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Joel on Software

Management books

by Joel Spolsky
Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm reading two very good management books right now.

The first is a classic: Up the Organization, by Robert Townsend. Apparently this book first came out in 1970, was widely admired, and slowly fell off everyone's radar, until Wiley republished it last month. Townsend ran Avis back in the day, and when you start to read a management book written in the 1960s, you expect to find secretaries, two-martini lunches, executive golf club memberships, etc. What you find instead is rather refreshing even by today's standards. On Mergers:

If you have a good company don't sell out to a conglomerate.... Conglomerates will promise anything for your people... but once in the fold your company goes through the homogenizer along with all their other acquisitions of the week, and all the zeal and most of the good people leave.

PS for Y Combinator kids: Don't be smug because you think that conglomerates went the way of the dodo. "Conglomerate" is just an old word for what you call "Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google." Oh and Condé-Nast.

Anyway. Townsend on management consultants:

[They] waste time, cost money, demoralize and distract your best people, and don't solve problems. They are people who borrow your watch to tell you what time it is and then walk off with it.

It sounds like a cliché, right? Townsend probably invented that cliché, boychik. And it's still true, and the jibe at Booz Allen later on in the book is still 100% on the money.

Even better is his disdain for marketing departments:

Marketing... is the name of the game. So it had better be handled by the boss and his line, not by staff hecklers. Once or twice a year for three or four days the boss takes ten, twenty or thirty of his key people... away to some secluded spot. On average they spend twelve hours a day asking unaskable questions, rethinking the business (What are we selling? To whom? At what prices? How do we get it to him? In what form?), four hours a day relaxing and exercising, and eight hours a day sleeping. It's hard work. But more good marketing changes will come out of such meetings than out of any year-round staff department of "experts" with "marketing" signs on the door.

Boy, I sure wish I had learned that one a few months ago. Two years ago, Seth Godin wrote essentially the same thing.

Anyway, that's just a few of the M's. The whole book is full of great advice like that, albeit focused on larger corporations.

If you're looking for something a little more, er, contemporary, Michael Lopp and his alter-ego Rands have just published Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager, which originated with some essays on his excellent blog Rands in Repose. (You can do that?)

Lopp has worked at Netscape, Borland, and Apple. He's the quintessential Silicon Valley middle manager. I hope he doesn't find that term insulting: he's probably the best Silicon Valley middle manager there is. He's brilliant, charismatic, and a poet-philosopher, and I could imagine no better boss.

You'll find that an awful lot of his book is about managing managers, big company politics, and the human side of getting technical teams to work together. And he has a style quite his own. You can get a taste of it from his classic Incrementalists & Completionists:

What was intriguing about my email repartee with the co-worker was that we weren't disagreeing about whether or not we should do something about the problem. We're arguing about how much we should do. The disagreement reminded me there are two distinct personalities when it comes to devising solutions to problems: Incrementalists and Completionists.

Incrementalists are realists. They have a pretty good idea of what is achievable given a problem to solve, a product to ship. They're intimately aware of how many resources are available, where the political landscape is at any given moment, and they know who knows what. They tend to know all the secrets and they like to be recognized for that fact.

Completionists are dreamers. They have a very good idea of how to solve a given problem and that answer is SOLVE IT RIGHT. Their mantra is, "If you're going to spend the time to solve a problem, solve it in a manner that you aren't going to be solving it AGAIN in three months." I used to think that architects were the only real Completionists in an organization, but I was wrong. Architects are the only RECOGNIZED Completionists in the company, but the personality is hiding all over the place.

Finally. One more book.

The same publicist who sent me Up the Organization also included a copy of Ben Casnocha's new book My Start-Up Life. Ben is a charismatic, energetic, brilliant 19 year-old who founded a successful software company, Comcate, at age 14. It's all very adorable. He's the Doogie Howser, MD of software startups, except for the fact that he probably has no idea who Doogie Howser is, given that the show went off the air when he was 4 years old, and, frankly, at age 4 he was probably too busy working on his second IPO to watch much television.

Ben is a seriously cool 19 year old. He's very smart. He's quite a good writer.

But.

But but but.

His book, unfortunately, tells you almost nothing about starting a company. It's really, really thin on stories of what the actual company did and how things worked. Worse, the book is padded with really, really embarrassing sidebars in which Ben gives you jejune Great Thoughts about business management.

Great entrepreneurs show up, take small risks (and sometimes, large risks), raise their hand when they're confused, and try to figure out what's going on and how a situation could be made better.

When you show up and raise your hand, you've already outperformed 90 percent of the crowd.

And:

The person on the receiving end of the mentoring relationship should work hard to insure it's not totally a one-way street.

Ben Ben Ben.

Yes, you're smart and good looking. Yes, you know more about starting a software company than practically any other 19 year old. And sure, I'll be happy to invest in your next startup, or hire you, or adopt you, whatever.

But. Mark my words. You're going to reach the ripe old age of 23, and you're going to look back on this book you wrote, and you're going to say, "how on earth did anyone let me publish such self-important crap," and you're practically going to die of embarrassment. Trust me: I'm in my 40s, and I'm still morbidly embarrassed by the pompous, arrogant, self-important crap I write on this site here, up to and including this very sentence.

Feel free to skip this book.


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About the author.

I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, easy web-based collaboration software, FogBugz, an enlightened bug tracking and software development tool, and Kiln, a distributed source control system that will blow your socks off. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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