10x “Technically Excellent” Managers
Demystifying “technical excellence” in modern day high tech management
Elon Musk created quite an uproar with the comments above with proponents from both sides of the argument taking a rather hard stance on why their perspective is correct. There are quite a few LinkedIn posts rigorously (and sometimes polarizingly, as is the case with social media today) analyzing both the intent and the content of this tweet. This is my attempt to demystify the role of a manager when it comes to technical excellence.
While Twitter is a great way to disseminate thoughts in real time at a global scale, the word limit often limits nuances in the message. To me, it’s not a simple question of whether I agree with Musk’s statement, which I find rather narrow in its scope. I, however, agree with the broader philosophy behind it. Below is how I would paraphrase Musk’s tweet outlining my alignment with broader philosophy.
I strongly believe that all managers in high tech (high pace) management today must be good recruiters, good salespeople, good marketing folks, good product guys, good programmers, good project managers, good customer representatives, good quality controllers, good negotiators, good accounting folks, good finance controllers - in one word, good owners.
The buck must stop with them. Notice that I used the label good vs. best. And that’s deliberate. One human being can’t possibly be the best at all of these things all at once. The key is to understand you do own the outcomes which do require all of these skills at various stages of the product/company lifecycle and in the absence of a clear expert, you need to perform that job. This approach of ownership has been explained at length in the book - Extreme Ownership.
Let me share an example from my professional life. At Springpath, when I became a manager to lead Native Replication team to deliver our very first offering of Disaster Recovery software on Hyperflex, I started out with a small team of 4 engineers. I was coding alongside them while also sourcing and hiring to scale that team. The need of the moment was to make progress towards technical delivery and I took up a portion of that project. Around the same time, we had a gap in product management, so I partnered with my boss to come up with an equivalent of PRD - by studying competition to understand what’s the table stakes, by learning about customers and industry to see where there is opportunity to innovate, and by evaluating strengths of technical architecture to identify where we could differentiate. When we were development complete on the project, and it required enlisting help from a broader organization to do the bug bash, I took up the hat of evangelizing and training a fleet of engineers while also matching skills to the needs. Right after the acquisition, Cisco invested heavily into this product line and I took up the opportunity to scale the organization by bootstrapping a team in Bangalore, and also partnered with Calsoft for ecosystem plugins. This required hiring, training, setting up the processes and establishing the right culture. Over the course of 4 short years, the data protection organization grew from 4 engineers to 40, supported by 3 front line managers in different geographies. I had to constantly evaluate the right org design to drive empowerment and accountability to the right most person in the organization. My programming contributions reduced over time, and it got replaced by sampling based code reviews, contributions to large scale designs, and development of miscellaneous productivity tools from time-to-time, again with the emphasis on enabling the teams to go as fast as they can. Scaling the business also resulted in new partnerships and part of my job revolved around partner management with VMware and several backup partners like Commvault, Veeam and Cohesity. During my tenure at Cisco, I was also part of the committee that evaluated various technologies for build vs. buy decisions. I feel quite proud of what we accomplished together as a team, going from writing some of the first lines of code to establishing a solid business that made $125m in annual software revenue and $100m in (indirect) hardware sales enabled by data protection configurations.
So, where does this personal narrative leave us with Musk’s tweet? Well, in day to day management, it comes down to priority. Ami Vora has a great blog on how to think about prioritization, which greatly aligns with my thinking. There is another perspective we must consider here. Silicon Valley is the mecca of startups, and home to several of the biggest MNCs. In startups, starting with the founder, you need to have an entrepreneurial bent to succeed. In startups, there is a lot of ambiguity, a lot of unknowns, a lot less structure - this requires a generalist approach to excellence. That’s why folks in startups regularly wear multiple hats. In big companies, a formal structure and myriad of processes are in place to streamline execution and minimize risks. The role of the manager here is to leverage the right structures in the larger organization, drive alignment, and practice a more disciplined approach to management. The best companies employ entrepreneurial style of management at scale. This makes for a massive competitive differentiation and their long lasting legacy.
Let’s explore the topic of management legacy a little. All good managers have an instinct about what’s the most important set of priorities they should be working on. But let’s go beyond the good, and pursue the great. Great managers not only bring focus on the most important of the priorities, but also simultaneously identify the best people to develop, coach and partner with as a way to spread the execution risk. Good managers are measured by their results. Great managers deliver great results but also leave a great legacy behind. One way to evaluate this legacy is to see how the organization performs after the manager departs the company. Has (s)he built (i) sufficient execution muscles, (ii) invested into the right technical direction, (iii) built the right culture that compounds the pace of innovation, (iv) cultivated a deep leadership bench to take the organization to new heights?