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Fred Wilson: 8 Rules for Managing People, According to an Engineer

Wilson, the co-founder of Union Square Ventures, explains how managing people is a lot like managing technical systems. (That's good news for you, engineers.)
Fred Wilson speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt NY. April 30, 2013.
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I am an engineer, and so are most of the folks who work in technical operations. The engineer mindset is to build stuff, scale stuff, and make it work reliably and consistently.

When I was at MIT, I majored in Mechanical Engineering. I loved computers and software. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and he encouraged me to study it--so I did.

The mechanical engineering course that really sucked me in was "Systems Engineering" where we learned about large-scale systems, how to think about them, build them, and operate them. We learned about the interdependencies between the components in the system and how they could change as the system grew and scaled.

Tech Ops is Systems Engineering as applied to large-scale computer systems. All of the foundational systems engineering principles are well understood, practiced, and perfected in a good tech ops team.

Management is also Systems Engineering as applied to a large and growing company.

What I want to talk about today are the similarities between tech ops and management. Some of you, maybe many of you, will someday find yourself starting or leading a company. And I think the work you do on computer systems can be a metaphor for the work you will find yourself doing on people systems.

So, here are eight rules for managing both computer systems and people systems--along with the language we use to talk about this concept in the world of people systems.

1. Things that work well at small-scale break at large-scale. You need different people, processes, and systems as a company grows.

2. You need to instrument your system so you can see when things are reaching the breaking point well before they break. You need to implement employee feedback systems, ideally real-time systems, so you can measure how a team is functioning over time.

3. There is always one problematic component in a system that causes the majority of the scaling problems and must be rewritten. Team members, particularly super-talented ones, that cause friction and pain in the organization need to be transitioned out, no matter what the cost.

4. There is no silver bullet to scaling systems. There is no such thing as a “world class CEO” who will solve all of a company's management problems.

5. Loose coupling of components is critical, you can't have one component fail and take down the entire system. Build resiliency into your organization, processes, and systems.

6. Blameless postmortems are the key to learning from a tech ops crisis. Fear-driven organizations do not scale.

7. Over-reacting to a crisis is likely to make it worse. Remaining calm in the face of adversity is one of the signature traits of great organizational leaders.

8. Overbuilt systems are hard to implement, manage, and scale. Build the organization you need when you need it, not well in advance of when you need it.

I could go on and on. But I challenge you to think about what the analog to the principal is in managing your organization--your people system. Because it turns out that is the most important system you will manage in your career.

This article was originally published on Fred Wilson's blog, A VC




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