Rant: I Am Not a Cat Herder

Cat Herding image CC-BY courtesy of carterse on Flickr; click to view originalIt’s a no-brainer. It’ll happen. If I were the betting kind I’d lay good money on it. Any time I’m mingling at some social event (cocktail party, BBQ, conference hallway track or pub outing, etc.) there will be at least one conversation which proceeds thusly:

Them: So, what do you do?
Me: Oh, I’m a software engineering manager.
Them: Ah! You herd cats! <insert self-satisfied chuckle at their oh-so-original witticism>

My typical response is to grit my teeth, smile wanly and change the subject. But ya know what? I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore. I’m rather fed up with the all-too-common misconception that managing software engineers is as chaotic and fruitless as wrangling a passel of felines. Seriously, if you’re a dev manager who describes his/her job as “Cat Herder” then just get the hell out of the business now. You don’t respect your staff and you’ve entirely missed the point of your job.

At no point in the management process should there be anything resembling “herding.” If your team requires herding then the problem is not the typically independent and outspoken nature of the software developers that comprise it. The problem is you. You don’t know how to be a manager. Communication, negotiation, mentoring, prioritization, leadership… These are the skills of a successful dev manager. Failure to learn, employ and constantly improve these skills leads to a team full of cats, loose cannons, powder kegs, prima donnas…choose your favorite negative descriptor.

It’s possible to learn these skills but only if you realize that it’s necessary. A good first step toward that is to stop implying your staff are unmanageable by calling them cats. Respect them as the intelligent people that they are, listen to what they have to say and clearly communicate the direction the company needs them to go and why. You’ll find that what you end up with looks a lot more like a functional and efficient team than cantankerous felines.