The NYT recently featured a piece on an internal Google effort, code named Project Oxygen, to study what makes a good Google manager. Here’s the “hook” of the story:
[The study] found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.
This is both great, and tragic.
Great, because, in the classic “googly way” (using data analytics to automatically extract findings from the texts of employee surveys), they have developed a list of criteria that is specifically tailored to help Google improve their management. Something that many companies simply don’t have the time, resources, or worse, even the desire to accomplish.
Tragic, because the primary “hook” of the story, that technical expertise ranks dead last, is viewed by both Google and by the NYT as a sort of “man bites dog” story.
Now clearly, a manager has to have some level of technical ability. They need to understand the issues, and provide advice and leadership when necessary. And for first line management, who are directly managing technical contributors, they often need to help train and guide new members of the team.
Sadly, however, the prevailing view in technology companies, and particularly in Silicon Valley technology companies, is that a manager needs to have technical expertise that is on the order of the best members of the team they manage. I’ve heard the following phrase so many times, it’s like a broken record to me: “Well, there’s a lot of really strong technical people on this team, and the manager needs to have the respect of the team, so blah blah blah.”
The notion that top technical staff only respect managers who could compete with them writing code, or doing research, or designing circuits, or whatever is, to me, one of the primary reasons that technical organizations are rife with bad management.
Show me a manager who can perform the jobs of their top technical staff, and I’ll show you someone who likely micromanages, doesn’t know how to delegate, isn’t as open to solutions that don’t jive with their own biases, and is focused too much on the details while ignoring bigger, more strategic issues.
The best manager is one that can go on vacation for a month, with the team running just as smoothly without her. How is this done? Because such a manager has created, delegated to, and empowered a team that can achieve its mission. The skills required to do this rarely have anything to do with a high degree of technical ability. This has always been true, and the Google Project Oxygen is just one more study rediscovering this “surprising” truth.
I hope that the conclusions of Google’s own excellent study are taken to heart by the company, but given the firmly embedded myth of the “strong technical manager,” I don’t think it’s going to be easy.
Graphic below courtesy the NYT.