As a minimalist, I am sympathetic to Debbie Chachra’s statement in her 2015 essay “Why I Am Not A Maker” that “it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff.” As a person who cares about how jobs value individuals, I understand the point of view that many of the people responsible for the care and growth of an organization get devalued by “a framing and value system [that] is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell.” And as the author of a book that liberally uses the word “maker” in positive tones, Chachra’s essay inspires me to define (and perhaps defend) my terms.
Maybe it’s different in Silicon Valley
In her examination of coding as a form of “making,” Chachra possibly represents a Silicon Valley trend as universal:
In Silicon Valley, this divide is often explicit: As Kate Losse has noted, coders get high salary, prestige, and stock options. The people who do community management — on which the success of many tech companies is based — get none of those.
To share my limited perspective: this is not the case in Orange County, California.
What I’ve observed in agencies and corporate gigs is that the makers—be they coders, writers, or designers—are seen as mere butts in seats by a management layer (that usually includes client managers, salespeople, and executives). This can be as explicit as the boss declaring to his designers and developers that we are all replaceable or shrouded behind corporate decision-making that aggressively refuses to acknowledge the contribution that makers bring to a company.
On the code side, I spent a few years watching an agency increasingly ship its website builds overseas. The in-house team saw our value dip in the eyes of the managers but we also saw the quality of the product dip. After all, if the people who build your websites never interact with your clients and users (nor even live in their same country and culture), how well can they create a product that relies on user experience? Still management persisted in shifting the “making” overseas.
In that agency, we makers were less valuable than the marketers who sold our websites and services. Yet those marketers relied on us to keep clients’ sites maintained. It was the worst of both worlds, we were unable to make the crucial build decisions regarding websites but held responsible for the code.
On the content side, I watched as the individuals who wanted to create content for an employer found ourselves increasingly shoe-horned into roles where we were just button-pushers in the CMS—the people who launched the thing at the time the executives decided (a function that could easily be automated). When we left that company, content production never took a publicly-visible hit, but the company never hired individuals whose primary role was content production. As I’ve seen in almost every business, content remains an ignored need.
The lesson was clear: the company didn’t value creating above being an ass in a seat. While this likely speaks more to how they value autonomy in their employees, it goes hand-in-hand with making. Don’t hire a maker who needs autonomy to make when what you want is an automaton to do what you say.
Making doesn’t always mean making more
Thoughtful makers know how to edit and they understand the skill I emphasize in content management — curation. Making, as a coder or writer or anything else, doesn’t necessarily mean making more. It can simply mean making something better.
But when jobs devalue makers and turn them into button-pushers, those jobs lose this editorial quality of makers as well. At agencies and in corporate environments alike, I’ve watched as the managerial layer mistakes itself as the creative force and discounts the people who actually have the skills to make the thing that the idea people have dreamed up. That making of the thing is the ability to edit and curate the ideas and content that get thrown about by the Idea People. If your whole team is button-pushers, you’re likely to have more useless content and code than if you had conscientious makers.
The Peter Principle ad infinitum
We’ve gone off the rails in promoting people to the peak of their incompetence. From my perspective, it is not makers who have been valued above others, but managers.
Managers are no longer (if they ever were) people skilled in managing work, but people who believe they create good work. Behind every great designer (literally standing behind the designer) is an art director or manager who wants to take credit for an entire design by merely saying, “Have you tried making that red?”
Where makers are valued above other doers, it is an over-correction of this problem of having too many managers who misunderstand their position as one of creation and not management.
The problem I see of makers being undervalued and the problem Chachra sees of makers being over-valued is really the same problem: a devaluing of all skilled specialists. We’ve enshrined management, executives, and other “bosses” so much that we’ve thrown away any sensible rubric for valuing skilled workers.
I take Chachra’s point that we shouldn’t “deform” other job descriptions in an attempt to make every position a “maker.” Instead, I suggest rectifying the situation by devaluing managers.
One way we do this is by pressing the point that management is about managing work not bossing people around. Good managers are doers, I say in good.simple.open.
They get into the project management tools and learn what the team is working on down to the task level. They go to meetings and take proper notes. They work on communicating clearly to other departments and their team. They do.
But our cultural change away from managers doing has lead us to this moment in which “maker” is a loaded word, valued or devalued depending on your location and industry.
The second way we correct the situation is by flattening the hierarchy. I also take Chachra’s point that much of this glorification of the “maker” is a product of glorifying what are traditionally male roles in business. In a culture where individuals’ knowledge, skills, experience, and abilities to do are valued over their title, we’ll get a more egalitarian workplace.
Thirdly, we can train our managers to be thoughtful managers. Instead of being the head of the team, the manager should be a part of the team—a person with a particular skillset. We have a culture of sink or swim management in which institutions do not train managers before putting them “in charge.” We believe that leadership is just a title and not a set of skills.
These suggestions are all facets of the same idea to make the manager more like the maker: 1) emphasize the doing 2) get rid of the hierarchy 3) train the manager to do their job.
Fix the management problem and we’ll fix the maker valuation problem.