Engineers are Birds


This picture is of a flock of starlings, who we see flying in tight formation as if they knew what every other bird was going to do. But birds aren’t supposed to be telepathic.

Oddly enough, I just came off a  project where engineers also acted that way, as if they were all of one mind.

What in the world is happening?


In the case of the birds, it’s a combination of not wanting to crash into each other, and all the birds being on the lookout for predators or food.

Imagine you’re a starling on the right-hand-side of the flock.  You see a cooper’s hawk on your right, and you know coopers eat starlings. So you turn left.

The bird on your left doesn’t want you to crash into them, so they turn left, and a wave of left-turning sweeps through the flock.

A tree full of berries comes into view from the new front-most birds, and they dive, pushing birds below them to dive, and attracting their followers to something of interest.

Typically the flock is maneuvering because someone saw some food, but not everyone does. So they swirl around the trees with some birds landing and others circling, all the while trying quite hard to stay with their friends, but not crash into anyone


In a retrospective the other day,  everyone was really pleased how well people from development, operations and business analytics cooperated. They were pleased and a little surprised that a multi-team effort was so successful. Especially when the effort wasn’t particularly well-communicated (by me, as it happens!)

Back in the waterfall days, silos never cooperated with one another.

Even in agile organizations like ours, cross-team communities of interest didn’t make any great headway.

What in the world happened?

We flew in rough formation

There were a lot of contributing factors, like the engineers and analysts were supported by their leaders, but the main contribution was that we were reacting like a flock of birds.

Our product owner provided a desired end state, like “migrate to Florida”, that set the broad general direction for what we discussed.


Individuals saw some of the steps the ends depended on and said they would do them, with the support of their leaders, who were part of the meeting.

As they reported what they had done, others saw prerequisites that their various teams could contribute, and said they would do those.

Over time, a tree of prerequisites developed in each of the individual engineer’s heads. Not everyone thought it was the same, and many didn’t see much more than the part they could help with.  But what they definitely  didn’t see was a  “wall of work” like an 80-page PERT chart.

From outside, it looked like we were sailing through something really difficult, and as if we were all reading each others’ minds.  Nothing of the sort.

The head analyst summed it up in the retrospective:


If we can ask good questions, then the engineers and analysts will say what their teams can help with.

If we see a cooper’s hawk, we tell everyone to not go there.  If we’re asked about food and we knew a tree of berries, we tell everyone that too.

In effect, we’re doing  parallel “make” steps, over and over again. Each engineer reported their previous successes and looked to see what the next thing was that can process. Even if they don’t have a global view of the problem, they can contribute, and they did.

We worked through a problem that most of us had never faced before, and we succeeded. Because we flocked together.




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