would you rather have someone with the skills.
OK, I’m a troll, so in respect for the thorough job I always do, it’s time for the mandatory ad homin attack. Lemme get to trashing the author of this article, Tony Bradly. Definite ignoramus. So he authored a few … well maybe a few dozen books. That means nothing! Decades of Security, Communications, Compliance and Systems Administrations leadership. Dum Dum Dum! Consults on systems for a bunch of Fortune … err … Fortune Rarefied companies. So what! Founded the Bradley Strategy Group. Anyone could do that. TV and Radio. A Celeb! Celebs always have opinions. So where does he get off thinking he needs to speak up? Actually, that’s not so funny. The guy is genius in a group of some of the brightest. Have you ever met anyone like him? I haven’t and I’ve worked on many teams and I remember a few truly incredible people, but not in that class. The article makes the assumption that the members of the team are all extremely competent, but that the manager is necessarily not. I don’t get it… or maybe I do. I reviewed the article to make sure I knew what it said. Odd, it said little. It did say middle managers were lazy, useless and a cancer. How very emotive. Ah yes, it looks like ideology. I recognise that flavor. That is a philosophy descended from Ayn Rand. I hear it is popular in Silicon Valley and much of IT culture. This is a model of a team of perfect individuals in a perfect world operating in a specific time frame. It is mostly illusionary, risky in the short run and self destructive in the long run by its static nature. The real flaw of the concept underlying the article is philosophically very deep. I know where this originates. Just remember the end of Ayn Rand’s story. They kept their ideological purity, but it resulted in the fall of darkness. This concept is based on a static illusion and like the story, there is no room for imperfection. I bet Tony has little need for managers or leadership, but he is one. Sorry, but most humans are imperfect and it works better to work with that than live an illusion that ends up fraught with danger.
About the author
Michael Breeden is a software engineer with over 15 years of demonstrated success providing a wide range of software solutions including the complete software application life cycle, relational database development, business objects and business support. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at http://a1swdeveloper.com/