Are You Creating Micromanagement Zombies?

Do you manage other programmers, in any capacity? Then take Kathy Sierra's quiz:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Yeah, nothing like having 40 developers under a single know-nothing manager there just to babysit. No career paths, no incentives, and nobody accountable except to a time tracking automaton. I just sarcasmlove/sarcasm the MBA way of running things.

Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. (Deming, 1993). One of W. E. Deming’s, 14 princples for management.

I have seen, in my previous workplaces, managers who if they could get just get their heads around that one princple; the whole department would be so much more productive, better staff retention, etc.

I fully recommend reading about the rest of Demming’s princples for management (as well as about Deming and his work. Japan would probably not be the industrial giant that it is today, if it was not for Deming and his contempory Juran)

My experience as a manager of eight developers on a tightly timebound project:

Do you pride yourself on being on top of the projects or your
direct reports? Do you have a solid grasp of the details of every

I wouldn’t say pride myself. More like consider it part of the job. If I don’t understand the details, I can’t help my developers.

Do you believe that you could perform most of the tasks of your
direct reports, and potentially do a better job?

I’ve never asked someone to do something that I couldn’t do. I’m certain that there were things that I could do a better job on than my reports (I called them developers) could, at least until I trained them and they got up to speed.

For instance, nobody on the team knew XSLT or AJAX before we started the project. (This was in 2000, before AJAX was called AJAX.) Part of my job was building and explaining prototypes using these new technologies. My guys were really smart - I doubt there was one of them who couldn’t have figured all of that stuff out for themselves given time - but we didn’t have time for that. They needed a head start.

(The exception was the rock-star developer we had doing the main UI. He worked in another city and dropped code off every couple of weeks whose functionality and clarity astounded all of us. There wasn’t anything I or anyone else on the team could do that he couldn’t do better.)

Do you pride yourself on frequent communication with your employees?
Does that communication include asking them for detailed status
reports and updates?

Again, pride doesn’t really enter into it. Communication is part of the job. If I don’t know what’s going on with them, I can’t help them.

As far as detailed status reports and updates go, does the daily meeting where we talk about what we’re going to do today count? I believe the kids today are calling that a daily standup.

Do you believe that being a manager means that you have more
knowledge and skills than your employees, and thus are better
equipped to make decisions?

I wasn’t merely a guy sitting in an office managing developers. I was also managing the product. This meant that yes, I had more knowledge than my employees: I had a deeper understanding of the overall product requirements than any of the developers did. That was how I set priorities. When they came to me and said we can only get feature X or feature Y working in this week’s build, which one should it be? I knew the answer. That was my job.

Do you believe that you care about things (quality, deadlines, etc.)
more than your employees?

There were certainly things that I cared about more than they did. I cared about the things that were my job: reporting to the CEO, making sure the requirements were getting adequately documented, figuring out methodologies for bug tracking and automated testing (things that weren’t quite as off-the-shelf in 2000 as they are today), appeasing the moronic HR department. (The HR director’s biggest fear about having a satellite office was that people were coming to work in jeans. That rarely happened (not that I gave a shit), though when one of the teams made a tough deadline and their team lead rewarded everyone by bringing in Krispy Kreme, there was a week where everyone was wearing a paper hat.)

There were a lot of things that were wrong with this project, most notably the despicable and treacherous CEO, who supported the project right up until he was able get the parallel one that he was quietly running in his office (which he’d staffed with his sons) to a point where he could dupe the board into letting him kill our project and fund his. (Our project was on track to make its nine-month deadline; his had still not delivered in 2006.)

But if you’d asked anyone on my team if they were being micromanaged, they’d just laugh at you.

Did our whole team ask you to post this?

People who need to understand these things usually assume that it is intended for someone else and does not apply to them.

Awesome post Jeff, a subject very close to my heart

OK, what do you do if:

  • Your team regularly commits errors to make the editors of Daily WTF blush?
  • They’ve been doing it that way their entire career and aren’t very interested in changing?
  • They’re above average coders in the SE Asian nation you live in?

At least you can shoot zombies.

At least you can shoot zombies.

Wow. Dan wins the discussion thread in TWO comments. I wish this was so I could create a badge for this.

But seriously, you’re describing a fundamentally hopeless situation. If none of the people on the team are capable of / willing to learn or improve…

Heh. If only all questions were so simple.

Just imagine any of those 5 points retold from the employees perspective…

Awesome post, just spread the word of this article around my office. I think this one line sums up what i have learned over 2 jobs.

People who feel untrusted have little inclination to bond together into a cooperative team.

Having seen it in real life, micro managers are all around us. They seem to forget that we are humans and not zombies. Its far worse in India :), we are treated like zombie labor … another class all together.

