tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Mar 16, 2014 5:49pm

managers are awesome / managers are cool when they’re part of your team

Apropos the Julie Ann Horvath Github shitshow, I’ve been thinking this weekend about management, generally.

I don’t know details about the particular Github situation so I won’t say much about it, but I was present for Tom Preston-Werner’s 2013 OSCON talk about Github. After a strong core message about open source licenses, liability, and freedom (tl;dr: avoid the WTFPL), Tom talked a bit about Github’s management model.

Management is about subjugation; it’s about control.

At Github, Tom described a setup where the power structure of the company is defined by the social structures of the employees. He showed a network hairball to illustrate his point, said that Github employees can work on what they feel like, subject to the strategic direction set for the company. There are no managers.

This bothered me a bit when I heard it last summer, and it’s gotten increasingly more uncomfortable since. I’ve been paraphrasing this part of the talk as “management is a form of workplace violence,” and the still-evolving story of Julie Ann Horvath suggests that the removal of one form of workplace violence has resulted in the reintroduction of another, much worse form. In my first post-college job, I was blessed with an awesome manager who described his work as “firefighter up and cheerleader down,” an idea I’ve tried to live by as I’ve moved into positions of authority myself. The idea of having no managers, echoed in other companies like Valve Software, suggests the presence of major cultural problems at a company like Github. As Shanley Kane wrote in What Your Culture Really Says, “we don’t have an explicit power structure, which makes it easier for the unspoken power dynamics in the company to play out without investigation or criticism.” Managers might be difficult, hostile, or useless, but because they are parts of an explicit power structure they can be evaluted explicitly. For people on the wrong side of a power dynamic, engaging with explicit structure is often the only means possible to fix a problem.

Implicit power can be a liability as well as a strength. In the popular imagination, implicit power elites close sweetheart deals in smoke-filled rooms. In reality, the need for implicit power to stay in the shadows can cripple it in the face of an outside context problem. Aaron Bady wrote of Julian Assange and Wikileaks that “while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy.”

Going back to the social diagram, this lack of ability to communicate internally seems to be an eventual property of purely bottoms-up social structures. Github has been enormously successful on the strength of a single core strategy: the creation of a delightful, easy-to-use web UI on top of a work-sharing system designed for distributed use. I’ve been a user since 2009, and my belief is that the product has consistently improved, but not meaningfully changed. Github’s central, most powerful innovation is the Pull Request. Github has annexed adjoining territory, but has not yet had to respond to a threat that may force it to abandon territory or change approach entirely.

Without a structured means of communication, the company is left with the vague notion that employees can do what they feel like, as long as it’s compliant with the company’s strategic direction. Who sets that direction, and how might it be possible to change it? There’s your implicit power and first point of weakness.

This is incidentally what’s so fascinating about the government technology position I’m in at Code for America. I believe that we’re in the midst of a shift in power from abusive tech vendor relationships to something driven by a city’s own digital capabilities. The amazing thing about GOV.UK is that a government has decided it has the know-how to hire its own team of designers and developers, and exercised its authority. That it’s a cost-saving measure is beside the point. It’s the change I want to see in the world: for governments large and small to stop copy-pasting RFP line items and cargo-culting tech trends (including the OMFG Ur On Github trend) and start thinking for themselves about their relationship with digital communication.

Comments (9)

  1. (you probably didn't mean for that last link to point to localhost)

    Posted by Josh Santangelo on Sunday, March 16 2014 6:14pm PDT

  2. Fixed—thanks Josh!

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Sunday, March 16 2014 6:55pm PDT

  3. Great piece and perspective. I really liked the early advice on "firefight up and cheerlead down" when it comes to management. Its funny how much early experiences can shape our thoughts/approaches. One of the better pieces of advice I received early on was to manage by delegating tasks up. Finding out what things were in the way of team members doing their jobs and delegating those to yourself to get out of their way. It provides a great communication channel with the team while not imposing constraints on how they build, create, solve problems etc. Also a good way to nip things like harassment in the bud. Lots of good approaches out there but I find myself going back to this principle frequently. Keep enabling governments to break the vendor juggernauts. There are few things that can be more impactful for government's use of technology. One of many fans :-)

    Posted by Sean Gorman on Monday, March 17 2014 7:58am PDT

  4. Whilst i am sure some Start ups have the issues outlined in Shanely's post (and this one), surely there are some that use some of the aforementioned practices and work, not every company without managers is going to be an unorganized black whole whose top 1% puppeteer their minions from afar whilst placating them with the fine overtures of the pied-piper to get them to work longer and not take holiday. Harassment has no place anywhere, but it happens in a work place because of a weak core, managers or not, if you are a top level founder and you don't listen then you are setting yourself up for a fall staff wise. Tech in particular is a strange industry as it is so lop sided gender wise which needs to be addressed because equality is what we have to strive for. Culture or not, all work places need to a level of education so that as quirky as the culture is, everyone knows there is a line that can be crossed and the implications of what happens when they are.

    Posted by Rob Modica on Monday, March 17 2014 8:14am PDT

  5. Thanks Sean! Delegating up sounds like a great approach. Rob, I think for any group larger than a dozen-or-so, some form of management becomes necessary. In places like GH or Valve, the sheer volume of money probably masks the kinds of deeper problems that would either force a smaller company to grow up or sink it.

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Monday, March 17 2014 9:57am PDT

  6. The issue here is a vacuum of intentional organizational design, management, and leadership. An example is, when asked how things get done at Github, the response is that people just... do stuff. That answer means that the power structures are implicit, not explicit. This happens all the time - it's a confusion of the fact that being agile/lean/whatnot is a lack of process or explicit power. It's the exact opposite: when it's successful, it's as highly formalized as any other organizational structure. The lack of "managers" is grabbing on to one aspect of what can be a very well thought out organizational design, and throwing under the bus the entirety of the value in organizational design.

    Posted by Adam Jacob on Monday, March 17 2014 10:44am PDT

  7. Probably the best explanation I've read about this phenomenon was written in the 1970s about feminist organizing: The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman. http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm The idea that you can either have an explicit power structure or an implicit one (but never none at all) is not new. It's a shame it has to be re-learned.

    Posted by Benjamin Ragheb on Monday, March 17 2014 5:10pm PDT

  8. @Mike - It should be the down to the company and their structure to decide what works for them. I read yesterday that treehouse ditched managers because it was poisoning the atmosphere at their start-up and they have a team of 50 or so and they seem to be working on that level, different strokes for different folks i guess. For me, i agree that some form of layer (soft or not) between the people on the ground and the people in the sky should exist, should they be "Mangers" per say i don't know, i have had my fair share of managers that are pretty pointless but some not.

    Posted by Rob Modica on Tuesday, March 18 2014 3:13am PDT

  9. In tech systems a much studed property is graceful degradation. In social (or socio-technical) systems we need the same. The new-fangled organization approaches are often like 'writing from scratch'. It is true that with the new communication technologies we can try new approaches, but apparently we dislike the current system so much that we forget about why particular elements of it got there in the first place.

    Posted by zby on Tuesday, March 18 2014 10:34pm PDT

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