Business is booming.

Elon Musk Got One Thing Right During His Twitter Takeover: Managers Should Do Work


Elon Musk is not a good boss. His wild demands and questionable managerial practices have shown him to be a capricious, unreliable leader of employees. But amid all the abusive micromanaging and Stone Age mandates during his time as CEO of Twitter, he did make one valuable statement about managing that I think is worthwhile for other, nonchaotic bosses to consider.

In an email sent just before Thanksgiving, Musk told employees that “all managers are expected to write a meaningful amount of software themselves” and equated one’s inability to code as an engineering manager to not being able to ride a horse as a cavalry captain. Musk’s point is salient, and one I’ve made before: Managers need to be able to do the same work as those they are managing.

Managers have become alarmingly distanced from the average worker, making calls based on guesses that aren’t informed by actual labor. This frustrating separation has poisoned most of modern management, creating a class system within organizations where a bloated sect of detached traffic cops extract labor without participating in or properly valuing it.

While Musk’s edict has a ring of truth to it, his idea of what constitutes a manager’s contribution to the company’s end product is wildly off base, and, of course, there’s the problem of the messenger himself: a preeminent example of the out-of-touch boss who demands exorbitant dedication from employees, while providing little value himself. But despite the problems with both the messenger and the message, there’s a gem of valuable insight to be mined here. 

The right message

There is a rot at the core of today’s management culture: Managers have stopped doing actual work — the kind of labor required to create an end product that earns a company money. Instead of being in a position where respect is earned through execution and actual labor, managers have become figureheads rather than executors, mired in endless busywork that a cottage industry of “advisors” claims is necessary to prove their value. The job of a manager has increasingly become “quarterback that only calls audibles.”

This is why Musk is somewhat correct: A manager should be an active participant in the process that they’re managing, and have a full understanding of the work that is being created. A person who manages coders should be able to contribute to and review that code, just as a person who manages cooks should be able to prepare the food alongside them. A truly “useful” manager is someone operating on practical experience — making calls for the larger organization from a place of respect for both the laborers and the labor they are creating. This sort of practical knowledge engenders goodwill between employee and manager, creating a culture of mutual respect that can increase communication and facilitate better performance.

Balancing management ability and technical expertise is an active debate in the software industry, where, depending on whom you ask, an engineering manager’s interest or ability to code is dependent on whether the team is able to operate without them. Scott Berkun, the author of “Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management,” told SD Times he believed the two disciplines were somewhat oppositional: “Coding requires intense uninterrupted concentration, while management requires dealing with constant interruptions and context switching.”

“Being able to do both is not something that a lot of people can do in practice.”

Berkun isn’t wrong — the incredible focus and discipline one must have to constantly write, test, and execute code in production are very different attributes to those of a manager. And just because someone is a high-performing employee doesn’t mean they can or should become a manager. Being in charge of employees is a unique skill that requires its own form of training and knowledge. Switching between producing valuable work for the company and leading a team of employees is not for everyone. As I’ve suggested before, the ratio of managers to the people they manage should be much larger if the manager isn’t doing the actual labor — but even then, the lack of practical experience will make it harder for them to be effective. But because the managerial class has become the only avenue for real advancement at many companies, many organizations end up with a jumble of disconnected or micromanaging bosses who aren’t right for the job. 

Asking managers to do a bit of work just to “prove” themselves would be busywork by another name. What I’m saying is that great managers need to be a part of the process. It is critical that managers understand and respect the labor of those they manage to have the empathy necessary to both make the right calls and create conditions for their employees’ success.

The wrong messenger

The irony of Musk’s call for managers to be more involved in the work of their teams is that Musk himself is the exact kind of manager he claims to loathe — disconnected from the process, exterior to the company’s culture, and clearly confused about how his own product works. Musk has demanded that managers are able to create “good code” yet does not appear to be much of a coder himself. Jackson Palmer, a cocreator of dogecoin, said Musk was a “grifter” who “had trouble running basic code” in their interactions. Musk has obsessed over reviewing code, asking workers for “up to 10 screenshots of their most salient lines of code,” which developers who reached out to me equated to “an aerospace engineer being asked for their most important airplane parts” or “asking a car mechanic to show you their 10 best screws.” While Musk may claim to want Twitter to be “lean” and “efficient,” he is directly bogging down his valuable engineering teams by asking them to prove themselves using component elements that make no sense, an incredibly wasteful thing to do to teams that are already stretched to the limit.

