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review: Team Geek

by Rob Friesel

People are basically a giant pile of intermittent bugs.

With this simple humorous statement, Fitz and Ben1 perfectly capture the attitude that leads us to need a book like Team Geek (O’Reilly 2012). It’s not the only reason we need a book like this, but it’s an important one, considering our target audience: otherwise high-functioning engineers that need a little help figuring out how to navigate the apparently volatile social landscape. And why seek that help? Because those soft-skills are critical to building and maintaining high-performance software teams.2 As Fitz and Ben say right up front:

The basic idea of this book is simple: writing software is a team sport, and we posit that the human factors involved have as much influence on the outcome as the technical factors.

And you know exactly who they’re talking about. The inexperienced know-it-all. The taciturn jerk. The well-intentioned sadist. The sonorous martyr. The filibustering perfectionist. The mincing apologist. The cast of characters that make up the team that hopefully are not also breaking the team. They’re out there. Your eyes just darted back to the one that makes your life hell, didn’t you?3

Well, Fitz and Ben want to help. They want to help you cope with those people, to help avoid being one those people, and to help you become a leader4 within your cohort, because ultimately that’s the skill that you really need to grow. (And yes, they acknowledge that you may not agree with them on that point–but you’ll concede it by the end.)

The book can be partitioned into two basic sections: the first half is reflective and inward-looking, while the second half looks outward and discusses how to manage the relationships around you. They talk you through some introspection (“even if you are a genius, it turns out that that’s not enough”); through how to be part of an “awesome” team, and how to maintain the health of such a team; and through the patterns and anti-patterns of great leaders in software engineering. Once they have you reasonably well-acquainted with yourself and how you affect your teams, then they move on to the external factors. They talk through dealing with “poisonous people”; through how to “manage up” and manipulate the organization; and through building a rapport with your community of users/consumers.

Now you probably guessed (and correctly) that this book is full of witticisms and aphorisms, witty anecdotes and pithy sayings and other street office folklore. These are the axioms and fables that we’ve heard a million times, right? These are the slogans and myths that shape our view of the world. (You may find yourself saying: “But I already read about this in The Art of Agile Development!”) But they’re wise (Fitz and Ben) and throughout the text they acknowledge these facts. They acknowledge that we have heard “this” before, or that we already have an ingrained doubt about “that”. Fitz and Ben know that we’re not stupid–and that’s why we wind up trusting them. When they tell us that good ideas come from frequent face-to-face collaboration, they also acknowledge that you (like me) are probably an introvert that also needs to retreat afterward to the environment where you work best.5 When they talk about why it’s essential to evolve yourself into a leader, they acknowledge why you would be hesitant to take on such a role.6 And when they talk about “managing upward” and “manipulating your organization”, they acknowledge that this can be risky, and why you might not be so eager to take those risks, and also that sometimes it’s simply not worth expending the political capital.

So is it all witticisms and aphorisms? Well… mostly. Fitz and Ben have a lot of good anecdotes to tell here, and because they’re writing very specifically for software engineers, it’s a very earnest text. It’s conversational. It’s like sitting down to have a couple of beers with them and letting them set you straight on a few things. (Because let’s face it: if you’re reading this book, you want to be set straight on a few things.) It probably won’t change your life, but it might help give you that slight course-correction or attitude adjustment that you need. (Because let’s face it: if you’re reading this book, you want a slight course-correction or attitude adjustment.) And if you ask me, that alone makes the book worth the price of admission.

Disclosure: I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for writing this review.

  1. Our authors-slash-narrators-slash-mentors are actually Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman. But they refer to themselves as “Fitz and Ben” throughout the text–so they’re Fitz and Ben here, too. []
  2. Hopefully you didn’t need them to tell you this. Though it was probably one of those things that you knew already, but had been vehemently denying. []
  3. It was the sonorous martyr, wasn’t it? []
  4. Though not necessarily a manager; they’re very clear about that distinction. []
  5. They cite Susan Cain’s Quiet as essential reading. And I know that that is essential reading for introverts, so I’ve got that much more trust for Fitz and Ben. (I previously reviewed Quiet here.) []
  6. Again, they make a distinction between a “leader” and a “manager”. They even go so far as to joke that they’ve marked the “manager” as @Deprecated. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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