Monday, February 23, 2009

the bigger picture...

The previous post about the importance of technical managers is just a small example of what I think is the importance of mathematics and science education in general.

At first people don't pay much conscious attention to design principles. They simply do whatever works. For a time this is sufficient. But soon people begin to think about efficiency. Maybe it's their competition or scarce resources, or their customers can't pay as much as they once did. Whatever the motivation, when people first start considering the constraints of a problem and how to solve those problems esthetically, designers are born.

But there is another layer beyond this. When economies drive down the costs of design and organizations must no longer consider the merits of a few designs, but rather must select against an endless sea of millions of designs and practices, the question becomes "what is the optimal design?"

This is the point where mathematics gets involved. Math is the language for describing systems and calculating their optima.

This pattern should not be surprising to anyone, but sometimes the conclusions are surprising. For one, it seems that any sufficiently advanced and refined problem domain comes to mathematics. Whether it's how to ship a million packages a day, or how the basic building blocks of life are sequenced in various creatures -- large scale almost begs for mathematical solutions. For another, it implies that no matter what your particular artistry entails, if you follow it long enough, you will end up having a mathematical interest of some sort.

This isn't that remarkable if you look at the trends of modern science: biologists are talking with computer scientists are talking with physicists... and all of these are talking with mathematicians. Even linguists, who started with a love and study of languages and etymology have branched into computational linguists who study language origins using statistical methods in mathematics. Some of the fields developed their own systems and specializations in the infancy of their fields that are only now being realized as special cases of more generalized fields in mathematics. Core topics like Set Theory and Ring Theory are now prerequisites for dozens of studies in the arts and sciences from biology to finance.

The lesson is clear: if you want to be the best at what you do, science and math education are the prerequisites.

non-technical managers...

I recently read Sid Savara's article about how engineers can more effectively communicate with non-technical managers. I think Sid does a great job on the engineer's side with some really good insights as to how engineers think of communication. It's a great article that brings an honest (if somewhat naive) assumption that people simply want to communicate.

But it takes two to tango, and I'd like to challenge the assumption that a non-technical* manager can be an effective manager of a technology group with the right communication.

Let's use some simple logic first: Say it is possible to manage a technical group without being "technical". Then you are implying that management decisions essentially have nothing to do with technology; management is management - maybe it's about people, maybe it's about process, but it has nothing to do with technology in any fundamental way.

This leads to two supporting fallacious assumptions (which are very common in business):
  1. ideally all management decisions in a technology group can be translated into non-technical terms. Any failures in this communication are ultimately the responsibility of your technical team to address (otherwise you'd have to learn something about technology, which you've already decided is essentially irrelevant to management concerns).

  2. management issues are essentially simple and easy to act upon unless someone is making them needlessly complex and/or resisting doing any real work (i.e. your technical team).
Let's put it another way: Would you say that a non-sailor Captain could be an effective manager of a ship? Would you say that a non-diplomat could be an effective manager of an embassy? Would you trust a non-mechanic crew chief as an effective manager of a NASCAR race car team? Would you say that an untrained civilian could be an effective manager of a military unit?

Would you say that you can be an effective owner of a sports team without knowing anything about sports or the sports business?

No, because in each of these areas a knowledge of the specific problems and solutions is a requirement of the role of leader. Yet popular business philosophy has started with the assumption that all manager positions are essentially identical in their demands and execution.

It's time to start recognizing that technology isn't always simple and that effective technology managers have to be at least somewhat technical -- it's a requirement of the job.

* I'd like to point out that some managers consider themselves "non-technical" because they lack the domain-specific jargon or experience in a technology group. Maybe they were a biologist, instead of a computer scientist or at least they have some appreciation or experience with science issues. I consider these managers "technically capable" -- they are capable of understanding the arguments with some effort in learning or developing common terminology. This is a more amenable situation because these kind of managers don't make the fallacious assumptions noted above. They are eager to think through problems and find solutions even if they don't have the specific vocabulary. Given Sid's points of effective communication, they will rise to the very technical challenge of running a technology group.