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I am seeing a lot of programmers turning away from management and administration roles. They want to build stuff. And as a result, a lot of these positions are filled by non-technical people. I fail to see how they add value. Is scheduling meetings, booking offsites and other administrative work enough to justify their role?

Edit: Thanks for the wonderful answers. I do know that administration details are important, but that is why we have a dedicated HR team, recruiting teams and other teams dedicated to support developers. This is different from a non-technical manager being in a important position.

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What percentage of all software teams do you think could operate like that without egos and agendas getting in the way? –  Ozz Jul 26 '13 at 18:09
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From the Tao of Programming: A novice asked: "In the east there is a great tree-structure that men call 'Corporate Headquarters'. It is bloated out of shape with vice presidents and accountants. It issues a multitude of memos... How can such an unnatural entity be?" / The master replied: "You perceive this immense structure and are disturbed that it has no rational purpose... Do you not enjoy the untroubled ease of programming beneath its sheltering branches? Why are you bothered by its uselessness?" –  apsillers Jul 26 '13 at 19:58
    
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Rather recent writing by Rands revolves around some of these issues; I give it a seal of recommendation. (Not to mention he has a lot of other great writings on management, too!) –  koiyu Jul 31 '13 at 4:11
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6 Answers

up vote 102 down vote accepted

I fail to see how they currently add value and is scheduling meetings, booking offsites and other administration works enough for their role?

Don't underestimate the amount of interaction your manager does with other departments. They handle budgets, training plans, HR paperwork. They protect the developers from getting sucked into meetings with other departments and provide a unified front for your group.

In short, their job is to protect self-motivated developers from all of the other demotivating things that exist in business.

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And they'll do a much better job defending a salary/raise. –  JeffO Jul 26 '13 at 17:42
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Very +1. We occasionally get "leaks" through the system and a small idea of what our managers and especially our Product Owner go through. I do not want to deal with that daily. –  Izkata Jul 26 '13 at 18:42
    
I know these are important, but I don't get the relative importance in software development team and the value for these. –  Senthil Kumaran Jul 26 '13 at 18:55
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@SenthilKumaran As a developer, would you rather spend two hours with a manager from another department discussing why the software is not complete, or would you rather spend those two hours writing code? You know how difficult it is to explain technical issues to your manager. Imagine trying to explain it to someone who knows even less than your non-technical manager. The best non-technical managers prevent their developers from all the things that would waste the developers' time that is better spent coding and testing. –  David Navarre Jul 26 '13 at 19:41
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This over and over. Even for a technical manager, this is still the biggest part of their job. –  Earlz Jul 26 '13 at 20:51
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The best managers are magicians. They make the rest of the company disappear for their developers. I can't remember the exact quote from Joel but it was something to the effect that it's management's job to make sure there's a fat Internet Pipe, a beast of a machine, and lots of caffeine so all the developers have to worry about is what they do best.

A good manager is the voice of your group to the rest of the company.

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Joel quote probably adapted from here? –  MarkJ Jul 26 '13 at 20:42
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As it applies specifically to software development, there are two sorts of value-adding roles for managers: project management and team leading.

A project manager interfaces with clients and middle management, which is a time saver for the developers. Often there are clarifications or scope changes that come up in projects, and it is helpful to clients and middle manager to have a single point of contact. Trying to field questions from every member of a development team leads to unrecorded project decisions and undocumented commitments, the bane of scope management.

On the other side, a team leader is involved with career/skills development, making sure the workload is appropriately distributed among team members, and providing resources and rewards commensurate with the individual contributions and needs.

Neither of these roles requires a heads-down programmer, in fact somewhat the opposite. A programmer will often jump to a code-writing task as the first response to a question or crisis, and it's helpful to have someone whose job is to ask whether that task really needs to be done.

