Barry Drogin on Nerd Management

Barry Drogin
The Basic Rules of Nerd Management are:
  • There is no single management style that can be used to manage nerds. Every nerd, company and project are unique. A Nerd Manager must be flexible and familiar with a variety of management styles.
  • Nerds cannot be pressured, but they can be motivated. Nerds value recognition, admiration and challenges. Once motivated, nerds will obsessively seek to solve apparently insolvable problems.
  • Nerds have social skills and emotions, but they do not have manners. Nerds should not be trained to interact with clients in ways that might enhance arrogance, resentment, and, especially, suspicion (which will give rise to conspiracy theories).
  • Managing programmers is like herding cats. Managing engineers is like steering bees. Even cats and bees will head towards food. Bees perform a dance for other bees to show them how to reach the same food source. In engineering terms, this is known as documentation. Cats prefer to sleep and scratch the furniture. If you are in possession of a programmer who regularly documents work, pay that programmer more money.
  • Every technical problem has at least five solutions. Unfortunately, the first four solutions have to be considered and rejected before the “obvious,” elegant, simple fifth solution is discovered. This process typically takes two weeks to two months, depending on importance (more important solutions take longer).
  • Nerds do not want to perform activities that they have already performed before. Hiring Managers want to hire experienced nerds, i.e., nerds who have already performed certain activities before. Nerds should be hired because they are smart, capable, and eager. Nerds that are experienced in the activities to be performed will be bored and unproductive.
  • Gantt charts (and associated project management software) are useful sometimes, but not when they are misused. In a manufacturing environment, MRP (Material Resource Planning) is more appropriate. In a construction environment, a good construction estimator can provide accurate resource allocation information. To stimulate thinking into "we can't do this until we finish that," Gantt charts can be the best tool. But for design projects, Gantt charts are useless as a true "report to upper management" tool, since Pareto's principle applies to design work: 80% of the time will be devoted to 20% of the problem to be solved. So when a design task is 80% done, it is really only 20% done. Breaking tasks down into subtasks (i.e., increasing the granularity), will only make matters worse. Gantt charts are the primary source of garbage in-garbage out nonsense in the workplace today.
  • Quotes worth quoting:
    "Projects in big companies do require management. But innovation requires leadership, and I think they're not only not the same, they are diametrically opposed... Management is a process by which we make sure everything comes out the same... Good management would be to give a machine gun to an ax murderer; it would make the process more efficient... Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things. Innovation, which is hard to do, is particularly hard to lead."

    - Dean Kamen, "Inspiring Present and Future Scientists and Engineers to Innovate," National Instruments Week August 10, 2006 keynote, as quoted in EDN

    "When more businesses were run with the objective of simply making a product in the most efficient way possible, managers knew what needed to be done and just organized their workers to make it happen as efficiently as possible. They felt little need for creative input from below or anywhere else, and they often made that clear.

    "But companies operating with that creaky mindset today - and there are still many - are losing a chance to reel in crucial information. Many businesses now operate in much more uncertain territory, creating new technologies, new ways of selling, new kinds of services. These enterprises depend on creativity and innovation, and they severely limit themselves if they do not actively solicit input from people at every level.

    "'Management 101 is to organize complexity and create schedules and plans, based on the assumption that we know with a high degree of certainty what needs to happen when,' said Amy C. Edmondson, a leadership and management professor at the Harvard Business School. 'In many of today's organizations, that is simply an outmoded concept, but we still use the same management tools: a production mindset applied to an uncertain experimental context.'"

    - Kelley Holland, "The Silent May Have Something to Say," November 5, 2006 New York Times

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    Last Updated: July 6, 2007