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> proven short-term penny-wise/pound-foolish idiocy of MBA-think.

This is a completely unjust attack. Quite frankly, I have no idea what "MBA-think" even is. You make an assumption that an MBA making a bad decision is making a bad decision because they have an MBA. That doesn't pass the test. Would the same person make the same decision even without the MBA?

I always seem to get sensitive over the general MBA hate expressed at HN. As someone who spent years in web development before getting an MBA, I completely fail to connect to any of the insults typically thrown at MBA's on here. I certainly don't recall a class where we learned it's best to destroy 20% time. I don't recall ever being indoctrinated to the type of business thinking that is negatively attributed to MBA's. I recall getting an education on things like finance, economics, marketing, strategy, operations, etc. that weren't covered in my undergraduate technical degree.

I appreciate the developer-oriented aspects of software startups and Hacker News and I'm certain that many people have encountered assholes who happen to hold MBA degrees. I'm certain the degree attracts certain segments, I clearly had some as classmates, but attributing every business decision you disagree with as MBA-think is not a good approach.

This just seems like taking shots at a fuzzy construct for sake of taking shots and I'm not sure what value it adds to the discussion. I'd rather see legitimate reasons why removing 20% time is a bad idea for Google's operations.

I say this as somebody who suffered through getting a professional management degree as well:

I think the observed pattern is that we repeatedly see startups get kicked off, grow like wildfire, then turned into an empty shell of their former selves once the "professional management team" is brought in as they promptly kill off all of the reasons the company was growing in the first place in favor of short-term (bonus making) metrics that are almost never good for long-term growth and survivability.

It repeats over and over and over again and it's especially frustrating when you're on the inside watching outsiders come in as VPs who's only qualification is a top-10 MBA destroy unbelievably large numbers of man-hours of work and turn thriving companies into joyless bean counting husks.

I remember vaguely going through my own management education specific moments where I stood back and realized what a smoking pile of self-serving bullshit and handwaving the professional management industry had become. Most of what we were studying was full of vague and meaningless, but impressive sounding, aphorisms and pretend sciency/engineeringy sounding talk. Management methods were described like bold scientific experiments but constructed of the flimsiest methodology one could come up with. I felt like the books we were reading were consistently written by flimflam men who had no consistent measurable success and wrote endlessly about management theory with the structure of those late night get rich infomercials where they talk endlessly about they're going to show you how to achieve success, but then never actually tell you. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of it.

I've since tried to purge most of my management education from me. The only thing it really got me used to was a sense of comfort with sitting in front of spreadsheets all day, moving around millions of dollars, and writing status reports.

Matthew Stewart's "the management myth" runs with this thesis. Google it - the Atlantic article is a great read. He explicitly links the Tom Peters types with televangelists and self help infomercial pitchmen.

I remember this article when it came out and thinking how well it mirrored my own experience. I almost feel like I just summarized his 5 pages ;)

The Mayo lighting experiment is an awesome and sadly typical example of the kind of shit poor "research" that goes into the field. With premises, methodologies and outcomes so flimsy a six year old could poke holes in it. Yet these kinds of "studies" are published and taken as a great advances and contributions to "management science".

Before you know it, based on one or two of this "studies", great fads sweep the ranks of professional management and we end up with bizarre and counter-productive management initiatives. When those plans inevitably fails and some consulting firm is brought in and recommends a house cleaning, new management is brought in who's only worth is that they're more up to date on the latest fads and reshape the company along those lines...generating lots and lots of activity (reorg after reorg after reorg) but no actual value.

Part of the problem is that it's immensely difficult to do science with people.

The hardest of the social sciences will create experiments where they try to study a single variable, like a person's reaction to a specific set of stimuli or decision making under a certain specific set of conditions. That way you can at least pretend to control for things.

It is simply impossible to do this in management. There are millions of variables. You can't know them all, control them, or do multiple runs of an experiment.

One of the more recent management fads has been complex systems simulation -- trying to do computer simulations of difficult managerial problems. This can work for logistics, routing, and mechanistic process optimization, but you can't reduce human beings to "agents" in a model.

I wonder what would be good professional management that is as close to general purpose as the old MBAs.

I'm of the opinion that the entire discipline is in need of a reboot. History has shown that most of the research into the management science bits is of an extremely poor quality and the field is in such a state of denial that they simply can't accept this.

One of the major issues is the concept that a person, with no specific experience of understanding of a certain industry can take a couple years of generic administration courses and get slapped into a VP role in any given company. This concept extends down to the worker bees in that the assumption is made that workers are fungible.

I think this is a fundamental flaw in current management theory that needs to be burned out of the entire field with extreme prejudice. It colors the entire field and I believe is the root cause of most of the major failures in the field.

The case of John Scully is a particularly notable example.

There are some schools that have toyed around with industry focused management degrees, a step in the right direction. You can learn how to manage a business in a particular kind of field...managing professional services in a software vertical is unbelievably different from managing the R&D division for a major cosmetics company, managing a small company is unbelievably different from managing in a megacorp.

I think also that MBAs simply shouldn't be available until a person has a few years of industry experience under their belt -- much like executive MBAs are today.

I think at the very least, because of the damage a shitty MBA student can do in the world, it should require industry specific professional certification that needs to be maintained and has an ethics bar like becoming a lawyer to self-censure particularly bad apples.

One of the major issues is the concept that a person, with no specific experience of understanding of a certain industry can take a couple years of generic administration courses and get slapped into a VP role in any given company.

My point is that I am curious if it is possible to change things so such a person won't be bad for the company after being slapped into the role.

> I'd rather see legitimate reasons why removing 20% time is a bad idea for Google's operations.

