Managing engineers: People are messy

Michael Lopp (pronounced as in "pop"), author of Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager, spoke recently with Computerworld about managing, innovation and writing books about managing innovation. Here are some highlights from that interview; the full interview is also available.

What's your background? What qualifies you to write this book?

Well, I've been a manager just forever, 15 years.

Read an excerpt from

Managing Humans by Michael Lopp

Were you ever a developer?

I was a developer. I started out in QA for a couple of years, then I made the switch over to development for a good five years. But I discovered that I was better at dealing with people than with code and since I knew how to code and I knew how to deal with people, I ended up kind of mixing those two into an interesting combination, which is commonly known as a manager.

Do many people have all of those traits?

There's a story that I tell. There's this curse in the Silicon Valley, and high tech in general, which is: Engineers are trained to be these very methodical, mathematical, technical types of people, and we get promoted for that by being successful at that. Then managers need to promote them again, and the common thing is to make them a manager, which is a completely different skill set. It's the people side. It's the messy side. So there's a lot of really good engineers out there that are promoted into being management that are really totally unqualified to do the job.

Is your book fact or fiction?

Good question. It's hard because I'm still in this industry. The stories are true, but since I still work here and these are people -- some of the stories of people that I know -- I've kind of mixed them up and I've pulled personalities and mixed them together. The stories, I think, ring true. People will read them, and they'll be recognizable, but there's no one named Fez. There's no one named all these goofy names that I have in this book. ...

Has anyone recognized themselves and gotten angry at you?
Not yet, though, with the book being published, there's a lot more people reading the material. No one's been upset yet. I think people have recognized traits in themselves, which is good, which is the point of the book. But again I make them sort of fanciful. There's a lot of humor in the book. It's meant to get you thinking. It's not meant to put people on the defensive or put them in an uncomfortable situation.

Who is Rands, the featured manager in your book, and where did he get his name?
Rands is a name that, like a lot of nerds and engineers in the Valley, that I used to log into a chat room forever, a million years ago. I started to use the name for the Web log that I write, randsinrepose.com, and it just stuck. Rands is this sort of semifictional character, who's this manager and who's obviously me, but he's still this person who's sort of a caricature, a cartoon almost. It's meant to be entertaining. It's not meant to be this person who you would meet on the street.

What are some of the main themes in the book?
The biggest theme is really a simple one, which is people are messy. ...

You called the book Managing Humans and yet its subtitle focuses on software engineers. Is that an overgeneralization or you do think most of it applies beyond?
I tried to make it approachable to people that weren't software engineers. I think that any manager in any industry would get some ideas out of it. ...

Do you think software engineers will see their own managers in Rands?
Absolutely. ...


Full interview with Michael Lopp. Duration: 16 minutes



Do you think there are optimal sizes for teams that are managed?
This is an interesting question. There's this rumor that Google has these hugely, wildly off ratios of employees to managers, like 70 to 1, and Google's doing great. So you have to wonder what's going on there. Did they learn something? Do they need managers? And obviously as a manager, I'm sort of terrified as well. Seventy to 1, that means a lot less managers. For me, my ratio for a functioning team, is eight to 10 [employees per manager]. At 10, I think you start to get into react mode as opposed to being proactive. ...

How do you stimulate innovation?
Wow! That is a tricky question, and it's a really timely question because everyone seems to be worrying a lot about design with the success of Apple and other companies like that. There's a million answers, and I've been thinking about this a lot. The next book is actually on this topic because I spend a lot of time worrying about this. It's just as messy as people are.

Innovation is sitting there and finding something that's never been seen before but is not so scary and new that it's not useful to people. Finding that middle ground between form and function is just a really, really tricky job.

The way I do it early on in the product cycle is I have these brainstorming meetings, and one of the chapters in the book, called "The Soak," walks through this very organic, chaotic process of sitting there and staring at an idea, refining it, and bringing new people in, and guiding while also letting people run around and bump into stuff. There's an art to it in terms of being able to recognize, "OK, that's it, that's the idea, that's what we want to innovate." Then, even a day later saying, "OK, so we were wrong. Let's go try again."

It's as artful as I think managing people is.

Do you think there's much creativity in software engineering these days?
Oh, absolutely! ...

Do you think that developers in the U.S. should worry about offshoring and outsourcing and all those horrible things?
I worry about that a lot and I think about that a lot. I see process being offshored, and I think that's great because it frees up everyone else to go and develop new things. Things, which are well defined and easily managed and have flow charts, are the sort of things that can be pushed offshore. You can't offshore innovation, because I don't think you can innovate without three people in a room yelling at each other. I think that gets really hard. I would love to see innovation happening every where, but I think one of the things we have in the Silicon Valley is we have this concentration of all these really, really bright people who tend to be stumbling all over each other, and there just this stew of creativity. ...

What makes software engineers tick?
It's an easy answer. Engineers, any engineer, are happiest when they're building something. They need to be building something. This is a problem for managers who used to be engineers because they need to realize that they're building people rather than products, and products as well. ...


Full interview with Michael Lopp. Duration: 16 minutes



To download the interview, use this link.

Book excerpt from Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager.

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