Eliot's Ramblings

Debugging the Boss: Intro

Managing in a technology company is one of the charter topics of this blog. I cannot think of any single thing that represents a greater risk to a growing tech firm than the damage that can be done by bad management. A really bad employee can waste resources and time, and lower the morale of those around them; a really bad manager can do more serious harm, in a wider range, that lingers on even after they have been removed or corrected.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Of all the things that make people dislike their job, having a bad boss has got to be in the top two or three. By contrast, “extremely difficult working conditions” isn’t even on that list. Check out all the stories of New Yorkers getting work done under whatever conditions they could during and after Hurricane Sandy for proof of that. Of every single complaint you’ve heard about someone’s working environment, “My boss is an idiot” has got to be the one that makes them the most unhappy.

Because of this, and because MongoDB’s engineering team is growing so rapidly, I have been thinking a lot about management, and some of the traits you find in people that, when found in the extreme, make them bad managers. Recently, my thinking on this has crystallized into a framework that I’m calling “Debugging the Boss.”

It’s basically a field guide to identifying these traits in the wild, along with some advice as to how to cope with these types of managers, both for those who report to them, and for those to whom they report. I think that every boss embodies some of these traits, and having one doesn’t make you a bad boss. The key is making sure you moderate, so that a trait which is ordinarily positive does not become negative. For this reason, my field guide includes a section on what positive trait gone wrong requires debugging.

An example of this, which I will expand on when I post my first entry in this series, would be how a sense of responsibility can become “hyper-ownership”. With this trait, a manager prevents their team from being meaningfully connected to responsibility and decision making.

The Series So Far: