I shall avoid naming names, but when I worked for Juniper we had a certain CEO who pumped us up as the next $10 billion company. It never happened, and he left and became the CEO of Starbucks. Starbucks has nothing to do with computer networking at all. Why was he hired by Starbucks? How did his (supposed) knowledge of technology translate into coffee?
Apparently it didn’t. Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ former CEO, is back at the helm. “I wasn’t here the last four years, but I’m here now,” he said, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (paywall). “I am not in business, as a shareholder of Starbucks, to make every single decision based on the stock price for the quarter…Those days, ladies and gentlemen, are over.” Which of course, implies that that was exactly what the previous CEO was doing.
What happened under the old CEO? “Workers noticed an increasing focus on speed metrics, including the average time to prepare an order, by store.” Ah, metrics, my old enemy. There’s a reason one of my favorite books is called The Tyranny of Metrics and why I wrote a TAC Tales piece just about the use of metrics in TAC. More on that in a bit.
As I look at what I refer to as “corporatism” and its effect on our industry, it often becomes apparent that the damage of this ethos extends beyond tech. The central tenet of corporatism, as I define it, is that organizations are best run by people who have no particular expertise other than management itself. That is, these individuals are trained and experienced in generic management principles, and this is what qualifies them to run businesses. The generic management skills are translate-able, meaning that if you become an expert in managing a company that makes paper clips, you can successfully use your management skills to run a company that makes, say, medical-device software. Or pharmaceuticals. Or airplanes. Or whatever. You are, after all, a manager, maybe even a leader, and you just know what to do without any deep expertise or hard-acquired industry-specific knowledge.
Those of us who spend years, even decades acquiring deep technical knowledge of our fields are, according to this ethos, the least qualified to manage and lead. That’s because we are stuck in our old ways of doing things, and therefore we don’t innovate, and we probably make things complex, using funny acronyms like EIGRP, OSPF, BGP, STP, MPLS, L2VNI, etc., to confuse the real leaders.
Corporatists simply love metrics. They may not understand, say, L2VNIs, but they look at graphs all day long. Everything has to be measured in their world, because once it’s measured it can be graphed, and once it’s graphed it’s simply a matter of making the line go the right direction. Anyone can do that!
Sadly, as Starbucks seems to be discovering, life is messier than a few graphs. Management by metric usually leads to unintended consequences, and frequently those who operate in such systems resort to metric-gaming. As I mentioned in the TAC Tale, measuring TAC agents on create-to-close numbers led to many engineers avoiding complex cases and sticking with RMAs to get their numbers looking good. Tony Hsieh at Zappos, whatever problems he may have had, was totally right when he had his customer service reps stay on the phone as long as needed with customers, hours if necessary, to resolve an issue with a $20 pair of shoes. That would never fly with the corporatists. But he understood that customer satisfaction would make or break his business, and it’s often hard to put a number on that.
Corporatism of various sorts has been present in every company I’ve worked for. The best, and most successful, leadership teams I’ve worked for have avoided it by employing leaders that grew up within the industry. This doesn’t make them immune from mistakes, of course, but it allows them to understand their customers, something corporatists have a hard time with.
Unfortunately, we work in an industry (like many) in which the stock value of companies is determined by an army of non-technical “analysts” who couldn’t configure a static route, let alone explain what one is. And yet somehow, their opinions on (e.g.) the router business move the industry. They of course adhere to the ethos of corporatism. And I’m sure they get paid better than I do.
Starbucks seems to be correcting a mistake by hiring back someone who actually knows their business. Would that all corporations learn from Starbucks’ mistake, and ensure their leaders know at least something about what they are leading.