Stories about Software


Getting That New Tool Past The Gate Keeper

Editorial Note: this post was originally written for the SmartBear blog.  You can read the original here, at their site.  Check out the rest of the content while you’re there.

Let me tell you a tale, and stop me if it sounds familiar.  Well, I suppose the medium of blogging will prevent you from actually stopping me, but you get the idea.

You’re part of a software development group, and you’re surrounded by techies like yourself – people that get excited about new ideas, approaches, tools, frameworks, and languages.  But then there’s the guy on your team with the seniority.  Let’s call him Crusty.

Crusty is not your boss. He’s probably the team’s architect or even just a senior developer who is somehow, implicitly, more senior than the other developers.  Most significantly, he’s who management looks to for advice about whether to adopt things – the very things about which you and your teammates tend to get excited.

His answer is usually “no.”


Management loves a guy like Crusty because he’s reassuring to them.  If you’re a dev team manager, the developers are constantly clamoring for new things, and you begin to wonder, “Is all of this really necessary?”  A good manager trusts her people to make recommendations, so she’ll tend to go along with it and hope that the spending is not wasteful.  But if there is a go-to guy on her team saying, “nah, we don’t need that,” she’s going to be grateful.  She has someone to reign in the spending, and she’s provided with the (potentially false) sense of security that, when something is actually needed, this guy will speak up.

This leaves you facing a conundrum if you’re part of such a group and want to propose a tool for adoption.  I talked previously about how to sell management on a tool, but Crusty effectively acts as a gatekeeper between you and making your case to management.  If you approach your manager directly, she might say something like, “Run it by Crusty first and get his buy-in.”

So, how do you get past this gatekeeper?  You need to understand his motivation and act accordingly.

Battle Scars: The Rational Crusty

Up to this point, I’ve made this gatekeeper person seem a bit cartoonish. I suppose naming him “Crusty” didn’t help matters.  But let’s first assume that his motivations are essentially rational and that his manner, while gruff, is the result of having his patience tried over a number of years.

As developers, we have a tendency to get pretty excited over new things.  Every few years, there’s a new standard in source control, application architecture, application delivery mechanism, and just about everything else you can think of.  Look at JavaScript – there’s a new library that you need to learn about approximately every 14 hours.

Crusty may be someone who has observed this dynamic over the course of 15 or 20 years and recognizes that things bright-eyed developers are excited about don’t necessarily have a lot of staying power.  He’s an otherwise reasonable guy who’s been burned enough by early adoption that he uses a skeptical “wait and see” approach with new things.

Convincing a person like this means convincing him that what you have isn’t just some flash-in-the-pan gadget or toy app.  He’s predisposed to assuming anything brought to him will be just that.  To convince him otherwise, do your homework ahead of time.  Prepare yourself with statistics, adoption rates across the industry, and stories about success (e.g., money or time saved by companies). Perhaps you can even bring references furnished by the vendor.

This serves two purposes.  In the first place, it provides Crusty with more to chew on before saying no; it’s a lot harder to dismiss something as a passing fad when it has demonstrably benefited similar adopters.  But more subtly, it shows that you’re really serious about the tool.  Developers say that teams should adopt a tool all the time, but it’s a lot rarer that they put serious research into it.

Fad-avoiding Crusty is essentially a rational guy, so showing him rationally that the tool in question is gaining steam in the industry and is genuinely beneficial will improve your odds of success.

Threats Everywhere: The Insecure Crusty

Not every Crusty is a rational Crusty.  While some have been burned by thrashing with technology fads, some are simply not interested in new things.  Sadly, hordes of Crusties roam the halls of software development shops. Having learned the ropes and fallen into their routines, they have closed their minds to new ways of doing things.  I once chronicled this phenomenon with a post on my blog.  You can recognize this Crusty by the utterance of illogical, defensive soundbites like, “We’ve done without this for the last 20 years, so we don’t need it now.”

It’s a sad state of affairs for a number of parties, including Crusty himself, because his aversion to new things comes from a driving insecurity.  On some level, he’s worried that the world is passing him by and that he won’t be able to keep up.  But he also feels that he’s paid his dues to become an expert and therefore should be the one teaching and not learning.

Thus the proposal of new things poses a rather visceral threat to Crusty.  He’s inclined to reject them on their faces.  To combat this, you need to remove the threat.

If you have an insecure Crusty to convince, you’ll want to prepare differently than you would for a risk-averse one.  There are two prongs to what you need to help him understand: that the new thing you’re proposing will be easy for him to understand and that it will benefit him.  Your preparation should include a demo of how to get something awesome done quickly, and it should be something that he can and will want to do.  Most importantly with this archetype – pull him aside and present it to him, one on one.  He can then roll it out to the group as if it had been his idea.

Pigheaded: The Totally Unreasonable Crusty

An extreme case of the insecure Crusty is the totally unreasonable Crusty.  This subset, besides creating intense morale problems in groups he occupies, will march to his own personal mandates, such as, “We’re not doing anything that didn’t come from me.”  You’ll know this is what you’re dealing with if your gut and past experience tell you that you’ll never convince this guy to approve of your proposal.

For cases like this, I recommend considering an old piece of advice: “Sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”  In other words, adopt the tool or approach without getting approval and start leveraging it to effectiveness.  Then, rely on the fact that it will be a lot harder for Crusty or anyone else to tell you to stop doing something that’s already working than it would have been for him to tell you not to start in the first place.  You may catch flak for not getting approval on the decision, but that’s the “beg forgiveness” part.  Your new approach is already in hand.

Obviously, there are complexities to this approach if you’re talking about a tool or framework that has to be purchased, but you can make headway nevertheless.  There are always trials that can be installed and the vendor may help you in various ways if you enlist them.  There is almost always a way that you can just get started with something that helps you solve your problems.

In The End

The ideal scenario is one in which no Crusty exists.  But, all too often, he does.  The more you can get on his good side and win him over, the better. You should favor that approach.  But if you can’t, don’t let that stop you.  Trust your instincts, make good business cases for tools, and do what you need to do in order to be effective.