Just over a couple weeks ago on New Year’s Day, Techcrunch ran an article entitled “Everyone in Management Is a Programmer.”
Though I’m sure that the author, Adam Evans (co-founder and CTO of RelateIQ), had only the best intentions in trying to show programmers that any of them could cultivate the skills necessary to be effective managers, I think the way he’s attempting to go about illustrating his point is limiting when examined within the greater context of tech and business.
In targeting programmers and/or coders in the title of his article, Evans, whether he means to or not, excludes from his discussion those of us who might not have the technical abilities of programmers. While I agree with Evans’ attempt to encourage tech-savvy people to step out of their comfort zones and become successful managerial material, I disagree with his implied suggestion that one must have technical prowess to become a successful manager, and by extension, a founder, CEO, or any other executive within the tech field. The concept leaves out a whole slew of professionals within the tech space who do not consider themselves coders, but who still bring to the table skills that are just as important as programming knowledge.
I certainly understand Evans’ thought process and commend it: those who identify as programmers can certainly cultivate the skills to become effective managers and break out of their comfortable and familiar role as “the tech person.” But I think the ability to better oneself comes from drive and dedication derived from one’s inner character, not from the specific function which one performs at any particular time, whether it be coding or something else. While laudably encouraging programmers and coders to step outside of their comfort zone and become managers, Evans goes to the opposite extreme by suggesting that only programmers and coders can aspire to managerial positions.
It is teamwork that builds great companies. Great managers are those members of the team who lead others, who motivate the other team members and drive the enterprise forward. Yes, programmers and coders are important players on the team, but they are not the only players. Those involved in marketing, finance, public relations, design and layout, legal, and public speaking are also members of the team, and with the requisite leadership skills may realistically aspire to become great managers as well.
Perhaps one of the best recent examples of how the “coding persona” need not be the only one in a company’s top tiers is Ruben Harris’s article “Breaking Into Startups” which was posted a few days ago. The article received a lot of attention (and rightly so, in my opinion) as it describes Harris’s transition from a finance/banking background in Atlanta to a position at a tech startup in Silicon Valley. At this point, I’ve read Harris’s piece a few times already—it’s well-written and insightful, encouraging without becoming preachy. (Truly the mark of a great writer is when the reader of the piece feels as if the piece were written specifically for them). I think my personal most significant takeaway from the article is how Harris demonstrates that it was his desire and networking prowess (and the financial/marketing knowledge he knew he could bring to the table) that led to his successful introductions and subsequent job opportunities.
Evans’ thesis is flawed for a second reason; the belief that people can be programmed the same way as a computer code is flatly false. Concerning this thought process, firstly, no, they can’t—people are not computers precisely because they can be unpredictable and do not work within the same dynamics as a programmable machine and/or line of code. It is this unpredictability and ability for non-linear thinking that creates the very pool from which innovation and unique thoughts spring. To assume that this can be contained, measured, predicted, programmed—well it’s about as predictable as Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory-dinosaur point in Jurassic Park. 
Secondly, to attempt to “program” a person (whether that person is your customer, VC investor, employee, team member, etc.) does not reflect well on one as either a manager or a person. Rather than a productive quality, it more than likely comes across to other people as a need to resort to forms of manipulation in order to move one’s business ahead—not a realization I would want to have if I was an investor, employee, potential partner, etc.
Evans’ article takes a good step by encouraging programmers and coders to move into managerial positions. His appeal to coders I think carries with it a deep respect for those whose work he understands first-hand, and whom he seeks to benefit by sharing his own experience and knowledge. However, not everyone in management is a programmer, and people cannot be “programmed.” Successful managers—whether or not they are programmers—are those who find ways to motivate their peers (employees, teams, investors, customers, etc.) that come across as win-win situations, not as attempts at “programming” and predicting their actions in the future.
My respect to Evans for attempting to help his fellow programmers move out from their comfortable places behind the keyboard to take more active, managerial roles in their companies. I think his intentions will serve his team and company well. But I caution against alienating those who are not coders. Rule number one of any business: never seek to speak to one portion of your customers at the expense of alienating another. Those of us who are not coders are still here, and we are still integral in the equation. We build the same kinds of companies and assume the same levels of leadership; we just do it differently.
Thanks to Dad for reading early drafts of this essay.
 Dr. Ian Malcolm, the mathematician character in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1990), was a characteristic cynic, though no more so than when he scoffed at the idea that the park’s creator, John Hammond, thought he would be able to “control” nature. Malcolm demonstrated his cynicism mathematically through explanations of fractal design and chaos theory as they pertained to nature and the growth of life.
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