The Manager FAQ

This is a great set of answers for programmers on the behavior of managers, that can also be of interest to some non-programmers.

The Manager FAQ by Peter Seebach

The following list is an attempt to cover some of the issues that will invariably come up when hackers without previous experience of the business community first start working in it. Other workers may also find it informative.
DISCLAIMER: The author is a hacker. Bias is inevitable.

Questions and Answers:

Section 1: Basic understanding.

1.1: Why doesn’t my manager just do some actual work?

Management is a kind of work. Just as programs need architecture and design, functional groups of people can need organizing principles. Having a person picked to handle this work can reduce the amount of time spent trying to decide how to make decisions, and can free other people up to do the work they’re best at.

1.2: Is it useful for me to have a manager?

It depends on the kind of job you’re doing. A manager can dramatically improve your performance, both as an individual and as a member of a team, or a manager can get in the way and keep you from working.

Work environments where managers are particularly useful are:

  • Large environments, especially with high turnover.

  • Jobs where a significant amount of incoming information must be factored into planning.

  • Jobs which are prone to substantial obstructions coming between workers and their work.

Jobs where managers may interfere are:

  • Creative work.

  • Fundamental engineering or research.

More generally, if the job allows for a person (who might not be able to do the job) to substantially help the people actually doing the work get it done, or depends on a substantial amount of decision making that doesn’t really require everyone’s constant input, it will probably benefit from management. If the job consists entirely of things a single person can just sit down and do, a manager may just get underfoot.

The good news is, a manager who does a good job of "running interference" for his workers can improve productivity by amazing amounts; you may see five to ten times the productivity you would have gotten if everyone had to stop working all the time to interact with the rest of the company (or the outside world). This won’t happen all the time, but it will happen.

1.3: How should I deal with my manager’s management?

The same way you deal with any other source of requirements. Whenever possible, assume that she is basically aware of what needs to happen – possibly more aware than you are. Don’t fight her without good cause, and she’ll be fine.

1.4: I don’t understand this at all. This is confusing. Is there a book on this?

Probably not. There’s lots of books for your manager on how to deal with employees, though, and if you read them, you may get a good idea of where he’s coming from.

Section 2: Social issues

2.1: My manager doesn’t fit in well with our corporate society. He seems to to a good job, but he’s not getting along with the engineers.

This is common. Your manager may not have found any people who get along well with "suits". A lot of engineers don’t have the personality traits (or social skills) to adapt to people different from themselves; you should consider making an effort to get to know your manager, and accept his differences.

2.2: My manager seems to dress funny. Is there any way to impress upon him the pointlessness of corporate appearance?

Your manager is probably aware that, in the abstract, the way she dresses changes nothing. However, part of her job is to interact with other people, and there are rules of etiquette for these dealings. Your manager’s clothing, even when she’s not dealing with other people, is selected in part as a way of telling you that she takes you seriously; it’s just like calling people "sir". It’s a convention, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real convention, and your manager is honoring it.

2.3: My manager insists on being called by a title, and treated in a formal manner.

Your manager’s position is an aspect of a corporate hierarchy; his title, and the formal modes of interaction, are part of that structure. He is trying to do his job, which involves being aware of the "chain of command" and other corporate structures. He may talk as though you are "beneath" him, and in terms of who has the decision-making power, you probably are – but this may not mean that he thinks you are a less valuable person than he is. Try to treat him with respect, and remember that, in general, you show people respect on their terms, not on the terms you might otherwise prefer.

2.4: My manager complains when I identify faults in the work of my coworkers.

Take your manager aside, and offer details of what’s wrong with the existing work. She may end up not doing anything, but don’t nag her about it; she’s juggling a lot of other priorities, too, and there may be good reasons for which she’s not doing anything about your complaints. Whenever possible, try to help people solve problems, rather than just complaining about them.

Remember that there aren’t enough great engineers to go around; you may have to learn to live with the work that people who are merely competent can do.

Section 3: Productivity.

3.1: My manager complains when I spend time decompressing with games.

Managers are used to measuring work in terms of "hours of work done"; in many cases, the work they’re evaluating doesn’t have a "percolation" phase, or isn’t essentially unpredictable. Try to find ways to decompress that look a little more useful, if you can, or see if you can explain the "background thought" process to your manager.

3.2: My manager is getting impatient during a design phase.

Managers are trying to deal with a lot of requirements you may never see. The manager is trying to run a business; he wants to know what the product is, and when it will exist. He wants to estimate costs. It’s never possible to do a perfect job, but your manager is going to do the best job he can – which means he’s going to try to figure out how long your design phase is. How do you figure out how long something takes? You measure the amount done so far, you look at how long it took, and you extrapolate.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work very well for design. Still, you can help your manager if you can find ways to express the state of the work. Doodle things on whiteboards. Write papers summarizing what issues you’re wrestling with, and what issues you think are nailed down. The act of explaining may help you clarify these issues – and even if it doesn’t, it will show your manager that progress, of some sort, is happening.

3.3: My manager doesn’t understand why I need to do this.

See if you can make time to try to explain it. Try to find ways to work through your problems that meet your manager’s expectations for what people "working" look like.

3.4: My manager complains whenever something I need to do wasn’t written in my job description.

Try to explain to her that the task needs to happen, and no one else is doing it. You might suggest getting "general troubleshooting" added to your job description. Try to get documentation on how useful the work you’re doing is – ask other employees to testify about the importance of what you’re doing for them, for instance.

3.5: My work is done, but my manager wants me to look busy.

