Management Dictating their own terms

The Wolf

You’ve heard of the 10x engineer, but I am here to tell you about the Wolf. They are an engineer, and they consistently exhibit the following characteristics:

  • They appear to exist outside the well-defined process we’ve defined to get things done, but they appear to suffer no consequences for not following these rules.
  • Everyone knows they’re the Wolf, but no one ever calls them the Wolf.
  • They have a manager, but no one knows who it is.
  • They have a lot of meetings, but none of them are scheduled. Inviting them to your meeting is a crap shoot.
  • They understand how “the system” works, they understand how to use “the system” to their advantage, they understand why “the system” exists, but they think “the system” is a bit of a joke.
  • You can ask a Wolf to become a manager, but they’ll resist. If you convince them to do it, they will do a fine job, but they won’t stay in that role long. In fact, they’ll likely quit managing when you least expect it.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, the Wolf generates disproportionate value for the company with their unparalleled ability to identify and rapidly work on projects essential to the future of the company.

The Wolf moves fast because they can avoid the encumbering necessities of a group of people building at scale. This avoidance of most processes-related shenanigans and their exceptional engineering ability allows them to move at a speed that makes them unusually productive. It’s this productivity that the rest of the team can… smell. This scent of pure productivity allows them further to skirt documentation, meetings, and annual reviews.

It’s easy to hate the Wolf when you’ve just spent the day writing integration tests, but it’s also easy to admire the fact that they appear to be dictating their terms.

In my career, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a handful of Wolves. They appreciate that I have identified them, and we have interesting ongoing conversations regarding their Wolf-i-ness. Two times now, I’ve attempted to reverse engineer Wolves and then hold up the results to other engineers. See? Here is a well-defined non-manager, very technical track. Both attempts have mostly failed. The reason was the same both times: the influence earned by the Wolf can never be granted by a manager.

The Wolf doesn’t need me. In fact, the Wolf is reading this right now and grinning because they know that I’ve done an ok job describing them – there is a chance this description may help inspire future Wolves, but what matters… is what they’re working on right now.

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27 Responses

  1. David Byrd 10 years ago

    I had the pleasure of sitting next to the Wolf of all Wolves last year. Here’s what I learned:

  2. Could post the corollary article: “You’re Probably not the Wolf”?

  3. Scott Stawarz 10 years ago

    I know in many roles, i have been a wolf. In some roles, not so much. Maybe that’s part of the “wolf-i-ness”, is the meta cognition.

  4. Frosty 10 years ago

    @rands: What do you think is the growth path for wolves in the long term? The are net hugely positive for the company so moving from one big project to another is a good option in the short term but where should they land 5-10 years from now

  5. Stephanie B 10 years ago

    I think “wolf” is a label someone else must give. Still, there are things that resonate for me. Here are two things that seem relevant out of my professional life so far.

    I can give you results when you tell me what you need, not how to do it. I solve problems. That’s what I do. When I can do the job with my tools my way, it’s fast. Don’t burden me with tools (including languages and operating systems) that have some arbitrary and unintuitive interface. If you try to force me to use your limited tools, I’ll get my way anyway by virtue of your impossible deadline, or I’ll leave, just as I recently did. I’m not a captive audience.

    Coworkers from other departments come to me to work on projects. The good ones don’t care what I use for tools, just that I get the work done on time, with of course an impossible set of milestones and deadlines. The deadlines aren’t impossible though. I just need to be able to use the tools that work with me.

  6. rikacomet 10 years ago

    I don’t know what breed of wolf you are talking about, but the Great White Wolf is not like that. He can live in solitude as well as in pack. He is a free spirit, who carries no burden at all. A loin is the subject of admiration for many, but a real Wolf has no such shackles.

  7. RroRobie 10 years ago

    The trick is that if you miss the “generates disproportionate value for the company” point then you’re just a lose cannon, ignoring process and disrupting other productive teams. You can play wolf but you better be able to deliver.

  8. Christopher Schrammhri 10 years ago

    He doesn’t necessarily have a lot of meetings, since he knows how to get around the most useless ones.

  9. No self respecting wolf would read this post.

    If sent the link, they would have tuned out after a paragraph and been thinking about something more relevant to their lives.

    If they read the entire thing and commented on it, it would probably be to call rands a wanker.

  10. Mike Shafer 10 years ago

    You sending the Wolf? That’s all you had to say!

