Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of Mickey W. Mantle and Ron Lichty’s new book entitled “Managing the Unmanageable. Rules, Tools and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams” (Amazon link) from Pearson Education, Inc. publishing. I am always on the lookout for books that try to cover the challenges associated with managing technical teams. Since I first got my hands on Michael Lopp’s “Managing Humans” (Amazon link) many years ago, I’ve been a sponge for new concepts and tips from other technology team managers. Without hesitation, Mantle and Lichty’s book is absolutely one every tech team manager needs to get their hands on and read cover to cover.
Without a doubt the authors speak from experience and have logically constructed this book to reveal that experience to their readers. Chapter after chapter describe their accumulated wisdom when it comes to managing software developers. After only a few chapters in I found myself wishing I had access to this book at the beginning of my management career. I kept agreeing with the authors’ perspectives and chuckling at their humor page after page. I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in a critical look at the success factors associated with managing software developers and software development teams. My only criticism, and it is a weak one at that, is that I didn’t uncover any new striking management revelations. Thus, if you new to systems delivery management, you will absolutely learn valuable tips and techniques that took me years to accumulate. If you are a seasoned manager and have invested heavily into the learned depth of your management role, you will find the book a pleasantly refreshing read that will confirm you are balancing the competing priorities associated with software delivery team management.
Review at Length
Both Litchy and Mantle have impressive career credentials. Touting managing teams at well known technology and software companies such as Pixar, Borderbund, Apple, Berkley Systems, Schwab.com and even the US Navy. The book has a somewhat bias towards technology companies rather than companies that use technology to deliver their products and services (my career and blog focus). This by no means suggests one working in a corporate IT shop won’t benefit from the majority of the great ideas in the book. Rather, the tips and concepts apply most directly to corporate IT team management challenges. This divergence manifests itself most in the development role categorizations in chapter 2. The descriptions of “systems” versus “applications” programmers are spot on, but with the ever growing “buy versus build” trend in corporate IT, that role distinction is getting more blended. The luxury of hiring both a “systems” and “applications” programmer on to your delivery team maybe an evaporating luxury and thus recruiting someone who can blend into either role as the situation demands becomes more of a necessity.
The book is structured in a logical flow that is easy to read and allows the authors to build upon the foundational elements of prior chapters as they introduce more complex topics in subsequent chapters. Below is a brief chapter outline to give potential readers a sense of the author’s flow and concepts addressed:
- Chapter 1 – Light introduction to support the title of the book: why programmers seem unmanageable, or rather, why programmers are uniquely challenging to manage. Here, contrasting Michael Lopp’s more artistic explanation of the mental make-up and personality drives of “nerds”, Mantle and Lichty take a more straight forward, logic based explanation of the motivations and drives of the average programmer.
- Chapter 2 – Understanding programmers, those “systems” versus “applications” programmer role preferences I mentioned above.
- Chapter 3 – Finding and hiring great programmers covering the recruiting challenges with some very pragmatic tips and tricks that I had to learn in a trial and error fashion myself. In this chapter I really was nodding my head paragraph after paragraph about how much I completely agreed with the authors’ perspectives.
- Chapter 4 – Getting new programmers started off right. Logical extension of once your have hired someone you really want on the team, what you need to do to get them acclimated and part of the team right away.
- Chapter 5 – Effectively managing down or managing the team you have assembled
- Chapter 6 – Managing up, out and yourself
- Chapter 7 – Motivating programmers
- Chapter 8 – Establishing a successful programming culture
- Chapter 9 – Managing successful software delivery
In the middle of the book in darker colored pages is a collection of what the authors call “Rules of Thumb and Nuggets of Wisdom”. This section is filled with great quotes that speak to a variety of technical team management challenges. I rarely if ever go back and re-read a book to refresh my mind with the perspectives I originally appreciated from the book. I believe I will most certainly be flipping through this collection of quotes from time to time to remind myself of some of the great tips and tricks the authors have assembled.
One thing that is worth noting is that it takes the authors a full eight chapters before they start covering the process and attributes of producing a quality product. Another reason I found the book an excellent reference is the in depth of focus on people rather than technology and process up front. If you’ve read some of the articles I’ve posted over the years, I rarely if ever talk about technology specific challenges. The challenges all revolve around people and the processes that drive people communicating rather than what .NET library or Java framework is the most effective to deliver a quality end product. Again, another reason I really enjoyed reading this book was this immediate identification with the authors’ and my priority on the people dynamics of IT solution delivery.
The book also makes mention of on-line tools such as recruiting checklists and work estimation guides. As of this review I didn’t directly access those additional on-line resources but will peruse them and update this review at some point.