And it’s not just his bizarre requests for code that have exposed Musk as a miserable boss: By attempting to prove he knows how to “fix” Twitter, he has managed to commit almost every sin a manager can. He has isolated himself, fired many longtime members of the company, and surrounded himself with sycophants and family members with no real knowledge of the company. He’s targeted critical teams at Twitter and pushed others to quit, which have resulted in a huge upswing in hate speech on the platform. He has failed to show any respect for his workers and has fired employees who critique his slash-and-burn approach. When Musk took over Twitter, he declared all employees would have to submit to an “extremely hardcore” culture that included “working long hours at high intensity,” adding: “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.” Following this threatening bloviating, Musk laid off thousands of people days before Thanksgiving in an attempt to instill fear and order in anyone “lucky” enough to still work at the company. He has instituted “code reviews” that last until the early hours of the morning. And he has forced Twitter workers to put in unreasonable and abusive hours at the company, to the point that Musk has (potentially illegally) turned several rooms in Twitter’s headquarters into bedrooms. He’s using one of the oldest (and worst) forms of management: indicating beatings will continue until morale improves and that the best work is obtained from overt intimidation of workers.

But setting aside, if you can, Musk’s decisions to make the platform he bought more noxious and dangerous, these moves prove he doesn’t understand what produces good work. He is pushing long, grueling hours, despite the massive amounts of evidence that this process grinds workers down and produces inferior labor. Musk, who is supposedly someone obsessed with “productivity,” seemingly has no interest in the evidence that working more than 40 hours a week detracts from people’s ability to perform — he just wants more hours and more work from fewer people so that he can save money and pay off Twitter’s swelling debt.

Instead of instilling a culture of trust that allows employees to manage their own schedule in order to produce the best product they can, Musk has become the poster boy for a new guard of anti-remote-work culture warriors who believe “entitled” workers have had it too easy and that the office is the only way to make sure they’re “putting in the time,” despite the evidence that many workers are more productive from home. Of course, these notions are usually pushed by extremely well-off executives who feel they’re losing control of their company, largely in part because they never really understood or participated in the labor that enriched them. Their only means for evaluating the quality of the work that employees are putting in is the time spent on completing tasks — the product must be better if it took more time and visible effort to produce. But this myopic focus on hours spent ignores that time is only one input to produce something valuable. Workers are independent creatures that use their skills to create something, and evaluating the end product itself, rather than the time it took to create, is the sign of a good manager or executive.

Musk was right that managers should produce value for their company, but what’s most galling about that message coming from Musk is that it is not obvious what he contributes to the companies he runs. In fact, if anything, Musk has been a clear liability to Twitter — the company’s ad revenue has dropped 15% year over year in the Middle East and Africa, weekly bookings are down 49%, and 50 of its top 100 advertisers have departed from the platform since Musk took over. He is being sued for what one former Twitter engineer called his “clumsy and inhumane” layoffs, and his poorly planned launch of a subscription service for verification on Twitter led to several brands getting humiliated at the hands of the world’s finest posters. And as Musk continues to demand more from his workers, we’ll see his executive vision continue to falter, because he fundamentally doesn’t respect the people who keep his companies alive. 

This is the ironic thing about Musk’s insight about managers. In some sense, he understands that status and pecking order do not determine a person’s value to the company. He clearly knows that a good manager is one who has empathy for their employees and is not only willing to get into the trenches with workers but also actively does so. But he lacks the self-reflection to recognize his own shortcomings in this regard. It’s genuinely rare to get such insight into an executive’s ability to run and manage a company, and Musk has proved that being rich and successful does not mean you’re good at being a leader. In fact, by his own logic of how managers can contribute to the company, Musk should be summarily firing himself any day now.


Ed Zitron is the CEO of EZPR, a national tech and business public-relations agency. He is also the author of the tech and culture newsletter Where’s Your Ed At.





Source link

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.