Engineering Management Hacks: "I find the cat and see what they like to do"

[I see that one of my links to a Yahoo News article has expired, so you get two doses of EMH tonight.]

This article (hopefully a permalink this time) about the “Moscow Cats Theater” has a great quote in it:

Russian clown Yuri Kuklachev has a troupe of cats who do handstands, crawl along high wires and balance on balls and he says the secret to training them is realizing that you can’t force cats to do anything.


“Each cat likes to do her own trick,” said Kuklachev […]. “Maruska is the only one who does the handstand. I find the cat and see what they like to do and use that in the show.”

This is how I hire engineers. Yeah, yuk yuk yuk, managing engineers is like herding cats. Har har har. I don’t buy that at all — I think managing engineers is like managing people (well, pretty much). But I think there’s a huge amount of wisdom in seeing what the cat likes to do.

In 1996, I met a guy named Tomas Apodaca when he applied for an engineering job at Organic, where I was the director of engineering. Tomas frankly admitted that he wasn’t much of a programmer, and that he didn’t have the experience we needed for the position. But, he said, he was interested in learning, and he showed me a wide range of things he had taught himself to do with Photoshop. He clearly had a better design sense than any of the engineers we had at the time. I’m not sure exactly what it was about Tomas that gave me the confidence to hire him despite his very thin resume — maybe it was born in the desperate amount of work we had to do at the time. I did, though, believe he would do well, so I decided to chance it.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I’ll hire you and give you a computer and two months to learn Shockwave” [an earlier Macromedia product for making interactive graphic applications, like Flash today] “and at the end of those two months, you have to show me something cool.” Okay, he said, and a month later he had an interactive game we presented to Lucasfilm for the Star Wars site. He later went on to be a co-founder of Angry Monkey, a San Francisco interactive design shop, and is now one of the members of Stamen, developers of the ETech backchannel visualization, Mappr, Reblog, Cabspotting, and more.

I’m sure that Tomas would have done great things no matter what, and I’ve tried the same technique with worse results sometimes, but I think it is far more important, when hiring engineers, to find a fantastic person and see how they would have fun helping you, than to find the right resume. You give such a person room to grow and a challenge, and it will seem to others like you’ve found the secret to herding cats.