Some of the best engineers would rather quit than be micromanaged

Saturday, November 20th, 2021

The Pragmatic Engineer (Gergely Orosz) looks at how Big Tech runs tech projects and ends with the following ideas as food for thought:

  • Iterative changes always work better than ‘big bang’ ones. A European tech company struggling with shipping very slowly hired a new VP of Engineering. This person decided to move the whole organization to a NoEstimates method in the first few months of their tenure. They organized a major event, hired a rock band, and unveiled the new way of working. The following weeks and months were chaos, and the organization reverted to doing what it did beforehand.
  • It’s more work to teach someone to fish, than it is to catch a fish for them. My approach to project management has been to coach and mentor members of my team to become project leads themselves. It was a lot more work upfront, but resulted in the team delivering more, people growing faster, getting promoted faster, and those people becoming engineering leaders faster than their peers. This approach was one of my best decisions in an empowered environment.
  • Directing, mentoring and coaching all have their uses. Directing – telling people exactly how to do something – is micromanaging when they can do it themselves. However, it’s a supportive activity when they can’t. Choose your approaches depending on whether you direct, mentor or coach and give space to people or teams, based on their capabilities as well. Over time, you should be doing little to no directing. But you might need to start with this.
  • The fewer people you need to make decisions, the faster you can make them. If an engineer only needs to talk to an engineer to decide, that decision will be faster than if the engineer needs to talk to their project manager, who talks to another project manager, who talks to an engineer, who talks to… you get it.
  • Optimizing for reporting is optimizing for a low-trust environment. Reporting at the executive levels is important. However, if you roll out project management methodologies that add heavy processes for the sake of reporting, then you’ll get more process, lower trust, and people gaming whatever reports you’re trying to produce.
  • Consultants will be biased to deliver easy-to-measure results because this is the simplest way to prove their value. If the easy-to-measure result is a good goal, this makes consultants a good investment. Just make sure it is a worthwhile goal, and directionally correct.
  • Learning from direct competitors is underrated. Understanding what a faster-moving competitor is doing – and experimenting with something similar – is a very smart one. Having a coffee with a peer at a competitor can be a great professional, and networking investment, not to mention one that may inspire you.
  • Some of the best engineers would rather quit than be micromanaged, especially when the job market is hot, and it’s so easy to switch jobs. A relevant quote from a response to my survey: “Recently, C-level executives have started to mandate the ways of working for all teams (everyone needs to follow the same methodology). It resulted in a lot of engineers leaving.”


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Optimizing for a low-trust environment is optimizing for reality.

    Trust is for chumps.

  2. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    A lot of C level guys prefer to get rid of the best engineers. All projects in most companies can be completed perfectly well by the second rate guys who like being micromanaged, and they’re less trouble. Personally I don’t work at places like that, but the world is full of guys who love it. That’s where you’ll find most of the female devs.

    @Harry Jones

    Low trust people see it that way. In 25 years as a professional software developer, the great majority of the peers I’ve worked with were high trust people. The few guys I’ve known who took your attitude were consistently destructive and not notably successful. One was legendary as the most hated and least competent manager in a 500-head company — one that had proverbially dysfunctional management.

    How successful are you?

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Wilbur, I was raised to be high trust but learned to be low trust. Trust is for chumps.

    Everyone I’ve known who took your attitude got shivved in the back sooner or later… including me, before I wised up.

    I used to work with – and under- high trust people. Then came the merger. Half got fired. The other half saw the writing on the wall and quit. For your sake I hope you’re not so high trust that you don’t bail out in time. Organizational loyalty is also for chumps.

    I learned to be quick to bail after a management shakeup. Then I learned to bail just before the shakeup. Then I learned not to be W-2 in the first place.

    Also, I question your understanding of causality. I know something about proverbially dysfunctional management from the engineer’s point of view. The fish rots from the head. That’s all you need to know.

    I don’t manage people, and I don’t let people manage me. The best people are independent agents, because we realize that the executive-manager-worker dynamic is inherently toxic and will always go bad. It’s toxic because it’s all about inequality. If you’re W-2, you’re a serf. That includes managers. Middle management is just a higher grade of serf.

    It’s all about the BATNA. If you can’t walk off the plantation, you’re not free. Never work with people who won’t negotiate. They think they own you. If you work for them, you’ll prove them right. Never be dependent for all your income on one guy. Even if he’s a sweetheart. Because he’s liable to get fired. And the new guy will be a dick.

    Where will that leave you? When the guy you thought had your back has himself been betrayed, your trust in trust will not save you.

