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Managing Software Engineers

by Philip Greenspun (

Submitted on: 2000-10-22


Philip Greenspun founded ArsDigita Corporation and was its CEO from inception until it reached $20 million/year in revenue. Currently, he is Chairman of ArsDigita and teaches computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Why an article on managing people? And one written by someone with training in computer science rather than business administration? There are thousands of books on the best ways to manage people. Many of these books are excellent, having been written by people who've devoted their lives to the discipline.

Software engineering is different.

Software engineering is different because only the best people significantly contribute to achievement. Traditional management texts assume a distribution of talent among the workers. Each worker is contributing something useful and the challenge is to get each one to perform at his or her maximum potential. In the same factory, the best worker may produce two or three times as much as the average, but all the workers are contributing. In software engineering a good programmer is at least 10 times more productive than an average programmer (Brooks 1995). If a product is being developed rapidly, the average programmers will consume nearly their entire work day just in reading and understanding the new code generated by the good programmers. Thus the challenges of a software engineering manager first and foremost are (1) creating a work environment where good programmers will be satisfied enough to stay, and (2) creating a system via which average programmers can become good. In an ideal software engineering organization, there are still some average-quality people but these should be viewed as being apprenticed to the best people and being taught as fast as possible.

Software engineering is different because people at all levels of the organization perceive themselves to be equally intelligent. Consensus-style management can perhaps work when there is a gradient of perceived ability. Given enough time, the less able workers will follow the lead of the more able workers. One of the paradoxes of software engineering is that people with bad ideas and low productivity often think of themselves as supremely capable. They are the last people whom one can expect to fall in line with a good strategy developed by someone else. As for the good programmers who are in fact supremely capable, there is no reason to expect consensus to form among them. Each programmer thinks his or her idea about what to build and how to build it is the best. (See Kruger and Dunning's "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" for more on this topic.)

Software engineering is different because a leaf-node worker is more expert than any manager, even when the manager is a great engineer, in at least the small portion of the system that the leaf-node worker has personally built. This makes it difficult for a manager to engage in a technical argument with a worker. It becomes nearly impossible when the manager's technical skills are weak. The worker can spin castles of complexity in the air and come up with impressive-to-the-MBA excuses for why it has to be done a certain way or on a certain schedule.

Software engineering is different because the organization can't afford to lose the individual productivity of the best people by pushing them into management. A truly great programmer may generate 10 times as much business value as a merely good programmer. Can the organization afford to take someone who can do the work of 100 average programmers and push him or her into a pure management role? Probably not. Can the organization afford to put people with weak technical skills into management roles? Probably not. Once you give Joe MBA a title and ask him to coordinate eventually he will be making decisions that have engineering implications. Thus many of the best programmers are eventually forced at least to assume project leadership and mentoring responsibilites. Since they are still expected to produce designs, software, documentation, and journal articles, the danger is that the new manager will become glued to his or her screen and never look up to see how the project team is doing.

Software engineering is different because measurement is notoriously difficult. The world is full of products that failed due to overly complex and tasteless designs. Yet all of these designs were considered tasteful by their architects. Systems that experts evaluated and found wanting, such as the Unix operating system (1970), eventually proved to have great utility. It is a bit easier to count up the lines of code per day produced by a programmer but if the project was not very tightly specified originally, how do you know whether or not these lines of code are useful?

At this point a skeptical reader might be thinking that, while software engineering is different from line production work or any other endeavor with a manufacturing division of labor, there are similarities with research and development, management consulting, and financial analysis. This is certainly true but there aren't too many interesting books on how to reliably produce results in these fields (one is referenced in the "More" section below).