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As the market contracts, recent claims about ‘fake’ and ‘BS’ jobs by venture capitalist David Ulevtich have put middle management roles under the spotlight.

Engineering managers have to constantly grapple with cycles of growth and contraction – especially in the volatile technology industry. This creates a people management challenge to meet the changing needs of the organization, by constantly shaping and reshaping teams and unblocking them to do their best work. Now, as the sector faces its first real period of contraction in decades, this facet of the job is under increased scrutiny.

David Ulevitch, the former founder and CEO of OpenDNS and now an investor at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), put this topic under the magnifying glass recently, when he railed against what he sees as the proliferation of “fake work” and “BS jobs” at big tech companies.

In a guest lecture for Emily Sundberg’s Feed Me newsletter earlier in May, Ulevitch took aim at “the growing professional managerial class” and the social perception that what they did was really important. “This dynamic is endemic across corporations and is lame,” he wrote. “Half the white-collar staff at Google probably does no real work. The company has spent billions and billions of dollars per year on projects that go nowhere for over a decade,” he claimed.

Ulevitch isn’t the only one with this opinion. His boss, Marc Andreessen, tweeted in April 2022 that “The good big companies are overstaffed by 2x. The bad big companies are overstaffed by 4x or more.”

It’s worth noting that a16z may take such an interest in the topic due to its AI investments, many of which aim to automate away any job that might be branded as fake or BS. Ulevitch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Absolute BS?

“I’ve personally noticed a mix of opinions on the existence of ‘BS jobs’, with some arguing that certain middle management positions are superfluous, while others believe they play a vital role in keeping a company going by facilitating communication between different departments,” says Kenneth Glynn, founder at Career Navig8r, an online mentoring platform, who used to work at Deloitte Consulting. 

While middle management at large corporations has long been an easy target – Google even famously failed to eliminate them altogether in 2002 – that’s likely because their value can be hard to see, even for their direct reports.

“These middle managers lighten the load on business leaders by overseeing teams and managing projects, all while ensuring close alignment with company values,” he says. “They essentially act as a bridge between the strategic goals of the higher ups and the execution on the ground, which is a valuable thing to have in the complex and ever-changing tech landscape.”

Permanent or temporary changes?

While many will disagree, Ulevitch and Andreessen’s view is not uncommon. “I think things are right sizing again,”  Jonathan Grubin, founder and CEO of tech firm SoPost says. “From my perspective we grew so quickly in the pandemic we felt like we needed to bring in all these layers of management.”

This “added complexity, cost and disrupted our culture, and ultimately slowed us down and ruined a lot of things we’d tended to so carefully over a decade,” he says.

Grubin decided to step in and strip back middle management. “The impact has been amazing,” he says. “Leadership is closer to everything, as an org we’re making smarter decisions, faster, and overall happiness and culture is a lot better.”

Glynn admits that those roles introduced as a company starts to rapidly expand may not necessarily be needed once a firm reaches a certain level, and especially so if it enters a period of contraction. But that doesn’t mean they are BS. “I believe continuous evaluation of these roles’ relevance and effectiveness is the best path forward, allowing companies to strike the right balance between scalability and contraction,” he says. Companies need to constantly assess how managers are adding value, and ensure that staff feel supported and not restricted by any new layers of management.

For Rachel Cohen of software agency Silicon Society, the question of how much to staff is a pressing, live concern. “The introduction of AI into engineering-team workflows creates opportunities for technical teams to fall into this same trap of overstaffing and underutilization,” she says. Now that AI tools can already write boilerplate code, she believes that the requirements for entry level engineers are already shifting. “If engineering teams do not address the new skills needed to be a successful engineer, then their more junior staff will be undertrained and underutilized,” she says.

She recommends that leaders provide training on AI tools, encourage staff to work with novel languages and technologies, and embrace a culture of continuous learning. “It takes some time and financial investment to upskill engineers and rebuild the team culture in this way, but it will pay off in the long-term,” she says.

Staffing better, not bigger

Finding this balance requires careful, considerate leadership. While there’s no such thing as BS jobs, roles can become outmoded. It’s the role of leadership to ensure things are constantly monitored and adjusted to avoid this happening. 

“The one true skill of a developer in this new era will be learning how to learn and problem solving, so that any senior engineering team member can be staffed on any part of the stack," Cohen says.

Either way, the idea that there are too many middle managers is likely a misnomer. At a time when the role of a developer is becoming more flexible in terms of the tools they use and how they operate, there’s a pressing need for quality managers who can help smooth that transition for employees, especially those who are nervous about how their roles might be percieved in the future.