Saturday, September 18, 2010

Artistic Herding

At some point in your career you may be presented with the choice, opportunity or responsibility of joining the technical management team. Most folks who have an ambition toward this (and who are competent people with good technical skills) may find themselves hitting their early management strides by their middle 30s.

The appearance and draw of a management position looks radically different when you're on the climb up however, than when you are actually saddled with the responsibility. Sometimes you hear folks give the old warning "be careful of what you wish for." It's not however, actually as severe a misgiving as all that. It's more like crossing the razor's edge between two distinct and incompatible points of view.

While you're on the upward climb a management position appears as though it could be a good place to share your knowledge and discoveries about how to be a creative professional. Once you're actually there however you often find that your subordinates aren't particularly interested in your opinions, and secondly that you spend most of your time consumed by political positioning, "gaming", and preventing infighting.

What it all boils down to eventually though -- the real guts of the viewpoint canyon -- is a deep social and spiritual divide over the concept and purposes of "work." A simplified way to describe it is like the difference between being a successful feline and being the boarding caretaker for said herd of cats.

From the lone cat's (and lone programmer's) perspective, the objective is to keep your claws (your skills) sharp, to stay light on your feet, to be cautious and curious and aware of the changing environment. You are in a world where you need to hide the mice you discover so that other cats don't steal them. You stay coy and aloof and full of misdirection. Your concept of "work" involves a certain amount of territorialism.

From the perspective of the cat herder you just mostly want to ensure that people aren't spending all of their time picking cat fights. There is some sense of direction and movement you want to achieve, of course, but mostly you want to avoid having the cats bored to tears, sleeping on the job, or scheming for their next kill. You really just want to keep them out of trouble. Your concept of "work" is about the gestalt of your employer.

More about how a manager reconciles these viewpoints in later posts.