Authors and Directors

by Sam Bhagwat on March 12, 2014

Sam is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog at Moore’s Hand.

I grew up in Michigan, the older of two kids, but the second-oldest of all of my cousins. Every Thanksgiving we would drive to Cleveland for our family gathering, where I would hear about my older cousin Amruta’s exploits, and a couple years later, reproduce them.

She went to Penn; I went to Stanford. She spent a year living in India, I spent two. Post-graduation she started in management consulting; three years later, I followed suit.

Our paths led us both to San Francisco, but while Amruta got a J.D. and became a law associate, I quit my consulting job, taught myself to code, and became a programmer.

If you ask Amruta, she’ll say that the common thread of McKinsey and Big Law has been learning to operate in tough workplace environments. Her one-on-ones at McKinsey gave her detailed personality feedback; she was told point-blank to focus on her assertiveness.

Amruta was receiving training about how to effectively implement ideas in an organizational context — engaging with stakeholders, overcoming opposition, and so on.

My main job perk, on the other hand, is being able to sit on a couch all day and think. I give substantive status reports once or twice a week, as opposed to multiple times a day in consulting.

Amruta is a knowledge worker who primarily implements her ideas in an organizational context. I am a knowledge worker whose ideas primarily execute, and replicate, themselves in browsers and on servers.

We’ll call Amruta’s type Directors and my type Authors.

Winning friends and influencing people

Directors have ridden two organizational waves to prominence.

The first was the rise of their host environment, the corporation, in the 18th and 19th century. Before then, the only large organizations were the civil service and the military.

Second, in the 20th century, a battle broke out between specialists and generalists to control corporations. And the generalists won, over and over again.  Morgan bought out Carnegie in the ‘00s, the ‘50s marked the ascension of the Whiz Kids, the ‘80s saw the emergence of management consulting and private equity shops, firms premised on generalist ability.

Today emerging tech companies, generally in Silicon Valley, are one of the few areas where specialists retain the upper hand. (see Bezos, Jeff; Page, Larry; and Zuckerberg, Mark).

A recent flashpoint in this battle was the serious consideration of Ford CEO Alan Mulally to be the CEO of Microsoft.

To be effective, Mulally, as one person, would have to able to apply his influence effectively enough to improve the embedded culture and processes of a 200,000-person organization producing products unfamiliar to him.

To hire him, you would have to believe Microsoft’s products are relatively unimportant — widgets, as it were; but that the ability to “steer the ship” was crucial.

It is this system of beliefs that governs the education of Directors; it is a set of beliefs encapsulated in the pages of the HBR and the McKinsey Quarterly, and its successful disciples are able to pave a path through consulting and finance to the VP-level and the C-suite.

Are you in the game or not?

Directors’ aspirations impose several constraints. Two that stand out quickly are tightly regulated entry and a sharp inside/outside distinction.

Tightly regulated entry

There are self-taught programmers. There are no self-taught investment bankers.

Programmers can build ‘toy’ projects that use basically all the same tools and frameworks as they’d actually use in renumerative work.

Investment banking analysts might work in Excel/Powerpoint, but they operate in an organizational context with proprietary client data, client relationships, and firm-transmitted spreadsheet techniques and rigor. These are skills impossible to develop sitting in your living room.

Sharp inside/outside distinction

Another friend who left BCG and is teaching himself to program remarked on the difficulty of giving up his self-image as someone who is Running Things.

Because Directors are so organizationally focused, their boundary distinctions are far more defined by organizational needs than other professions.

Directors must be always in the game — holding a job of a certain type — or they are out of it.  Lifestyle decisions — a year sailing around the world; staying home while the kids are young — will be perceived as Resume Gaps to be explained.

Lean In, the how-to guide for budding Directors, puts it this way: “Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep your foot on the gas pedal.”

One review summarized this attitude succinctly: “Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

A broader view of ‘code’

The modern era has seen a rise of Authors along with Directors, albeit due to different technologies.

