On The Inescapable Sorrow Of The Bad Tech Manager
To become a bad tech manager is a destiny, not a choice
If I have not written your name in this article, it is not out of kindness. After all, I could not embarrass you any more than you will embarrass yourself, on the day when you begin to make excuses. When you tell others what you have already told yourself — that if you were bad at what you do, you could never have made it to the level of manager. Not in an industry as competitive as that of tech.
Bad tech manager, today you are young, and you are passionate, and that is good. You do not believe that the road you walk could ever lead you where it inevitably will.
I am here to be your oracle, and like all oracles to be dismissed, because you think this article is about somebody else.
This article is about you. This is your story.
And even as you read, your story is already underway. You are living in its prologue now. Look at yourself, learning the ropes of one programming language. Your dedication is admirable. Really it is. You’re making no money yet, but you are promised you will make a lot of it when you get good. Mountains of it, they tell you.
It is in this prologue that you are given your first bad examples. You’re told that Steve Jobs yelling and insulting those who made him rich is how you get things done. You’re told that Elon Musk posting sexist tweets like a teenager who scrawls his anxiety inside a toilet cubicle is the incandescent mark of genius. You watch David Fincher’s The Social Network with your friends, and someone smirks and says ‘Might as well be a handbook, dontcha think?’
You will move on past the prologue to your first job in tech. Now the examples are coming from real life. You’re working a salaried position at an average tech company — meaning, a place where almost everyone is white and male.
Your manager doesn’t know how to create an environment where people feel safe and respected (how could he — of course it’s a he — when there are no voices there to speak out, to explain, to challenge?). You may wonder if it is appropriate that he refers to the 19-year-old girl working at the cafe downstairs by an adjectivised expletive, but he tells you that this is how it’s done. This is how things are. Welcome to the real world, kid. Now shut up and get to work.
Of course though, things don’t have to go quite that way. Perhaps you go work for a startup. You’re 22 years old, and you find yourself under a CEO who is 25. This young entrepreneur (again a he, by the way) has hardly any more experience than you do and, being a human being like everyone else, he is overwhelmed by the tremendous challenges of creating a company, and a product, and a team, and not going bankrupt in the process.
This young man you work for is stressed and impatient and anxious. He doesn’t know how to handle a group of professionals, nor does he have any time to learn. Later you will realise that he was only another Joe trying to stay afloat in a sea of sharks, gasping and flailing in the current, and if he didn’t provide you with the proper training or the proper tools, you’ll swallow your drink at whichever bar will claim your evenings and mutter to yourself can’t blame the poor bastard.
On the day when you quit though, well — you think he’s a jerk. It will take you another three years before you create your own product and become that jerk.
We come to the age of maturity. You now have some years of experience under your belt. You’ve become best friends with the coffee machine and you have a bit of a bad back which you talk about like it’s a badge of honor.
You think you are in the know, you think you’ve seen deeply into life. You think you have stopped believing in fairy tales, and it’s just then, swaddled in hubris, that you fall for one of the most outlandish myths of them all — that ‘manager’ is a higher position than ‘engineer’.
You believe that being taken away from pure coding is a ‘promotion’. That your engineers are there to prop you up, and not the other way round.
Getting that ‘promotion’ turns out to be easy. Surprisingly so. It doesn’t occur to you that competition is low because, unlike you, the others have not forgotten why they started studying tech in the first place. That they don’t want to be taken away from the core systems.
Nor do you consider that perhaps those who stick to the engineering problems are as smart or smarter than those who end up in management. That they would be more likely to change jobs than to accept your ‘promotion’.
After this, there is no next step. Once you’ve been handed the keys to your first managerial office, your journey has reached the end. Now you’d rather be sent to the Foreign Legion than take any other type of position, because in your eyes it would be a step down. Heavens forbid any of us ever take a step down.
The fairy tale you’ve been telling yourself goes on.
As you grow older, and the doors around you slowly begin to close, you come to realize that the only person you are accountable to is the company’s senior manager — and that person only cares that you bring in results. Sales, productivity, conversion rates. N-u-m-b-e-r-s. As long as you keep those up, you can afford to do anything you like. You can treat people like dirt and forever get away with it. You can have someone else make the cake, and eat it in their place.
I say all this to you, while there is still time. Though I know that you will not believe me.
Bad tech manager, do you know what the folly of youth is? It’s not to think that you have figured out the world, but to believe that you are the first to do so. I know that you will remain unshakeably convinced, as you reach the end of this article, that this is a warning somebody else must hear.
You have a good heart, and you believe that that’s enough. How could anyone become a bad tech manager with such a good heart?
You do not yet understand that those in tech who did become good managers, who did take that most ingrate of tasks and left the places they worked in better than they found them, those people did more than just follow their hearts. They spent years actively rowing against a current that wanted to push them over there, look — to that place where you’re headed to right now.
You think the forces that shape our industries for profit over ethics have no power over you. You ignore the most important difference between a good and a bad manager in tech, that the former found their virtue by digging in the rubble of their failures, while the latter came to the top by doing nothing — and now tell the world they did everything.
You do not understand — no, deep down you do not — that nobody chooses to become a bad manager. You can only choose to be a good one, and then work your knuckles to the bone to make that happen, or make no choice at all.
That’s what makes your sorrow inevitable, bad tech manager. You may believe that this doesn’t matter for you, because your conviction is stronger than the long hours, the intense pressure, the late-night calls, the burning eyes, the solitary grind and the dark whispers that lie ahead of you. But that, my friend, is only another folly of youth.