ThoughtStorms Wiki

Context : OnMaking, AmericanExistentialism, OnCraft

See Also : TechnoCracy,


VenkateshRao on making.

I suspect one subconscious reason I'm interested in maker stuff right now is that I think we're entering a kind of ronin world where the doers of the world are in an unusually autonomous condition due to the fall of political/cultural leaderly elites... 🤔

In Hannah Arendt's hierarchy of via activa/praxis modes of being, Making is actually in the inglorious clueless middle part, but what happens when those normally in the true "action" business of fully free ways of being kinda... disappear?

If the philosophy is too turgid for you, think about it this way.

How would the business world run if all the CEOs were to vanish suddenly, leaving CTOs in charge?

Or if all politicians and political appointees vanished leaving the top bureaucrats in charge?

This is not a trivial question. Despite the valorization of "doers" in SV culture in particular, doers are not generally natural leaders, and entrepreneurial leaders who talk a big "doing" game often "do" only a little, the rest of their contribution being leading.

Whether or not they are clueless, they typically a) don't want to lead b) are bad at leading if forced to b) tend to want direction and motivation from external loci (what and why) so they can focus on doing (how).

When leadership is absent, or fails, or gets killed off literally or metaphorically by events, you get a world of ronin.

Ronin are defined by leadership-vacuum angst. The experience the anomie of lack of meaning-structure, but lack the personal cognitive resources to fix it.

(disclosure, I'm neither a natural leader, nor a natural doer, though I can sort of pinch-hit reasonably competently at both so long as it's not too demanding in terms of sheer time and effort... I'm primarily a natural observer)

Doers tend to react in one of three ways:

The first is the Seinfeld Carpenter way – let their skills run uncritically amok (if you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail and you must hammer it)

The second is the Bartleby the Scrivener reaction. Just plain depressive retreat. They can't find meaning for themselves and are uninterested in doing anything without an external appeal to authority for meaning. So they go catatonic (a variant is going cult true believer)

The third is the only interesting and healthy response. They have a rare window of opportunity to act on their opinions on fairly esoteric ideas of what to do and why, that no non-doer will grok enough to either agree or disagree with. So they act unilaterally to do so.

Often this happens in the context of extremely complex and technologically "deep" domains where the non-doer leadership is not so much absent as simply entirely out of its depth and forced to rely on doer-knowledge to even decide what to do and why.

A well-known (though not to the general public) example is Admiral Rickover of the US Navy, who basically created the nuclear energy infrastructure of the US Navy and partly civilian power too.

The 50s/60s in the US are full of such essentially technocratic characters who are leaders in a CTO sense. Leading on the strength of being the only ones to grok the problem at all. Apollo, early DARPA, etc. are full of such people.

Makes sense because the 50s/60s saw a huge expansion in the military industrial complex based on advanced technologies. The scientists didn't get enough of the engineering/business side, and the politicians didn't understand much of anything. So the engineering technocrats led.

There's probably other minor cases, but these are the 3 big ones: Seinfeld Carpenter, Bartleby, Technocrat leader.

A lot of my consulting work is with technocratic leaders. CTOs and VPs of Engineering don't rise to CEO roles too often. It's a more natural fit for COOs, CMOs, VPs of Product, or Sales. CFOs in a pinch if the CEO gets canceled.

Technical people rise to the top under some special circumstances:

  1. The key operational decision-making is too technical for non-technical people
  2. The key strategic decisions are illegible to non-technical people
  3. They want to

Don't underestimate the last one... far too often, a highly technical leadership job goes to somebody who either lacks the depth or is faking it, simply because nobody who has the depth is willing to step up and do the job

A good way to assess the technocratic state of an industry is this: is the NEXT key decision to be made sound more like

a) what color should it be, red or blue?

b) should we go with a hyperwarp quadlithium drive with fewer jeffries tubes or a regular warp dilithium drive?

Sometimes the red vs. blue decision everybody can have an opinion on really makes no difference, but the obscure decision that even Gladwell would struggle to mis-explain really makes the difference between a huge, profitable, billion-dollar business and a lossy, silly, small one

Non-techies (and here I include non-engineering entrepreneurs including many deep SV insiders) often resent that technological modernity sometimes creates conditions where they really are kinda useless and must defer to people who know what they're talking about.

But equally, far too many engineers have been so beaten down by a century of rhetoric about "arrogance of engineers" that they are reluctant to simply step in and be the bad guy and do what needs to be done that they know is the right thing to do. It's a thankless task.

