Let’s have no managers, instead of managers with no engineering experience

Mike Post


Over the course of my career as a developer I’ve been involved in a bad management situation more than once.

I don’t mean where a manager is bad in the way where they’re simply just not nice. But where they single handedly derail a project due to micro-managing and over simplifying developers’ implementation concerns.

Example? I’ve experienced too many instances of just-justification, where a manager has said something like, “it’s just JSON”, or “it’s just UI”, or “it’s just talking to the backend”. This not only unravels their credibility in knowing anything about software, but it also devalues the work that a software developer needs to do to build a working product.

You could prepend the words “it’s just” to anything, it’s not going to change the fact that you sound completely ignorant and will ignore any challenges that your team communicates to you. “It’s just a performance tweak”, for algorithm refinement. “It just needs to be on another thread”, for asynchronous thread management. “It just needs to be stored locally” for Core Data or SQL data storage and management. See how this works?

The A players at least listen if you take the bait and try to engage them on the complexity involved, and they may even change their simple minded opinion. The really bad managers never see your perspective no matter how many times you explain it.

In their eyes they think that making the backend talk to the frontend is just like plugging a phone charger into a wall. This is highly dangerous, because they don’t respect the work that you’re doing, and are therefore never going to allow you time. They will pressure you and ask you when is it going to be done every hour, when you’ve already communicated to them it will probably take 1–3 days to build, possibly longer to make tweaks around testing.

When you think about how other industries work, it’s kind of insane that tech isn’t doing the same. I thought we were supposed to be innovative!

Do other industries place business types into management?

Just pulling from my own experience, before I established a longer term career in programming, I’ve dabbled in being a track runner in school, a chef, a musician, a sound engineer, and finally a salesperson in a bike store while I was studying CS. I also applied to be trained as a networking engineer in the army prior to studying CS, but was rejected due to a previous heart condition (SVT), so let’s throw that industry into the analysis as well.

What do we have? In each case I refer to “business school manager” as a manager who comes solely from a business background, with no experience of doing the grunt work:

  1. While running track in school was far from doing it professionally, it exposed me to how that industry worked, and elite runners have been a part of my life in some capacity ever since. You would rarely have a coach who is not a former and/or current runner themselves. Conclusion: it would be considered bad practise for a business school manager to coach (manage) a team of athletes.
  2. As a trainee chef I was managed by a sous chef. A sous chef is obviously a qualified chef, so you can never get to the level of sous, and hence managing a team, unless you’re also trained as chef. Arguably you could never be a head chef unless being a chef first as well. Conclusion: it would actually be considered insane for a business school manager to manage a team of chefs.
  3. A musician is never technically managed on how to create their music. While you do have managers in music, a manager of an artist or a band is more of a “finder of work” rather than leading a team on how to create their product (the music). On another level, a manager would be involved with a band from a record label if they’re signed to that label. In this situation they could be someone with no music experience, but this has always been controversial. Conclusion: business school managers generally don’t play a role in producing the music, and if they do, it’s universally considered bad practise.
  4. In music, a sound engineer works closely with musicians, a producer, and a masterer to produce the music. In film, a sound engineer works closely with actors, the director, and the producer to either record or edit the sound. In either case the producer would be considered the closest to a manager, and in the film context possibly the director too. Neither the director or producer would be expected to have sound experience, but it’s always nice when one of them has had some. Conclusion: it is considered acceptable for a business school manager to manage a sound engineer.
  5. As a salesperson working in a bike store, I was working close to min wage and therefore could’ve come from any background. It would’ve been technically possible and acceptable for me or anyone from a non-cycling background to work their way up as manager. My manager was pretty much the store owner. He was a Dutch cyclist who had been cycling on semi-pro teams for years before retiring and opening up a store. So while he had a lot of experience in the industry, it is not critically accepted criteria to have experience in the retail space to be a retail manager. Conclusion: it is conventionally accepted that business school managers could manage a team of retail staff, although people who go to business school generally don’t seek out a career in retail.
  6. As touched on above, I didn’t get into the army, so I can’t draw a conclusion from previous experience, only from assumptions and from friends who have been in the armed forces. You generally don’t have people managing you on the ground with no military experience. Although business school managers could find their way into the Pentagon and other areas of high command, it’s generally frowned upon if you don’t have field experience. Conclusion: it would be considered bad practise for a business school manager to manage a team in the armed forces.

Just from my own direct life experience, that is 2 cases of it being accepted, 3 cases of it being bad practise, and 1 case where it would be insane.

But even in sales, once you get out of the world of retail, in an office I doubt that you’d have a VP of sales, or even a manager of a sales team, without any previous sales experience.

When I think about other industries that I haven’t been exposed to, like law or medicine, my assumption based on family or friends in the industry is that it would be considered insane for a business school manager to manage a team of surgeons or be chief of medicine, or to be a partner at a law firm.

No management is the new management

Why are we so different to the management practises of other industries? We really shouldn’t be. Why do they excel at having qualified managers with experience in their discipline and we don’t?

Business types with none to little engineering experience should never, under any circumstances, manage engineers — I’m sorry to speak in absolute terms, but I think we’ve been experimenting with this failure for far too long! It’s time for this madness to stop. It needs to die.

It’s better to have no management than unqualified management.

This suggestion may seem extreme at first, but clearly I’m not the only one thinking it. This HN discussion is just 3 days old…I didn’t even contribute to it, and I didn’t have to scour the internet to find it. The thread’s concluding consensus of using Aha!’s roadmapping with Pivotal Tracker’s distribution of tasks linking to the roadmap, seems like an approach that a few companies have already used with success.

Now, #notallmanagers you might say, and objectively you have a point. Only about 5% of managers I’ve worked with in the tech industry have not been completely, atrociously, bad. 2 counter points:

  1. If completely atrociously bad is the bar that we’re setting, that’s way too low; and
  2. The rare number of good managers I’ve had, have 100% come from previous engineering experience.

Ok then, so perhaps the answer lies in promoting quality engineers to management instead of business types?

We’ve been trying for decades, apparently. There’s a shortage of engineers who want to become managers…and that’s how destructive people are even allocated to these positions in the first place. This is the experiment that I referred to above. It’s been going on for far too long, and it’s time that we abandoned it.

Management has it’s place though. In coordinating different departments together, allocating resources, and resolving conflicts. That’s on a department level. I am not undervaluing the advantage management brings to a company. But on a project level, or even a team level, I can see perfectly functional teams and projects happening without them.

We already have product managers who convey product specifications and help scope out the stories with engineers, and we already have scrum masters who can easily be a QA member or developer simply just facilitating the communication of the daily standup. The scrum master should be nothing more than someone who conveys information and provides an outlet for communication. That’s it.

So why do we need project managers? We don’t. We don’t need bad ones, but we’ve been failing at that. Project management is a left over relic from a male dominated industry, where hostile attitudes were normalized, and seen as the sole way to motivate staff to build products.

Time to try something innovative and progressive — we don’t need project managers at all.



Mike Post

Founder and Engineer at FitFriend. Runner, Orienteer. Life is about evolution and I want to contribute to that