Management for Geeks

Are you a geek? A former programmer? Have you just recently started managing people? Me too! There’s nothing specific to game development about this, but the fast growth of the industry means there are inevitably quite a few people in this position.

Repeat after me: I truly suck

Let’s take a minute to get a bit of perspective on what this means, at least for me. I’ve been programming for about 20 years. I’d consider myself a pretty decent programmer, not at all in a smug way or as any kind of global comparison but more in horrified contrast to how much I used to suck, even very recently (in a year’s time I’ll look back and think how much I sucked in June 2008). The more I learn about programming, the more humble I become, the more aware of my limitations, the more aware of how much more there is to learn. Now switch to management. I’ve been managing people for about 2 to 3 years. The comparison hit me recently: in management terms, I’m a toddler!

A toddler

Of course as every parent knows, toddlers are pretty damn good at managing (their parents), using such classic techniques as unbelievably persistent nagging, whining, tantrums, and then turning on the charm just to confuse you. But more seriously, when I sit down to think just how inexperienced I am, it’s truly frightening. I’m probably about as bad at this as I was at writing code when I was 12.

Simple BASIC programme in spaghetti letters

Ok, maybe I was a bit better than that, but you get the idea. I must really, really suck. I’m going to look back at this time and cringe with embarrassment (and that’ll be good, because it means I’ll have improved).

So what can you do?

1. Don’t work part time

For me, moving to management was a gradual thing. First I “managed” a team of 3, including myself … which basically meant I was still a programmer, since the other two guys were low maintenance. As the team steadily grew in size, the management overhead grew, but it’s hard to give up that programming. It’s hard to give up in two ways:

  • As a matter of necessity – in my case, there were still bits of our codebase that only I understood, and I simply had to get involved with certain bug fixes.
  • As a matter of habit. At any point in time on a project, there are likely to be both people problems and code problems. As a geek, guess which one you’re going to turn your attention to in a pressure situation – an ill-defined fuzzy people problem that’s out of your comfort zone, or a bug that you know will yield to scrutiny?

You fix the necessity part by hiring, or teaching your developers what you know. This may take some time, but it’s fairly straightforward. The habit part can be tricky, but the good news is that you’re fully in control of this, and theoretically you could fix it overnight if you have good self-control.

Whether to reduce your programming time to absolute zero is a controversial topic. I won’t say too much because Michael Lopp has a fantastic post about this – suffice it to say that personally, I like to keep doing a bit; I think it helps me keep in touch technically with what’s going on in our project. But it has to come second, and fit around other things; it has to be a totally non-critical piece of work which won’t result in large amounts of code for me to maintain.

2. MFG to the rescue

Once you’ve got enough time to manage, you’re then left with an odd problem … what should you do with this time? How do you get better at management? This year, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a course called MFG: Management for Growth, run by Brian Glennie. I can’t speak highly enough of him or the course – it’s definitely set me on a new path of improvement, and I’ll talk more in future posts about what it’s done for me. If you’re based in Scotland, I highly recommend getting on this course – it really is excellent. If you’re not, maybe there’s something equivalent near you.

The good news is that there’s lots you can do without a course. For me, the biggest benefit of the MFG course has been outside the sessions, back at work. Learning all the theory in the world doesn’t make much difference unless you apply and practice it, so success is mostly in your hands. The course has just given me a little more focus to what I’m doing at work. I hope to write a little about the stuff I’ve done, and what I’m working on for the future, to give you an idea of what I mean.

Welcome to MFG: Management for Geeks🙂

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