Grey bar Blue bar
Share this:

Sun, 9 Mar 2008

Everything i needed to know about managing hackers, i learnt from my DVD collection..

Ok.. so the title clearly isnt true.. but it made more sense than saying something about the altered geographic location of someone's dairy products.

It is however true, that this particular blog rant is largely about the geek<-->suit relationship and thoughts that are brought to life with full surround sound while watching the movie Troy. (its ok if you are one of those highly cerebral types who look down with disdain on us humble movie watchers - u can think of this post in terms of "what we can learn about managing hackers from Homers Iliad") (5 minutes after meeting the guys who work for us, a very obvious question is: "how do u manage a team of such bright individuals? isnt it like herding cats?" - this is one of the how-to's (or how not to's))

If you have ever pondered managing geeks or hackers its important that you first read one of Paul grahams finest pieces: Great Hackers. Many of the Troy points actually have direct matches to much more eloquently phrased words from PG.

Graham states though, that if you are not a great hacker and plan to manage them.. you would probably be better of changing your plans.. im hoping to give some hope if you happen to fall into this category..


Early on (scene1) we see Achilles arrive late for his battle.. This obviously causes King Agamemnon some embarrassment, causing him to remark: Agamemnon: I should have you whipped for your impudence!

Achilles: Perhaps you should fight him.

{At this point Achilles turns to leave.. Agememnon's advisor pleads with Achilles, convincing him that fighting will save the lives of other soldiers.. Achilles fights, but first comments:

Achilles: Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn't that be a sight.}

This is pretty commonly seen in companies the world over.. At this point the balance of power sits pretty squarely on Achilles shoulders.. A single fight could win Agememnon this country.. Unfortunately Agememnons take on the situation is driven more by his wounded pride than the obvious maths of it. i.e. swallow pride a little, pay homage to the soldier and gain a country. Or let pride talk and lose many many times over. I suspect fundamentally that most rulers in Agememnons position dont realize when they are at positions like this and push on with personal ego agendas despite it being to their detriment..

[This is not all pro-hacker, anti-suit sentiment.. i suspect in my old age im kinda enough of both]

Another interesting interchange takes place when Agememnon decides to invade Troy:

-snip- Nestor: One more thing, we need Achilles and his Myrmidon.

Agamemnon: Achilles? He can't be controlled. He's as likely to fight us as the Trojans.

Nestor: We don't need to control him, we need to unleash him. That man was born to end lives.

Agamemnon: Yes, he's a gifted killer. But he threatens everything I've built. Before me, Greece was nothing. I brought all the Greek kingdoms together. I created a nation out of fire worshippers and snake eaters! I build the future Nestor, Me! achilles is the past. A man who fights for no flag. A man loyal to no country.

Nestor: How many battles have we won off the edge of his sword? This will be the greatest war the world has ever seen. We need the greatest warrior.

Agamemnon: There's only one man he'll listen to.


This is also a scene that plays itself out often in companies. We all know the type. The super geek / free electron who has pulled off countless saves for the company but is still somewhat of a pariah in management circles.

In truth though, Agememnons thinking is also true. i.e. He _did_ unify those nations.. He _did_ make one nation of them while Achilles was spending his time practicing at swordplay. Agememnon as king has to concern himself with making sure the subjects are fed, reasonable distribution of taxes, etc.. while Achilles can work on his spear thrust..

Many execs will tell you the same thing about their role in the eco-system.. but what they miss is that they do not need for this to be a zero sum game. i.e. Achilles does not want to be king, and he certainly doesnt want to concern himself with collecting taxes. He will gladly serve as a soldier to a king who proves himself worthy. This ties in pretty closely to Paul Grahams thoughts on your super hackers and remuneration:

"Economically, this is a fact of the greatest importance, because it means you don't have to pay great hackers anything like what they're worth. A great programmer might be ten or a hundred times as productive as an ordinary one, but he'll consider himself lucky to get paid three times as much." Agememnon makes a smart call though, essentially signing Achilles up by sending Odysseus to recruit him. The wisdom is simple. He knows that Achilles does not respect him, and uses a middle manager who _has_ earned his respect. You will find this no less effective in your companies..

Probably the most defining interchange for me however takes place in Agememnons tent, the night after the landing on the Trojan beach. Achilles and his soldiers streaked ahead into battle, leading the onslaught that took the Trojan beach.. A mini victory celebration is then held at Agememnons tent.. Achilles is invited, but clearly not impressed:



Achilles: Apparently you won some great victory.

Agamemnon: Ah, Perhaps you didn't notice. The Trojan beach belonged to Priam in the morning. It belongs to Agamemnon in the afternoon.

Achilles: You can have the beach. I didn't come here for sand.

Agamemnon: No. You came here because you want your name to last through the ages. A great victory was won today, but that victory is not yours. kings did not kneel to Achilles. Kings did not pay homage to Achilles.

Achilles: Perhaps the kings were too far behind to see, the soldiers won the battle.

Agamemnon: History remembers kings! Not soldiers! Tomorrow we'll batter down the gates of Troy! I'll build monuments to victory on every island of Greece. I'll carve "Agamemnon" in the stone.

Achilles: Be careful king of kings. First you need the victory.


Ahhh.. sadly for you (reader) this is the exchange that inspired this rant.. and it sparks of a zillion ideas for me of the knowledge worker samurai and his ruler..

Achilles quite clearly voices his intention.. he didnt come here for sand..

Many is the fine hacker you will find echoing the same sentiment.. "i just want to do great work.. u can drive the limo". (we do note however that it does begin with his clearly loaded "apparently u won...")

Agememnon on the other hand is forced to respond with pride once more. He desperately wants Achilles to pay homage / give him the respect he feels he deserves. He points out that all these kings just bowed before him (which is true) and he also right in pointing out that were it not for him assembling all these armies to attack Troy, Achilles probably wouldnt be here.. but.. by making it 0-sum he once again assumes that for him to get recognition he has to deny Achilles his.. This is his big mistake.. Its the 2 of them in a room.. He could simply say "man.. u rocked today.. we could never have taken this beach without u". Achilles (who is clearly vainer than most) would have loved it and would no doubt have fought hard in battle the next day, furthering both their goals..

It seems so obvious, because Achilles personal need/want (to prove himself elite) happens to tie so strongly to the need Agememnon has right now (a super elite army) that it seems completely foolish for Agememnon to react like he does.. but you see it happen this way in far too many companies.. All the manager at this point needs to do, is to step out of the way and let the engineer / programmer / x fight for perfection.. but the manager is overcome by the desire to stamp his authority.. to show that he is involved with bigger issues.. etc.. In the knowledge economy (imho) this is a mistake.. because although far less obvious than in the case of Troy, the nett effect is the same.. The soldier does not desire the managers place at the board table and does not necessarily care about the sand.. he wants to fight.. To this end im constantly surprised that more managers dont spend a lot more time protecting their guys from bureaucracy instead of wrapping them up in it..

This is one of the reasons startups that thrive manage to appear as if they have 3 times the workforce they actually do.. when everyone is working hard at working hard, instead of working hard at defending their positions or having meetings in tents to slap themselves on their collective backs.. great things happen..

{unless too many people tell me how much this sucks, ill be examining Alexander next... :>}