The Key To Success in High Tech


Mike Schilling

Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever.

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar Les Cargill says:

    One of my guilty pleasures is “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” by Adam Curtis.Report

  2. Avatar bookdragon says:


    Ideally STEM majors should have some basics humanities courses, but frankly most do (at least all the colleges my kid is considering for a comp sci major require core courses that include English and social science and/or humanities).

    Otoh, I once had a ‘senior engineering manager’ whose degree was a BA in English Lit. It took only 2 months to realize I needed to put my resume out again because I was going to bite through my tongue trying to keep from calling my manager a complete moron in IP meetings.

    Now, it’s pretty likely he had the position because his wife was related to someone much higher in the company, or possibly that plus the TQMS idiocy (“any manager can manager anything”) that was all the rage back then, so maybe he isn’t representative. However, I will never choose to work in a place where the management has no basic knowledge of the product.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to bookdragon says:

      The whole thing about “any manager can manager anything” was a major pain in the butt there for a while. I came up in a fairly Peter Principled environment. Every single one of my bosses was better at my job than I was. Whenever I had a question or a concern about what I was doing, they set me right or figured out that I was on to something and we kept stuff up and running and oiled. And, occasionally, my bosses’s bosses would show up and help my bosses with stuff that had them flummoxed.

      The whole “managers don’t need to know how to do your job, they just need to know how to manage your job” thing was awful.

      They stopped being able to provide resources. They stopped being able to get the right people in a room together because they didn’t know who the right people were.

      I’m just glad that I’m back in a place where my bosses are better at my job than I am.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:


        The Peter Principal has it sown problems. Management is a skill of its own, and being good a technical job doesn’t necessarily mean you can manage well.

        That said, it is really important for a manager to really understand what their team can do, even if they can’t do it themselves.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

          I’ve moved from “how could we do this perfectly?” to “dang… what’s the best of the crappy ways we could do this that would result in the fewest catastrophic failures?”Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:


            No question, that’s the right way to be thinking about this.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird says:

            For part of my technical career, I worked beside-but-mostly-not-with another guy. We both built one-off test gear for odd problems, with radically different styles. I will probably never forget when Joel explained the difference to a department head who was trying to decide which one of us to use. “So here’s the deal,” said Joel. “If you give me the problem, I’ll start hacking things together this afternoon, writing quick-and-dirty glue code, pulling one part from this old project and another from some project that I know was done at a university lab. You’ll get something held together with baling wire and chewing gum, but that solves your very specific problem, in a month. If you give Mike the problem, he’ll take long walks by the river and glare at stuff on a white board for three months. Then he’ll announce that your problem is a special case of a general principle, and he’ll bang out something totally original in another three months. Not only will his thing solve your problem, next year it’ll solve problems you don’t even know you have yet.”Report

        • Avatar Fish in reply to James K says:

          I’m just happy that we seem to have settled into a space where it’s perfectly acceptable for someone like me to spend my entire career as a systems administrator with my hands on a keyboard rather than being forced into accepting a promotion simply because that’s the expectation. My mentor, who retired three-ish years ago, was exactly what you’d picture when you think of the “grumpy old man.” He was an excellent admin and he had been since before the Earth cooled and he had zero aspirations to be anything but. I’m going to be him when I grow up.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to bookdragon says:

      “any manager can manager anything”

      False in the wider sense, but true as you get a bit narrower. My wife has a BA in History and a MS in Library Science, but she manages tech writers for an aerospace giant. She was never trained as a tech writer, and knows very little about aerospace engineering*, but her education is close enough to the ball park that she gets the job done and is on the promotion track.

      Clearly she shouldn’t be put in charge of engineers, or software developers, or lawyers, but it also doesn’t mean she should only ever be in charge of library staff.

      *Despite being married to me. When she’s having trouble falling asleep, she has me tell her about my day, in detail. She’s usually out in minutes.Report

  3. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


  4. Avatar James K says:

    Truly excellent Mike.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    This really doesn’t get to the liberal critique of Silicone Valley. We were recently discussing Theranos scandal on LGM. The anger at Silicone Valley wasn’t that the people running it are idiot savants that need a good liberal classic education. Its that a lot of money gets invested to what the average LGM protestor sees as something that either caters to upper middle class or wealthy, eats into what they consider a government function (ride shares undermining transit), and that so many of them seem to fall for big scams like Theranos so easily when money could be spent wiser on public health. Its more of a market vs. non-market form of thinking than STEM vs. liberal arts.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Silicone Valley? A valley full of plastic surgeons?Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Also, ride share doesn’t eat into transit so much as it hits taxicabs and other car services.

      Now if you consider those part of the government transit plan (given how often government restricts taxis, one could make that argument), then you might have a point.

      As for Theranos, if it could have delivered, it could have improved health outcomes and reduced cost, so the goal wasn’t the problem. Vaporware was the problem.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I’ve seen it said, and I think it is a fair critique, that most software is developed to meet the desires of people who inhabit the tech world, i.e., younger, more male, upper middle class educated people with disposable income.

      If poor and working class people could direct investment, would they direct it to adding more bus lines, or Uber ride hailing technology?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        From what I can tell, uber ride hailing technology. Many people of color loved ride starring tech like uber when it came out because uber drivers discriminated against them less than taxi drivers. Places that never saw a taxi, could not get something taxi like. Also, the number or carless people in places dominated by the car do not seem that many.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        This is both a fair critique, and also subject to availability bias. For instance, an old friend of mine, a woman who came up as a programmer but took a masters in finance, is acting CFO for a startup that is intended to improve elder care. She’s helping out an old friend of hers, another woman, who is the company founder.

        It’s a great example of why VC’s should seek more diversity in their entrepreneurs, and there are definitely some here who know that, and others that are ignoring that and swinging for the fences. We could still do a lot better.Report

  6. I used to be the type of person who adopted the attitude this OP is lampooning. Maybe I didn’t have that attitude specifically about silicon valley, but I had it as a generalized critique of everything, especially things I knew little to nothing about. The focus of my critique was what I presumed to be what “business majors” and “engineers” (a category of people I looked at with disdain or condescension) studied. In the one case, I presumed they just did soft “projects” or line up numbers on a ledger and added them up. In the other case, I thought they were professional word problem solvers and nothing more, the kind that “didn’t really think things through” but just solved math problems presented to them. I probably looked at computer programmers as something like engineers.

    Two things changed my mind.

    First, I started to learn how little I knew (and how little I still know) about accounting, marketing, management, engineering, and computer programming.

    Second, I somehow eventually remembered to retrace my steps and reconsider why I liked the humanities in the first place. When I was quite younger, say in high school or the first couple years as an undergrad, I believed the humanities encompassed “the way the world works” and varied philosophies to explain that way. In other words, a true humanities person, I believed then (and believe now, though there was a period when I stopped believing it), at least acknowledged the need to learn math, the sciences, and even things as allegedly mundane as accounting or marketing.Report