Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

When delegating… consider quality, maintenance and learning

John Cook provides some valuable advice today about when to delegate. An important point he raises is that doing a per-hour analysis makes little sense since human beings are not simple machines. For example, delegating low-pay work that you find enjoyable might not be financially wise despite appearances.

For intellectual work, the “per hour” paradigm is almost always nonsensical. This was clearly illustrated by Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month.

After reading Brooks’ books, other points related to delegation come to mind:

  • Though bureaucrats would like to believe otherwise, quality is often more important than quantity for anything that really matters. One of the first things that Steve Jobs did when he took over Apple was to slash the product line. There are certainly cases where delegating can be a way to improve quality: I would be wise to delegate visual design or accounting to others if I want to maximize quality. However, if I delegate things I am passionate about (research, writing and programming), I almost always trade quality away.

I could certainly write many more research papers if I delegated more… but the more I invest in a research paper, the better it tends to turn out statistically. That’s because I really care about research, more so that most people.

When teaching, I often delegate. For grading duties, the results might be overall positive as I am not a great grader… But whenever I tried to delegate the production of lecture notes or homework assignments, the result has been poorer quality. Part of the reason is that I have a higher incentive to do a good job than whoever I delegate to.

If I were to delegate a mathematical modelling problem to John (he is an independent consultant), I can be quite certain that he would do a great job. He has a strong incentive to live up to his reputation. However, what if I were to delegate the production of a web site to a major firm like CGI? Would the programmer in charge of my project have a strong incentive to do a great job? Maybe not. He is probably primarily concerned with not getting blamed.

  • Delegating can save money today, but there are non-immediate benefits to doing things for yourself. For example, I write much of my own software in my research projects. This is unusual: most professors delegate this task entirely to their graduate students, or they hire programmers. Once again, I could get more research done if I didn’t have to write so much code: it can take up far more than half of my research time. However, I have long-term benefits.

For one thing, I can more easily produce maintainable software. I have software libraries that I have reused over several years. A contract programmer or a graduate student simply does not have as much of an incentive to make sure that software will be useful for a long time. I do. When I write my software, I worry about how I am going to maintain it. Maintained software tends to get better: it receives bug fixes and it is more thoroughly reviewed. Does it matter that I produce better software than I otherwise could? It is hard to tell… but I feel a lot better when I can proudly point to my software instead of having to hide it away like an ugly duck.

For another thing, while I write the software, I often learn about things I didn’t even know I could learn about (they are “unknown unknowns”). I might have a model in my head of what is efficient, but realize, as I am deep in the code, that I missed a subtle point. Sometimes I realize that my mental model is just flat out irrelevant. A typical realization is that some algorithm that appears naive on paper is far better than the fancier algorithms the theoreticians crave about.

John Cook advocates that you should consider delegating tasks that drain your energy. For me, that would be accounting. I am terrible at keeping track of bills and accounts. However, for many years, I did all my accounting myself. I had my own business and some of it was quite cumbersome. Why did I do it myself? To understand what was going on. I suspect that a lot of small business owners go bankrupt precisely because they refuse to take accounting seriously. No doubt, the government is in league with the accountants to make accounting as technically challenging as possible… but if you delegate too much, how will you know whether your business decisions are sound?

You should definitively delegate. Trade in goods and services is what made us so wealthy in the first place. In some sense, using computers is all about delegating: from your brain to electronic circuits. However, if you have delegated so much that you are no longer learning from your hands-on work, you may have delegated too much.