  4. Jim says:

    Harry Jones raises some interesting and valid points, but I think he may not be relaying the full picture.

    It seems to me that the business of business is inherently high-trust. The business of labor can also be high-trust, which may be but isn’t necessarily in the interest of the business of business.

    Consider the basic selective mechanism in each: in the world of business, you relate to the world as a person who knows people who know you and others, whereas in the world of labor, you relate to the world as a resume that needs to be background-checked.

    Learning not “be W-2” is a good start, for tax purposes, because it gets you out of the employee (fungible dependent) mode, and because only a W-2 can be truly FIRED, but you’ll notice that the thing most opposite to being fired is to fire, which implies that if you keep moving along Harry Jones’s path eventually you’ll reach the point that you form an LLC and start hiring people.

    Trust isn’t a bad thing. You can’t live without trust, you shouldn’t try to, and if you do you’ll end up bitter and alone. You just have to be careful about not giving your trust to untrustworthy people, like employees.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Jim, I considered the LLC route and rejected it as not worth it all. I have enough imagination to see that the manager-worker relationship is toxic for both sides. Inequality is baked into the universe, but unequal relationships are not. Freedom is what makes it all work. Freedom finds a way.

    Living without trust is scary at first, but once you get the hang of it… the key is to have a backup plan for everything. Have your own back.

    “There is something about the big corporation that attracts or creates dependent people.”- John Cowan, Small Decencies

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Is this thing on?

    Something here is eating my post… which illustrates my point.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    OK, try it this way.

    1. No LLC. The manager-worker relationship is toxic for both sides.

  8. Harry Jones says:

    2 Trust is NOT necessary. Having backup plans is a superior substitute, in my experience.

  9. David Foster says:

    I’ll just note that plenty of people other than engineers prefer to not be micromanaged….most good salesmen, for example. Indeed, most really good people (in the sense of being creative and ambitious and having initiative) would prefer to avoid micromanagement.

  10. Jim says:

    Okay, but the point of forming an LLC isn’t that you’re a manager or an employee, but that you’re the owner. Why would you want to do the managing? How silly! You want to do the receipt of dividends. That’s capitalism, baby.

    As for trust, of course it’s necessary. Nothing meaningful can be done without it. You must have it to successfully operate beyond your own individual horizons. Anything else is just a joke.

    That means doing things that cultivate trust, like mutual reciprocity with your business partners and checking references of your employees.

    Respectfully, the humble LLC, the bedrock of modern American capitalism, is unworthy of your scorn. For less than $500 a year you can have a perfectly subservient person who exerts your will on the world in its own name. For $2000 you can arrange to have a handful of LLC held by a trust and no personal assets.

    Most importantly, if you have an opinion about how engineers should be hired and managed, step into the breach yourself. Pay them one half-mil and let them shave yaks. After all, they deserve it.

  11. Harry Jones says:

    If it pays the bills without stressing me out, it’s no joke.

    I’ve seen rich, unhappy people. I’ve seen poor, unhappy people. I want to be happy people, so neither of those options for me.

    I hate managing others. I hate being managed. I love managing myself, and I don’t mind being managed by myself.

  12. Jim says:

    But have you tried absentee ownership?

  13. Harry Jones says:

    Absentee does not appeal to me. I like to be in the loop and see what’s going on and be in a position to nip problems in the bud.

    I once owned a property hundreds of miles from where I lived. I didn’t sleep easy.

    Things are to be owned, possessed and managed. People are to be negotiated with. If they won’t negotiate, blow them off. Never let anybody treat you like a thing.

  14. Jim says:

    The entire point, literally the entire point, of capitalism is to ensure that you don’t need to be in the loop. The apotheosis of this is public equities, but it applies to private SMB also. Sure, if you have no money you’ll need to be the CEO for a while. That’s fine. You’ll exit the company in a year or three and you’ll need to hire a new CEO. Do you negotiate with the CEO? You sure do. Then he gets inserted in the loop and you get popped out almost entirely. How entirely? The two of you talk on the phone twice a week and at the end of the quarter he drafts some statements and flies out to your tropical coconut island beach house or windswept ski mountain town lodge to meet up and hang out.

    If he performs well, you pad his comp generously in enticing and clever ways. Never with equity, unless you’re retarded.

    Most importantly, you’re not doing any negotiating with anyone else. Your friendly aw-shucks CEO is handling all day-to-day operations, including negotiations. He’s negotiating with suppliers and service providers and whoever else.

    But your question seems to be, will he negotiate with engineers or anyone hired through HR?

    Lol. That never happens.

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