The Cheetah Software Engineer

The Cheetah is a software engineer who is first and foremost very curious and blazing fast. The two are connected. They approach everything with an "interesting, let me look into it" type of mindset. And as learning and understanding is second nature, they take in new information very quickly. And they build new solutions blazing fast. This includes coding, setting things up, rolling things out, and the lot. It includes learning about how products and the business works - it should be little surprise that Cheetas are very product-minded engineers.

The Cheetah is not only fast but works with high quality. By the time you double-check their work, the Cheetah has already inspected, understood, and followed all the best practices in the given codebase, and there's little you can add to it. And when you do find something to add, they take the feedback with curiosity. "Ah, interesting, let me look into this". Either they'll understand why they should do it differently, or they'll gently push back, and have you explain that... well, yeah, it didn't make sense the first time.

The Cheetah always works on multiple things. While everyone they are working with is impressed by the speed at which they work, most people don't realize that Cheetah is working with three other people on a similar problem, the same week. And those other people have exactly the same feedback on the Cheetah. Multitasking is a given, as the Cheetah just can't stay idle. And projects, at larger companies, move at different speeds, during different phases. So the Cheetah will be giving feedback on an RFC, helping a team plan their next project, coding their main project, and another side project they just picked up.

Because the Cheetah is so curious, and they work on so many things, sooner or later, they become the domain expert on a key area for the company. This area is usually something that started out as niche but became critical to the organization or the company. Without doing it deliberately, they wrote the key pieces of software that became widely adopted. Now no one else understands how they work, as much as the Cheetah does. This could be things on scalability, things on security, on performance, or other hard problems. And this is not because they are hoarding anything: in fact, they probably even wrote documentation on how the whole thing works. It's just that no one is as passionate to spend hours and days to understand something... that has already been correctly implemented.

When managing a Cheetah, the best advice is to be clear on priorities: what the number one and two priorities are for them, and for the team. Then, get out of their way and release their potential, and see them conquer not only the main priorities, but the additional other things they might find on the way. If you try to cage them - basically, micromanage them - it won't end well for anyone. And why would you do so? Everything that you ask from them, they already do it quicker than anyone else on the team, and with similar quality. And on top of this, they are quietly helping others, noticing and solving problems.

Also, listening to the Cheetah is one of the best things you can do. When you're their manager, just ask them to tell you all the things they are doing. You'll learn far more about the organization and the problem areas. You'll also grow a newfound appreciation for the Cheetah. How can they keep up with so many things: information that you're unaware of, as a manager? They have connections with teams and engineers that you don't, and they are pinged directly by people who would not ping their managers. The Cheetah will help any supportive manager spot collaboration opportunities early on - though by the time they mention it, they're halfway done solving the problem already.

How is the Cheetah so well connected in the workplace? It's because they're not only curious and fast, but also very humble. No one will describe the Cheetah as "pushing their own agenda". When the Cheetah seems to push something, it's out of curiosity than anything else. And they care little about credits. They are working on so many parallel things that they are relieved when they can have someone take on the finishing of the work, and they'll call out the other people for doing a great job. It's fascinating to see how this snowballs. Engineers open up to the Cheetah, and have them involved early because they know they can only win. And people also start to notice how when the Cheetah is around, the teams and projects tend to move faster. And so the Cheetah is involved in more things, which their curios nature immensely enjoys.

Because the Cheetah is so efficient and so well connected, the question of whether they should become a manager will inevitably come up. This is a terrible idea. The Cheetah most likely has already tried it and hated it passionately. While they are unparalleled in solving problems on their own and might be okay mentors, working with a team is just so... slow. Unsatisfying. It doesn't scratch their itch to create things.

Cheetahs are extremely rare in the workplace. You'd think this is because they prefer working at startups over larger companies. Interestingly enough, Cheetas almost always start small, but they just don't like the constant, forced startup grind, where they have no time for their natural curiosity. They usually end up at medium to larger tech companies, in a team and organization that valued their "Cheetah-ness" and doesn't try to use them as mules, but also doesn't want to train them to be a well-behaved dog. Even so, there are very few Cheetas out there: I've worked with less than a handful of them over more than a decade.

And this is where one of the biggest weaknesses of the Cheetah come into play. It's how they're unable to mentor others to become Cheetas like themselves. Many of their managers will have asked them to mentor and coach other developers to be faster, and work better, just like them. The Cheetah gave it an honest try, but it never really works out as you'd hope. After all, how do you teach a never-ending thirst for learning new things, combined with the inner urge to get things done quickly?

But while the Cheetah can't mentor or coach people: they can inspire them. You do want people to work side-by-side with the Cheetah, to see how the Cheetah works, and how they get things done quickly. The Cheetah is a team player and is always open to explaining things: so give pair them with junior people, so they see first-hand what good work and great speed looks like. The Cheetah won't mind. As long as they can keep up.

Photo credit: Cara Fuller

Gergely Orosz

A hands-on engineering manager, previously developing across the stack for a decade. Working at the intersection of Silicon Valley and Europe. Currently at Uber. Microsoft, Skype & JPMorgan alumni.

Amsterdam, Netherlands