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Joel on Software

The Command and Control Management Method

by Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Frederick the Great [PDF]: “Soldiers should fear their officers more than all the dangers to which they are exposed.... Good will can never induce the common soldier to stand up to such dangers; he will only do so through fear.”

The Command and Control form of management is based on military management. Primarily, the idea is that people do what you tell them to do, and if they don’t, you yell at them until they do, and if they still don’t, you throw them in the brig for a while, and if that doesn’t teach them, you put them in charge of peeling onions on a submarine, sharing two cubit feet of personal space with a lad from a farm who really never quite learned about brushing his teeth.

There are a million great techniques you can use. Rent the movies Biloxi Blues and An Officer and a Gentleman for some ideas.

Some managers use this technique because they actually learned it in the military. Others grew up in authoritarian households or countries and think it’s a natural way to gain compliance. Others just don’t know any better. Hey, it works for the military, it should work for an internet startup!

There are, it turns out, three drawbacks with this method in a high tech team.

First of all, people don’t really like it very much, least of all smarty-pants software developers, who are, actually, pretty smart and are used to thinking they know more than everyone else, for perfectly good reasons, because it happens to be true, and so it really, really bothers them when they’re commanded to do something “because.” But that’s not really a good enough reason to discard this method… we’re trying to be rational here. High tech teams have many goals but making everyone happy is rarely goal number one.

A more practical drawback with Command and Control is that management literally does not have enough time to micromanage at this level, because there simply aren’t enough managers. In the military, it’s possible to give an order simultaneously to a large team of people because it’s common that everyone is doing the same thing. “Clean your guns!” you can say, to a squad of 28, and then go take a brief nap and have a cool iced tea on the Officer’s Club veranda. In software development teams everybody is working on something else, so attempts to micromanage turn into hit and run micromanagement. That’s where you micromanage one developer in a spurt of activity and then suddenly disappear from that developer’s life for a couple of weeks while you run around micromanaging other developers. The problem with hit and run micromanagement is that you don’t stick around long enough to see why your decisions are not working or to correct course. Effectively, all you accomplish is to knock your poor programmers off the train track every once in a while, so they spend the next week finding all their train cars and putting them back on the tracks and lining everything up again, a little bit battered from the experience.

The third drawback is that in a high tech company the individual contributors always have more information than the “leaders,” so they are really in the best position to make decisions. When the boss wanders into an office where two developers have been arguing for two hours about the best way to compress an image, the person with the least information is the boss, so that’s the last person you’d want making a technical decision. I remember when Mike Maples was my great grand-boss, in charge of Microsoft Applications, he was adamant about refusing to take sides on technical issues. Eventually people learned that they shouldn’t come to him to adjudicate. This forced people to debate the issue on the merits and issues were always resolved in favor of the person who was better at arguing, er, I mean, issues were always resolved in the best possible way.

If Command and Control is such a bad way to run a team, why does the military use it?

This was explained to me in NCO school. I was in the Israeli paratroopers in 1986. Probably the worst paratrooper they ever had, now that I think back.

There are several standing orders for soldiers. Number one: if you are in a mine field, freeze. Makes sense, right? It was drilled into you repeatedly during basic training. Every once in a while the instructor would shout out “Mine!” and everybody had to freeze just so you would get in the habit.

Standing order number two: when attacked, run towards your attackers while shooting. The shooting makes them take cover so they can’t fire at you. Running towards them causes you to get closer to them, which makes it easier to aim at them, which makes it easier to kill them. This standing order makes a lot of sense, too.

OK, now for the Interview Question. What do you do if you’re in a minefield, and people start shooting at you?

This is not such a hypothetical situation; it’s a really annoying way to get caught in an ambush.

The correct answer, it turns out, is that you ignore the minefield, and run towards the attackers while shooting.

The rationale behind this is that if you freeze, they’ll pick you off one at a time until you’re all dead, but if you charge, only some of you will die by running over mines, so for the greater good, that’s what you have to do.

The trouble is that no rational soldier would charge under such circumstances. Each individual soldier has an enormous incentive to cheat: freeze in place and let the other, more macho soldiers do the charging. It’s sort of like a Prisoners’ Dilemma.

In life or death situations, the military needs to make sure that they can shout orders and soldiers will obey them even if the orders are suicidal. That means soldiers need to be programmed to be obedient in a way which is not really all that important for, say, a software company.

In other words, the military uses Command and Control because it’s the only way to get 18 year olds to charge through a minefield, not because they think it’s the best management method for every situation.

In particular, in software development teams where good developers can work anywhere they want, playing soldier is going to get pretty tedious and you’re not really going to keep anyone on your team.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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The Econ 101 Management Method



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