PPSD: The Fake Surgeon

“I just trust my intuition taking into account the psychology of things. Therefore, I am not persuaded by facts, but by behaviors.”
― Maria Karvouni

In his classic book on software engineering, The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks presents a radically different approach to organizing development teams, which he coined the “Surgical Team.” His idea is based upon three key insights:

1. Great software developers are easily 10 times more productive than average developers.
2. Conceptual integrity is the key to the success of every software product, especially large software products.
3. The bigger the team, the more communication paths are required, which is detrimental to conceptual integrity.

Consequently, according to Brooks, a software team should consist of a single super-programmer (the “surgeon”) accompanied by nine “assistants,” give or take. The surgeon is not only the boss of the team, but he also does the main work; that is, thinking and programming, all for the sake of minimal communication and conceptual integrity. The assistants have clearly defined roles, all aimed at making the surgeon’s life easier and boosting his productivity: for example, they support him as backup programmer, editor, tester, and secretary.

To grade A developers, this approach looks quite appealing, as they finally get the resources, recognition, and status that they crave so much, while at the same time still being allowed to do what they love to do most: programming.

Alas, for various reasons the whole idea was stillborn (boo-hoo!), but that’s not what I want to focus on today. For the rest of our discussion, you just have to bear in mind these facts about Brooks’ analogy:

1. The surgeon is a talented and experienced developer.
2. The surgeon is the boss and has the company’s official mandate.
3. The assistants respect the surgeon and fully accept their roles as subordinates.

A Fake Surgeon, by contrast, is a wannabe surgeon—a surgeon that has no official mandate and his imagined assistants neither accept him nor their ascribed roles.

Early in my career, I was part of a fake surgical team. The Fake Surgeon was very prolific, worked ridiculous hours, and never went for lunch. Why? Because he wanted to make himself indispensable by keeping a massive head start on the rest of the team.

Sometimes, he would leave the office late at night for only a couple of hours, to take a quick nap and a shower. When the other team members arrived in the morning, they couldn’t believe their eyes: so much had changed overnight! They really didn’t know how or where to contribute. Instead of filling them in, the Fake Surgeon’s solution was to assign his “assistants” only non-critical, menial work because, according to him, he was way too busy to explain what he did during last night’s blaze of glory. This tactic ensured that he remained the keeper of the crown jewels. Managers, sales, customers—they only talked to him, because he was the authoritative source of everything, thus isolating the rest of the team even more.

He put up such an act, always looking so busy and stressed, that you didn’t dare disturb him. If you finally got up the courage, he’d only give you short, superficial, sometimes even misleading replies.

Reading his code was far from easy—it left you puzzled and gave rise to many questions; questions, that you were too afraid to ask. Obviously, mysterious, unreadable code was yet another element of his cunning plan: job security by code obscurity.

APPEARANCE

Regarding the choice of clothing, a Fake Surgeon is pretty average, at least clothes do not define him. By and large, he doesn’t spend much time on looks; instead, he invests his time speeding ahead of everyone else. It’s highly likely that he appears rushed, always hustling about the office, never socializing over coffee, just swiftly refilling his mug before running back to his keyboard.

PERSONALITY TRAITS

Most likely, the reasons for a Fake Surgeon’s behavior are deeply rooted in his low self-esteem and fragile ego. Deep down inside, he’s aware of his limited skills and is in constant fear of losing his job. To compensate for his insecurity, he tries to establish a regime of control, keep as much of his knowledge to himself, and make sure that his enigmatic code can only be understood by him and nobody else. A self-confident programmer, by contrast, knows that he’s indispensable because he shares information and writes clean code that can be extended by others.

Of course, such a pathological type of developer can’t thrive all by himself. Every Fake Surgeon forms an unhealthy symbiosis with an extremely weak manager who condones such egoistic behavior. In most instances, the Fake Surgeon’s boss doesn’t see through the Fake Surgeon’s ulterior motives and might even praise the Fake Surgeon for his unusual commitment. After all, the Fake Surgeon takes care of everything and thus gives the boss plenty of time to work on his own career.

What ends up happening, in almost all cases, is that the Fake Surgeon sooner or later takes advantage of his distinguished position and extorts the company by asking for a sizable pay raise. Usually, the company gives in, must give in, because they can’t afford to lose such an important person. What these companies fail to recognize is that they already lost him, anyway. Fake Surgeons are sly and anticipate that once they’ve made such a move, their days might be numbered. Hence, they use this promotion just for negotiation purposes and try to land an even better paid job with a competing company. A company, where the Fake Surgeon can rightly claim, “In my previous job, I did everything by myself” and where nobody knows his selfish, dirty little secret. Depending on whether his need for security and power are ultimately met at the new job, he might settle down and mellow out; if not, he might establish yet another cycle of abuse.

RATING

According to the Q²S² framework, a Fake Surgeon’s rating is 5/2/1/1.

TOOLING

A Fake Surgeon likes tools, especially tools that give him a strategic advantage over others. Most likely, some of the tools that he (or the team) employs were created by himself, such that he’s the only person who can operate and extend them. He also fancies rarely used libraries and programming languages and exerts quite a significant amount of effort in mastering them. To a Fake Surgeon, that’s time wisely invested, as it allows him to race ahead on steroids while the rest of the team is limping along.

CONCLUSION

Information hiding is a sound and proven software design principle but it doesn’t carry over to developers working on a team. A Fake Surgeon is the opposite of a team player—he’s a ball hog. He’s a charlatan that dupes everyone into believing that he’s a real surgeon. All he has in mind, however, is advancing his career at the expense of others, often putting the fate of whole companies at risk. He’s such a nuisance to work with that often valuable team members (who never got a chance to prove themselves) leave the toxic environment he created.

A strong manager is required to prevent a company from being taken hostage by such an individual. A strong manager wouldn’t fall prey to a Fake Surgeon’s ensnarement. Instead, he will make knowledge sharing a priority and ensure that everyone leaves the office on time. Managers, beware red flags: If somebody works excessive overtime, tell this person immediately that they should rather use their time to enable others to contribute. This way, the person’s time will yield a high return on investment and reduce the overall risk for the project. If he doesn’t understand, ask him to seek his luck elsewhere. Don’t shed any tears over this person: the only thing that you lost is a problem.

Comments (3)

  1. 20:20, 16-04-2019Doug  / Reply

    The idea, “1. Great software developers are easily 10 times more productive than average developers.” is already broken.
    A developer can be 10x productive in the right environment. The same person in the wrong place drops to a 1 or 0.1.

    The argument could be a great 10X dev, saddled with managing 9 subordinates will find it difficult to remain 10X.
    The person you describe has more problems than their productivity. You point to ego and I agree. My experience has been I can code, or I can manage. Not both, and not at the same time. At best I can script some side doodad while managing my team. Nothing critical, nothing hard.

  2. 20:25, 16-04-2019Ralf  / Reply

    Doug, actually, I didn’t want to defend Brooks’ claims but rather expose the toxic fake surgeon.

  3. 21:04, 22-04-2019Rafael  / Reply

    Can we call him the fake architect?

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