management lessons from Bones

I don’t watch much TV, but one forensics show I’ve occasionally caught and enjoyed is the American TV series “Bones“. An old episode from the start of season 2 recently caught my attention for its clues on good software management. (This is an occupational hazard for me, but a fun one: I find myself seeing software development parallels, paradigms, and patterns in all kinds of non-software related contexts!)

“Bones” Brennan is the lead forensic anthropologist (see the list of characters for more details on her and the others). A recurring theme of the series is that while Brennan is technically brilliant, her social/people skills are notoriously weak. In this particular episode from the start of season 2, pathologist Cam Saroyan joins the Jeffersonian as the new head of Brennan’s forensics department. At the start of the episode, Bones seems annoyed that the director hired Saroyan instead of promoting her to that management position.

Three elements of this show stood out to me for their relevance to common challenges in managing software teams.

  1. Reasons for changing jobs: FBI Special Agent Booth, Brennan’s partner, and Saroyan are chatting. It’s obvious they knew each other well previously, before she became the boss. He asks her why she took the coroner position. She tells him about some of the working conditions at her old job in New York, e.g. having to perform autopsies in windowless basements on “leaky tables with no drainage”, and she compares its so-so reputation to the high esteem of this place (the ‘Jeffersonian’ in Washington, DC). Then she mentions that dark, horrible, messy autopsy room again. Booth nods in understanding. (No, money never comes up.)
  2. Reasons for (not) winning promotions: Brennan is inquiring with a few of her trusted team members about why she didn’t get that promotion. She’s especially offended that the big boss who hired Saroyan made his decision and brought Saroyan in while Brennan was out on vacation, then took a vacation of his own “so he didn’t have to face her”. At first her best friend, Montenegro, doesn’t want to hurt Brennan’s feelings, but then she gently tells her that yes, her weakness in people skills was probably a factor in why she was passed over. In a different conversation, Booth reassures Brennan that “there must have been a reason” Saroyan was chosen over her, and she agrees to his request that she reserve judgment.
  3. Reasons teams do and don’t support their leaders: After a few initial difficult encounters with Brennan and her technical team, Saroyan asks Booth in private why Brennan doesn’t seem to like her. Booth tells her that Brennan is a bit hurt at not getting the promotion, but mostly, she’s viewing Saroyan like an insufficiently-studied corpse and won’t decide about Saroyan until she has sufficient evidence! She nods, asks what Brennan is looking for, and Booth gives her one key pointer: “take care of her people” (i.e., supporting the people on Brennan’s investigative team, instead of micro-managing their work as she did in one of the initial encounters).

This episode features a high-ranking political official with a strong interest in the very newsworthy case. When the official criticizes one of Montenegro’s investigative tactics during a meeting, Saroyan strongly defends her. Montenegro thanks her afterward, and Saroyan acknowledges her thanks, but says with a smile that she wouldn’t have supported her if she hadn’t been right.

The episode involves further political posturing in which the official publicly attacks the team and their investigative findings. Near the end of the episode, Saroyan tactfully but firmly vindicates and defends Brennan and her team to the official. She further puts the official on notice that if there’s ever an issue in future with Brennan or any of Saroyan’s other people, it must be brought to her privately first. Watching how deftly Saroyan  is handling the official in this meeting, Brennan whispers to Booth, “I’m starting to see why she got the job.”

How many times have you seen these five circumstances from that Bones episode in a software development situation?

  • Organizations that expect their staff to deliver high quality results (and be happy) with low quality tools, equipment, and work environment;
  • Managers who lack the personal courage to have open and honest conversations with their developers, architects, and technical leads about how well their career aspirations align with their aptitudes and skills;
  • Technical superstars who resent being passed over for management positions, or are moved into management positions and then don’t perform well because they lack the required soft skills;
  • Peers who are reluctant to give tactful but honest, useful feedback to their colleagues;
  • Managers who don’t have the political courage to stand up for their people to higher-ups, or to insist that their concerns on the team’s performance be raised and addressed privately and professionally.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen all of these in various software organizations. Haven’t you?

If you’re a software manager, consider these five DO’s and DON’Ts as ‘thoughts for the day’:

  • DON’T: Is your organization (like Saroyan’s ex-employer) expecting your development and test staff to cope with ‘leaky’ tools and equipment, while happily delivering outstanding software products? (and are its leaders surprised when people leave for better environments?)
  • DO: Have you guided your staff to realistic expectations regarding their promotion potential, whether on the ‘management track’ or ‘technical track’, and mentored them on what they need to improve to meet their career goals? (something Brennan’s big boss failed to do)?
  • DO: Are you cultivating a trusting environment in which your team builds good working relationships, feels comfortable having these kinds of conversations, and shares honest feedback with each other? (despite her notorious lack of empathy, in this interpersonal aspect Brennan clearly is succeeding as team lead; many software managers don’t)
  • DON’T: Have you hired or promoted technical people for managerial roles based on their technical skills, without paying attention to whether they have or are developing (under your mentorship) the interpersonal skills they will need to succeed? (by hiring Saroyan, Brennan’s big boss did get this right; many software managers don’t)
  • DO: And finally, what are you doing to develop Saroyan’s courage to inquire, to listen, to support, and to tactfully but firmly ‘speak truth to power’ and to your people? (most people won’t reserve judgment as long as Bones did, or wait for you to trust them before they decide not to trust you; it’s important to try to get this right quickly with a new team)

I’d love to hear what you think. (And if you’re a science geek too, you might want to check out “Bones” – based on the episodes I’ve seen, it’s a well-written series with genuine and interesting characters.)

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