  11. fishtrap 10 years ago

    (First, I think my manager is a Wolf, even if he is a remarkably good people-manager, too, but he’s also a very good delegator.)

    Just wondering: would a Wolf always be technical? Because it seems like if the Russian Lit Major sticks around long enough for some seniority and the chance to do more than just be an extension of a technical team, that they might become a Wolf.

    Hrm, a wolf in Russian Lit clothing?

  12. HawVie 10 years ago

    There is something wrong with your post. This wolf of you doesn’t strike me as a teamplayer, but you present this (lonely) wolfiness as something to admire. He sounds more or less like a person who is egocentric, disrespectful to his manager and who uses unofficial routes to snatch fun projects. His manager probably tolerates his behaviour because he happens to be a brilliant engineer and brilliant engineers are hard to come by. He’d probably be better off working on his own, but doesn’t have the balls to start his own company. And why should he, he can work on his own projects and even gets paid for it. Other engineers admire his work from a technical point of view and they find his rebellion exciting. But at the end of the day the team could potentially benefit a lot more from his knowledge.. If only he had the social skills…

  13. Ilcho Vuchkov 10 years ago

    Very good written article… 🙂

  14. I agree with HawVie – you’re just describing someone who is smart but doesn’t work well with others. As RroRobie pointed out, the key is that a wolf generates exceptional value (the same paragraph also says they do what’s best for the future of the company), but someone who skips documentation and test cases isn’t generating exceptional value and isn’t doing what’s best for the future of the company. They’re just lazy and egocentric. A “wolf”, as you’re trying to describe (think Hawkeye from MASH), would break the rules that didn’t impact the work they’re doing but the examples you gave here are all directly related to the work.

    Also, if a wolf was such a talented engineer, why would they mock “the system”? Wouldn’t they want to help improve it? This goes back to what HawVie said – these people don’t have the balls to do it (they were referring to “the balls to start their own company” but it applies here too). These are just engineers who are a little smarter than their peers but want to create the illusion they’re a *lot* smarter (or maybe they’re not smarter, they just seem more productive because they skirt responsibilities and because their work is largely a mystery to others). Mocking “the system” makes them look smart and if they tried to improve the system and failed, the ruse would be up.

    This description definitely matches a lot of engineers but it’s not a kind of person we should be praising – at least not for their work ethic, maybe they’re good at something else :-/

  15. 38: bold design, community, and online mentors | Michelle Kang linked to this.
  16. The Wolf | Erik's Blog linked to this.
  17. I am the Wolf, but from 1960’s…..

  18. Known Unknown 10 years ago

    Someone sent this link to me at work, along with the phrase ‘I found you!’


    I read this on the date it was published.

  19. Marius 9 years ago

    The profile you depict is interesting, but I don’t get your analogy with wolves. Wolves are very social beings, are extremely well-organized, and only hunt and live in packs. Otherwise, they would not be able to survive. In fact, if one of them is ever separated from the pack, chances are they will die on their own. All in all, their behavior is the exact opposite of what you are describing. So perhaps finding a better analogy from the animal kingdom might serve you better… 🙂

  20. ArtAAAArt Blackwellrt Blackwell 8 years ago

    I guess I fit this description.
    But that new job I discussed earlier actually consisted of working with wolves. During my first 6 months of working with the pack, I wondered if I was fast enough to run with this pack of wolves. ” We will let you know if you do not meet our specifications ” was the cryptic answer.
    I guess I met expectations, because I worked with this pack of wolves for eight years, at the bleeding edge of technology.

    The sad ending to our company was that the new management didn’t want our company to stay on the bleeding edge and managed to drive off our wolves, including me…If you or other want to see details, they are on LinkedIn…

  21. Ragnar Lothbrok 8 years ago

    Everyone who’s commented here thinks that the Wolf is admirable, and that s/he is perhaps a wolf? “It’s easy to hate the Wolf when you’ve just spent the day writing integration tests, but it’s also easy to admire the fact that they appear to be dictating their own terms.” Either the integration tests have value, in which case that bastard ought to chip in, or they’re not, in which case you need to find a company with better technical management. Yeah, I’d love to work on green-field code all day, and I think my coworkers would have a different word for me than “wolf” if I contrived to do it.

  22. Laree 7 years ago

    Finally, judgement was defined as the deployment of principles to achieve vision along the way, and consistency in applying these values so that your team understands how to succeed within your organization.