"There it is."

"I am not a good manager."

I say this to people often, and most of them think I am joking because... well, because people don't say things like that about themselves if they're true and also, I have cultivated some skill in building strong teams that accomplish what they are asked to do. [1].

But I am serious when I say that. for three reasons:

  1. I really have to work hard to do the organizational parts of a manager's job (the reports, the budgeting, the note taking, the meetings, the scheduling, the selling of initiatives, etc)... and I don't enjoy any of it.
  2. I don't do well at optimizing for efficiency.
  3. I don't have much use for roles, particularly ones that tend to specialize activities and artificially segment the work needed to solve the problem (and the skill set of those seeking to do so).

Like most programmers, I suck at estimates, I am motivated first by a need to solve interesting problems, and only secondarily at reaping the benefits of doing so, and I have zero desire to "be in charge of others." I also hate process for process sake and generally piss off any project managers foolish enough to work with me (though I am good friends with several).

So, how do I build teams and software? By treating efficiency - and even the primary goal of the team - as a secondary effect, and optimizing instead for... for what?

Well, until recently I had been (in my head, because I didn't feel too comfortable saying this out loud) using the word: "happiness." Of the members of the team, of my boss, my employer, our customers and (importantly, but until recently neglectedly) me. Make all of these folks happy, and everything just works.

Uncomfortable because this is a tough sell to accounting-type folks - and anyone who prepares budgets. "Naive", "Crazy" and "Ridiculous" are what I expect to hear. And the reason I expect to hear it is because it seems really risky - even terrifying - to them when I say anything that implies I'm not thinking about cost and value and ROI, and all those other business terms.

But I am. I'm thinking about them all the time. I just don't agree with them on how to optimize them.

Also, "happiness" is not quite right: some people are quite happy to do nothing, others are only happy when they are padding their egos at the expense of others, and a whole lot of other types of "happiness" that I don't optimize for. No, it's a specific kind of happiness - especially inside the team - that I am trying to maximize. Joy of doing one's best, professionalism, craftsmanship, cultivating flow, the need for slack. All dancing around it. All not quite it...

I recently mentioned here (and on twitter and facebook) that I'm re-reading Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. And it's blowing me away. Again. I read it a really long time ago - so long ago, that I had forgotten all of the details and only remembered: "That book really moved me and shaped my thinking."

What's been blowing me away is realizing how much it has done that. And so, I've been expecting for days now to find in it somewhere something that supported my view since Pirsig's focus on Quality and Care (not to mention technology) are very similar to my feelings of "optimize for happiness." But it still hadn't felt quite right yet...

...until, today. And I found it: The Greek word: Aretê (translated as "virtue" or "excellence") is a central part of any course on Greek philosophy and I had several classes in college where it was discussed. I was waiting for it to come up in the book (it doesn't until chapter 29) and when it did, I realized I was getting closer. Then, this quote:

"Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency - or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself." ~ Pirsig, Robert M. (2009-04-10). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 360). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And like a key fitting a lock, there it was: I believe that teams (organizations!) should be optimized for Aretê; that teams should be staffed with those who - like Hector the tragic hero of ancient Troy - seek excellence (in their work and in achieving the team's goals) for it's own sake and are not happy unless they are free to pursue it; and finally that the team's success (which will still be a function of external perception of value) will be a natural outgrowth of this process and any attempts to shortcut it (e.g. in the name of efficiency) will actually serve to reduce the team's effectiveness.

With this compass in hand, I can see now that what at times appeared to be random objections to process changes and my novel (some would say crazy) alternatives and experiments over the years have really been about trying to keep everyone focused on maximizing the ability to pursue excellence.

So, now I'm saying it: If you want to build great teams who reliably ship results: Don't optimize for efficiency, optimize for the pursuit of Aretê.

[1] Those who've worked with me on those teams can attest, I've done so by getting the team building part - and my role in it - wrong a lot, but learning from it.