Technology has a viable lifetime before you need new technology. As a technology company, you therefore need to be invested in creating new technology or be willing to go in to the spiral of customer loss and only dealing with legacy systems before a slow death.

Statistically speaking, if you know most of your staff is intelligent and has experience in your market, you're more likely to get an outlier idea (one that is way off on the end of the bell curve, ie, actually really good) by casting a wide net, and listening to the bulk of your employees.

The problem is that to go anywhere, ideas need time to gestate and develop, so you have to give all those employees a little bit of time to develop new ideas for your company.

It's been a while since undergrad, but if you want, I could try to bust out an equation modeling (and predicting the expected value of) the likelihood you hit a really important idea in the wide-net situation versus the "dedicated research staff" one.

You're correct that there are smart MBAs, so it might be a bit unfair that "MBA" has become shorthand for something else. But it's not without cause. It's a stereotype with some basis in reality.

The key distinguishing factor to me of MBA-think is a combination of posturing with credentials and cargo cult thinking. The essence of this thought pattern consists of thinking divorced from real-world referents.

A strikingly similar cognitive anti-pattern can be found in the humanities, by the way.


I wonder if this is because business borrowed something rather toxic from the post-1970s "postmodern" intellectual meltdown of the humanities? The worst kind of MBAbabble that I've endured over the years reminds me very much of postmodern literary criticism in its vapid, posturing use of language to hide the fact that the speaker is not actually saying anything.

"Supercalifragilisticexpalidocious! If you say it loud enough you'll always sound precocious!"

A closely related cognitive anti-pattern in computer programming leads to "architecture astronautism," premature generalization, and over-engineering: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2004/12/it-came-from-planet...

In stereotypical MBA-think you have people reasoning about businesses without reasoning about the business -- about what the business actually physically does in the real world. So you see something similar to the cargo-cultish application of design patterns in programming. A management practice will be applied because it worked once in business X, but it's being applied to a business with wildly different characteristics.

At no point is an attempt made to actually walk the halls, talk to the boots on the ground, actually ascertain the concrete nature of the business one is managing in order to tie one's thinking to reality.

Finally, there's the ugly aspect: all of this is posturing to justify unjustly high compensation relative to the people who do real work.

Back to programming, I have run into "enterprise architects" who do not know what they're doing and who make more than the people in the organization who do. What they do know how to do is how to sound impressive.

Back to the humanities, it's sort of transparent to me that postmodern psychobabble is a similar sort of impostiture to hide the fact that the people in question are supposed to be cultural vanguards but in reality have less to say than the street graffiti artists who tag up their buildings at night. Personally I'd fire the humanities people and then hang out in the bushes at 2am and offer the clever social critics with spray paint cans a job.

Elon Musk is a great example of someone at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from stereotypical MBA-think.

He's not Tony Stark. He's not superhuman. What he does do is get his hands dirty. When he founded SpaceX he actually taught himself some bona fide rocket science so he would know what the hell he was talking about. He did a similar thing with Tesla, actually dove into some of the hard problems of electric car design himself so he'd have a clue. I'm sure he spends most of his days doing managerial things and raising money like any executive, but the fact that he's gotten grease on his hands means that when he reasons about his businesses he's reasoning about his businesses and not about abstractions divorced from reality.

His astonishing success at building businesses doing some of the hardest things one could possibly choose to build a business doing can be chalked up, IMHO, almost entirely to the fact that he is a smart guy reasoning about things instead of reasoning about hypothetical things. He does not confuse the map with the territory.

> I wonder if this is because business borrowed something rather toxic from the post-1970s "postmodern" intellectual meltdown of the humanities? The worst kind of MBAbabble that I've endured over the years reminds me very much of postmodern literary criticism in its vapid, posturing use of language to hide the fact that the speaker is not actually saying anything.

You described easily over 75% of the management textbooks I had to work through when I was getting my management degree. Vapid & content free. It was shocking sometimes to be reading a few chapters in a row, and not even realize different authors wrote them because they all had the same "voice" of page after page of absolutely nothing at all to say.

In the USSR they were called apparatchiks:


It's sort of funny how Soviet business culture actually is.

> It's sort of funny how Soviet business culture actually is.

Capitalist heirarchies look like state heirarchies in a system widely criticized as being "State Capitalism".

Funny to the people who think that the Soviet Union represents the polar opposite of capitalism, expected by the left-libertarians who noted that the Soviet Union recapitulated the features of capitalism central to the socialist critique of capitalism.

It goes more in the opposite direction I think. "The Firm" has a centrally planned economy that in the case of an organization like Google can easily be as big as a small country. So it naturally tends to behave the same way as any other large centrally planned economy.

The thing to understand is that the socialist critique of capitalism has always been that it is a system in which, both on the "micro" scale of firms and the "macro" scale of broader institutions, is centrally organized for the benefit of a narrow elite, with a distinct and well-defined (though, in the case of the "macro" scale, less formal than is the case in, e.g., feudalism) social heirarchy.

The heirarchical megacorporation existed before socialists invented the name "capitalism" to refer to and criticize the system which spawned such beasts, so the Soviet Union mirroring the heirarchical structure of such an entity -- with a similar elite vs. worker power relationship -- is exactly the USSR recapitulating features of capitalism central to the socialist critique, and not "the opposite direction".

It's interesting that you use Elon Musk as an example, since Max Levchin's interview in Founders at Work suggested that his only contribution to PayPal was to attempt to get them to switch all their servers over to Windows.

(Levchin, BTW, seems much more like someone who actually "gets his hands dirty" - which doesn't actually work out all that well sometimes, as evidenced by subsequent ventures like Slide that executed really well against a pointless market.)

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