Lost Among Europeans

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Management by Dignity

Our last few months employed in Wall Street, in late 2007, my friend Mike and I were asked to attend a weekly meeting with the “business owners” of the project we were working on. This was the ambitious project that those people hoped would make them wealthy for the rest of their lives, and that Mike and I led on the software side. We had already both stated that we didn’t want to continue working on it beyond January 2008.

The previous weeks and months had been sad. We had lived through the outbreak of the Sub-Prime crisis, and most of our colleagues had been laid off, or had jumped ship in anticipation of being laid off.

Our old boss, Laurence, was gone too, and now the business owners had nobody among them who knew what a software project entailed. The weekly meetings were their thinly veiled attempt at exercising managerial intimidation and making sure they were getting their money’s worth. There were generally four or more managers, and the two of us software developers.

They saw the project, and Mike and me, through their Excel spreadsheet, where they annotated what we were doing. Mike and I would tell them what new tasks we would need to tackle, which tasks we had completed, and which tasks we hoped to complete before the next weekly meeting. They seemed to think that keeping track of this information in their file, and doing the occasional patriarchal tough-guy routine, was what managing a software project was all about.

Given that both Mike and I had no intention of remaining in the company, and even in New York, beyond January 2008, and that we had little respect for these guys, the tough-guy routines tended to be comical.

And so, one of the business guys would narrow his eyes and ask:

Jaime, you said last week that the validator would be completed this week. Yet it’s not?

No. I had not been aware of such and such a problem with the initial specification, and the task is bigger than I had anticipated.

Eyes narrowed even further.

Well, and you think you’ll finish it this week?

Yes, I believe so.

A few seconds of silece, for dramatic effect.

Well, OK.

I think they realized that this weekly exchange was worthless, because they gave the task of updating the Excel sheet to an analyst, the small and vigorous Antonio, who took his new mission very seriosuly. But they still kept the meetings going, and all of them still attended, so perhaps it was just that they thought taking notes was beneath their dignity.

The weekly meetings, with Antonio, were even more comical. One of the big bosses would ask

What do you estimate your progress was on the file uploader?

and before Mike or I had time to give our answer, Antonio would interrupt:

Sorry, “file uploader”? Where is this?

It should be in the web frontend section.

File uploader, file uploader… Ah, OK, item 7.3, got it.

Antonio was endearingly zealous of his responsibility updating the file, and completely unaware of what anything meant in the project. I remember, in one of our later meetings, cutting short some dialog with one of the bosses, and saying:

Antonio, on item 5.2, please decrease the “remaining time” column to one week.

which he did with his usual vigor. Mike had to work hard to supress his laughter.

The end of our contracts came, and the business people wanted to keep us. For months I had been reminding them that I would be leaving, and that they needed to find a replacement, but the CEO would always tell me that they would make me a great offer, and I would see it and take it and stay. The great offer did come, and I rejected it. I had already decided to leave the company, the sector, the city. Their shock when both Mike and I turned them down still makes me chuckle.

This story has remained with me as a sort of Platonic ideal of bad management. I have seen a lot of bad management, but much of the worst follows the same pattern, where the manager simply does not know what the project entails, what the difficulties are, how to evaluate if something is a strategic step forward, or a humdrum milestone. Realizing he’s out of his depth, thinking that asking basic questions will make him appear weak, he puts up a façade of control, calls for regular meetings, expresses displeasure in strong but un-specific terms, and gives the occasional positive feedback — often misplaced.

Managers in this position are difficult to respect. I try to remind myself that they are doing what they know. That they, too, have to report to their boss, who may be equally toxic. That maybe not all their efforts are a waste. But the scorn follows soon enough.