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Developers see trees. Their managers see the forest. –  David Navarre Jul 26 '13 at 19:43
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@DavidNavarre - IMO non-technical managers have trouble seeing anything... –  Vector Jul 27 '13 at 10:10
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@Vector: what you seems to be referring to is not non-technical managers, but incompetent managers. –  Lie Ryan Jul 27 '13 at 17:39
    
@Vector: It brings to mind Dilbert's PHB, but I don't think this is the same as a non-technical manager. –  hardmath Jul 27 '13 at 20:14
    
@hardmath - I understand :-) Your answer is really included in what the OP granted,as per the edit. The point I'm trying to make is that as far technical stuff is concerned, they need to butt out. I have some bitter experience in these matters... "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" - I'm sure you get my drift. See my answer. –  Vector Jul 27 '13 at 21:02
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Along with the other benefits mentioned, the non-technical manager may do a better job of making final decisions when there is an impasse amongst the experts. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but the good non-technical managers understand the strengths and weaknesses of their people.

Example: Two programmers debate over which server to use for an application. In some sort of make-believe democracy, they both get their one vote, so no decision is made. This war could go on forever (and with some technical people it will). Someone has to step in and arbitrate this disagreement and get the project going. A good judge will lean to the opinion of the one with the most expertise in this area.

Just because someone lacks talent, skill or knowledge in an area doesn't mean they can't identify those who do. Recognizing talent is a talent.

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Also, a non-technical manager is available to address the team's needs instead of writing code. –  JeffO Jul 26 '13 at 18:00
    
"and with some technical people it will" ?? "We are all adults here." –  Vector Jul 27 '13 at 10:06
    
"Along with the other benefits mentioned, the non-technical manager may do a better job of making final decisions when there is an impasse amongst the experts." Non-expert has the least amount of info about a specific topic. He can only take "sides" with one with the most expertise in this area (or choose a solution that he thinks it's best). But that doesn't mean his decision is right. Solution from a less experienced programmer can be better but the non-expert couldn't know that. joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/08/08.html –  Christian P Jul 29 '13 at 9:03
    
In such a situation, an often underestimated part of management is not always letting the best people get their own way. A good manager will read the situation well and will make a judgment that may not be technically correct, but will be politically correct. If the argument is not over something important, the manager may prefer the person who needs more encouragement or is being bullied by the other developers. It's a judgment call and a difficult one sometimes, but that's why they're paid the big bucks. –  Stephen Aug 2 '13 at 0:50
    
@Stephen agreed - good manager will know how to manage his people (e.g as you said giving encouragement to people etc.) But if we're speaking strictly about making (important) technical decisions manager has the least amount info about the problem and is probably wrong person to make that decision. –  Christian P Aug 2 '13 at 9:45
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Is scheduling meetings, booking offsites and other administrative work enough for their role?

Yes. Perfectly sufficient. They are also good for calling building management when there is a problem with heat, AC, etc; making sure vending machines and water coolers are well stocked and maintained; bringing in special goodies for noshing; keeping the office clean and orderly...

Do your best to think of other such tasks in order to keep them busy and out of trouble...

Their most important role? Staying out of the way and not mixing with programmers, and making sure that other non-technical people do the same.

Consider a development team like an MLB ballclub (the analogy is quite a good one IMO): The managers are always former players - only they know how to handle 'hands on management' of a team of highly skilled, nerdy, idiosyncratic, professionals, who do things that most 'regular people' cannot.

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In my experience non-technical manager are best suited for this role, besides adding value by avoiding company stuff interfering with developers work, they foment partnership between developers(cause it's well know that developers are introverts http://www.unwesen.de/2012/03/16/introversion-productivity-work-environments/), good ones let the team work at their rhythm but caring about visibility.

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Your answer would be stronger if you cited some external references or expanded upon your tenets. Stating cause it's well know[n] is a weak form of evidence. –  GlenH7 Aug 2 '13 at 3:27
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protected by ChrisF Dec 28 '13 at 17:36

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