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A slightly silly history of leading programmers – Part 2

Computer, enter stage left…

(Miss part 1?  Read it here.)

When computers made their debut, the mathematicians were called in to handle these complex machines. But soon enough the mathematicians became bored and went back to doing whatever mathematicians do, leaving the computers to be dealt with by the electrical engineers. It didn’t take long for these folks to decide it wasn’t for them, so then the “computer people” were called in.

Of course, no one knew what a “computer person” did (we will now dispense with silly quotations, you get the idea), other than spending time with the computers. They loved math, logic, and electricity but were neither mathematician, logician, or electrical engineer. These computer people were a strange bunch, and though you might think they would all get along, in time a rift occurred. But that is a tale for another day.

Now when computers showed up at offices, the Managers were expected to manage the machines and the computer people who accompanied them. Yet Managers found that the computer people were almost incomprehensible to talk to, lacked basic social skills, and often smelled bad. Worse yet, the computer people failed to properly honor and recognize the worker->manager->executive hierarchy! They thought that being a “computer person” trumped everything!

The Managers tried to bring the computer people in line through their standard tactics: threats, deadlines, telling them what to do, and yelling. These tactics didn’t work well, although some temporary improvements appeared. Managers work was hampered because the activities computer people did looked like a cross between secretarial work (typing), maintenance work (opening expensive equipment which contained labels like “OPENING THIS BOX VOIDS THE WARRANTY.”), and construction work (crawling through the attics with wire.)

Managers realized that the tools in their toolbox weren’t too useful with the computer people. Some managers continued using these old tools, causing the computer people to leave for different companies. This wasn’t a problem, because computer people were in high demand at this point, and finding a new job was easy. The dependency that companies developed toward the computer didn’t help matters, and appeared to inflate the ego of the computer people, frustrating Managers and Executives alike.

Some Managers tried ignoring the computer people, hoping they would do the right thing and not screw things up. At least this approach didn’t drive the computer people away and was met with some limited success. But as their business became more dependent on these people, the approach of simply ignoring them took on more and more risk.

The Executives thought the manager should be able to manage the computer people because, honestly, how hard could it be? They send the Managers off to Data Processing courses to learn about punch cards, BASIC and COBOL, and other incidentals. The managers weren’t expected to do any of the work, just get enough lingo to properly tell the computer people what to do. This the natural order of things would be restored.

This produced two surprising effects:

1) some Managers resented the training, which made them feel stupid and thus resented the computer people even more.

2) some Managers enjoyed the training, and began to empathize with the computer people and saw how difficult (and different) their work was. They still didn’t know enough to understand what the computer people were talking about, but now they were even more hesitant to do the yelling and browbeating required by upper management.

Unsurprisingly, neither effect led to proper management of the computer people.

Finally, an exasperated Executive had a brilliant idea! If they couldn’t teach the Mangers about computers, they would teach the computer people about Management! Management was a science, after all!

They reasoned that:

1) Computer people would know how to talk to other computer people

2) These new Managers should be able to tell the computer people exactly what to do

3) The new Managers should be able to tell if they’d done it, and yell appropriately if necessary

Now the question was, which one of the computer people should be promoted? The Executives and Managers surveyed the computer people, huddled like unwashed masses clinging to that great gray machine like their personal Statue of Liberty.

The Executives and Managers reasoned that they should promote the ‘best’ computer person, whatever ‘best’ meant. After observing a bit they noticed that one computer person spent more time at the machine than the others and that the others often asked them questions. They had their new Manager!

They ushered this lucky individual away from the computer, behind closed doors and the velvet rope. They bought them a tie, taught them the secret handshake, and sent them to off to Manager training to learn to manage the right way, with tried and true command-and-control strategies.

Sighing a deep sigh of relief, the Managers and Executives retreated to their separate conference rooms to celebrate their victory. They had done the impossible.

Or… had they?

Part 3 tomorrow. 🙂


About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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