a rant on politician-engineer coalitional conflict

Sometimes, a group in some organization has a highly technical and highly effective leader. Kelly Johnson (Skunk Works) and Hyman Rickover (US Navy nuclear propulsion) are famous examples. A naive economist might expect such people to be well-liked by management above them, because their skills are good for the organization and complementary to those of non-technical managers. That’s not what we generally see in reality.

In my experience, and in the stories I’ve heard, such technical leaders are especially disliked by upper management, far more than a highly effective non-technical MBA would be. I’ve even been told that unique competence being noticed by upper managment is a negative for career prospects in that situation.

Why would that be the case? The only explanation that makes sense to me is that effective technical managers are considered a threat by management above them—but why would they be more of a threat than a MBA who talks the business talk?

There are some cultural differences between engineers and non-technical managers, but I don’t think that’s an explanation. One reason is, technical leaders can find allies even higher up that support them. For example, Rickover had allies in Congress, and that’s the only reason he wasn’t pushed out...until he got pushed out by John Lehman, a Ph.D. in American foreign policy who’s worked as an investment banker. Leslie Groves was almost pushed out in 1927, but Major General Edgar Jadwin interceded and noted that Groves’s superiors were at fault for the problems blamed on him—that was a guy 5 ranks above Groves in the Army.

My current view is that politician-type managers and engineer-type managers naturally form opposing coalitions. They each favor people of the same type, and try to push local organization norms in different directions.

In America, today, politican-type managers have won conclusively almost everywhere. I’ve actually seen some of a conflict between such coalitions play out once, and I’d say it’s an even match when the groups are equal in size and nobody else is involved. One group backstabs and fights over social dominance like high school girls, but that’s balanced out by the other group spending half their time arguing about who’s smarter and the other half arguing about emacs vs vim; the underlying dynamic is the same, but one group has the pretense of authority being tied to intelligence, and has a greater tendency to argue about actions instead of personnel selection.

Normies prefer business speak to technobabble, while nature has the opposite preference, and so the balance is tipped depending on which is more relevant.

I am, of course, exaggerating somewhat, and all groups have some overlap in their tendencies. There are also other ways to organize hierarchy, such as:

  • pure seniority, like Senate committee positions

  • pure credentialism, like companies that use exclusively PhDs for upper positions

  • effort-worship, like how Elon Musk deserves to be in charge because he works 100 hours a week

That last one is perhaps my least-favorite. Anyway, we see a similar effect, where organizations based around seniority are all-in on seniority, because the people who want that to be the principle are in charge. There’s always a social hierarchy, so in a sense the only choice society and leaders get to make is what’s used as its basis.

Companies often have distinctive corporate culture, but companies have to interact with each other, and people move between them, so there’s some pressure towards homogenization. In America, ongoing consolidation has been towards what’s described in Moral Mazes. From inside the system, it might seem like the only possible system, but take heart, for alternatives are possible—for example:

It’s possible to make an engineering-focused startup. You just have smart engineers controlling the leadership positions. The real problem is making that happen. Cultural differences make it harder to sell to normal high-level management, so this is harder for companies selling to businesses than for something like WhatsApp. Most investors are from the dominant business leadership culture. Board membership is controlled by existing board members, and seats are traded as a currency of power. Avoiding those pitfalls is uncommon enough that some big existing company using 10x the people to get worse results can afford to buy out the owners, and founders are often tired and want to retire rich. Maybe you want to argue this is an intrinsic attribute of buyouts, but I’ve heard it’s a lot better to sell your company to a Chinese SOE: they don’t wreck your company culture nearly as much as American MBAs, they just want to transfer your technology.

Some people like to blame layers of hierarchy alone for such differences, with the idea being that there’s a universal “management culture” that all companies are pulled towards. But that’s just not true; companies of similar sizes and ages can have extremely different cultures. No, I think it’s about pull towards a surrounding culture that sits in some local minimum. Again, I don’t mean the overall culture of eg America, but specifically the culture of a management class.

Yeah, this isn’t actionable intelligence for individuals. I wish I had something that was.

Yet, organizations can’t function at all without some amount of technical expertise. How does that work in a politician-dominated organization? In my experience, it goes something like this:

me: If the current path continues, you’ll run into [technical problem].

exec: I see, tell me more.

me: [explanation]

exec: (recognizing keywords) Ah, [field]. I have a guy for that. (smug)

note: This is not meant in the sense of “I have a doctor for that” or “I have a mechanic for that”, which would be “we have a guy” instead. There was a sense of ownership over the person implied.

me: I suppose it can be considered [field]. I’d be happy to talk to that guy.

exec: Hmmm...should I schedule a meeting? His time is pretty valuable.

me: (More valuable than yours, huh?) I think this issue needs to be considered, but it’s your call.

exec: (Considering the situation, I’m not sensing any political threats here.) OK then.


me: I looked up your background then wrote this explanation to read to you.

expert: (misunderstanding)

me: (attempt at clarification referencing five other fields)

expert: I was brought in for my experience, and in my experience things were done this way. And now you’re saying that needs to be changed?

me: As I explained earlier...actually, nevermind. You do your thing.

Loyalty of the expert here is considered as important as their expertise. I also think that in the minds of management, the more general a technical expert is, the more of a potential threat they are, and thus loyalty becomes even more important. If that’s the case, it might be sometimes beneficial to pretend to be ignorant of areas outside your specialty, especially the business context of your technical work. (That’s pretty inconvenient for someone like me.) Is that something you’ve seen?