Consider Homer, author of the Odyssey and Iliad. He had the technology to spread his story (spoken language), but not to direct revenue back to him.

Authors need (1) an environment for their code to run in and (2) a link from their code to themselves — what we’ll call strong replication. Without strong replication (perhaps because the technology doesn’t exist), authors often switch from writing code to performing — becoming a bard.

I’m using the word ‘code’ here in a far broader sense than is typical. Programming code runs on browsers and servers, but there are lots of other things that ‘execute themselves’ that I will group under the rubric of ‘code’:

  • Printed music and books. These can continue to be printed and read indefinitely, by an almost indefinite number of people, without (in theory) the author’s further involvement. Enabling technology: the printing press, copyright law

  • Tim Ferriss’s Muse businesses. These are ongoing, profit-generating concerns, usually drop-shipping goods online, with operations totally outsourced to various customer support personnel. Enabling technology: Moore’s Law, the Internet, e-commerce.

  • Corporations with departed founder: Entrepreneurs who build a corporation until it doesn’t need their supervision, have now created an independent entity in which they own equity, eg, the right to future income streams.  Enabling technology: corporation law, financial markets.

Works that spread fame but not money to their author encapsulate a somewhat weaker link. Baroque musicians were unable to earn fees from the popularity of their music, but the best ones could parlay their fame into patronage or a court position.

In more modern times, we often see Authors supplementing income from low-CPM/low-margin viral content with high-margin in-person bard work.

Musicians go on tour.  Industry blogs hold “money-minting” conferences. And software product businesses upsell with add-on, high-margin consulting services.

The rise of Authors

Many Authors become free agents in the modern economy; others could if they wanted to.

Free agents, living on a constant stream of gigs and contracts, are often sentimental about the flexibility and autonomy their role affords them. One friend, a freelance science writer, laughs that at noon she’s always at home and usually in pajamas.

But it’s useful to think of why this is a difficult choice.  Free agents are typically companies in miniature; they have P&L statements and are responsible for the full stack of functions: marketing, sales, operations, R&D. This can be kind of painful.

Ronald Coase won a Nobel in economics for the observation that organizations are formed when intra-organization coordination costs are lower than external coordination costs. The corollary here is that as e-commerce cuts external coordination costs, that it decreases the need to be associated with a firm.

So in an environment where revenue is chunky and fixed overhead costs are high, individuals should group together into large organizations, ie, join a company.

But the concrete effect of the Internet and Moore’s Law has been to create an environment where revenue can dribble in increments of $8 CPMs or $100 sales, and server costs drop 100x in 10 years.

And now, instead of hunting big animals in groups, we can gather berries and nuts independently.

Organizations with more surface area

Reduced external coordination costs draw individuals out of large organizations to be free agents, but they also have implications for the structures they leave behind.

Increased necessity to interact with the environment is generally bad for the Fortune 500; the effect of the square-cube law is to decrease their surface area to volume ratio.

But even if the organization cannot readily change size, it can change shape — become more like a jellyfish or a sponge than a sphere.

The work practices of the ‘new economy’, even if not widely distributed, seem to reflect this:

Closer engagement with customers: One option, for large organizations, is replacing functional org structures (sales/marketing/R&D) with regional or business-unit org structures. Another for startups is what Steve Blank calls “getting out of the building” — figuring out what to build by relentlessly talking to customers.

Closer engagement with producer/business ecosystem: Serious hackathon contests, whether structured like Salesforce $1M prize or like Netflix’s $1M prize, necessitate making one’s data and functionality legible to and interactive with the outside world. App platforms and APIs (interfaces providing access to an application’s data) have similar effect.

More modular internal structures: Remote working means a decreased shared internal context, and greater likelihood for workers to look externally for best practices.

These organizational practices form a sort of environmental superstructure for individual Authors.

Continuing our marine analogy, we could say that these structures are like surfaces, and Authors and other free agents  are algae that grow on the surfaces.

