Picking the right animal metaphor

The tech industry loves car metaphors. But when it comes to getting people to work together, we stick to the organic. Like all metaphors, they fall short when examined too closely. They’re useful ways to communicate, though. So what’s the right metaphor for program and project management?

“Cat herding” is the most common. It captures the chaotic nature of open source projects. Like cats, open source contributors have their own agenda. They don’t have to listen to you if they don’t want to. But cats generally don’t have a shared purpose in mind either.

I called this site Duck Alignment Academy because the cover art of Program Management for Open Source Projects has ducks in a line. But the metaphor is apt. The ducks are all heading in the same direction, and fluid dynamics researchers found there’s an optimal spacing. So the ducks can help or hinder each other based on how they align. Great!

But honestly, my favorite metaphor comes from Pixar’s “Finding Nemo”. In the first chapter of Program Management for Open Source Projects, I wrote:

Nemo is a fish separated from his father. In one scene, he’s swimming with a school of tuna that gets scooped up in a fishing net. The tuna are swimming every which way as the net slowly hauls them in. But Nemo gets them all to swim downward. Once they’re all working in the same direction, the fishing boat’s motor can’t haul the net in. The rope breaks and the fish all escape the net. This is what you’re doing, except with lower stakes.

Excerpted from Program Management for Open Source Projects by Ben Cotton. Copyright © 2022 The Pragmatic Programmers LLC.

Still, my favorite metaphor isn’t perfect. What does the net represent? Who is it exactly that’s trying to turn us into food? And the tuna are portrayed as rather dim creatures with no individuality. That doesn’t match any open source community I’ve been involved with.

So maybe it’s better that all of our metaphors fall flat. After all, we deal with people, not animals. People have their own motivations and interests, yes. They also have the ability to come together to work on a shared goal. They can do the parts that aren’t fun in order to help the group.

In the end, that’s what program managers align. Not cats. Or ducks. Not even fish. We align our communities skills and abilities to a common goal.

This post’s featured image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Ben is a principal program manager at Red Hat, focused on the Fedora Project. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.

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