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Manage by Technology? Bad Idea.

Byline: Paul Rolich

Consider this real world scenario. Acme Inc. is converting a monolithic COBOL mainframe application to J2EE and Oracle. There are massive blocks of COBOL that need to be rewritten. The development strategy includes an on-shoring element. A number of contract employees are brought on board for the duration of the project. The programmers for hire are paid hourly and are expected to work 40-hour weeks with any overtime sanctioned by management.

Bob (a development manager) notices that some of the coders seem to be spending a lot of time getting coffee or going to the restroom. Some of them even appear to be daydreaming or doodling. Bob decides that in order to increase efficiency he is going to change the way they are paid.

Instead of punching in at the time clock like the other hourly employees they will be paid when they log onto to their workstations. The workstations will be modified to force a log out during any period of inactivity after one minute. At the end of each shift the workstation logs will be off-loaded and the log-in/log-out activity will be translated into key clock punches. Up to two five-minute "breaks" will be allowed for each developer per shift. So now Bob has solved the productivity problems he observed. Right?

Wrong. What Bob has done is use technology to try and do what he as a manager should be doing--and created a lot of unhappy developers in the process. I don't know about you but I don't like disgruntled developers working on my code. Managing people is an art and a skill. Managing developers is even harder.

It would make sense for Bob to create a report comparing keyboard time versus clock time and use that to help make management decisions. There are always going to be employees who work the system--clocking in, walking around, chatting whatever. Those employees are management opportunities. A good manager will either make that employee understand how to manage their time better or terminate them. Using a chain gang mentality by paying for an active keyboard is silly and counter-productive.

Additionally when Bob imposed the new pay rules on the project developers he created a new class of employee. There are many other types of hourly employees at Acme and their time is still recorded at the clock. Different rules for different employees in the same general class (exempt) are foolish.

Managing Developers

I used to manage teams of developers. They were all highly-skilled salaried employees. They weren't perfect employees. During periods without impending deadlines they tended to goof off a bit. But during major projects I could always count on the team to deliver on time, on budget, quality code. The firm I was working for at that time had salaried employees swipe cards when entering or leaving the property. The purpose was ostensibly to properly secure the building but the reality was that HR would spend hours scanning the badge scan logs. And I was always being called on the carpet. Mr. Rolich, are you aware that Bill didn't clock in at all yesterday, and that Jane never clocked out for lunch? Furthermore Jane was observed in the parking lot so I know she left the building.

Well, I knew that Bill had worked around the clock the day before finishing up a tricky bit of code so I told him to stay home, and I really didn't care that Jane "piggybacked" on someone else's badge swipe. I was managing my staff the way I knew would work. HR wanted me to manage by the clock. Managing by the clock would have meant missing deadlines. HR could never understand that because they had no deliverables.

Everyone who has spent a significant amount of time writing code knows that you can't just sit down at keyboard and start banging out quality code. The employee that Bob observed "doodling" could very well have been white-boarding a solution - but Bob never bothered to check. A good developer probably spends at least twice the time planning his solution than he does writing code.


There are things we can automate and there are things we can pseudo-automate. The owner of an independent drug store may walk his shop every morning to make sure product is stocked and that the property is clean and ready for business. Other days he may check that the fire extinguishers have current tags and that all the proper items are in the hazardous item spill kit.

Now. imagine the manager of a drugstore that is part of a national chain with hundreds or thousands of identical stores across the country. The manager undoubtedly has a standard checklist that he follows. A checklist developed over years of experience running identical drug stores.

Now imagine that Bob (you remember Bob) begins work at the chain of drug stores. He was at a store and noticed that the manager did not actually check the stock of paper towels in the women's lavatory. Bob decides he needs to automate the daily checklist. The store manager will no longer walk the store with the paper checklist--he will walk the store with a tablet computer and check off each item on the computer instead of the paper. Once again Bob has solved a problem with technology. Right?

