Sunday, May 08, 2016

Managing requires skills and intuition

If you’ve been reading my series of blogs on management it should be clear by now that I think some element of management is essential in software development. You might also have picked up that management, in various forms, is bigger than is commonly realised.

I also believe that good management can make a big difference to software development teams, I agree with Fred Brooks when he wrote:

“Some readers have found it curious that The Mythical Man Month devotes most of the essays to the managerial aspects of software engineering, rather than the many technical issues. This bias ... sprang from [my] conviction that the quality of the people on a project, and their organization and management, are much more important factors in the success than are the tools they use or the technical approaches they take.” Brooks, Mythical Man Month, 1995.

Tools, technologies and processes change all the time in software development but some things last. Mythical Man Month is one such, a book originally published in 1975 about work that mainly happened in the 1960s remains, perhaps because management of software development is important.

So why is it manager-less teams do so well? Let me suggest that the value that can be destroyed by bad management is far greater than the value that can be added by good management. I would venture that sometimes no manager is better than a bad management; self-organization doesn’t so much do away with management as do away with managers.

I would also venture that the quality of management in software engineering, indeed IT in general, is pretty poor. This is especially true in the corporate IT world. The standard in software producing firms (ISVs, SIs, etc.) is generally better.

Thus is seems sensible to ask: what makes a good manager? or perhaps, what makes an individual good at managing?

Well, two things.

First, management is a skill set in its own right. Managing requires skills in the same way writing Java, Testing software or Analysing requirements does. Simply appointing someone as a manager does not automatically endowed them with the necessary skills. These skills include communication, analysis, empathy, decision making and others. It helps too to have at good understanding of the business you are working in.

And as I said in my first blog in this series, it takes an engineer to manage engineering. Someone who is an engineer, understands engineering sensibilities, the thought process of engineering and engineers and knows the issues raised in software engineering will make a much better software manager than someone who does not.

Let me quote Fred Brooks again:

“In many ways, managing a large computer programming project is like managing any other large undertaking - in more ways than most programmers believe. But in many other ways it is different - in more ways than most professional managers expect.” Brooks, Mythical Man Month, 1975.

As an industry we fail to recognise that managing is itself a skill-set, and while software managers may learn more from non-software manager there it more to it than “general” management.

But managing software engineering, indeed any form of management, requires something more than skills…

Managing requires Intuition.

That might come as a surprise to some of you but it follows directly from something I blogged about a few weeks back: Management operates in the messy, fuzzy, ambiguous “real world”. Intuition allows one to work in such an environment.

Intuition also allows for rapid decision making; an engineer, especially one schooled in agile and lean startup may often prefer to set up an experiment and test options but such an approach inevitably slows things down. Sure there is a place for hypothesising and testing but sometimes speed is more important. Plus, it is not practical to set up experiments for all the the hundreds of decisions a manager must make during a day. Sometimes having a decision is more important than having the right decision.

Intuition is more difficult to teach, it needs to be built largely from ones own experiences. Some intuition comes from having done the work which is itself being managed. Intuition is also built from past management experiences. And intuition can be enhanced in various way: self-reflection and writing to name two.

This is not to say all management is about intuition, some benefits from analysis - and that requires the skills. There is a mixture here. Let me again quote from Professor Henry Mintzberg:

“Management certainly applies science: managers have to use all the knowledge they can get. But effective managing is more dependent on art and is especially rooted in craft. Art produces ‘insights’ and ‘vision’ based on intuition … and craft is about learning from experience - working things out as the manager goes along.

Put together a good deal of craft with the right touch of art alongside some use of science, and you end up with a job that is above all a practice, learned through experience and rooted in context. There is no ‘one best way’ to manage; it depends on the situation.” Mintzberg, Simply Managing

That is how I see management: art, craft, science, intuition, and context dependent.

Isn’t that a lot like engineering?

Lets try that quote again with a little change:

“Programming certainly applies science: programmers have to use all the knowledge they can get. But effective programming is more dependent on art and is especially rooted in craft. Art produces ‘insights’ and ‘vision’ based on intuition … and craft is about learning from experience - working things out as the programmer goes along.

Put together a good deal of craft with the right touch of art alongside some use of science, and you end up with a job that is above all a practice, learned through experience and rooted in context. There is no ‘one best way’ to program; it depends on the situation.”

Do you see? - Programming has more in common with management than is commonly recognised.