Monday, September 22, 2014

Beware the insubordinate guru

They look respectable but watch out!
Over my career I have discovered that many of the problems I have encountered in technology have been people problems rather than technology problems.  It amazes me how many damaged, mentally ill and plain mean people I encounter in the business world.  This is not what I expected when I graduated from college.  I was expecting people to behave like grown-ups when I began my career.  Instead, I found out that in the business world people can be more immature than when they were in high school.  This week on the blog I want to discuss a particular species of individual you find in the technology world – the insubordinate guru.

I mention this individual because I have been forced to come to grips with the damage they have done over the last year of my career to one of my agile teams.  You can spot these individuals in any organization.  They came up through the ranks and have a good amount of technical skill.  They believe that they are the smartest person in the room and often they are right.  With this confidence comes an ego to match.  When combined with some authority it can be a dangerous combination. 

The insubordinate guru will dominate an agile team and discourage collaboration with a kurt “no” or saying “we are not going to do this project this way.”  They will also spend a great deal of time doing things outside of the team such as building data access layers because the others on the team are not smart enough to do it correctly.  Finally, they like to dish out abuse to others but rarely can take it.  They also consider alternate ways of doing things to be “wrong” on a moral level. 

One afternoon, I overheard two developers arguing.  One was the insubordinate guru and the other was a new consultant who was teaching others how to apply test driven development to their applications.  The guru was incensed that the other consultant used a sample of his code to show how to refactor for test driven development.  Additionally, the guru said that the consultant would fail because he did not understand the culture of the firm I work and the he was wasting his time. 

This individual was toxic and hurting the project and the agile team.  In the end, confronted with a project six months behind and with upper management pressuring him he left the firm.  In his wake we discovered that he created a large pool of technical debt, openly defied upper management, and had undermined the agile process. It would take us four months to pick up the pieces and get to some semblance of order. 

Now that I have experience this first hand, I understand that the insubordinate guru has no place on any agile team.  They ignore the agile principle that the best architectures come from self-organizing teams.  They do not foster trust because they undermine the morale of people who are not like them.  Finally, they do not develop the agile value of respect but instead use their authoritarian nature to bully others.  They also lack commitment and courage because when things go bad they are not accountable but when things go well they are always front and center. 

You can talk all you want about Agile but only by working as a scrum master in the trenches to you encounter the types of people who will doom your team’s success. 


Until next time.