How to be a manager

People talk a lot about “the startup life” and how it is to dive into it from regular employment, but what about the other way round?  Having recently completed a rare stint managing developers at a large-ish company of about 400 people (don’t laugh – that looks big to me) I wanted to share a few thoughts on how it is to go from raw startup life, to life in a big company.

The best part of managing devs at a big company is that if you do it right you can have a substantial number of people writing production quality code together at the same time, doing great big things you can’t dream of at a two-man startup.  I never fully appreciated the joy of that phenomenon until I went big. No demos, no wild pivots, no fire drills, no due diligence, no clueless angels or arrogant VCs, actual QA, a Build Guy (Hi Mike!), no working with crazy people and C players because they’re the only people crazy or desperate enough to work with you. Just big monitors, pricey tools and people who know how to use them going full bore.  The company was hugely successful, the group was hugely productive and for the most part, people enjoyed working there.  I enjoyed the hell out of that part.

Still, it had it’s downside.

irrelevantLesson #1: You are irrelevant Part I.  There is nothing you can do all by yourself.  Even if there is, you won’t be allowed to do it all by yourself so … there is nothing you can do all by yourself.  I often found myself reveling in (i.e. milking) the tiniest little tasks simply because I could do them by myself on my own authority.  The depressive effect of this lesson is offset by …

Lesson #2: You are irrelevant Part II: you are actually irrelevant.  Unless you are prone to huge mistakes, your presence or absence will not affect the business in any material way. This can be comforting if you have a long commute, enjoy long lunches or if you like to turn your phone off when you go on vacation.  But in those fleeting moments between arriving late and going to an early lunch, if you feel like, you know, doing something, you can apply …

Lesson #3: The most productive thing you can do is to hire and keep productive people, and fire unproductive people.   If you’re in a one-new-hire-every-couple-of-months growth mode, the hiring takes maybe ten percent of your time.  The firing, maybe a couple of days per year.  This still leaves you lots of time for applying …

danquayleLesson #4: Keep your crew happy.  In some organizations, happy people are not productive.  For example, prison guards are happier when they’re not watching prisoners.  Fortunately, software development is an addictive activity and thus its practitioners are happiest when working.  The faster they are working, the happier they are.  The harder they are working, the happier they are.  Whether you want monstrous edifices of code, enormous slinky snakes of elegant functionality, or lots of little hacks, well … that’s all the devs want … to be allowed to make these things for you and your only job is to let them do it.   On paper, it’s easier than being vice president.  Dan Quayle could do this job.  Mostly it requires getting the developers to tell you what needs to be done, telling them to do it, and then resisting the urge to tell them how to do it**.  In general, this makes them happy.  As Dilbert said when HR installed a lab-rat feed-slot in his cube wall:

This job is so stressful … but the pellets are excellent

You can hang out with the crew, or brood in your office but all this management by walking around bullshit doesn’t matter.  The only time the crew really needs to see you is when you’re applying ….

Lesson #5: Make enemies of anyone who disrupts “the flow”.  The meeting-callers for example.  Being just a manager who by definition had nothing better to do I used to go to meetings in place of my guys whenever I found them invited to some bullshit meeting.  This cut way down on the meetings, bullshit and otherwise, especially when I told the other participants that I came in Sally’s place because Sally had better things to do and I didn’t.  I made it clear to my guys that I would forgive them for writing bugs, but not for wasting time in meetings.  It got to the point where my guys apologized to me for going to meetings, or worse for calling them.  This is the way you want it, but it will make plenty of enemies.

Then there’s the team-organizers, the guys who want to form a flying squad for every little project that comes into their heads. This squad deals with a single issue and the organizer feels like a hero, then the members go back to what they were doing before … assuming they can remember what it was and why they were doing it and that whatever it was didn’t fall apart because they couldn’t keep a team together long enough to finish it.

Watching the flying-squad phenomenon in action reminded me of those corny TV shows where everyone gets together to put on a show to raise money to put a new roof on the orphanage.  Let’s have a show!

thomasWell actually, let’s not.  When you see one of these trains coming down the track, your dignity as well as your membership in the Agile community requires you to throw yourself in front of it.  Fortunately, as a manager you have nothing better to do than lay on the tracks, waitin’ on the Double E, and this on-the-fly team would probably have lots of meetings so squashing it is a two-fer.  Gumming up the wheels of the locomotive and bleeding all over the tracks ensures that you won’t go far in the company, but even if the train runs you over, you will certainly go to Agile heaven.  And going far in the company isn’t an issue anyway because of …

Lesson #6: So after a) hiring a bunch of good people b) realizing that you’re irrelevant c) letting the devs do pretty much what they think needs doing and d) making enemies of everyone in the company who likes to interrupt the flow, the smartest thing you can do is to not overstay your welcome.  You’re a startup guy.  Every big company needs a dose of that now and again, but too much is toxic.  Don’t be toxic.

