Pumas on Hoverbikes

One unfortunate truth of the profession of system administration is that we wouldn't enjoy it so much if it didn't reward its practitioners for being lateral thinkers with a predilection for high-intensity short-duration incident-based problem solving, or, as we say in the trade, "Triggerhappy psycho-freakazoid gloryhound powermongers with stress-induced facial tics."

It's well-known that we're a bit unruly. Which brings us to the topic of management.

We've all heard the "herding cats" analogy with regard to managing programmers. Managing sysadmins is like leading a neighborhood gang of neurotic pumas on jet-powered hoverbikes with nasty smack habits and opposable thumbs. Oh, and as a manager you're a neurotic junkie puma too, only they cut your thumbs off and whereas all the other pumas get to drive around on their badass hoverbikes and fire chainguns at the marketing department, YOU have to drive a maroon AMC Gremlin behind them and hand out Band-Aids and smile a lot, when all you're REALLY thinking about is how to get one of them to let you borrow his hoverbike for a few minutes so you can show those fools how it's DONE. This is because managers are usually people who proved that they were handy with a chaingun and were thus rewarded by having their thumbs cut off and their weapons handed to some punk college hire.

I digress. Let us read from the book of Peter [Drucker], Chapter 31, Verse II:

[Note: HE'S ABOUT TO TELL YOU WHAT MANAGERS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING. If you ever wondered about that, wonder no more. Read on. Oh, and I turned the original text into a prose poem to make it more Zen.]

A manager has two specific tasks:

The first is creation of a true whole that is
Larger than the sum of its parts,
A productive entity that turns out more
Than the sum of the resources put into it.

One analogy is
The conductor of a symphony orchestra,
Through whose effort, vision, and leadership
Individual instrumental parts become
The living whole of a musical performance.
But the conductor has the composer's score;
HE is only interpreter.
The Manager is both conductor AND composer.

[Imagine a fleet of steely-eyed pumas riding shoulder-to-shoulder on hoverbikes with guns blazing instead of arguing over who should get one of the new laptops. Not only does the manager have to be the organizing influence in order to make that happen, but the manager also needs to have decided to make it happen, even if nobody said it should, if it's the case that the situation demands it. Which is a little implausible, so I'm going to drop the Smack-Puma-Hoverbike model, because it's a little unwieldy for precision work. Back to Brother Drucker.]

[...] The second specific task of the manager is
To harmonize in every decision and action
The requirements of immediate and long-range future.
He cannot sacrifice either without endangering the enterprise.
He must, so to speak,
Keep his nose to the grindstone while
Lifting his eyes to the hills --
Which is quite an acrobatic feat.

[Note: This is funny. You may laugh. Drucker uses humor like Buddhist monks use honey: when all you get is a teaspoonful once a month, you damn well better appreciate it.]

Or, to vary the metaphor, he can afford to say neither
"We will cross this bridge when we come to it," nor
"It's the next hundred years that count."
He not only has to prepare for crossing distant bridges --
He has to build them long before he gets there.
And if he does not take care of the next hundred days,
There will be no next hundred years --
There may not even be a next five years.
[Amen. Three pounds of flax. Etc.]

To recap: ideally, managers create organizations to carry out their plans, and they keep a watchful eye on their resources, especially the most valuable resource, time. Given that, a few questions arise naturally, and it is the specific responsibility of a manager to find out or figure out answers to them:

Why are we here?
Where are we going?
What should we do?
Who should do what?
How do we balance decisions for both immediate and long-term success -- or even just survival?

Most of the time, managers' jobs are defined by the rules, processes and implicit and explicit expectations of their management chain; things like doing nigh-meaningless performance evaluations and firing people who spend all their time surfing porn. And since the managers are still skilled technical professionals at heart, they also end up doing bits and pieces of their subordinates' jobs which are either too hard for the subordinate or too much fun to resist playing in. And since this takes all available time, nobody goes looking for trouble in the form of the real work -- the work described above, which is uniquely that of a manager and no one else. Why, one might ask, don't more organizations actually coach managers on the practice of management? (Hint: the managers' bosses are managers too...)

It's the lack of integration and planning that results in the well-known punctuated equilibrium of the organizational life cycle: A new manager comes in, clears the decks, slags off the old manager, and gets really busy. But without a clear set of goals or a sense of the future, work assignments are made according to whoever's available to do whatever task needs doing, and so strengths are wasted and weaknesses can become bottlenecks. Worse, a failure to consider the future means that problems are solved with brute force when encountered. If the manager were thinking of the long-term considerations, the problems could be captured alive, studied carefully, and then slaughtered and disemboweled, so that the entrails can be studied for signs of what ills the future may hold. As time passes, lack of planning eventually causes a pileup of problems; the necessary amount of brute force necessary to keep up is unavailable; and everything blows up with spectacular force, obliterating big chunks of productivity, at which point a new manager comes in, clears the decks, slags off the old manager...

So in summary, I guess one of the reasons we aren't good at system administration yet is that we aren't good at management either, which can set a practical upper limit on the amount of time we spend developing beyond crisis management and Nerf wars. Fortunately, though, management IS a well-documented discipline, and there exist a few good books to help fill in that gap. My favorite is the one quoted above:

Management : Tasks Responsibilities Practices
by Peter Ferdinand Drucker
It's 861 pages. Not exactly a Reader's Digest favorite. But it delivers a complete worldview within which to consider what it is managers do, and that's nice to have. It helps you keep a sense of what ought to be going on when everywhere you look it's nothing but pumas and hoverbikes. And, really, isn't that what it's all about?

Next: Monkeybagel Consulting 1: Business Plan.

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Copyright 2000 Benjy Feen /

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