Side-trail: Highly recommend Samuel Florman's 1967 classic, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, written just when antipathy and hostility to engineering/technocracy was peaking. Here's my review/riff on it from 2008

The 1960s were the low point in the social status of engineers. Around the world, a backlash against technocrats and military industrial complexes was growing. Humanist cultural leaders like Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson were leading the charge with (very valid) criticisms.

Curiously, despite the unspoken assumptions of today's techlash, engineers never actually recovered the arrogance and confidence that marked the high-modernist era of roughly 1910-60. Their social confidence had been dealt a crippling blow.

Today's techlash is mainly directed at people who are notable less for their tech abilities than for their raw ambition and indifference to shaming. It's a adverse selection at the top of people who are tech-savvy enough to land-grab agency and don't care about others opinions

Technologists capable of being true technocrat leaders and the charismatic kind are different breeds, each valuable in their own way. An example comparison pair is Dennis Ritchie vs. Steve Jobs, who died within a week of each other in Oct 2011.

If you're an engineer, you probably think Dennis Ritchie was the more important figure overall in the history of computing. He co-created C and Unix. If you're a layperson, you probably don't even know who he was.

Thought experiment: how would the computing revolution have evolved if people like Ritchie had been forced by circumstances to play the roles that people like Jobs and Gates actually did? History would have been... very different.

The interesting thing is, I think we're actually at such a juncture now, like in the late 1940s/early 1950s. An era of charismatic, kinda sociopathic, eager, ambitious leaders with relatively mediocre tech depth on average, is coming to a close. They've lost too much trust.

This thing goes in cycles. I'd say 1915-45 was charismatic, 1945-1980 was technocratic, 1980-2015 was charismatic, 2015 - has been technocratic.

Though I've mainly worked with technocratic leaders, they've been a sort of minority in a broader culture that was primarily not technocratic but charismatic. With rare exceptions I generally don't get along very well with the charismatic+shallow-tech type of leaders.

I'm sensing a shifting in the winds where, whether or not they like it, more and more technocratic leaders are going to find themselves in charge. Because the charismatic type leaders are simply not trusted anymore, and the tech-lash critical crowd generally lacks the competence.

For example, I've been fairly open in my views about what I consider the essential vacuity of the AI risk/ethics crowd, but even if I'm wrong and they're right about everything, they still lack the skills to go from criticism to actually running AI-based tech companies.

So like it or not, it will be neither the TED-talking visionaries nor the moral-panicking AI ethicists who run things. It will be people who actually hands-on understand what is still an extremely challenging technical field.

I suspect one reason I have a career at all is that this stream of people has been slowly growing, and they are NOT too afraid, embarrassed, or humiliated to ask for help with management and leadership stuff because their identities/egos are actually anchored elsewhere

ie they are not attached to being the person in the room who knows the most about leadership/management stuff. It's simply a problem to be solved and cleared away so they can get to what they actually ARE attached to and want to be seen as knowing the most about.

When I talk to a technocratic leader about say an re-org challenge for example, they are happy to just discuss it as a problem that can be modeled, mapped, thought through, with options identified and experiments tried. It' an easy conversation. No egos getting in the way.

When I talk to a charismatic (or wannabe-charismatic) non-tech/shallow-tech leader otoh, there is a constant tension where they seem to need validation of their leadership/management ideas in yes-man mode. It's kinda exhausting and usually doesn't work out at all.

the overconfident ones, of course, don't seek help at all from the likes of me, but the interesting ones are the ones who think they know everything there is to know but are insecure and looking for validation or therapy around it rather than feedback/sparring to test it

Not sure where I'm going with this, but I'm obviously biased and in favor of accelerating/amplifying a trend that is good for what I do. But I think there is also an objective case that we're overdue for an era of quiet, obscure, technocratic leadership.

Besides my usual shtick of figuring out how to get such people already in leadership positions to find and hire me, I've also started thinking about how to kinda boost the pipeline so to speak, and kinda try to increase the chances of CTOs/VPEs going CEO etc.

And even further down the line... today's engineering team leaders, program managers, directors etc. are the CTOs/VPEs of 2025 and the potential CEOs of 2030. What can be done to set them up for success against the... functional competition from CMOs, VP Sales types, CFOs...

(I don't mean to come off totally partisan... I have been hired a few times by non-tech leaders but it's been like 10%, so the odds of me doing better improve heavily if more engineers start getting the top jobs)

I'm trying to figure out if I can craft a sort of early-career tech leadership consulting offering that doesn't degenerate into "coaching" or "career advice" for people who are not actually driven enough to get anywhere bigger.

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