Thursday, April 16, 2015

Managers are not homogenous

(If you are not a coder please bear with me…. we’ll get to the business point in a moment.)

When a programmer finds a class named Manager in a code base they know - or at least should know - that it is probably a smell. It might be innocent but until proven so it should be considered guilty.

For example…




I’ve written a few of these myself in my time, and I may even write some more in future. But that does not make them good.

The problem with “manager objects” is that they are usually a vaguely connected set of functionality which either deserves a better name (SecurityValidator, Logging, or some such) or they are worth breaking up into multiple classes each of which has its own clearer purpose (DatabaseUser, DatabaseConnection, DatabaseFinder….). And sometimes, some of those functions would be better off as a stand alone function not bundled into a class because it happens to share part of a name.

Now let me suggest the same is true of job titles and roles which include Manager in the title.

For example: I am writing this on a train, my ticket has just been checked by the “Train Manager”. This is a position that used to be called “Train Guard.” I must assume that the Train Manager’s job entails more than just checking tickets, similarly the Guards job entailed more than just loading the guard van with good.

Does the Train Manager have the authority to order the train driver to pass a red signal? - I don’t know but I assume (and hope) not.

Does a Train Manager have the authority to order the catering crew to reduce prices? - I don’t know but would expect prices to be decided centrally or for catering staff to have the authority - perhaps under standing orders - to reduce prices under some circumstances.

Personally I prefer the old title “Guard” but perhaps there is some reason - other than presentation - why the position is is no longer called a guard. But since I have no deep insights into exactly what actions this person undertakes or what their responsibilities are I can’t really comment.

In the same way that I don’t really know your code base so shouldn’t really comment on your class naming. However, I can say, that given my limited knowledge I detect a smell.

Now there are a lot of people in the Agile community who are very anti-manager. They see self-organizing teams etc. as a way of removing managers. While I have understand their position and think maybe some “managers” would be better removed and the teams allowed to “get on with it” I don’t think its that simple.

But I also think when developing software, when doing many other activities too, and in an organization, be it big or small there are often many vaguely related things what need to be looked after. Big organizations tend to have more of these than small because of their nature. Some of these things that need doing are the result of people inside the team and some from outside. Resolving many of these things requires being in possession of information, it requires a degree of authority and more importantly competence. What do we call someone who deals with all this? Well, a Manager.

For a few years I’ve been trying to find the time and energy to write a comprehensive blog series on the topic of managers in software development but I can’t. I see another land mine, if I weigh in on this debate I expect both sides will attack me and neither will really appreciate my position. So you may have to wait a bit longer but I think the above discussion illustrates an important point…

The formal title of “Manager” (and even the informal use of “Manager”) hides a lot. Some of those roles, like Product Manager or Build Manager, can be quite focused and specific. But many of those roles are catch all roles with mixed responsibilities which may, or may not, be better filled by a specialists or by devolving authority to do the work to others.

Some of these tasks - like checking tickets on a train - should not be needed and should not exist, everyone should buy a ticket and pay the fare! Much of the train manager role is because we don’t live in a utopian socialist society. (Although history shows managers were just more to running of socialist societies as capitalist ones.)

So please, before anyone tries to remove a manager please examine what they actually do, and whether the role would benefit from a better, specific title. Or whether it actually makes sense to have a someone catching all the other stuff in a vaguely defined role.