Wrong again. The manager who manually checks all the ticks on the paper form will probably just check all the ticks on the electronic form. Some good things have been accomplished but the problem of the bad store manager has not been remedied. Bob did a good thing when he replaced paper with electrons--and he may have done another good thing because now we can save all those electronics ticks in a database and report on that. Reporting is nice for management but unless that reporting is meaningful it is useless. We need to instill integrity and a desire to do the right thing in our employees, not create reports that may or may not reflect the truth.

Good Fast Food?

We may not all admit to eating at McDonald's but if you have done much traveling with your family by car you have surely noticed how some MickeyD's are clean and pleasant and actually serve you a burger that looks something like the picture. There are others that make you swear to never frequent one again.

There is a fast food restaurant in the middle of Tennessee that just happens to be the only meal available for about 30 miles and which for some reason hits right at the peak of my hunger zone. Every time I stop I have a terrible experience and bad food. Now this could be a good use case for managing by technology: Disable my car from exiting the interstate at that bump in the road. I know that would improve my quality of life (but back to the "good" McDonald's.) We don't speculate that they must have some great computer systems in place at that location, we say, "This is a really well managed restaurant." And that is really the point--managers manage. Technology can assist the manager, but it can't replace her.

What the . . .?

Another outfit I worked for made some unique management decisions. In order to save on physical office space they set employees up with a home office and provided them the opportunity to actually travel to a corporate property and work in a hotel cube when they felt the need. In my experience there have been about five or six individuals that I really believed would consistently provide full days of useful work from home.

The rest of us may do well for a few days but then one day you look at the window and since it is such a nice day you decide to take the dogs for a walk. The next week you decide to hike over to the convenience store for a Slurpee. The next week you devote your entire Wednesday to re-mulching your flowerbeds. This work-from-home-friendly company used "technology" to ensure that all those people sitting around their home offices in pajamas were really working by insisting that they all log on to Sametime when they were working. What a great strategy! Not.

Someone forgot that you can log on Sametime and set yourself to "busy do not disturb" all day long and that you can answer emails from your Blackberry. There were legends born from that policy. Those of us who actually went into an office would speak in awed, hushed tones about employees who actually had "other" jobs they performed during their work from home hours.

As much as I have enjoyed working from home at different times in my career I think that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer got it right. Google gets it. They design their campuses and building so that their employees can easily collaborate and work together. Software engineers work best in small groups. And that doesn't mean work from home. Creative solutions require collaboration. Unless your job description is like Jabez Wilson's in the Red Headed League (copying the Encyclopedia Britannica), you probably need to work with others.


I was once a 21-year-old ensign on my first tour of duty in the Navy. I was assigned as the main propulsion assistant on an old destroyer escort. All the men assigned to me were boiler technicians in charge of the ships boilers. The boilers were ancient scary machines generating superheated steam for the ships propulsion systems and generators. It was hot, dirty, dangerous work. My men ranged in age from 17 to 35.

I could have stayed in the safety and cleanliness of officers' quarters and managed by checking the PMS reports. PMS (Planned Maintenance System) was a new system that the Navy was using to ensure that ships were properly maintained. The system consisted of page after page of checklists of things to be done. Today this system would use a computer form for the checklist; back then we used paper.

On the advice of an old (to me) chief petty officer, I put on my overalls and crawled down into the fire room with the guys. Side by side we went through these endless checklists. I soon learned (like they already had) that you couldn't run a boiler room by ticking off little squares on a sheet of paper. We never did complete all those PMS checklists, but I began to learn how to be a manager--not by forcing arbitrary rules around sailors but by learning what those guys really did to keep the ship running and helping them be successful. Their success was reflected in my success and the successful operation of the ship.

I am not saying I have all the answers but I know this one thing - you can't manage by technology. Managing is a people skill, not a computer skill.

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Publication:Property and Casualty 360
Date:Apr 11, 2013
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