Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager

Reading Time: 5 minutes

If you’ve read my other work on company culture and the tech community on this blog, chances are that you have seen me quote Michael Lopp (known online as Rands). He has managed engineers at several software companies you’ve heard of, he has some things to say about how it’s done, and I agree with a number of those things.

Rands comes across in his writing as a cantankerous old man who happens to know what he’s talking about. This is convenient for me because, if I were to say the exact same thing, I’d get coded as ‘abrasive’ instead of knowledgable. So instead of sharing my own frustration I just point to his frustration, and he is the one telling it like it is instead of me.

He published a book that anthologizes several of his past blog posts and articles about engineering management. As I looked through the book, I found myself bookmarking particular chapters. These chapters contain salient material that either a) can help you manage better on a daily basis or b) can help you manage better on infrequent but critical occasions. I’m sharing those bookmarks with you, linked to the posts on his blog where you can read material similar to that chapter in the book.


Chapter 3. Stables and Volatiles – This post sheds some light on why the young, upstart cowboy coders at your company work so differently from the seemingly slow and over-cautious old guard. It articulates very clearly why those two factions behave differently and how they get that way.

Chapter 7. The Update, the Vent, and The Disaster – In my experience most managers have no idea why we do one on ones, let alone how to conduct one. So they don’t register critical intelligence from their reports until it’s too late. This post attempts to shed some light on recognizing critical intelligence.

Chapter 15. You’re Not Listening – Related to the above. Written to help managers learn to listen. Here’s the most important line, for people who don’t click the link: “If They Don’t Trust You, They Aren’t Going to Say Shit.”

Chapter 26. The Value of The Soak – This one is about learning to think and synthesize ideas. My best ideas inevitably happen in the shower, on a run, or anywhere that I have no access to paper and pen (of course). This post is about operationalizing that.

Chapter 29. When the Sky Falls – This post is about fixing the emergency. It describes a process that is frustrating to execute because it doesn’t start with fixing the emergency. That said, in my experience of emergencies, in most cases this process would have been faster than whatever it was we did.

Chapter 32. Bored People Quit – This post does a great job of outlining the early warning signs of employee discontent. I have seen these things with my eyeballs (maybe you have too), but what I’ve rarely seen is a manager catch them and fix the issue before it turned into ‘I quit’ six months later.

Chapter 38. Meeting Creatures – This piece goes over the most important question to ask about a meeting: who is the decision maker, and are they in this meeting? It discusses the roles in a meeting. Of particular import: anchor, snake.

Chapter 51. Shields Down  – This is the first thing of Rands’s that I ever read, and I felt like he had written it just for me. It’s about retention, and this piece totally nails it.

A Final Word

Those are my chapter picks, but I’ll end with a screenshot of my favorite (and most validating) quote in the book:

rands quote

I share it because it touches on a fallacious assumption we make in professional settings: that people have to get along for the team to achieve the best outcome. So we hire and promote on ‘fit,’ but we construe ‘fit’ to mean ‘who could be friends with the people already in power’.  The result: the manager meeting is chummy chummy until the day the sky falls because nobody caught some devastating problem. But this practice’s ubiquity makes it hard to find instructive counterexamples. Rands has seen a lot, and this quote tells me he has found them. I hope his next blog post shares a few of those.

Update: Ten months after I wrote this post, I ended up writing a post on fit! Here it is, for your reading pleasure.

If that idea is intriguing to you, you might also like:

This post about anger and sadness in the workplace

This post, which touches on healthy workplace disagreement (point #3)

This post about empowering managers to challenge the incumbent system


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