There was some hubbub a few months ago when it was revealed the Executive Director of the UK’s Year of Code initiative can’t code [link]. Not that technical (domain) competency is a sufficient condition for management and leadership, but I’d certainly call it a necessary condition. (I’ll use the world ‘technical’ below to refer to any sort of specialized domain, not just programming.)
Apparently a number of people don’t agree with the idea that competency in a domain is a requirement to manage that domain.* I find this idea infuriating and it can only end poorly.
Perhaps you have a manager who knows little about programming or design or whatever your specialty is, and you consider this person to be the best boss of all time. Great! I’ll call this person Your Boss for convenience. Here’s the problem:
At some point, Your Boss needs to make some contentious decisions. Maybe over your work, maybe over something you’re not directly involved with (I bet Your Boss was hated by a lot of people, too!). Your Boss has literally no ability to help resolve a technical decision. “Wait!” I hear you say. “My Boss is enlightened enough to know that the people closer to the problem should be making the decision!”
But who are those people closer to the problem? Who put them there? Oh, that’s right: Your Boss. But your boss has little technical knowledge. How is Your Boss supposed to decide who makes the more technical decisions? Without basic technical ability, Your Boss doesn’t even know what questions to ask. Your Boss can’t even learn; she doesn’t have the technical prerequisites. Instead of being able to provide leadership, Your Boss is left scratching her head. This is not leadership, and this is not management. This is a cancer and an organization that is unable to grow and learn.
It’s no surprise this topic is divisive. When Your Boss places a lot of trust in you, you are autonomous and think of Your Boss as the best boss of all time. But when someone runs up against you and Your Boss, they have no real recourse, because Your Boss trusts you and has no ability to further inspect the situation.
Certainly, superior ability or experience is not a requirement for management over a domain. But I thoroughly believe that not just familiarity, but some actual professional practice, with a domain is a requirement. I hope that if you are someone who believes in the myth of the competent non-technical manager, you’ll rethink your experience and view Your Boss in a more complete light.
* Clearly, at some point, you cannot be experienced in all the domains you manage, and need to trust people. Unfortunately we do this far to soon, and accept a development manager who has not developed, or an engineering manager who has not done much programming. In the case of the Year of Code Director, I think the issue is a non-technical background (in programming nor teaching) and a general lack of experience. If she had proven a wunderkind in her given field (which is, btw, basically PR/marketing/communications), maybe she should be given the benefit of the doubt. There are many examples where talented administrators have moved into new areas and been quite successful. But her appointment, along with most of the rest of the board, is pretty clear cronyism (and when you throw out technical merit and domain experience, you’re left pretty much with cronyism).