English Sheep and Software Relationships

The worldly and wise among us repeat without end: relationships and getting along are everything in the world of work. I grudgingly admit that they are sort of right. But I also insist that groups of highly technical people with highly technical jobs, like programmers, outshine the competition by 10X or more by following a different set of rules.

Yes, relationships are important. But high-performing software people build real relationships based on the common substance on which they work -- software -- rather than interpersonal junk.

Sick Sheep in England

This isn't just about software. It's about knowledge and substance vs. interpersonal relationships. There's a section of Thomas Hardy's novel Far From the Madding Crowd which illustrates the point nicely.

Bathsheba has inherited a farm, and she knows little about farming. She is totally focused on her changed circumstances and her status relationships with the people around her. Because of his own troubles, a neighbor named Gabriel Oak has been working for her. Gabriel has deep knowledge of sheep. Bathsheba disapproves of the way he relates to her, and dismisses him. Then her sheep break through a fence and start eating young clover, which makes them very sick. They start to die.

Her men tell her that only Gabriel knows how to pierce their stomachs and cure them, but she refuses to ask for his help. Then another sheep dies, and she asks him to come. He refuses until asked "properly," with respect. She asks, he comes, he operates on all the sheep. The day is saved.

Bathsheba has learned the important lesson that -- substance and knowledge matter! -- and so asks him back and he accepts, now that his technical skill is respected, and front-and-center.

Sick Sheep in Software

I have seen far too many situations in software groups run by Bathshebas who have yet to go through a dying-sheep episode. I have also seen far, far too many situations in software groups in which software sheep are dying by the day ... and the Bathsheba in charge simply refuses to change her or his attitudes and reconcile with the equivalent of Gabriel Oak.


Do you want to win an award for most congenial software group? Or do you want to have a software group that bonds over the work it's doing, and hits it out of the park? This isn't a binary choice, but you definitely do have to decide your priorities. If someone is marginally productive and starts getting nasty, it's time for them to go. If someone is a great producer, you find ways to make the nerd happy and fulfilled as well. By doing great work. This is a tough subject and an important one. For more, see this. For lots more on software people, see this.