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January 2011
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2011-01-09 »

Notes on "The Yishan Tenets of Engineering Management"

Yishan Wong from Facebook posted about some of his most important ideas on Engineering Management.

I largely agree with his ideas, although there were a few things I obviously haven't thought enough about. I selfishly enjoy that kind of article, because it makes me feel simultaneously like I'm smart and like I'm learning something.

For example, on hiring managers:

    ...the primary source of experienced managers is larger companies. Small companies cannot produce many managers (there just aren't enough people to manage, or if there are, it becomes a large company), so the vast majority of managers come from large companies. There is a low probability that external managers will understand, preserve, and strengthen the internal culture. They will tend to bring their own outside culture, which is typically that of the larger company. This is the single greatest potential force that can slow down your internal operations, usually by introducing process and methodology significantly before it is optimal to do so (the reason is usually "preparing the organization to scale").

I found that quote really striking because I have literally heard and accepted (and to my regret, even repeated) the "preparing the organization to scale" claim many times. Anything justified by this claim really has always been a cause of failure rather than success, but I hadn't noticed the correlation until he pointed it out.

(Ironically, I've reached the point in my career where various people who want to hire me think I should parachute in to be a manager for their engineering groups. Ouch.)

Relatedly, he has some specific comments on "process" as used in growing companies:

    At Facebook, there was a cultural resistance to process, to the point where the pattern around introducing process typically went "new process is reluctantly introduced only right before the point where things tip into chaos." Push this point as far as humanly possible, and then some, because what you receive in return is high organizational speed. If your organization has less process than another one of equivalent size, you will innovate and execute faster, taking ideas from conception to market more rapidly.

I have always hoped that the above is true, but never been able to prove it. I've certainly noticed a correlation between "high process" and "slow," but correlation doesn't imply causality, and slower isn't always worse... right? At least this provides one more vote for my preferred viewpoint, which is that if you have the right kind of culture, your company doesn't need as much "process" as you think you do.

Of course, I don't know much about the inner workings of the Facebook team; I don't even use Facebook. (Yeah, I know, I'm a luddite.) Based on my prejudices, running a company "that works like Facebook" - for example, in terms of revenue model and ethics - is not very high on my priority list. But oh well, I'll take wisdom where it comes.

Though in fairness, I now have to note that this creates (or maybe strengthens) a correlation between wisdom I like and companies I don't.

Finally, here's a quote that really got me thinking:

    Managers may need to psychologically contend with more chaos than they are comfortable with, but there is a huge difference between chaos that makes one uncomfortable and chaos that actually threatens the business.

I have observed that different people have different levels of tolerance for chaos. But I'd never considered that even when someone doesn't like chaos, their company might be more productive by taking on the chaos anyhow.

That idea isn't obvious, but think of the consequences! A group of excellent people successfully doing what they're good at, in a well-oiled smooth-running company that doesn't make mistakes, can still be outcompeted by a bunch of goofballs who are literally screwing up a hundred times a day. All because the latter people can work with chaos - even when they don't like it.

(Read Yishan's whole article)

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