The management complex that dominates tech companies breaks teams in a million ways, all brutal, all fascinating, each poorly understood and barely documented.
Every day, individual contributors become managers without any experience, education, reflection or critical consciousness about team dynamics, productivity, power, culture, violence or oppression. The dominant management path is grossly negligent — within it, management is the reward for personal achievement, not leadership; it is a bribe for early employees when money and stock will no longer do; it is a flimsy stand-in for a more considered career path for individual contributors; it repels the humanitarian ethos which is its antidote.
Practically speaking, this promotion strategy is secured by an overall management structure in which employees lack true recourse, insight into team dynamics, or access to remediation strategies. The asymmetry of power in the relationship between manager and employee is made toxic by a symmetrical lack of education and critical consciousness. On neither side of the equation do we find the knowledge, experience or access to intervene in the structure. Management thus becomes site of much exploitation, dysfunction and destruction of value… the very issues endemic to our industry.
Despite this, the disproportionate access that managers have to power and resources makes management a fertile site for transformative action and social consciousness within the tech industry. Managers must seek a multi-disciplinary and intersectional education that enables them to both understand and intervene in the dynamics of their team and workplace.
The system cannot be relied upon to educate managers. Managers must seek this education on their own and bring it to bear on the system.
By popular request, here is some recommended reading for managers aimed at the development of critical understanding. Please consider this list a very early draft: it is by no means complete and will grow over time, but I wanted to get some early thoughts out to the community in light of the many requests I’ve recently received. Here are some works that emphasize:
- Oppression and its dynamics within the workplace;
- Basic literacy in cultural mythologies and their functions;
- Feminism and other politics that critique and resist harmful power structures;
- Empirical research on conformity, authority and ethics relevant to the practice of management;
- A contextual understanding of management practices and management reform.
Missing topics include non-violent communication and conflict resolution (stay tuned). These suggestions should be viewed as seeds — each piece can and should lead to more research. They are a starting point for self-directed learning. Inclusion on this list does not mean that the texts are without complexities and problematics, in general this is intentional. More of this than I would like is the work of white men, especially as it pertains to work around engineering management — a body of work dominated by white men. Much of this is also focused on 101 education since that is what we most clearly and bitterly need.
Mythologies by Roland Barthes. An understanding of mythologies and how they function to shape culture and behavior is mandatory for a critical management practice. This collection of essays will help you learn to deconstruct the mythologies around you and how they work. ($4 on Amazon; some essays available for free online)
The Leprechauns of Software Engineering: How Folklore Turns into Fact and What to Do About It by Laurent Bossavit. Tech is full of unfounded mythologies that shape our approach to building software and teams. This book tracks down the real research, debunks the myths and challenges much of what we think we know. ($10-$20 on LeanPub)
Feminism, Intersectionality, Diversity and Where It Meets Tech
Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks. Management is an inherently political act. Do not go down the path without this book: an easy-to-read introduction to feminist politics, it addresses intersectional oppression, race, class, work and more. (~$13 on Amazon)
Other recommended work by bell hooks:
- Cultural Criticism and Transformation lecture videos for an inspiring and enlightening look at representation (free online)
- Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, a long-awaited critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s faux-feminism (free online)
Ashe Dryden’s blog is a wonderful selection of writings about online abuse and violence, diversity and sexism in tech, activism and more. Read all of it. (free online)
blac (k) ademic Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of the work of Dr Kortney Ryan Ziegler from this fantastic collection of critical essays that examine gender in tech, trans narratives in popular culture, racism, masculinity and more. (free online)
Tech Work Culture and Context
Consulting Adult by Nancy Householder Hauge is a treasure trove of the hilarious and gut-wrenching in Silicon Valley work culture. Highly recommended first-person accounts and musings of a HR exec during the rise and fall of Sun. Poignant insights on CEOs, sexism, rampant company dysfunction, the boys club of Silicon Valley and more. (free online)
The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network by Katherine Losse. A telling look inside the culture and gender politics of Facebook from employee #51. (~$15 on Kindle)
Geek Feminism Wiki — a fantastic resource with tons of documentation and analysis on feminist politics within tech, of much relevance to managers. Of particular note are the issues facing women in geek communities, a grim and extensive timeline of incidents, and lots of resources. (free online)