Sounds like the policy employed by my last place of work - and the reason I decided working for myself was best!

Great post, Jeff.
This is exactly what I experienced from my manager in my previous job - this was one of 2 reasons of me quitting. From the employee point of view, the feeling of being trusted in what you do is right is best motivation.

@Dan that’s pretty hopeless, I agree. I’d really recomend to look for other people to work with, becoming a zombie because of them is not the way :slight_smile:

how many managers of the type that is being described do you think
a) are likely to be reading this and
b) would buy into it if they did
Surely this is the problem

I guess this way of managing people comes from the idea that to be a manager is a step above in the career. What I want to say is that if you become a manager you get more money, you are one (or more) level higher in hierarchy, etc.

After a while managers maybe start thinking that they are better (in whatever category).

From my point of view the manager is still on the same level but just taking care for other things on a project. More to say he is not managing (controlling) the people but doing everything that his team can do the best job possible. That everyone of the team can work at his best.

Therefore I want to thank Jeff for this article which perhaps helps to make some mangers think that they are not a boss but still a member of a team.

Why does this happen so frequently?
Who’s fault is this?
Why are managers so bad?

If it were one or two managers, then we could say oh - that’s just THEM, they were never cut out for management. But these managers are EVERYWHERE.

So there must be some base reason people act like this.

I would argue that management is the ONLY profession in which people enter without any practical training for that position. Therefore people deal with management to the best of their raw ability. They apply the problem solving techniques they find successful in the rest of their life, and the social skills they have learnt throughout their life. For some, this works as they are natural leaders. For most this doesn’t, and they become pointy haired bosses to a small or very large degree.

From what I have seen MBA managers seem to micro manage less, and MBAs do teach people to be good leaders. So is it that these “bad” managers don’t have an MBA but should???

In fact, the main reason I undertook and MBA is that I have worked for many bad managers, each creating their own unique set of bad behaviours. Sure – I could learn from their mistakes, but I was certain that just as they don’t see their problems, I would also have management problems that I wouldn’t see. I wanted to learn the best practices to manage people and a business. I got everything I was after.

I now find it a large pity that so few others are interested in formally learn management skills, instead thinking that just by reading a couple of books and being able to point out the mistakes of others managers, they are somehow “qualified” to manage people. Can you imagine someone being a professional software engineer after reading a couple of Teach yourself programming in 12 hours or Complete Idiot’s guide books? No? Then why is that okay for Management who get paid more and have higher responsibilities???

That’s my 2 cents…

Great post.

You are stating many of the things they teach in MBAs these days (I have one). It comes down to enabling staff rather than instructing. Leading rather than managing.

There was something I read/heard (might have been here), that if you are a manager and you are not hiring people smarter and more talented than you are then you are failing at your job. Your job is to seek out great talent and enable that talent.

I think many of your points need to find a happy medium. For instance, a company without any level of bureaucracy is a one person company. Some rules and processes need to be in place for a business to run.

But - the one I was thinking most about most was Physical Separation. I have seen developers who thrive in paired programming, but most need to work alone. They work in offices and cubicles near each other, and pop in on each other when needed. When do you pick one over the other? I have found that letting the developers decide on their own is the best path.

I had a talker working with me who couldn’t create a train of thought without discussing it. He couldn’t make a decision without first having that decision verified by others. He couldn’t write a line of code without first looking up extensive on-line help and discuss all the options. One day I happened to be in a waiting room with him and he couldn’t read an article from a magazine without discussing it with those around him.

The point is that everyone’s productivity increased when he was put into his own office. Sometimes Physical Separation is a good thing!!!

Dan - so you’re the only person in the SE Asian nation that you live in that can code properly?

Surely, the person responsible for recruitment is failing?

Sounds more plausible. I hope that person isn’t you…

Awesome post. But, we talking about more than 85% of the total managers around the world (guesstimate). Nothing changes. In the end, it all remains the same.

Philip - for what it’s worth, the Physical separation mentioned by the Peopleware authors refers to a team when the members are spread rather more widely than that:

The result is that what could be a tightly bound team is scattered over multiple floors or even in different buildings. The specific work interactions may not suffer terribly, but there is no casual interaction. Group members may grow stronger bonds to nongroup neighbors, just because they see more of them. There is no group space, no immediate and constant reinforcement, no chance of a group culture forming.
– Peopleware, 2nd ed., p136

I like this post. I disagree with how you use the term micromanagement. Micromanagement is a good management practice if used properly. It is when managers focus in as tight as a laser beam on the critical aspect of a product or project. What most of us disdain is better-termed nit picking management. That is where a manager tries to pick nits (tiny eggs of some tiny animal that infests human hair) everywhere. Disastrous.