Software Engineers Doubt Competence Of Managers

Programmers don't much care for suits or incompetence, a study finds.
Software engineers hate dress codes and large corporations and believe their managers to be incompetent.

These are the general findings of Dariusz Jemielniak, associate professor of management of the Kozminski Business School in Warsaw, Poland, who concludes that "paradoxically, the rebellious role programmers play in many organizations may result from the strong expectations organizations explicitly present them with."

Between 2001 and 2006, Jemielniak interviewed and observed software developers at three Polish and two U.S. IT companies. He asked them about how they software perceived dress codes, their careers, organizations, and managers.

His 2007 paper detailing his observations, noted recently in the Annals of Improbable Research, reveals that software engineers don't like to wear suits.

Programmers, he says, believe their profession does not have a dress code. Out of 55 programmers interviewed at five different organizations, none wore a suit or tie, unlike salespeople and managers.

While those interviewed by Jemielniak rejected dress codes in general, they acknowledged the utility of formal dress when dealing with clients outside the company.

The prevailing attitude of software engineers toward dress codes is also reflected in their attitude toward managers. They are skeptical about the sincerity managerial rhetoric and organizational announcements.

"Software engineers criticized the highly political nature of organizational life and its irrationality, resulting from undue bureaucracy," Jemielniak says in his paper. "They also resented the fact that in many companies they have to engage in the game on managerial terms, so as not to be marginalized."

Mangers for software engineers are, more or less, the pointy haired boss depicted in the Dilbert comic strip.

"Software engineers question not only managerial competence in IT projects," Jemielniak says. "They also challenge managerial knowledge per se. People who pursue a career in management do so because they cannot do anything else."

Managerial ignorance of technical matters, software engineers believe, leads to unrealistic demands.

In attempting to explain this antipathy toward authority, Jemielniak offers several possibilities. It's partly the nature of the manager-worker relationship, he suggests. It may also reflect the tension between a profession that calls for creativity, intuition, and improvisation, which are at odds with conformist corporate norms. Software engineers also appear to value competence over professional status or age.

Another explanation may reside in managers' use of surveillance technology to monitor the output of software engineers. Jemielniak notes that in four of the five companies surveyed, programmers were subject to monitoring.

Faced with conflicting managerial mandates to think outside the box and write creative code and to produce code as if it were a commodity, Jemielniak concludes it's understandable that software engineers see managers as "lazy, stupid careerists."