The titans of industry that founded the modern age didn’t just sit around sending each other emails (we called them Memos then), but they did stuff. This didn’t often merely involve talking loudly and waving their hands about, but really doing things. I’m a keen local historian and have read through many accounts, and even published a book, on what they did and how they did it.
It was considered essential for any entrepreneurial manufacturer to understand the entire process: not just intellectually, but to do it. A manager, especially one with ambition, had a long apprenticeship that involved working on the shop floor at every process, and learning the skills of the machinist, draftsman, clerk, warehouseman and so on. Typical of this is an account by a foreman, on the work of the managing director of the company. What impressed him was that the MD knew how to work every machine in the process, and what every job entailed. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the product. He knew every employee and a great deal of their circumstances, aspirations, talents and interests. He didn’t spend all his time doing it, of course, but he knew how to, and kept up-to-date.
It isn’t always quite like that now, is it? Sometimes, it can be, in the giddy, heady days of a successful startup, but not generally. In the past, I worked in IT departments where the senior management were accountants with about as much knowledge of the software development and maintenance process, or of IT Support, as my pet ferret. Such was their impressive understanding of ‘Business’ issues, I was told, that their ignorance of the specific work of the department was irrelevant. .
Technologists, particularly in engineering, science, and manufacturing, have proven in the past that they can be very successful senior managers, but it doesn’t always work out so well. To manage any technology company successfully, particularly IT, requires more than just knowledge of the technology. Too many technologists develop ‘blind spots’ due to their interests and special knowledge, which can lead a company down an ever-narrowing path. In cases where technologists fail to keep up with advances in the technology, it can have a knock-on effect, leading to a retro style for the output of the organization. Technologists also occasionally lack ‘people skills’.
The real lessons from history can be more subtle: the successful IT entrepreneur who goes on to lead a company often does so by balancing visionary, creative skills with people skills and experience of a wide range of technical skills. They achieve this mix not through meetings and emails, but by actually ‘doing stuff”. However, it is impossible to achieve this mix without a single supreme skill, being able to spot talented staff and delegate to them. How can one achieve this? Paradoxically, it is by having that deep understanding of all the procedures, processes, pain-points and stresses within the enterprise. How do you get all that? By doing stuff.
For some further reading here are some biographies (and links) of technologists who became successful entrepreneurs as well without ever losing their zest for the technology. I expect you could add many other examples
- The Devil’s Device: Robert Whitehead and the History of the Torpedo by Edwyn Gray (Feb 1992)
- Harry Ferguson: Inventor and Pioneer by Colin Fraser
- Sir William Stanier: A New Biography by John E. Chackesfield
- Sky Fever: The Autobiography of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland
- Sir Nigel Gresley: The Engineer and His Family by Geoffrey Hughes
- James Smith McDonnell
- Pure Luck: The Authorised Biography of Sir Thomas Sopwith by Alan E. Bramson
- Henry Ford: My Life and Work