The "ideas guy" and the mental load of tech leadership
One weird trick to make your teams more equitable
Do you work with the “ideas guy”? You know, the person (most likely a 30+ year-old white man) who shows up to the meeting, says “we should just migrate everything to Scala” and leaves? Tech is full of these men1. Have you seen Elon Musk’s text messages? It’s literally just a bunch of dudes with ideas. No strategy, no superior intelligence, just “what if twitter were on the blockchain” over and over again.
I see this happen all the time. Many consulting projects start this way—someone has an idea and wants to hire a team of engineers to make it come to life. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but in practice the ideas are usually half-baked and wildly out of scope. It takes a lot of work to take someone else’s idea, validate that it works, narrow the scope, set realistic expectations, create acceptance criteria, and get it to a place where it engineers can actually build it.
Conception, planning, and execution
There are very few books that have changed the way I see the world, but Fair Play by Eve Rodsky is one of them. She is a project manger-turned-author who wrote a book about how the principals of project management can help men and women share the mental load of managing a household. She talks about how there are three steps to every task—conception, planning and execution.
Conception: It occurs to you to do the thing.
Planning: You have made decisions about how to do it, how often, and what systems you need in place to make sure the thing gets done.
Execution: You are doing the thing.
In many heterosexual relationships, women take on the management role in the household. If it is his job to take out the garbage but she has to remind him every time the trash can is full, he is doing the execution, but nothing else. She might not need to put on her shoes and walk outside in the rain, but constantly being aware of the status of the trash can is still taking up valuable space in her brain. Ugh, patriarchy. Eve argues that in order for a member of the household to fully own a task, they need to be responsible for not just the execution, but the conception and planning as well.
Ideas, ideas, and ideas
I was thinking about this recently after a conversation I had with a lead engineer.
Him: “Hey, here are some ideas I have for how we can improve the performance of our application with more modular architecture.”
Me: “Hey, great minds think alike! Here’s the plan I wrote up for the modular refactoring work we are already doing. Why don’t you have a look at this document, leave some comments on it, and then I will set up a meeting with product so you and I can talk to them about any changes you would like to propose to our existing plan of execution.”
Him: “Nah, that part is not my job. I just do the tech stuff.”
He wanted to tell me what my team should be doing, but when I invited him to help me do the work of making it happen, he backed off and ended the conversation. Essentially what we have here is another imbalance in conception, planning, and execution. In this case, this is what I am referring to.
Conception: You have an idea for how to do a thing.
Planning: You have made decisions about the priority, scope, and budget for this thing. You have broken it down into actionable pieces that the team understands and is able to execute on.
Execution: Engineers are doing the thing.
On a tech team, some division of labor between the conception, planning, and execution is expected. It’s normal to have managers or tech leads who do the majority of the conception and planning, and delegate the execution to the engineers. Different people on the team have different roles. But when you have people in the organization who talk about their ideas but don’t share any responsibility for seeing them through, not only is it annoying to have that one guy showing up to all your meetings when you aren’t sure what his real job is, but it is also ineffective.
In the conversation I had with the lead engineer, his ideas didn’t go anywhere not because I didn’t care about them, but because neither the engineers nor the product managers understood how to act on them alongside the work they are already doing. And when leaders throw out wild ideas or shift the goalposts in the middle of a project, it can lead to frustration and stagnation.
Sometimes I honestly wonder if tech founders are even aware that engineers don’t just take orders from them and get right to work. Sure Elon, we’ll get right to work on that floating electric truck idea. You’ll be able to ford the Mississippi without leaving any oxen behind by next week. No! Even for the less crazy ideas, there are like ten steps missing there. Assuming this idea is even possible (which it is not), someone needs to update the roadmap, re-prioritize the work, write acceptance criteria and documentation, present the scope changes to leadership, make sure we have the right tools and machinery, and teach the engineers to build boats (or hire more engineers who are already skilled in boat building).
Do you know who is doing that work? Project managers, scrum masters, designers, sometimes engineering managers or tech leads. This work is often undervalued, non-promotable, and “non-technical”. And I would be amiss if I didn’t at least mention that this group is much more likely to include people who aren’t white men. So once again, ugh, patriarchy.
The mental load of leadership
Just like there is a mental load that falls on the partner who is keeping track of all the house work, appointments, and important dates, there is a mental load associated with project planning, and we should be asking the men with ideas to put their brains to good use and take on a greater share of it.
Yes, I agree that a conversion to typescript will reduce our bug count and help the engineers to be more productive. Can you write up a summary of the steps we will need to take to get there?
Yes, I do see how giving the users the ability to click anywhere on the page to leave a comment would improve user engagement. This would involve some pretty extensive changes to our architecture, so can you talk to the lead engineer about the implementation and give me an estimate of how long you think that will take? If it puts us way over budget, maybe you can lead a brainstorming session to come up with some alternate ideas.
Thanks for noticing that our performance monitoring dashboard is lacking some key info—I have been thinking the same thing! Can you provide some more context about what specific metrics you would like to see, and get some ideas from the engineers about how we can measure them?
My response to the lead engineer was a part of a deliberate strategy I have adopted where I ask for more from tech leaders. It’s really simple—when men come to me with ideas, I give them specific suggestions for next steps and ask them to help me do the work. This has turned out to be a great life hack, because it either leads to more productive meetings or, like in the example above, a quick end to the conversation.2
Asking men to participate in the work of validating their own ideas, getting alignment on them, and building a roadmap is such an important part of making this work more visible. It creates a more equitable division of labor between the leaders who strategize (or just do “tech stuff”) and the people who orchestrate the day-to-day work, and I think it actually leads to better outcomes for everyone. When the onus is on the leader to demonstrate the value of their idea rather than it being on the rest of us to chase down that work and prove them wrong, it saves everyone time and emotional energy, and as a result it makes the work that comes out of it more likely to succeed.
Elon Musk may never learn this lesson, but I still have some hope for the rest of us.
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Yes, I know that not all these people are men. But I work in tech, so in my experience all these people are men. I am choosing to use gender here because I want to talk about a specific problem that often overlaps with gender in a specific way, but if you have had different experiences feel free to sub in the gender of your choice.
I also happen to be in a leadership position that allows me to tactfully push back or ask hard questions without risking my job, which is a privilege I know we don’t all have. I dream of a world where we could all ask more of our leaders, no matter our position or level of influence.