Book Review: Managing Humans

Michael Lopp’s collection of essays Managing Humans feels a bit like an XKCD comic strip as written word. Lopp approaches engineering and management topics with amusing candor, sprinkling in fictional yet based-on-fact anecdotes that provide both context and a tangible example of the topic he is discussing.  The essay format allows for easy digestion of each topic so that his theme can be understood and reflected upon. While each essay stands on its own legs, Lopp threads a connection between each by grouping the book into 3 parts: The Management Quiver, The Process is the Product, and Versions of You.

Lopp’s background in engineering and his progression to management enables him to straddle the line between pure engineering and pure management fields, giving him the ability to describe situations well from both standpoints. He relates to engineers that wonder what exactly managers do all day, beginning his collection of essays off with a story in which an engineer asks Lopp “What, exactly, do you do?”. He laments with the engineer about bad management and managers that have given the profession a bad name through poor decision making, lacking of understanding, and numerous other issues. Putting on his manager cap, he then outlines the critical reasons why managers exist; how a good manager will behave and interact with their engineering team; and how managers are the gatekeepers of the engineer’s time by protecting them from the noise and distractions that come with working in a group of people of any size.

For managers, Managing Humans covers an assortment of topics, from handling the Monday Morning Freak out (Lopp concludes that all major freak outs happen on a Monday,) constructive one-on-ones, off-sites, and disruptive scenarios such as layoffs and company reorganizations. He addresses the opposite scenario of the engineer-management interaction, in which managers don’t understand or forget the conditions for effective engineering. The various levels of management (Inward, Heuristic, Outward) and the primary focus of each are discussed, along with what to look for when someone is looking to make a jump between them. Above all, Lopp recognizes there are many methods to poor management. Lopp does his best to steer the reader away from management pitfalls and to focus how to do best by their team.

If you’re a manager, Lopp’s book provides insight into the dark corners of engineering and how to do the best by your team. As an engineer, it clarifies the essentiality of managers in a productive software environment. Both engineers and managers can find some insight through the tales of Managing Humans - it tells a unifying story of humans working together to build a stable product in a chaotic environment.

Below I’ve outlined a few of the essays that had the most impactful takeaways for me.


  • Chapter 19: Tear it Down
    • There are theoretically three types of leaders in an organization. First is The Lead, who focuses on tactical, day-to-day execution within a team. This person focuses inward and has a deep understanding of the intricate details required to implement the products they are working on. Next there are the Leads of Leads, who have distance from daily work, dealing with both tactical implementation from a high level along with company-wide strategy. They have oversight across the company and provide a communication buffer between outward focused directors and inward focused Leads. Leads of Leads truly run the company, as they are responsible for orchestrating the hands-on work to get done. Last are the Directors, who face outward, convincing the world of the product and team’s capabilities. These people deal entirely with strategy, relying on those below them (“the Minions”) to process, transcribe, and execute the work required. While there is no implicit hierarchy in the roles described as they all depend on each other, many companies adopt one in which the Directors are at the top and the Leads (and their Sub-Minions) are at the bottom. But, healthy teams should be as flat as possible!
  • Chapter 26: The Value of the Soak
    • Reacting throughout the day to new and changing information rarely leaves time for an employee’s mind to stumble and wander. “Soaking,” Lopp describes, is an individual process to stew over ideas and decisions. There are two versions of soaking: Active and Passive. Active involves feeling out the answers - asking stupid questions, writing down solutions (much like the Rubber Duck Principle), etc. Passive soaking is simply giving the thought some time to air out in a person’s brain. Soaking adds time to a decision or thought, distancing the emotion and immediate reaction and often resulting in a more wholesome, well-rounded answer.
  • Chapter 2: Managers are Not Evil
    • What the hell do managers do? First: your manager’s job is not your job. A successful organization is built of layers of people that communicate between each other through managers. Managers maneuver through these layers by knowing where they came from and where they want to go. Important information by which to evaluate a manager includes knowing what happens when they freak out, what position they are in within the political environment of the office, how they make their decisions (on instinct, or empirical information?) and their roots.
  • Chapter 47: Avoiding the Fez
    • You may be a rock star now, but someone is working to make you irrelevant! Skill and Will are two axes on a graph, and roughly correlated; improving one likely improves the other. As an engineer progresses in their career, or even within their own company, it’s easy to fall into complacency. It’s a manager’s responsibility to equip “Fez” (the fictional complacent senior engineer) with the tools to help him/her succeed. To do so, each month a manager should catalog reflections of the team, with the goal to help inform performance reviews and help remove recency bias. In an annual review, managers should strive to figure out things that can improve an engineer’s Will and Skill. If a compensation increase isn’t being given in an annual review, the manager should schedule two meetings. The first meeting should be to present the review without discussion of compensation, keeping that conversation for the second. Once an employee hears the wrong thing about compensation, the conversation is over and the employee goes on the defense. By separating these discussions, the manager has the opportunity to give the full review while the employee is receptive to the feedback, before discussing a lack of compensation increase in the second.
  • Chapter 7: The Update, the Vent, and the Disaster
    • One-on-ones are of utmost importance as a manager. Hold one each week, never skip it, and give it a solid block of time. Start with an easy opener, and let the recipient decide how the conversation will go with their response. There are usually three responses (those listed in the title). The Update is boring; this is just a status report, and not the point of one-on-ones. Direct this to a mini-review or prepared points that you have for the subject. The Vent is a chance for the employee to be heard. Let the employee finish their point, but don’t allow them to continually repeat the same point over and over. The Disaster is a Vent multiplied with personal emotion. Listen and understand that this is not just about the issue, but the emotions surrounding the circumstances and resolution (or lack thereof) of the issue. A Disaster is a result of poor management, as the employee feels that an emotional, off-the-rails outburst is is the only productive avenue for change. One-on-ones are preventive maintenance - an oil check on the team; assume there is something to be learned, and let the employee speak and be heard.
  • Chapter 24: How to Start
    • This essay is more of a reflection on how to start personal projects, but can be applied to any task or unit of work. The process of preparation for a project often gets a bad rap, often because it is unstructured (similar to “The Soak”). This could include random and appears orthogonal to the task at hand. Stress kills creativity. Mornings are best for stretching one’s brain and cranking out creative work. With the potential of the entire day ahead, it’s up to the employee to direct their energy to what they’d like to produce. Evenings are left with the stress from the day, the realization that time is finite, and often low energy levels. It’s then best to do work that might not require creative thinking, and to work on more “right-brained” tasks that are structured and definite.