** Okay, there IS also the small matter of getting Product Management to organize their thoughts, but if you can’t do that  you probably shouldn’t even be vice president, let alone a dev manager.


This is a bit off the beaten path for me, but this blog post about a banal Facebook recruiting fail got me thinking about it again so I figured I’d blast it out there. The last time I did any serious hiring I had the good fortune to work with a recruiter who was not only good, but had been with the company for a few years. Sadly, this is not the norm, and I expect it explains a lot of what went wrong with that Facebook fail.

When I worked with my favorite recruiter, I noted with some alarm that the HR department around him was a swirling mass of more or less temporary HR people. I was often thrust into conversations with HR people I’d never heard of, and when I went looking for them weeks or months later they were disappeared.

So I started paying attention. When people recruited me, I checked their profile on LinkedIn. When I couldn’t find a profile, I just asked them, and guess what? It is a rare in-house recruiter who’s been at his/her job more than 6 months. WTF?

recruitingThese recruiters always told me what a great company it was and how I’d be a great fit blah blah blah and all I could think was: “How would you know? In all likelihood I know more about this company than you do, and on top of that I’ve got a better chance of going to their next Christmas party than you do”.

So what’s the deal people? Why is there such high turnover in HR? Are they just slightly more disposable than the rest of us? I’m guessing that there’s not a recruiting war going on out there for HR people, but maybe there is. And from the company’s side, why would you tolerate such turnover amongst the guardians of corporate culture? Tell me about it. I’m all ears.

Rubber Stamp Rambo

So this guy comes into my office and says:

I need to take Monday and Tuesday of next week off.  Is that okay?

Of course it’s not okay.  Monday is a crucial day in the life of Startup Incorporated.  Never mind that it will be the 375th consecutive such crucial day.  Absolutely critical I tells ya.  Critical!

In my ventures over the last ten plus years, my CEOs gave me a hard time about every single vacation day I ever took.  Every. Single. One.  Three days, seven days, one day, half day – didn’t matter.  So in the spirit of being a real manager I tried, I really tried to think intelligently about whether in fact Monday was a good day for this guy to take off.  Once.  And my brain hurt so I stopped.  There is no answer to that question.

When someone comes to you with a vacation request, break out the rubber stamp, Rambo, and get stamping.  There is never a good moment for this guy to go on vacation so smile, rubber stamp it and wish him good luck at the D&D convention.

Where do you see yourself going at Startup Inc.?

One of the funniest moments of my education as a founder was the time one of our devs, a valuable guy, came into my office and said with a completely straight face:

I’ve been here a year and a half now and haven’t gotten a review yet.

And of course, as I’m sitting there, a handful of inappropriate responses flit through my brain.

I’ve been here three years and neither have I, welcome to the club.

You’re great. Get back to work.

You suck. Get back to work.


Fortunately, what I actually said was

Uuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhh – okay we’ll do one.

Think Butthead on a bad day. Then I went off and tried to figure out what I was gonna say to this guy because up to that exact moment I had never realized that I’d have to have these kinds of conversations with people.

In companies with an actual HR department, full of actual HR professionals who set actual policies based on actual HR science (is there such a thing?) what they tell you to do in reviews is ask people “where do you see yourself going at XYZ Co.?”

This question looks perfectly reasonable until the first time you ask it at a startup.

Mr. Founder: “So where do you see yourself going at Startup Inc?”
Mr. Employee: “Well, I could have your job.”

This is usually followed by an awkward silence where both of you regret coming to work that day.

Truth is, in the way of a bigger title, more responsibility, authority and salary, there is usually no place to go at a startup. If you’re doing it right, you’ve maxed people out along all those lines.  You can be a founder, or one of the guys.  So the only way to have the review conversation is to start by admitting that, even in the short term, people may have to leave the company to realize their personal goals.

Loyalty at a startup is a complicated thing.   Your guys bleed for you and all you can give them in return is options, flex-time and a foosball table. In the end most of these guys will be working somewhere else.  And that’s okay.  That reality doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility to help your guys get where they want to go.

So what do you do? You take a mortal risk (probably the third one of the week) and try honesty:

Hey, your best future might not be here but I’ll help you get there anyway.

This is something you can give people that managers at a big company can’t.  So do it.  Loyalty’s a two-way street, so take a ride down your side and see where it gets you.