A Tale of Priorities

I just read Benjamin Pollack’s latest article and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve read countless articles about the different profiles and motivations behind doers and managers and Benjamin hits it home in the way he portrays both sides. If you haven’t read the article, I urge you to do so now before continuing.

Team leads are different. Your job, should you accept it, is to become what I’ve lovingly dubbed Shit Umbrella. Your goal is to find all of the peripheral stuff involved in getting the product out the door—important stuff, such as making sure the delivery schedule for the new servers makes sense for when you want to ship the product that needs them, or taking customer calls at 11 PM on a Sunday because their account quit working and they want to know why they should keep paying you, or figuring out when doing features the sales and support teams want makes financial sense—and then coming back and presenting a focused direction to all the developers so that they can get the features written without worrying about how they actually ship. You switch from doing the building yourself to enabling others to build stuff on your behalf.

This is exactly what I found out to be my biggest problem; I’m wired to be a “Shit Umbrella”: I’m passionate about enabling other people to do a great job. I’m wired to find better solutions for the team, for being the human interface between mad customers and skilled developers, between clueless CEOs and creative designers. I love driving the vision from the top down, working “in the trenches” but with a focus on making sure the “trenches” are as functional as they can be. I’ll research and setup servers, email systems; I’ll program, sketch and brainstorm with designers, discuss and curate ideas with managers, drive home the vision; I’ll not have a fixed schedule, take calls at 11pm on a Sunday; I’ll bring the water and supplies down to the “trenches” and make sure every “soldier” is focused and perfectly capable to perform his/her task to the best of their abilities. That’s what motivates me. That’s what can consume my days without feeling like “work”.

The problem is that the flip side of Benjamin’s argument is also true: you don’t get to become a “Shit Umbrella” unless you’ve been a coder yourself. Trust me: I’ve tried. I can code and I can reason pretty darn well with other programmers. I understand programming and I love thinking through issues with other programmers, hacking things, find the most creative and effective solutions for the weirdest problems. I love sitting with designers, pitching a few sketches, letting them go crazy on what they do well and come back later and help them hone things down. I’m creative and full of ideas. I love thinking of ways to automate deployments and setups; streamlining a team’s workflow to the right balance between efficiency and engagement. But the reality is I’m no amazing programmer or designer. Reasoning, suggesting, researching and directing are very different skills from doing actual code or actual design. I’m tired of having to be a copy+paste coder or designer because I know what I want done but am not qualified to get it done myself. I can’t work alone either: I need a team around me that I can maximize and build great things. So why can’t I get to that position without first becoming an amazing coder/designer, and why should an amazing coder/designer be put in a place where they are less effective in the overall goal of building great products?

So, why can’t I do what I’m wired for and good at: a “Shit Umbrella”? Is this me just being presumptuous? Am I alone on this?

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