Why Are PHBs Stupid?

Mark Liberman on Language Log asks:
However we decide to define "manager", this group is certainly now the object of a complex of negative stereotypes. When and how did this start? I don't know, and I welcome suggestions. These attitudes may be connected to the antique European aristocratic disdain for those who are "in trade", and to the (I think related) modern intellectual disdain for the world of business. These attitudes seem to have been imported from the intelligentsia into industry through the medium of engineers and especially programmers, who (at least at lower levels) maintain a very different culture from the "suits" in finance, marketing, product planning, and so on.
I think Mark's right to speak of "engineers and especially programmers", and I think the key phrase is "maintain a very different culture". Historically, the boss that most people dealt with was the foreman, which the OED defines in the relevant sense as "the principal workman; specifically, one who has charge of a department of work." You began by doing the work, and if you got good at it, you ended up telling other people with less experience or less competence how to do it instead. This could go right up to the top: Thomas Edison began as an inventor, and wound up running a huge "invention factory", the first modern industrial research lab.

Two factors undermined this, though: the sense that promoting high-quality workmen instead of continuing to take advantage of their work made no sense, and the idea that management was or could be a profession abstracted from the particular work being managed. The first factor appeared particularly strongly in computer programming because of the huge disparity in productivity: the best programmers are literally two orders of magnitude more productive than the average. Losing a top steelworker to foremanship might cost the company the labor of 2-3 standard steelworkers, but losing the productivity of 100 merely competent programmers seemed insane. And of course geeks tend to like their jobs, and to be uninterested in (and incompetent at) people-managing. Companies had to deal with the widespread appearance of workers who did not want to be promoted, ever.

At the same time, the rise of the MBA spread the meme among the suits that managing people was a learned profession like law or medicine or engineering, where you primarily apply what you have learned from books, courses, etc. to the requirements of the job. Before that, management had always been seen as a job, like digging ditches or being President of the United States: you can prepare for it to some extent, but mostly you do a job by applying whatever you have to whatever you need to do.

Making management a profession was arguable; the associated notion that you could manage workers with no understanding of what they did was a disaster. Computer programmers were in the forefront of knowing what had happened: they quickly saw that their bosses had no idea of how the work was done, the necessary conditions for doing it, or the difference between what could be done, what could be done with extraordinary effort, and what could not be done at all. The boss had always been seen as a mean fellow (after all, he tells you what to do and can fire you), but now he also appeared clueless and even stupid, someone who could not be made to understand no matter what.
None of the early citations in the OED, nor the quotes that I find in LION, seem to reflect the modern Dilbertian managerial stereotype. That stereotype clearly predates Dilbert — but when did it arise? and where did it come from?

In this context, we have to return to Andrew's question: What is a manager, anyhow? By now, I suppose that the Dilbert empire employs a certain number of people, whom Scott Adams in some sense manages — does he thereby consider himself a "manager" in the relevant sense?
Scott Adams is not only a manager now, he has always been one by training: he was an economics major, not any kind of scientist or engineer, and he got an MBA before he worked with his first geek. He is extraordinarily observant (especially for an MBA, I add snarkily) and he actually does grasp how geeks think, but despite appearances he basically sees them from the outside. When I discovered this, the shock was so great that I started to see him as an outsider mocking my culture rather than an insider mocking its excesses (though to be sure Dilbert is harder on suits than on nerds), and I lost interest in the strip completely.

(Note: Even though Mark says he's been a manager since 1980, I think that industrial research and academia still basically run on the old model, and therefore their managers, including him, are mostly exempt from the trend I am reporting here.)


Matt said...

Adams is hardest of all on scientists; he hates them in the manner of the scientific crackpot, which, oddly, he is--his books and blog contain all manner of cranky speculations meant apparently seriously.

opoudjis said...

John, kudos, and Liberman is right to acknowledge you for it.

Ezra said...

It's just a hunch, but historically, I think the rise of the PHB stereotype coincided with the rise of the post WWII military industrial complex. Friends and relatives who have worked in engineering for defense contractors have had a far more Dilbertian experience than I have programming in the purely private sector. If you think about the Manhattan Project or the space race, the engineers in question were more pure scientists-- even farther down the spectrum from the PHB stereotype than a typical engineer. And yet the bureaucrats and generals who commissioned their work didn't understand the science itself. As much of this became privatized, this division of labor continued.

This is mostly conjecture, but it sounds plausible to me.

And I suppose my mileage has varied from the typical programmer here, but I came fairly early in my career to not only believe that good management exists, but to value it. Perhaps it's because the manager in question was truly a foreman, by your definition, but he understood enough about the work itself to fight for the time and resources to do it properly, but to also keep the team grounded enough to actually *ship*. Maybe it makes me an odd duck, but I find the most satisfaction in finding the simplest solution to a problem-- and actually getting my work in front of users. I've always felt my fellow programmers if left to their own devices would rather write beautiful or clever code that impressed each other rather than shipping something real.

That's another reason I too feel little for Dilbert-- on one hand the strip seems to suggest that if only the world could be rid of PHBs, workers would magically organize themselves to... to do what exactly? Dilbert gives lip service to wanting to do useful work, but he rarely demostrates much love of craft, certainly not enough to pick up and move to a company where he could exercise it-- they do exist. I think it's in this fatalism where Adams shows his true colors: if Dilbert were a real engineer, he'd figure out that this is a problem to be solved and get himself out of the situation rather than suffer the PHBs idiocy merely to collect a paycheck.

John Cowan said...

Ez, I've been very fortunate in my managers too: almost all of them have been really good foremen, except for a brief period when I was working for a former co-worker who had been promoted -- exactly to his level of incompetence. Most of the rest were geeks somewhat older than me (I was born in 1958) who saw that the only way to stop the PHBs was to become bosses themselves, often at a very high price -- their job satisfaction.

The only time I had a non-tech boss, she was also excellent, because she knew what she didn't know, and she was willing to work hard to follow our geeky explanations and carefully distinguish them from the fine art of geek bull*@#$. The team had nothing but respect for her. Finally, senior management faced her with the "challenge" of cutting her already bare-bones staff of three by one; she chose to cut herself instead, and left the company!

Alon said...

At the same time, the rise of the MBA spread the meme among the suits that managing people was a learned profession like law or medicine or engineering, where you primarily apply what you have learned from books, courses, etc. to the requirements of the job.

I'm not trying to be pedantic, but the professionalisation of management predates the 1950s popularisation of the MBA by almost half a century. It was first widely established by the work of F. W. Taylor, although Henri Fayol had independently developed it in France and early assembly line advocates such as Ransom Olds had pretty much covered its basics already.

There are quite a few good points to be said for Taylorism, too: being a skilled factory worker teaches you little about logistics, budgeting or personnel recruitment, all important aspects of industrial management. However, there is little chance that actual production design and planning be successful without prior expertise in the specific field, which is probably the grounds for the repeated complaint.

I don't know whether this translates into product or process managers being more prototypically (in Elinor Rosch's sense of the word) clueless than those in finance or HR, though. Perhaps this is grounds for future research...