Explain that your work is done. If your work is moderately periodic, such as phone support, suggest some low-priority tasks you could soak up… or, as an alternative, explain that part of the job is that you’re effectively "on retainer", to make sure they have someone when the job does need to be done.

3.6: I’m stuck, and my manager won’t stop pressuring me to get unstuck.

The best solution I’ve ever heard is to ask your manager what happens if he loses his keys. How long will it take to find them? Once he’s done looking everywhere he can think of, why doesn’t he keep looking in all those places over and over and over? This is the best analogy to difficult creative work that most people will have had experience with.

3.7: My job is boring and there’s nothing to do.

Ask your manager for more interesting work, or try to get a transfer to a different department, or look for new work.

3.8: My manager wants me to stop "showing off".

Try to avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes too much. If someone you’re working with can’t get his job done, and it’s faster for you to do it, go to your manager privately and discuss your concerns. If she says to live with it, do; there are many reasons why this could make sense.

3.9: My manager insists that I come in to the office.

While much productive work can be done on your own time, in your own place, there’s a lot of benefit to social interaction with coworkers. Your manager is trying to make sure that you all see each other occasionally, and build some social bonds. He’s also probably aware that, when you do come in, you may get into a spontaneous conversation about some design issue, which can save weeks of work if you get the right people together. Not all meetings are productive; that doesn’t mean no meetings are.

Section 4: Stimulus and response

4.1: My manager is doing a good job. Should I thank her?

Yes! Managers, just like everyone else, need to know when they’re doing their jobs well.

4.2: My manager did something that bothered me, and I want to get back at him.

Don’t punish him. Talk to him. Explain why the behavior bothered you. Ask him why he did it, or why this was necessary. Try to understand his reasons; they may be good ones, such as "if we don’t finish this project soon, we run out of money to pay you in about three months".

If you find that the reasons are good, try to be understanding. Let your manager know that you were convinced. If you aren’t convinced, try to live with the inconvenience anyway.

4.3: My manager wants me to do management; I am not interested, but she seems offended by this.

Your manager is from a corporate structure in which one advances in a hierarchy; she may not be aware that you’re enjoying your work for its own merits, not doing it in the hopes of being "advanced" to a new position. Try to explain that you’re doing the kind of work you are because you enjoy it.

4.4: My manager can’t raise my salary any more because I earn as much as he does.

This is silly, but it may be beyond your manager’s power to fix. See if you can find alternatives – maybe he can offer you extended benefits. If all else fails, try to get him to give you permission to do freelance consulting on your own time, and pick up some supplemental money.

4.5: I can’t believe the manager on my staff is worth as much as we’re paying.

As you go through the day, try to keep track of all the things you’re using and depending on that "just happen". Did you pay that phone bill? Who did? Your manager is probably doing a lot of things you aren’t even aware are happening; this is allowing you to focus on what’s important, doing your job.

Section 5: What does that mean?

5.1: My manager doesn’t speak English. At least, I don’t think so.

Managers have evolved their own set of words, just like technical jargon, to communicate more effectively. Unfortunately, one of the things it’s designed to communicate is "I can speak long words without stuttering". Still, the chances are that most of what you’re hearing does have meaning, although it may be a little verbose.

[It is also possible that English is not your manager’s native language, and that it’s not yours either. Feel free to substitute a more appropriate language.]

5.2: My manager is demanding an estimate for something I haven’t figured out yet.

Your manager is trying to decide trivial little things like "where does the paycheck come from". If paychecks are to come on regular schedules, the company’s income must come on, at least, a predictable schedule – which means your manager needs to have some idea of how long it will take you to do something.

Try to estimate. Go ahead and warn your manager that the estimate is inaccurate; you may want to use the example of "finding keys" to explain why.

5.3: My manager has no sense of humor.

Your manager probably doesn’t have the same appreciation for meta-humor, recursion, and obscure technical puns that you do. Try not to depend on jokes that require an engineering background (or at least an engineer’s attitude) as a means of communication or bonding with people who aren’t, in the end, here to be engineers.

5.4: My manager counts from one.

Ordinals (counting numbers) have always started from one; counting from zero, while obvious and natural to many programmers, is probably wrong from a linguistic standpoint. Try to be flexible.

This document is copyright 2000, 2001 Peter Seebach. Unaltered distribution is permitted. Revision 0.01 – Last modified February 7, 2001

Related: Joy in Work for programmersA Programmers Take on Agile Software DevelopmentProgrammers at WorkIT Talent Shortage, or Management Failure?Pointy Haired Boss

This entry was posted in Management, Software Development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Manager FAQ

  1. Kyle Howard says:

    I think that the real issue that is being exposed by this list is that specialty workers really hate to take orders from luddites. I have experience in the programming field, and no programmer can ever find it in himself to respect a manager than knows nothing about programming. I think it might be better to promote from within a department and then give that person some basic management training. Save those management degrees for upper management.

  2. Pingback: Curious Cat Management Blog » What to Wear to an Interview

  3. ilskan says:

    @Kyle: I suppose so. Ideally you want a happy medium, though; the other end of the spectrum can be pretty hellish as well.

    My manager is an experienced programmer, but he knows very little about managing and doesn’t seem to want to do any managing. This has led to all sorts of mayhem: people who should long ago have been fired for gross incompetence still being in a position to do plenty of damage, people violating IT security policy and other policies in big ways without being punished, etc.

    So yeah, competent managers are decidedly valuable…

Comments are closed.