'Management is not work'

In which I explain that management is, indeed, work. But it doesn't look like work because it deals in different material than thermodynamics or information.

'Management is not work'

On a call with a senior engineer, stuck on the threshold of management, he said that 'management doesn't feel like real work.'

Well, I asked him then, if management doesn't feel like work, then why does typing on a keyboard feel like work?

In this post I will tell you about the three kinds of entropy, and what work looks like in each of them.


One of the definitions of work is the achieving of a reduction of entropy in a particular subsystem. Of course, entropy is always increasing, it being the arrow of time and all that, but you can, through human ingenuity, bring order to a part of the universe that you care about while increasing entropy in some other part that you do not care about yet.

An air-conditioner does the work of cooling a room, reducing the entropy inside the room while spewing out heat on the outside. (Don't @ me, I'm not a physicist).

For a lot of us, the word work implies work done to reduce thermodynamic entropy. Moving stuff around. Melting and shaping steel. Raising buildings. W = Fs and all that. This is traditional work. What I call thermodynamic work.

For a long time, many millenia, this was the only noticable form of work. But this is not the only form of work.

Let's take an example

You and your father the Sultan are in the garrison. Your father lies in his boots, succumbing slowly to the wounds received earlier in the day – a fitting end for a warrior of his status. Great glory awaits him in the Heavens.

And sad as you are, as the eldest son, there is work to be done. "Bring me the fastest messenger", you whisper to your friend and general. Soon enough arrives a young man, worn from the rigors of the campaign but alert and willing. He supplicates himself and awaits your command. You hand him a scroll, locked behind your seal, and bid him to take it to the Prime Minsiter, back in the Capital. "No one must know", you say.

The young man snaps to attention, takes the message, mounts a valiant looking steed and thunders off into the distance, over the low hills and into the black of night.

He will ride like this without rest for 40 hours more. Keeping away from the highways, avoiding robbers, stopping for nothing, no food, no drink, no sleep. He arrives late in the evening, the late fall fog casting ethereal shadows along the palace complex. Watchmen drag him, exhausted and sore, into the chambers of the Prime Minister. The old man receives the message and nods grimly.

That night, in the palace, the blades come out. Any male, young or old, within shouting distance of the throne, no matter how weak their claim, are put to sword. The harems flow with blood and the shrieking of courtesans. The many minor queens of the Sultan wail as their progeny are brutally ended.

Long live the new Sultan and death to his enemies.

So now we ask ourselves, what is work, exactly? Work was definitely done by the rider and the horse. Lots of Fs creating a bunch of s-es. But the message did some work as well.

Shannon entropy.

It would not be right for me to start expounding on the concept of information entropy, but suffice to say that when the entropy of information is reduced (when you write documentation, for example, or when you place a bid on a marketplace), it can be said that work has been done. There is a disorder in the informational or mental sphere that is reduced through doing mental work. This is the second kind of work, our stick in trade - information work

That is why as coders we consider our work to be work, even though the total amount of F and s are miniscule. Just some keys being typed and whatever wattage the brain needs to do this.

But there is another level to this. I call it 'the entropy of consciousness'.

The entropy of consciousness

Coders are famous for their disdain of marketers. 'What do they even do all day?' they snigger. 'It's not real work' chimes in another. They also have disdain for the executives who spend all their time in meetings. Not one of them could invert a binary tree if their life depended on it. Pathetic.

Any work done at your level of entropy or the levels below looks like work. Any work done at levels above looks like a fake job.

- svs's law?

My friend tells me the story of the cleaning lady in their tech office who would scold the young men - do some work, you chaps, just sitting all day in front of the computer.

So a coder has no problem admitting that a bricklayer does work. It's quite obvious to see. But they have trouble parsing the fact that marketing, sales and yes, managers also do 'work'. But their output is not a reduction in thermodynamic entropy or information entropy, it is a reduction in the entropy of consciousness.

Human attention is the most powerful unifying force in the Universe. Where you pay attention is where your energy goes. This attention, driven through rhetoric and emotion, is the stock in trade of fiction writers, advertisers, politicians and demagogues. And it does work.

It can make your product the most loved product through clever branding, it can move an audience to tears, it can inspire someone to achieve the impossible and it can be used to unite a population and make them bay for blood.

Do not be under any false impressions – work is being done.

Management is work