A study of paternalism, company towns and welfare work is critical for contextualizing tech workplace culture. Here is some work to get you started, all free online:
- Company Towns in America 1880 — 1930 by Julie D Clark
- The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare by Nikki Mandell (excerpt)
- Urban Development in America, Monuments to Power (book review, The Economist)
Authority, Aggression, Conformity, Ethics, In/Out Groups and Compliance
Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison by Craig Haney, Curtis Banks and Philip Zimbardo is a foundational read for managers seeking to understand the potent interaction of arbitrary role assignment, power and behavior. (free online)
Panopticism, from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, is critical reading for an understanding of surveillance, exclusion, behavior and power that can be brought to bear on many systems, including management. (free online)
Behavioral Study of Obedience by Stanley Milgrim is a stark and grim lesson in authority and behavior. (free online)
Francesca Gino is one of my favorite researchers. She is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard and has published a large body of fantastic research on decision making, ethical judgement, motivation and creativity. I highly recommend tracking down as much of her work as you can as I have found it relevant time and time again. (much work available free online)
It’s incredibly important to study microaggressions — the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities” that help perform and maintain power dynamics, inequities and stereotypes. I’m very upset as I write this because most of the pivotal early work in this area is not freely available online, so to get you started please read work from The Microaggressions Project, my post on microaggressions in the workplace, and I guess Google around and/or find someone in the academy to find the actual research from. Also, fuck academic paywalls in front of social justice research.
Many ideas about management that exist in the tech industry today are based on methodologies — of which there is much documentation for but very few managers have actually read. Read these not so much for the methodologies in and of themselves, but for what they posit about dysfunctions in software development and management, how they influence our teams today, and how they are shaping management reform.
Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business. Kanban is a particularly interesting area of study for how it frames and attempts to reform the relationship between production and management. (~$20, David J Anderson and Associates)
The Agile Manifesto Agile has come to mean many things to many people, and has spawned its very own cottage industry of intellectual fraud and predatory consultants. Still, it’s worthwhile to revisit the manifesto and principles. (free online)
The Mythical Man Month by Frederik P. Brooks, Jr. is a classic, most centrally about the myriad dysfunctions of managing large-scale programming projects. Read with much skepticism. (~$19 on Amazon)
The Valve Handbook A fascinating artifact of management reform, the Valve methodology has certainly not been without its criticisms but should be considered in any re-articulation of technology management and its problem space. (free online).
Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production by Taiichi Ohno. Many modern approaches to software development, including agile and lean, borrow heavily from management and production techniques developed in manufacturing. A critically conscious management must look to some of the original works. (~$45 on Amazon)
The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman is an essential read for thinking through organizational methodologies that lack explicit roles, principles, hierarchy, power and distribution of work — such as the “no management” trend popular in startup culture. (free online)
The Research on Women in Tech
The experiences of women in tech are just one axis managers need to examine in building inclusive, diverse workplaces and building a critical management practice. None the less, few managers even have a basic literacy in fundamental research and statistics about women in tech and the workplace. So here you go, all available free online.
The Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t from Catalyst is a look at how sexism and internalized sexism shapes perceptions of women’s leadership in the workplace.
Gender Differences in Computer Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier by Susan Herring is a good look at online communication. She has a great deal of other research germane to this discussion but again, I am struggling to find material that is accessible and not behind an academic paywall. And that makes me sad.
10 Best Practices to Foster Retention of Women in Technical Roles from the Anita Borg Institute is an important look at the issue of attrition in tech.
Women Don’t Ask: Stats As a manager, it is your ethical responsibility to understand the reasons behind pay inequality and correct for it, not exploit it.
Women in Technology Education Foundation resources and facts sheet has some great data you should be familiar with.
The National Center for Women and Information Technology has a wrap-up of statistics from a number of sources.
Thank you for considering this reading list. I hope you find it helpful and will share it with others — it is critical to our industry that we attain a better understanding of management and a more critical approach to its practice. This list will forever be incomplete, but I hope to keep adding to it as I discover and remember more work that belongs here. Have suggestions? Please send them to me on Twitter.