Manage Data, Advocate for People

How should you manage people? Lots of ink has been spilled on this question. Here comes some more…

Every day as a technical manager I am presented with options of what I can do: tell people what to do, or focus on data revealing what we all should do. Listen to a status update of tasks to be completed, or debate departmental goals. Discuss concurrency errors, or the philosophy of empiricism.

The interesting thing to me is that life in the modern corporate startup comes at you so fast that you generally don’t make these choices consciously, or at least not with deep deliberation. Which means that to make them correctly, it is important to develop a code of ethics that balances getting things done with doing things correctly.

And at the heart of it all, a recognition that the only valuable commodity in a future where the slop jobs all get automated away is the properly directed attention of small groups of engaged, intelligent people.

One thing I try to do is manage people by instead managing data, sharing goals, and advocating for the people I direct as if it were my job to do so.

By managing data I mean understanding what core metrics are meaningful to your business and making these your shared goals. These could be sales numbers, CPU usage, user experience, in essence anything that can be quantified.

And everything pretty much can be quantified. It’s just some aspects of life should not be.

Meaningful goals are usually not constrained to departments. Good Managers respect things like departments and team boundaries, but also see them as the granfalloons they are.

By advocating for people I mean listening, reflecting back and calibrating goals, and helping them live their best work and personal lives.

Building great engineering teams requires giving as much agency is possible to engineers. But this isn’t a principle unique to engineering. We all want freedom to express our will. It’s a force multiplier to the production of the reward chemicals we need to keep the workplace rolling.

So stop looking over your people’s shoulders, stop worrying about made up metrics like velocity points, and start thinking ahead about what the data around what you are doing tells you. About the systems you own, about the industry your domain knowledge exists in, and where society is going in general.

Question the data. Probe it. Attack it. Slice it and subject it to constant analysis. It’s just a script. It doesn’t feel anything.

And for your people, help them. Care for them. You are their representative. Because they are not data, they are the same as you, a wholy unique Singleton moving through time.

Those HR systems that try to turn people into data? That try to stack rank based on made up rankings and evaluations? Throw them out. If you want to drive fast, you’re going to need to focus on the road and your direction and not the speedometer. To make a great business, focus on the individual people and not the noise.

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