Why I Gave Up Management

Many years ago, I spent a number of years in management. Yes, I fell for the line that one "progresses" from engineering to management. In my defence, I was very young at the time. I did OK at it, was promoted twice and ended up as a development manager. But I walked away from it when I was 31, and have never gone back, despite multiple opportunities. There were a number of reasons, which we can usefully classify as

A**holes
Boredom
Sociopaths
Culling

At the time the most prominent one was that I didn't like some of the people I was having to interact with, my fellow managers. For the sake of argument, let's lapse into american and call these a**holes...

A**holes

There is a very common tendency among some of those who enter management to think of themselves not as doing a different job, but as being a better kind of human being. You can recognise these people when you yourself are a manager: they are those who refer to their former co-workers as "peasants" or "peons" (and most commonly pretend they are joking when challenged about doing so), or who habitually refer to their fellow human beings as "resource" (shudder). Computers, offices, desks, these are resources. The fundamental property of resources is that they are interchangeable, and the differing skill levels and capabilities of people mean that we really need to to think of them at a more complex level. I get it: it would be nice from a planning point of view if people were interchangeable, but wanting doesn't make it so. As the blessed Sir Terry Pratchett was wont to tell us, the first step in evil is thinking of human beings as things.

It is a natural tendency for those who have been promoted to think of themselves as better, they have after all been plucked from the herd, but this fails to recognise that management is not a progression from engineering, it is a completely different kind of job. Most especially, management is a people-oriented role. This was another of the reasons I left management - I'm not a people person. I don't understand squishy humanoids and never really have done. That I failed to realise this simply means that I failed to understand myself in exactly the same way.

Boredom

I found after some time that I didn't like the tedious mundanity of management. I became an engineer to solve interesting problems, which don't typically include checking timesheets, sorting out office layouts and doing (shudder) performance reviews. Gods, I do not miss those. Some will say I have given up on the potential for better remuneration in leaving management, and they're probably correct. If you can cope with the mundane and repetitive, enjoy being deferred to in conversation and want only money, then you might well think that management is for you. However there is another - more serious - problem waiting in the wings, and that's what we'll come to next.

Sociopaths

You can think of these as a**holes on steroids. It's a trite observation, but nevertheless true: management contains a far higher proportion of sociopaths than the general population. So sooner or later if you move in those circles, you will encounter sociopathic politics. I have lost count of the number of people I have seen scapegoated and backstabbed over a forty year career, and contrary to popular opinion, managers generally do this to other managers, not to underlings. After all, there's more benefit to eliminating a rival than to getting rid of someone you think of as a peon, and peons do useful work whereas managers are just more competition on the greasy pole. In fact, in my experience it tends to be the more capable middle managers who get backstabbed, and with good reason: capable people are a bigger threat to their fellow managers. After all, there are only so many offices in the C-Suite.

The real tragedy here is that of the bad driving out the good: it is the sociopaths doing all the backstabbing, so those few decent human beings who remain tend to be picked out for sacrifice, as they're not devious enough to be expecting it and manoeuvring out of the firing line. It is a sad evolutionary fact that management selects for sociopathy, and that's the real reason why you encounter so many of them.

Culling

Even if you can manage to avoid being backstabbed (and good luck with that), then you can lose out in a different way. Management structures have a habit of expanding in the good times: managers measure themselves by the size of their departments, so expansion is a desirable action when resources permit it. But the good times don't last forever, and when the business cycle turns again the company will need to shed headcount. We don't want to get rid of those who do actual useful work, so guess where the board turn when it comes time to cull the herd? Yep, middle management. Virtually without exception, this is where the axe will fall. The board were managers themselves once, and they know most of those positions only exist to puff up the senior managers' reporting trees. So that's where they cut.

Of course, you may be lucky. You may avoid the backstabbing, be useful enough to evade the axe during lean times, and not fall prey to the ennui of day-to-day man-management tasks. But why take the risk? If you MUST be a manager, if you can't stand the thought of not being in control, then my advice is to start your own company. At least that way you're at the top of the pile right from the start. Until of course the VC's get their hooks into you, but that's another kind of hell.