If you can solve problems well on Kaggle, you can likely find consulting gigs. Given the Google Maps API, you can build something else on top of it. Get out of the building, and you can probably support yourself by meeting your customers’ needs.

The most important things need Director skills

So the new economy is shifting the Author / Director balance of power towards Authors; and Authors have some lifestyle benefits not available to Directors.

But I often wonder if my cousin Amruta gets something important that my fellow Authors and I are missing.

If you spend a lot of time listening to the phone calls of biz-dev guys, or the meetings of upper management, you tend to hear a rich vocabulary of intentions, feelings, and relationships. If you spend a lot of time listening to engineers’ standups, you tend to hear intricate descriptions of systems and their functionality.

The careers of Directors train them in ethos, logos, and pathos about equally; the careers of engineer Authors train them primarily in logos.

Let’s think about parenting, probably the most universal moral playing field out there. We’ll assume, reasonably, that the values transmitted in the workplace play a strong role in the values being transmitted in the home.

Good parenting involves ethos (“trust me”), pathos (“I know this is something you really want…”), and logos (“we do it this way because…”).

A parenting style that is overly logos-heavy, on the other hand, faces a couple drawbacks.

First, it is less cognizant of the power of example (that is related to ethos). Bad examples tend to create more deeply embedded problems than bad values, because children react more unconsciously to behavior patterns than to stated values.

Second, it has the potential to be, as Kevin Simler put it, overly prickly. This family of 12 children, governed by 28 explicit bullet-pointed paragraphs of rules, is an extreme example here.

Extending beyond parenting into the more general case, many of the same conclusions hold.

If I wish to influence others for good, using only logos will restrict my audience and cripple my influence. Charles Murray has noted that the college-educated meritocracy already has difficulty articulating its values to those outside its sphere.

As technical systems and frameworks become increasingly important, the need for Authors to build on top of them is paramount; yet I can’t help but feel a certain amount of sadness about the tradeoff.

Thanks to Venkatesh, Randy Lubin, Mike Travers, Kyle Mathews, and Kartik Agaram for reading over drafts of this essay.

Alan March 13, 2014 at 8:49 am

I’m an engineer (of sorts) in a 90 thousand employee multi-billion dollar privately owned company. To be hired by this company in any role from the factory to the IT department you have to pitch a business plan successfully to your interviewers. Start as you mean to go on because every day is an influence. In this 90 thousand employee organisation, there is only one successful company-wide system or process and that’s the one to manage people’s objectives and even that is often ignored. A sea of people, working for and against each other. Yet somehow it works and is competitive in the marketplace. Being able to do something is worth jack. Having done something is worth jack. It’s an Author’s nightmare but it provides a lot of resources to do cool stuff and it sure has trained me to think like a Director.

To observe the big fish in this sea is to see Constantine-like theatrical changes of mind, Bismark-like networks of stakeholders and factions go to smiling war with each other.

…and we’re hiring. :)

Venkat March 13, 2014 at 3:34 pm

One aspect of the distinction you didn’t get to is measurability. Not in an artificial metrics sense, but natural sense. Author work is by nature more measurable, while director work and director makework are often hard to tell apart.

One consequence of this that I’ve noticed is that authors are less sensitive to pay as a measure of status than directors, whether they operate in freelance or paycheck ways.

Fitz March 15, 2014 at 5:06 am

Or job title.

Authors don’t need any particular job title. Their body of work is what brings them recognition. To directors, job title is everything, more important even than pay, and much ethos/pathos is required just to sustain it.

Hal Morris March 15, 2014 at 5:42 am

Many jokes are made about herding cats, but on a serious note, do you get the impression your cat is herding you? I certainly do; if I am anywhere near the kitchen, he does a thing I would call “Managing by Getting In the Way”. Many human managers instinctively do the same thing, and I’m considering writing a book by that title. I would definitely categorize this as director behaviour, and generalist (despite the fact that in cats it is always exercised to the same end — they just happen to only have one end, but clearly its applications are more general than that — and I definitely can’t conceive of my cat as an author.

Comments on this entry are closed.