I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.“The Lorax”, 1971
This was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his books. If you haven’t come across it, it’s a great fable about a woodland creature who keeps warning an industrialist to stop cutting down all the Truffula trees; but the guy doesn’t listen and proceeds to destroy the ecosystem.
From time to time I feel like the Lorax, but instead of the trees, I speak for the developers, who are every software company’s most precious resource1. And I think this is a crucial, but often overlooked part of the software manager’s job: litigation.
At times the plaintiff, other times the defendant, but usually in opposition to someone named Taylor from another department, like finance or HR, who doesn’t understand engineers. Sometimes Taylor is someone very high up, who used to be an engineer a lifetime ago, but they’ve forgotten what it’s like, now that their days are filled with meetings about sales projections and synergy. And here you come, Sr. Cat Herder, with a request to change the new dress code policy.
“You might not have heard, but we had a bit of a problem in Marketing, so we had to institute the dress code. We didn’t want to, but you know Legal.”
You see, Taylor’s not a villain. Almost nobody is. They’re just trying to do their best, and one thing people outside of Engineering are pretty bad at doing is putting themselves in an engineer’s shoes. It would be easier for most people to pretend they were a parakeet. But this is where you come in — you who have knowledge of the way of life in the dark cave of Engineering.
So you use your nerdy charm and wit to show that having a policy is fine, but that it just needs to be tweaked, because while the developers have no intention of causing problems, roughly half of them will quit before dressing “professionally” at work. And a third of those, have not worn long pants or closed toed shoes in years — and won’t start now. Not when they can get a good job by just whispering the words “I’m looking for a change” into the ether that’s continuously monitored by eager recruiters. Because as it turns out, those developers are a lot of the best ones we have, and they’re past putting up with well-intentioned policies. And if even one of them leaves, it’ll cost us a ton in recruiting, on-boarding, shipping delay, and general business risk, which is surely worth tweaking the policy to allow cargo shorts and sandals.
“But it’s 45°F outside!”, Taylor exclaims.
“It doesn’t matter, because they’re almost never outside,” you reply, and then continue with a whisper, “and they’re really stubborn.”
If you do this well, the policy will get tweaked before the developers are even told what was in the policy email they deleted, and the builds go on without a blip.
Sometimes you have to be the change you want to see in the company, which is a bit harder. Convincing the powers that be to allow flexible hours, or to get Engineering more expensive laptops, or that the savings were not worth switching to Microsoft Teams — these are the kinds of things that might need a Powerpoint. A beautiful, well-researched, entertaining Powerpoint, which will take a lot of your precious little coding time.
But these are the things you have to do as a good manager and the sacrifices you have to make, because you are the Lorax, and you speak for the devs. Though… hopefully better than the Lorax, in that you actually succeed in preventing the collapse of the ecosystem.
- Just to be clear: I was using “resource” metaphorically. As much as nature abhors a vacuum, I abhor calling people resources. Trees and laptops and StackOverflow articles are resources — people are not.