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Maker Mind vs Manager Mind

They Are Different. Here’s How.

The Question(s)

Why is there frequently tension or misunderstanding, sometimes conflict, between Makers (coders, designers, writers) and Managers? Why is the transition from being a Maker to a Manager often so tricky?

About ten years ago, Paul Graham wrote a useful and influential piece on the difference between a “Maker’s Schedule” and a “Manager’s Schedule”. A “Maker” works best in long, uninterrupted chunks; a “Manager” typically works in one hour blocks, changing context frequently. For a Manager, a mid-morning meeting is just another time slot. For a Maker, that same meeting can be a disaster: they know the morning is going to be broken up so it’s hard to commit to a solid chunk of work, and whatever technical context they build is dissipated during the meeting and has to be reconstructed. The “one hour” can end up flushing an entire morning. (This is a useful primer on the true cost of “short interruptions” to the maker schedule).

I think that the two schedules are symptomatic of a bigger divide, between two quite different mindsets — the mindset of a Maker, focussed on creating and building, and the mindset of a Manager, concentrated (ideally) on getting the best out of a group of people.

This piece outlines the differences, as I see them, having been both, and now coaching both. I exaggerate the differences somewhat for clarity — of course, managers have to make things, and makers have to deal with people. My purpose is to shine some light on why the tensions occur, and why the transition from one to the other can be complex and challenging.


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Focus and Context Switching

A Maker requires intense focus. The thing being built takes shape over time in the head of the person doing the building — it is being formed as the work takes place. Maker Mind is taking the thing and translating it into code, or design or language. Every attempt at translation then needs to then be tweaked, accepted, rejected, reworked.

We might say that the Maker Mind is full of approximations of the new thing: versions, sketches, glimpses of it — the Maker Mind has to hold it close so it can be described, built. When Maker Mind is interrupted, or asked to do different work (a meeting, a sudden bug fix), the thing itself moves away, even slightly, from being created, and needs to be pulled back into working memory.

A Manager is always faced with too many claims on their time and attention. By definition: they are responsible for the work of multiple people and can’t possibly understand or address every single task (and, of course, the idea that the manager can and should address every single task is the Primary Failure Mode of new managers).

So the Manager Mind is constantly looking for ways to move the work forward with a minimum effective investment of time and attention. This doesn’t mean being careless, or casual or shallow. It means being skillful at getting to the essence of what the work needs, and providing it, whether the “it” is a decision, a deadline, a clarification or some motivating words.

The Manager Mind, therefore, becomes practiced at rapid context switching, and short, intense focus on clarification and problem-solving. The Manager Mind is always asking “is this truly necessary right now?”, “what exactly does this team need?”, “what is clear here and what needs to be clear?”, “does this move us to where we want to be?”.


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Elegance and Beauty

A Maker gets to create, or at least strive to create, elegance, and maybe even beauty. A software architecture, a UX, a chapter — something with coherence, and subtlety — something that is right. This is the Maker Mind’s goal — to build something beautiful, or at least, good. The Maker Mind understands the necessities of “good enough” — they are working in a commercial system after all. But at some fundamental level, “good enough” is not “enough” in any real sense. A Maker is unlikely to be happy with an entire career (or even a year or two) based on “good enough”.

A Manager doesn’t get to create beauty — their team does. Org charts are rarely a source of great aesthetic delight (and, in fact, efforts to make them so usually cause nasty organizational issues), project plans not often admired as elegant, meetings can wander, people are messy! Manager Mind is in service to the team, doing what is necessary so the team can produce beautiful, effective work.

This can mean a lot of “good enough”: compromises of time vs features, putting up with inappropriate job titles dating back years, a budget that is fifteen percent too small, figuring to how to get people to energetically work on technical debt, design debt, or any of the other necessary things that they might not really want to do.

Manager Mind doesn’t get to sit back, admire what they’ve done and call it “beautiful”. “Effective”, maybe. “Awesome”, perhaps (hey, we went public, or we smashed our earnings, we turned that org around). But “elegant”? Probably not.


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Expertise: People vs Stuff

A Maker is a domain expert. They deeply understand the nuance of their stuff, whether it’s paint, words or a particular technology. They understand how it flows, where it breaks, what works, what doesn’t. They know the history of the domain and who’s an expert and who isn’t. They are deeply aware of the levels of knowledge and expertise of the people around them.

People are not their primary concern. A Maker might also be a people person, happy to be in meetings, interested in the interactions. But the focus of the Maker Mind is stuff, not people.

A Manager is a people expert. Or, at least, they should be. Or will become one if they stay in management long enough. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily nice, or easy to work with. It means they know how to get things done through people.

Manager Mind is constantly tracking how people are, what motivates them, what frightens them, what gets them to do good work and what doesn’t. Over the longer term, Manager Mind gets to deal, over and over, with the strange, messy, flawed beauty of people — how they trip themselves up, get in their own way, and then, for reasons as much to do with chemistry as anything else, work together to produce something great.

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The Business

A Maker knows they work in a business, but their concern is with creating. Sure, it’s a job, not an art show, but the stuff has its own priorities — you can’t just slap it together. Well, you can, but then a) Maker Mind will be unhappy and b) the business will eventually suffer anyway. So Maker Mind has an eye on the business, but necessarily prioritizes the integrity and goodness of what it is making.

The view is not short-term exactly but is a view of the future of the thing — code, design, architecture. Ideally, the future of the thing and the future of the business coincide, but Maker Mind’s concern, in the end, is the first.

A Manager’s job is about aligning the work with the business. The bigger their job, the more they need to understand what the business is and what it needs. Manager Mind needs to at least have a feel for the work (the “stuff”), and things go better if it is steeped in it (yes, non-Maker managers leading Maker teams is less than perfect), but they are making tradeoffs between the work, the people and commercial necessities so the business succeeds.

Manager Mind’s view of the future is that of the business. The future of the thing is important insofar as it supports the commercial imperatives.


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The Satisfactions

A Maker gets to build, to sit back and know that they have accomplished something. Lines of code, pages of writing, screens of UX — they can see something they caused to come into the world.

A Manager very rarely has that satisfaction. One of the most frequent comments of new Managers is “I worked my ass off this week and didn’t do anything”. The satisfactions are less tangible and longer term: seeing the work of a dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand people come together in a product launch; getting an email from a former employee about their new, larger position; in the case of a CEO or GM making one or two critical decisions a year that work leading to growth, a turnaround, a higher stock price, a funding round.


Maker or Manager?

It’s not a binary decision, although most people lean one way or another, and many people are naturally talented in one of the two domains (yes, there are “natural” managers). And it’s not a black and white distinction: managers get to make — strategy, pitches, stories — and makers get to manage — making things is a team sport after all.

But the two mindsets are different and need to be consciously chosen, and consciously understood to manage the necessary tension between them, and to successfully negotiate transitions from one to the other.

(If you are a founder, manager or technical leader interested talking about coaching, get in touch!)