A View from the Inside: “Why don’t I have a manager?”

Author, Mike Hansen

Author, Mike Hansen

“Why don’t I have a manager?”

I can’t imagine any software developer worth their salt ever asking that question.  Developers don’t need a manager, and the word itself is a pejorative to me.  In fact, in Sonatype’s engineering organization, there is no such role, at least not in a classic sense.  There are plenty of leaders though, but not because they were anointed as such but because it is obvious to everyone else that they are leaders.  People naturally look to these leaders for guidance.  They follow them and are influenced by them, which is what leadership is really about.  And, when viewed through that lens, a system of unnecessary hierarchy compounds the problems, along with the politics and bureaucracy that results from it.

Jack Welch quipped, “Don’t manage.  Lead.”  And, when you have the right people in the right environment, there is rarely a need to manage.  With the exception of the rare crisis, the team will just go where it needs to go.  When that’s not clear or when they think they are being asked to go somewhere that is in conflict with their mental model of the world, you will definitely hear about it, often LOUDLY (ignore those cries at your peril).

Dont Manage - Lead

Some people have told me I’m crazy to have around 30 direct reports.  Actually, it has often been more like, “Are you effing insane?”  While it might look like that on the org chart above, it’s not really the way it works.  There are generally clear lines of responsibility, but those lines are primarily emergent properties versus a structure that was imposed.  They are (mostly) a manifestation of the organization’s continuous improvement efforts, with a few nudges and tweaks along the way.

The result is an organization built by the organization itself.  Engineers like building things, and there’s a lot to be said about being part of something you’ve contributed to building.  I’m proud to say that I’ve had an enormous amount of help building this organization, without a “manager” in sight.


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Mike Hansen

Head of Products at Sonatype
Relentlessly working to surround myself with technical people better than me, making sure they have what they need to excel and when appropriate, quickly getting the *#$& out of the way. And, when not busy doing that, playing the piano or looking for the next Colorado 14er to climb (30 bagged to date).

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