Whiskey Picnic

In Praise of the Unmanageables

July 10, 2020

A few months ago, I thought I had a real get. An engineer my husband had worked with for many years, at a startup that became a large company known for the quality of its engineers, was looking for his next gig. I sent some information about him to a couple of founders I work with, with this context:

He’s a systems guy, was probably the most capable and highest firepower engineer in all of [Company], a real 1%er.

Insanely brilliant destroyer of hard problems, assuming he’s been correctly pointed at one. He will refuse to work on anything front-end.

He’s hard to manage, and does not manage other people.

It’s a tight labor market in San Francisco for brilliant engineers, and I thought he’d be snapped up in an instant. Instead, I got no bites from our portfolio. I tried some other founders who I knew were working on hard problems. Same feedback.

The “hard to manage” part had scared everybody off.

Maybe this shouldn’t have been surprising to me, but it was.

What it is to be “unmanageable”

I am, of course, biased. Early in my tenure at Bridgewater, my manager introduced me to one of the Chief Investment Officers at the firm, for whom I’d just done some work: “This is Laura,” he said. “She’s totally unmanageable.”

I was embarrassed at the time, but over the years I began to wear it as a badge of pride. The team I was on had been dubbed “the Island of Misfit Toys”, and, frankly, we were all unmanageable. We got put on the weird, random projects, the ones that started with a question rather than an outcome, the ones that had no known roadmap, the ones that didn’t fit into any other team’s scope. We did some pretty cool shit.

To me, being unmanageable means bringing a unique viewpoint and being very open and vocal about it. It means working hard to shape outcomes and speaking up about areas of disagreement. It means I sometimes end up working on a different thing than what I was supposed to be doing, because I think the other thing might be more valuable. (It does not mean being delinquent or an asshole.)

Valuing unmanageables in teams

I understand the reasons that a CEO might not want to hire an unmanageable person. It’s certainly easier not to, and it can be corrosive and alienating if not handled carefully and with intention.

My argument here, I guess, is that rather than having this as a blanket policy, companies would benefit from adding another lens of evaluation to every role: Could we benefit by filling the position with someone a bit more unmanageable? If all the ongoing work has clearly defined goals and pathways for execution, then maybe not. But that tends not to be the case at most startups.

No one wants a maverick Head of Finance. But in my book, a brilliant engineer who can independently be thrown at a company’s hardest systems problems seems like a pretty good candidate.

In the same way people underestimate the impact of true diversification on financial portfolios, so I think people underestimate the impact of true diversification in teams. Personally, I want to hire unmanageable people, specifically because they have instincts and spikes that are different from mine, and because it will be frustrating for everybody and hopefully we can all grow from it.

In the end, my husband hired this engineer into his own new startup. They’re building internal software for scientists working on discovering new cancer drugs, and I think it’s a perfect fit.

Laura Yao

Written by Laura Yao, who lives and works in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter, and subscribe to updates!