Wolves or Shepherds

Wolves or Shepherds

Shepherds have a pretty bad rep, don’t they? I mean, who’d want to be a shepherd? Sheep are stupid, the hours are long, the pay’s low and you’re out in all weathers. And there’s not much companionship in such a solitary occupation, unless you count the sheep. About the only compensation is the dog. At least it’s seen as an occupation of virtue.

Wolves, on the other hand, are cool, aren’t they? They get the starring roles in lots of films. They’re scary, awesome and fierce. We even have Wolfpack programming, which sounds hot. And wolves by their very nature have community, togetherness, one might even say fellowship.

Which would you rather be? A wolf or a shepherd? I’m guessing most folks – developers in particular – would say “wolf”. Considered opinion, however, has a different take:

“If we seek to lead others to a ministry, a philosophy, or style, we are not shepherds but wolves.”

~ (Acts 20:28)

Making a Difference

There’s at least one constant in all the top developers I’ve met and worked with over the years. The desire to make a difference. To create software and solutions which improve the lot of the folks who use them. And many of those folks have seen themselves as heroes. Forged in the heroic mould.

The Red Tails

I was watching the new George Lucas film “The Red Tails” the other day. Aside from the hollywood schlock and the widely reported weakness of the film itself, one element of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen stood out.

The US bomber force had been losing many bombers – and crews – because their fighter cover regularly chased after the German interceptors rather than stay with the bomber force. The highly-trained and motivated US fighter pilots saw themselves as the wolves, intent on killing the German fighters. And their Pilot’s Commission as a license to have fun.

The Red Tails, an all-negro unit, having spent months flying support (non-combat) missions, were on the brink of disbandment. Racism was rife in the US military, and many – including the rank and file fighter and bomber crews –  did not want black pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen saw their Pilot’s Commission rather differently – more as a privilege, and as an opportunity to both serve and to oppose racism.

Through a series of fortunate accidents, the Red Tails finally get to fly a combat mission escorting B17s in a bombing raid on a tank factory in Berlin. The Tuskegee Airmen realise this is their chance to prove themselves, and because of this and their exemplary discipline and dedication, they adopt a different escort strategy. Many fewer bombers are lost to enemy fighters than usual, because the Red Tails choose to stay with the bombers.

Unlike the other US fighter squadrons, the Red Tails choose to be the shepherds, taking care of the bombers, and their crews. This ensures the bombers complete their mission, and the B17 crews return home safely. Heroism is forsaken in favour of care. Shepherds, not wolves.

Back to the Software

In the hostile skies of software development, with heavy flak over the target, many software teams and developers choose to be the wolves, heroically pursuing code quality, craft, cool solutions, mastery of their tools, and the excitement of making a difference. The essence of the mission, escorting – yes, shepherding – customers and users to their target, goes by the board.

The drudge of understanding the customers’ mission and thereby, their requirements – like getting home alive – seems so much less fun, less of a challenge, less exciting than chasing after the Germans. And failing to understand the real mission, just like the regular US fly-boys, many software teams and developers have great morale and self-image, whilst countless hundreds of their fellows (in the bombers) die needlessly.

The film shows how the Tuskegee Airmen, due to their circumstances and their character, exercise their self-discipline and suppress their inner wolf. They demonstrate the true nature – and the benefits – of the shepherd.

Do you, does your team, have the character, self-discipline and fellowship to put aside the excitement of the chase, and buckle down to the less sexy – but ultimately much more valuable – support of the customers’ mission?

– Bob

  1. An excellent point wrapped in a tribute to men who were heroes twice over…great post!

  2. Trent Hone said:

    The sentiment and point of the post is right on, make sure that team members support the mission.

    The historical analogy is stretched; largely because the film itself ignores historical reality. As the war went on, the primary mission of the US Army Air Forces in Europe was the destruction of German air power. The bomber offensive was part of this, hence the focus on critical elements of German industry. But seeking out, engaging, and destroying German pilots and planes was part of it too. In other words, pursuing the enemy in order to destroy him (the wolf-like behavior described in the piece), was actually some of the best shepherding behavior. This can be seen in the tactics adopted against German jet fighters.

    The situation is too complex for a single comment or blog post, but what the historical example does illustrate is the difficulty sometimes inherent in identifying the correct “mission” and why confusion can exist around how best to accomplish it, even in the best teams.

  3. Love this post. Although I am not a developer, I work for a software development company … and, of course, protecting the mission of the customer comes first. However, the adventurous inner wolf still exists and it is important to feed it. That’s why we have “outlets” for our developers … like an innovation team where developers come up with new product ideas, build the business case, present their ideas and get their products backed by the company for development. Or, we have a club where developers who want to collaborate on building next generation mobile apps, etc. can come to play and have fun satisfying the wolf.

    Also, I think this concept applies to people in all fields. We all have to do a good job at the less sexy tasks but if you can build a good business case for more wolfish projects, hopefully we get the opportunity to have more excitement and work at things we are truly passionate about.

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