Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Managerial Food Chain

It took years, but I finally figured out that I'm a giraffe.

I work as a database administrator for a fairly large organization with lots of informational technology needs. A DBA position is almost as high as a technical person who doesn't manage anyone (besides himself) can hope to climb within an IT organization. If you happen, as I do, to see the workplace as a food chain, it helps to see managers as the stealthy carnivores, which means that everyone else is a cud-chewing, befuddled herbivore. DBAs correspond most closely to giraffes -- we're not big enough to affect a lot of destinies, but we're too big to be casually messed with. It's a good place to be. We're not interested in devouring our weaker colleagues. Instead, we eat lots of green stuff (the more, the better) and watch, from a safe, high place, the smaller herbivores being made miserable by the lesser carnivores, who, nasty as they may be, are generally too small to hurt us.

Every once in a while, we run into a lower-level manager who hasn't yet figured that out.

There are actually two types of managers. The best type is the former techie turned manager. He has done the job and thus has an idea about particulars, and what needs to be done, and how many people it will take, and helps you in any way he can, and takes heat for you if something goes wrong. I don't want to say much about these guys, they're way too useful to slander. It may not sound flattering, but in the world of carnivores, these are the birds that pick the ticks and other bloodsucking parasites off of our backsides, where we can't reach. It's necessary and even helpful. You get the job done, and it helps them get fed.

The rest of this post talks about the other type of manager.

Where you or I might look at a techie and see a techie, such managers look at anyone and everything as a prop for projecting a managerial image. They will manage a fire hydrant if it stands there looking stupid long enough. ("Useful for putting out fires, but prone to feel under pressure," might be the first line in the yearly review.) No one really knows what a manager does, but our big mistake is assuming that managers do know. And the knowledge it takes to become a manager is practically unquantifiable. But it's okay. No one knows what it means to be managerial, but everyone knows what it means to look and act managerial. That's why every manager needs props. A small laptop with Blue Tooth is nice, but a techie asking him questions is the best. It doesn't really matter if all the questions take the form, "Huh?"

I've been working with one such MOTM -- manager on the make -- for the past week or so. You know the type: chirpy, cheerful, well-dressed, lots of energy, and brimming with the burning desire to say something memorable and intelligent at a meeting. Even if you do not work directly for him, he will assume that, since you are the one doing the technical work, he is therefore obviously the one in charge. Simple Boolean logic. If you email a vendor and don't cc him, you will receive an email chiding you, in cordial but firm tones, that you should "keep the communication channels open" and "keep him in the loop". Somewhere, nearby, a smiley face will pop out at you.

You will also discover sooner or later that what you're saying to him gets spun slightly by the time it hits the boss's ears. Not changed, really, but with a certain emphasis added that you did not intend -- or if you did intend, was not emphasized.

Unless you're Michelangelo or Shakespeare, chances are that the work you do today will not live on for hundreds of years. I can't remember the last time I moved a database from Prod to Dev for testing, and received a Nobel Prize or a Tony Award for my efforts. Immortality is probably not in the cards for us. However, doing your work for the MOTM is like finding that elusive fountain of middle age. The work that you do for him today, far from being soon forgotten, is destined to live on for years as a line on his resume. The harder you work, the better his next job.

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