Of Makers and Managers


I’d always thought Big Days were especially apt for writers, musicians, artists – creatives. Because they’re the ones most vulnerable to interruptions from the Man from Porlock, right?

Paul Graham set me straight.

He isn’t an artist. He’s a British computer programmer, venture capitalist and start-up guru — but a programmer first and foremost. Programmers are “creators,” too. And coding, I’m learning, is its own kind of flow state.

“You can’t write or program well in units of an hour,” Graham writes. “That’s barely enough time to get started.”

This comes from Graham’s influential “Makers vs. Managers” essay, which is right on point with the Big Day discussion.

In the average workplace, makers and managers share the dance floor. But it’s the managers that call the tune. Look at the structure of the corporate day. You have a chain of hour-long blocks into which meetings are freely, and sometimes whimsically, scheduled. That works well for the managers. For the makers: not so much.

“When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster,” Graham says.”A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.”

A pure programmer could hide away with the shades drawn and the pizza-delivery number on the speed dial, and just beaver away. But because Graham is in the investment game, too, he has to play both sides. In an office setting, a maker can’t just detach from the manager’s schedule. You can’t go dark on the people you’re supposed to be collaborating with.

“When we were working on our own startup, back in the 90s, I evolved a trick for partitioning the day. I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then I’d sleep till about 11 am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called “business stuff.” I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager’s schedule and one on the maker’s.”

What managers love most about the manager’s schedule is its agility. They can schedule impromptu meetings while the creative iron is hot. But to makers, that culture of speculative spontaneity comes at a cost.

Suppose someone calls you up and asks if you’d like to “grab a coffee.” As a maker you have two options — neither of them optimal. Either you say Yes and lose your momentum and effectively kiss half a day’s productivity goodbye, or you say No and offend this guy, perhaps irreparably.

Graham pined for the day when the Cool Hand Luke-like failure to communicate between managers and makers would start to resolve itself. It’s already starting to happen. More and more, managers are experimenting with giving a block of time for makers – or teams of makers – to do their thing, in their own private skunkworks bubbles, without interruption

It’s the Big Day idea, writ corporate.


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