The Kirk-Scotty relationship

I don’t get all of my personal philosophy from Star Trek. Really. But I’m morbidly fascinated by what happens in an engineering-focused company when a technical person reports to a non-technical one, and I can’t think of a better metaphor.

Although it’s gotta be there in some form, sometimes this interface is kind of diffused through the hierarchy — a technical individual reports to someone who had his job last year, who in turn reports to someone who did engineering until five years ago … all the way up to the CEO who got an engineering BS before the MBA. Much more often, though, there’s a sharp break: Scotty the VP of Engineering has as his boss a person who, despite his many estimable qualities (hand-to-hand combat skills, interspecies sexual charisma) just doesn’t know jack about warp drives.

And the unfortunate but ironclad rule is: Kirk must trust Scotty. This is partly because trusting Scotty is the right thing to do, but also because without Scotty on his side, Kirk is fucked. Obviously, this presents a management paradox, because some engineering teams do suck, and in those cases something must be done. But Kirk cannot afford to be lying awake wondering whether Scotty was right about not taking it to warp 9 last week, or whether he was just dogging it. And he certainly cannot afford to beam the whole eng team to the surface and try to limp away at sub-light speeds.

More subtly, though, he can’t afford to keep Scotty around, but deal with his own control issues by questioning him, undercutting his authority. The surprise inspections, the skeptical reviews of technical decisions, the pop quiz questions culled from last week’s Astrogation Weekly, all communicate two things: I am watching you (possibly a good message), and I am not buying your story (almost certainly a bad thing). Sure, K and S have to figure out how the work will be evaluated, but (here’s the hard part for the control freak) some of this figuring has to come from S, because K isn’t even qualified to know what a good evaluation would look like.

(postscript: Years ago I had a three-week career as a management consultant — the consulting company who was brought in to diagnose a software startup brought me along as a kind of interviewer and interpreter (speaker-to-techies). It was actually sort of fun — in this technique, you interview _everybody_ and from this Rashomon testimony try to come up with a coherent story about what’s going on. Management’s suspicion was that the VP of Eng was in over his head; his own story was that he desperately needed about three roles to be filled, but couldn’t get the reqs approved. When we went back to upper mgmnt to ask about that, they said “Oh, yeah, we’ve been sitting on those approvals for six months or so; you see, we’re not sure he knows what he’s doing, and until we’re sure we’re definitely not trusting him to hire …”)

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2 Responses to The Kirk-Scotty relationship

  1. Matt says:

    That’s a pretty apt analogy, IMO, and holds true for any hyperspecialist. Nuclear engineers, Unix admins, etc., all are caught in this type of catch-22: they must have management’s tacit trust to perform at peak, but to earn that trust, they must perform well, but to perform well, they must have management’s tacit trust.

  2. Michael Hannemann says:

    “Oh, yeah, we’ve been sitting on those approvals for six months or so; you see, we’re not sure he knows what he’s doing, and until we’re sure we’re definitely not trusting him to hire …”

    That’s awful. Mostly because I can easily see it happen, and what the resulting feedback loop would look like.

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