Managers and makers

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 20, 2019, 5:36 PM | comments: 0

My time working at Microsoft was extraordinary. There was so much change, so fast in my life then, with the getting married, procreating and moving 2,500 miles to a new city all in the course of one year, that I'm not sure I really was able to take everything in. The seeds of the amazing transition that the company would make were already planted then, even before Satya took over as CEO. I saw it here and there, and it was exciting.

One of the lingering problems at the company was its stupid stack ranking system for its employees. The short version of the story was that it deliberately looked at churning the "bottom" 15% or so in terms of performance reviews, where managers would fight for the people they thought were the best. I don't have to explain to you why this was toxic and gave people incentive not to collaborate with their peers. It didn't really adversely affect me in my two years there, but I saw how it could if I didn't find an ideal path for myself. This was made worse by the expectation that if you weren't moving up in the company, you were destined to be in the bottom of the stack rank. What that meant, essentially, was that you had to eventually be a manager if you wanted to keep in it.

There was a program manager (a title that means a million different things) that I worked with who was enduring this kind of nonsense, and eventually he left the company. He enjoyed his job, he was good at it, and he had no interest in managing other people. He was a maker, not a manager, and that was OK. It wasn't so great for his career within the company in that scene. They did ditch the stack ranking after I left, and from what I understand, there is room for makers to be productive contributors for the long haul now.

Still, that observation really affected my world review. Year's later, when I read The Manager's Path, it became even more clear that there's a larger cultural expectation that you have to be a manager to succeed and advance. Heck, some professions arbitrarily pin "manager" on the title of beginners, even, when frankly they don't really manage anything, they just do a job.

There are a couple of problems. People advance in their career and often are promoted to a manager position arbitrarily. We do this in technology constantly (something Path points out plainly). How often does an amazing sales person get promoted to sales manager, and they suck at it? We do the same thing with software developers. And then we pin the failure on the person, who frankly may not have wanted to do that. Indeed, they are makers, not managers.

I struggled with this for the better part of 10 years. I've been in software for nearly two decades, so if you're doing math, yeah, that's half of my career. At some point, I had to think very hard about what I'm good at. As an in-the-weeds software developer, at least with the technologies and platforms that I'm intimately familiar with, I'm a slightly better than average developer. It took me a long time to get there. Back in 2009-ish, I discovered that I was really good at assembling a small team and delivering stuff. Since then, I've bounced back and forth between maker and manager, sometimes doing both, until I landed where I am now, and have to be mostly manager with a much larger team. It hasn't been easy, but I can see now that it's the right future.

This doesn't change what I learned in Redmond, though. In any profession, we have to respect that makers are vitally important to the success of any organization. We put a lot of faith and emphasis on managers to deliver, as we should, but I wouldn't go as far as to say that they're more important than makers. It's just a different role. You can't have one without the other.

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