Joe Torre had an outstanding run as manager of the NY Yankees baseball team. While managing baseball seems pretty distant from managing software development, there are nonetheless a couple of important lessons to be learned. Put simply, baseball has it right and software has it wrong: if we chose software managers using the common-sense methods that are widely accepted in baseball, our software development track record would emerge from its current long, dismal, always-agonizing depression.
Maybe not everyone knows who Joe Torre is. Now retired, he was a baseball player and manager.
Joe Torre had an excellent career as a player, from 1960 to 1977. He was an all-star 9 times, was NL MVP once, and was the NL batting champion once. Unusually for a baseball player, he had extended playing time at multiple positions: catcher, first base and third base.
Players and Managers
Are most managers former players? Is Joe Torre the exception? Loads of baseball fans imagine they can do a better job than their home team manager. The owners have their own opinions on the subject. How hard can it be?
I looked into this question. There is a list of every baseball team manager from the start of the game. The list gives lots of information, including the manager’s history as a player (or not).
Here are the facts: as of today, there have been 686 managers of major league baseball teams, starting in 1871. Of those, 566 were former players, while 120 were never players. So the numbers show that the vast majority of managers have been former players. Just 17% of managers since 1871 were never players.
Is it just Sports?
My go-to example in music is, of course, Franz Liszt, who excelled as a performer, composer and conductor.
But he was hardly alone. The NY Times says
Times have not really changed. In Bach's day composers played their music at keyboards and conducted the instrumentalists about them. Beethoven conducted. So did Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler and Strauss. In our day composers are still conducting...
A pattern seems to be emerging here
Yes, it’s a pattern. Can you imagine a CFO who can’t add? A managing editor who not only can’t write, but can’t even read? How about a museum director who not only isn’t an artist, but can’t see?
Let’s apply the pattern to software!
"Well, software is just another thing that can be managed by good management techniques!"
"I don’t need to know the details – I manage for results!"
Can we talk about something else now please?
The best qualifications for managing software in general and programmers in particular has never been a hot topic. In spite of all the evidence of massive failure, I doubt it will become a hot topic any time soon. But it should be! Just think about the basics here: however peculiar you may think writers are, do you really think editors don’t need to be able to read and write themselves? You may think of accountants as people with thick glasses hunched over desks with green-shaded lights, but do you really think the CFO doesn’t need to be able to add? Programmers may be weird, but doesn’t similar thinking apply?
While 83% of baseball managers were players, 17% were not, among them some excellent managers. I'm not saying that only former programmers can manage programming efforts, and I know a couple truly excellent non-programmer managers. But in each case, they do interesting special things that are not widely understood that enable them to achieve excellent results.