Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

The “Year of Code” Director is Your Boss

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).

5 thoughts on “The “Year of Code” Director is Your Boss

  1. Robert says:

    We’ve all watched the IT crowd and know what happens when your boss’s skills are limited to left clicking, right clicking and sending e-mails ;)

  2. niad says:

    Can’t believe they had someone advocating programming who can’t program..

    One of my previous bosses wasn’t quite this bad, but it was bad enough that I quit that job. He could program, but never very well. He was also utterly unfamiliar with the projects code base, so he would have to make technical decisions about the project by asking his gut(and his gut didn’t know shit).

  3. Robert Kist says:

    @niad – on the other hand, I have to admit that this is also part of my job. We have about 20 simultaneous projects going on in outsourcing. From PS4 development to iOS, modeling, animation, VFX. There are many projects I’m not totally familiar with, many technologies which I do not know, even though I consider myself well rounded. Yet decisions have to be made – both technical and managerial.

    I think finding people for such jobs can be hard. Try have your HR finding somebody who knows UE4, rigging, animation, coding, pipelines, etc.; for a reasonable salary; and for a location in the boonies/China/(Iceland? ;) ). There will be situations where you’ll be the pointy haired boss. I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared for every new technology hitting your place. But unlike the pointy haired boss, document your decisions, do your research, calculate risks and get trustworthy opinions before you make a decision (and of course, experience helps too!).

  4. […] No, hiring smart people and not micromanaging them is the absolute, bare minimum you should be doing as a boss. Basically, if you call it a day there, you are a worthless, paper pushing, pointed headed body in a seat. If not today, then soon. […]

  5. […] Can the roles of manager and making the product be combined? Yes they can and that is what happens in small organisations. But it means that the person in that mixed manger role is first and foremost an expert at what they do in creating the product. A former colleague, Rob Galanakis, who has strong views on this has a great blog post on this (and a number of other ideas about software development and management) that you should go and read. […]

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