feature article
Subscribe Now

Bossing Like a Boss

Adding to the Pile of Management-Consulting Advice

“Employers only handle the money – it is the customer who pays the wages.” – Henry Ford

So you’ve risen through the ranks of engineering, and you’re about to be promoted. Kicked upstairs. Climbing the corporate ladder. Moved to the corner office. One step closer to Mahogany Row. Leaving the gang behind. You’re no longer the Dilbert, you’re the pointy haired boss. Kudos.

Will you make a good boss? Of course you will! Your spouse was all supportive of your move, right? And your mother said she always knew you had it in you. She even sent you a nice little houseplant to put on your new desk. Your buddies all slapped you on the back and congratulated you. Well, the ones who weren’t passed over for the new job, anyway.

You’re clearly the best engineer/programmer/developer/specialist in your group. That’s why you were selected to lead all the others. It’s the natural progression of things. You’re now the senior technical lead, so therefore, you’re the obvious choice to lead the group. Right?

Let’s assume that’s true. How, exactly, are you going to discharge your new duties? What management skills to you bring to the party? What makes you a steely-eyed missile man and not the quivering space chimp you’re replacing?

There’s a saying in office politics that “what gets measured gets done.” Be careful how you motivate your minions, in other words. If you’re handing out quarterly bonuses based on lines of code written, or the number of gates synthesized, or even the number of bugs squashed, you’re unlikely to be happy with the result. Whatever metric you choose, your underlings will very quickly learn to game the system to their benefit, and quite rightly blame you for corrupting their jobs and destroying their esprit de corps.

Want to pay a bounty for finding bugs? People will create bugs just to harvest them for cash. Judging performance based on lines of source code? They’ll write bulky, slow, inefficient routines to pad their paychecks.

The purity of your motives doesn’t matter, nor the angelic virtue of your coworkers. We’re all trying to be good, honest workers, but when the boss says you get paid for A and not for B, it doesn’t take long before A becomes an all-consuming passion. It’s just how we’re made, like jonesing for sugar when we should be exercising. We see this all the time in sports and games. Sure, we all know the rules of sandlot baseball (pick-up basketball, backyard football, neighborhood whiffle ball, ad hoc tiddlywinks, etc.) and we can have a good time playing those games. But as soon as it gets serious – someone starts handing out a year-end trophy, say – then we begin to subvert the unwritten rules and start looking for loopholes to exploit. Nobody said I couldn’t bring my NFL linebacker cousin to the game, or that the flag had to be tied around my waist so loosely. Where does it say my whiffle ball can’t have a string tied around it, or that exploding tiddlywinks aren’t okay? There’s a reason it’s called “gaming the system.”

Similarly, our first instinct is toward self-preservation. Politicians work toward getting re-elected, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. They’re preserving their jobs, even if that involves ironically ignoring the very duties the job entails. Your staff will likewise place their job security above all other concerns, whether that’s shipping on time, improving software quality, or achieving safety goals. They want to get reelected to their jobs, too. If their compensation, and perhaps even their continued employment, hinges upon making the quarterly number, they’re gonna cut corners to get there. Because you told them to. What gets measured gets done, and currency is the ultimate unit of measure.

Being a good boss/manager/leader isn’t the same thing as being a good engineer. They’re nonequivalent functions; they’re different jobs that tap different skills. In fact, there’s no causal relationship between them at all.

That’s not to say that one person can’t do both. Talent, unlike poker, is not a zero-sum game. You might be good at both. Heck, you might be good at both and be good-looking. Just because you’re the Alpha Nerd doesn’t mean you can’t also be leading the Delta Force. But technical acumen emphatically does not guarantee that you will automatically be good at managing others in your profession.

There’s another common aphorism that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” (And the corollary, “those who can’t teach, write.”) That’s pretty unfair to teachers, and it gets the fundamental truth backwards: teaching a skill isn’t the same as practicing that skill. Lots of successful football coaches were only middling players in their day. Plenty of music teachers can’t compose a song. Lots of the people who own sports teams or computer companies were never very proficient at demonstrating their skills on the field, so to speak. Teaching, training, guiding, leading, managing… they’re all different from practicing.

Your job (okay, one of your jobs) as a freshly minted manager is to decide who your “customer” really is. Are you focused on making your underlings as happy as they can be? Are you guiding them toward career advancement and personal fulfillment? Do you want to see them voluntarily wearing the company T-shirt and chanting the company song every morning as they come in to work?

Or is your allegiance to your bosses in the executive suite? Are you tasked with making your team as “productive” as possible, whatever that means? And if so, how is such productivity measured and does it produce the desired behavior? Are the metrics going to change over time, which your team might consider an unfair resetting of the goalposts?

Or do you serve the customer, the ultimate arbiter of your company’s success? That might run contrary to your superiors’ wishes, or conflict with your team’s own internal goals. If you’re on a mission to transform the company, or even just your small part of it, be prepared for some resistance, confusion, and anger. There’s a fine line between being dedicated and just being a jerk. Many haven’t figured out where that boundary lies. Don’t be that boss. 

One thought on “Bossing Like a Boss”

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Jul 6, 2020
If you were in the possession of one of these bodacious beauties, what sorts of games and effects would you create using the little scamp?...
Jul 3, 2020
[From the last episode: We looked at CNNs for vision as well as other neural networks for other applications.] We'€™re going to take a quick detour into math today. For those of you that have done advanced math, this may be a review, or it might even seem to be talking down...
Jul 2, 2020
In June, we continued to upgrade several key pieces of content across the website, including more interactive product explorers on several pages and a homepage refresh. We also made a significant update to our product pages which allows logged-in users to see customer-specifi...

Featured Video

Product Update: DesignWare® TCAM IP -- Synopsys

Sponsored by Synopsys

Join Rahul Thukral in this discussion on TCAMs, including performance and power considerations. Synopsys TCAMs are used in networking and automotive applications as they are low-risk, production-proven, and meet automotive requirements.

Click here for more information about DesignWare Foundation IP: Embedded Memories, Logic Libraries & GPIO

Featured Paper

Cryptography: How It Helps in Our Digital World

Sponsored by Maxim Integrated

Gain a basic understanding of how cryptography works and how cryptography can help you protect your designs from security threats.

Click here to download the whitepaper

Featured Chalk Talk

Introducing Google Coral

Sponsored by Mouser Electronics and Google

AI inference at the edge is exploding right now. Numerous designs that can’t use cloud processing for AI tasks need high-performance, low-power AI acceleration right in their embedded designs. Wouldn’t it be cool if those designs could have their own little Google TPU? In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with James McKurkin of Google about the Google Coral edge TPU.

More information about Coral System on Module