Turtles All the Way Down

A friend of mine shared the post Meta Layoffs by @Brandur with me. I agree everything in the post.

Here, I want to focus and expand on the point about Meta’s desire to “flatten the company’s structure.”

This quote from @Brandur’s post is pure gold, and is in line with my personal experience as well:

“…managers who by design had no function in the R&D org at all – they didn’t do product work, they didn’t do operations or hold a pager, they didn’t help with incoming cross-team asks, they didn’t manage the JIRA board, and a lot of the time they didn’t even run our meetings (deferring that to ICs); and the prevailing wisdom became that this was a good thing.”

In my experience, the deep layers of management are inevitable at FAANG and their copycats. It all boils down to incentives1 related to the promotion to the next levels. There are a couple of factors at play here.

The first is that managers need to show team growth to rise higher. It means a manager needs to have other managers report to them to become a senior manager. Similarly, a director needs to increase the number of senior managers reporting to them, and so on. The need to keep expanding the organization’s size to get promoted means there is a direct incentive for managers to add yet more layers of managers!

The second factor is subtle, yet nearly as bad. Getting promoted is the only way to demonstrate growth as an engineer. Even if one is comfortable at the current level, promotion is the only way to earn more money.

A key component of being promo-worthy is to demonstrate leadership. The trouble is that technical leadership is hard to measure and quantify. Moreover, one needs a certain amount of technical ability to identify technical leadership in others, which handicaps many managers, especially those who’ve been managers for many years.

To solve this, many companies and managers look for proxies for technical leadership, ending up with more focus on leadership and a lesser emphasis on the technical aspects. ICs start focusing more on tasks such as project planning, managing task assignments and timelines for the project, managing backlogs, coordinating cross-functionally, etc. All of these used to be done by managers.

Taking this further, ICs have a deep incentive to become Technical Leads. After all, what better way to show leadership than to have the word lead in your title! Over time, TLs become TLs of other TLs and spend more time on “managing” rather than hands-on IC tasks, thus becoming yet another layer of de-facto management. The most ironic part is that I have yet to meet a TL who doesn’t grumble about this. What are the managers doing if the TLs are doing the managing?

These two factors have massively contributed to organizations having a broad layer of managers. We ended up in situations (from a friend’s company) with a reporting chain of 3 directors with the same title. This is the surest real-world example of “Turtles all the way down”2 that I’ve ever seen.

As demonstrated by Meta’s announcement, we’re beginning to see a reset as an industry. Many companies copy practices from Meta and Alphabet, so the idea of flattening the management structures is likely to spread.

  1. A quote attributed to Charlie Munger, “Show me the incentives, and I will show you the outcome.” ↩︎

  2. A Western traveler encountering an Oriental philosopher asks him to describe the nature of the world: “It is a great ball resting on the flat back of the world turtle.” “Ah yes, but what does the world turtle stand on?” “On the back of a still larger turtle.” “Yes, but what does he stand on?” “A very perceptive question. But it’s no use, mister; it’s turtles all the way down.” – from Turtles all the way down ↩︎