Eliminating Front-Line Technical Managers

Cory Foy posted a thought provoking comment to my post on Grooming Technical Managers:

One of the interesting discussions I had when I came on board at my current job was with the XP Coach. Part of bringing on XP at the company was that he convinced them to do away with the front-line technical managers. Everyone became a developer.

It’s an interesting study because there are two primary teams (of about 30 devs each). One of the teams embraced this (or embraces it now) while the other seems to fight it. And in that, it seems like the ones who embraced it – who traded management for self-managing teams, who traded assigned leaders for those who showed their strength for it in the group – are doing much better. In fact, they are coming off a 600 unit story that they completed the week they said at the onset being only 4% over budget. Not bad. 😉

I find the idea of doing away with my job fairly appealing. I love the idea and practice of self organizing teams. My personal goal both in consulting and as a development manager has been to bring the team up to a level where I was no longer needed.

I do have fears however that some stuff gets left behind by making everyone a developer. Most organizations just have a lot of administrative stuff that someone has to take care of to keep everything rolling along. And someone has to focus on things beyond the project at hand. In a team of developers who does one-on-ones, fills out the purchase orders for a new build box, or makes sure time sheets get signed off and approved.

The admin duties of a line manager can get absorbed in part by the team. Someone can take the task to run the purchase order through the procurement division and make sure it arrives. Tracking down time sheets can fall to the ScrumMaster. Reviews and feedback can come from other team members and mentoring relationships can be established while pairing.

And Cory’s point here is that your trading your assigned leaders “for those who showed their strength for it in the group.” Thus leaders are elected by the group and not chosen. I have a healthy ego, but if the group wanted to elect someone more qualified, I’d be pretty happy to have someone to use as a mentor.

At one startup in the past I experienced something like this process. The startup was opening a new office in Las Vegas of all places and I was brought in as the first web developer along with a senior Java programmer and one Microsoft programmer. I was never officially granted any management title, but I simply stepped up and took the reins. As I performed on projects and helped stabilize the web developers we were hiring, they just started referring to me as the lead/manager. As a nice bonus they started raising my salary without even telling me. I remember looking at my paycheck and noticing it had jumped three separate times in a single year. This was of course when you could barely type out some HTML and recruiters would throw crazy salaries at you.

Eliminating front-line technical managers can probably work, but within a corporate environment it’s going to be a tough sell. I know at my present company it would raise more than a few eyebrows if we attempted it, but given enough time and organizational change we can get there. But, darn as James Shore asks:

Is burnout inevitable for anyone attempting organizational change?