Engineering Archetypes: Pirates, Robots, and Ninjas

A field notebook sketch of a pirate, a robot, and a ninja.

After graduating college in 2007, I followed the most obvious path for a slightly awkward and too-clever-by-half anxious nerd: improv comedy. I threw myself into class after class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, then the biggest and most heralded comedy theatre in New York. A half decade and a few thousand dollars of improv classes later, it was clear that a SNL audition was not in my future. Still, that experience have given me a creative experiences and toolkit I continue to pull from as an engineering leader.

My favorite framework for thinking about Improv performers was “Pirate, Robot, Ninja”. “Pirate, Robot, Ninja” began as a forum post from the wonderful teacher and performer Billy Merritt. His original post outlined the archetypes of performers as he saw them. Over the years, he’s expanded on that original post in interviews and even a book (co-authored with the equally talented Will Hines).

As quoted in LA Weekly in 2012, Billy describes the profiles of Pirate, Robots, and Ninjas as such:

"A pirate is happiest when he swings on board a boat ready to attack and has no idea what will happen next," explained Merritt. And that is what a pirate improviser does. S/he is fearless, even reckless. Pirates initiate scenes with a strong, crazy choices and the other players work to justify and support them. You need the energy and creativity of a pirate to drive a ½ hour improv show.

Robots are all logic. "A robot player is always analyzing, running the program of the scene," said Merritt. "S/he is constantly bringing the audience back to reality and asking, 'what is my character and how would they react truthfully to this?'" Every scene needs the straight person to counter the pirate and define what is funny so the scene doesn't veer off into crazy-land.

"There is just as much honor to not being the main player in a scene," Merritt assured. "The ninja is the one who steers the scene here or there, the great justifier, the one with no ego. I used to use the word Samurai, but a Samurai is all about glory. For the ninja, the glory is running away, getting in getting out unnoticed. A ninja-like player edits and you never see them edit. The ninja is the one who connects all the scenes together".

As a CTO, I’ve seen these same archetypes in software engineering. Software engineering might not have as many company meetings that start with “Everybody get in here!” or employees named Johnson, but Billy’s field guide is a valuable tool for software leaders to understand their teams with.

Pirate, Robot and Ninja Engineers


Pirate Engineers thrive in the melee of “Get Stuff Done.” For the pirate engineer, work isn’t real until it’s in production solving a real problem. Technology is the sword of the pirate engineer; it matters less how sharp it is or expertly crafted, so long as it does the job. Pirate engineers have a bias for action and are happiest when they are able to dive into problems headfirst, quickly iterating and finding solutions. They are fearless, often taking risks that other engineers might shy away from, and their enthusiasm can be contagious, inspiring their teammates to think outside the box and push boundaries.

Pirate engineers are crucial for startups and ‘go-fast’ projects, where quick decision-making and the ability trump other concerns. They are the first ones into a problem. Their passion for getting things done means they don't get bogged down in analysis paralysis or endless debates about the "perfect" solution. In fact, they might sometimes come off as technically limited, since their bias for action leads them to prefer tools they already know, proven technologies, and lean solutions.

Pirate engineers can sometimes struggle with long-term planning, documentation, and organization. Their tendency to prioritize immediate action over careful consideration can lead to technical debt and challenges in scaling their solutions. Platforms built for one set of requirements are naturally going to struggle as those requirements change, but the pirate’s emphasis on efficiency and speed can lead to more limited solutions long term. To maximize their potential, it's essential to pair pirate engineers with team members who complement their strengths and can help mitigate their weaknesses.

In a team setting, the pirate engineer's fearlessness and energy are assets that push projects forward and break through cycles of endless plannig, but can be frustrating for more process or technically driven team members. It’s crucial to ensure that their penchant for bold, sometimes reckless decisions is balanced by the more methodical, detail-oriented approach of their robot and ninja counterparts.


Robot Engineers are the masters of patterns, the priests of predictability, and the architects of system-level operations. They flourish when working with clear inputs, generating well defined outputs, and embracing any uncertainty they face as an opportunity to refine and optimize structures for the future. Robots leverage frameworks, best practices, and well-established processes to deliver top notch work.

While they may require some initial cultural programming, once they are properly set up, robot engineers operate like well-oiled machines. They efficiently manage tasks, tests, performance tracking, and more – all within the structures they so meticulously design and maintain. Structure is not only the playground of the robot engineer, but also their canvas, where they paint a masterpiece of organization and stability.

In a team setting, robot engineers bring a sense of order and reliability to the development process. Their passion for best practices and process-driven approaches ensures that projects are built on solid foundations, paving the way for long-term success. They thrive in environments where clarity and consistency are valued, and they often become the go-to experts on a team for questions related to systems, patterns, and optimization.

However, it's essential to recognize that robot engineers may struggle in situations that demand rapid adaptation or lack well-defined structures. To maximize their potential, it's important to pair robot engineers with team members who can balance their focus on structure and process with a more flexible, action-oriented mindset.


Silent. Deadly. Unappreciated?

Ninjas are a mysterious and elusive breed of engineer. They don't quite possess the wild energy of pirates, but they bring a deadly precision to the chaotic melee of software development – always prepared for whatever challenges may arise. They aren't robots, yet they effortlessly blend into their surroundings, leveraging the resources around them until the perfect moment to strike presents itself. Ninjas are the master assassins of their teams: they solve problems before anyone even realizes there's an issue. They fix crushing vulnerabilities before it becomes a headline on HackerNews. They share their wisdom subtly, teaching others without letting them know they're being guided.

On teams, ninjas make their impact quietly, through their uncanny ability to anticipate problems and deploy solutions before they escalate. They're the silent guardians working behind the scenes to ensure the team's success. Ninjas excel in identifying operating patterns and drawing on their vast technical knowledge to resolve issues such as version upgrades, optimizing test suite performance, and implementing efficient design patterns. They're always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, streamline processes, and enhance code quality.

Culturally, ninjas bring a unique blend of humility and expertise to a team. They understand the value of collaboration and are often the ones who mediate conflicts or offer support during challenging moments. Their quiet confidence enables them to share their knowledge and experience without overshadowing others, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose within the group. They're skilled at creating an environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute and grow, all while remaining virtually invisible.

Ninjas can find themselves frustrated on some engineering teams, with pirates creating leaving a trail of wreckage for the ninja to clean up and the robot seemingly locked into process to the point work grinds to a halt. Ninjas can struggle to see the big picture: the reasons why a team might want to defer certain kinds of work or take on technical debt. It’s not that Ninja’s are perfectionists, but they can preemptively worry about solutions that cause more work later… understandable, since they’re usually the ones doing it.


Conflicts among pirates, robots, and ninjas can arise from their distinct approaches to problem-solving, communication styles, and priorities in a software engineering team. Each archetype has its own strengths, but their differences can sometimes lead to tension and disagreements. Recognizing these potential conflicts can help create a collaborative and harmonious environment.

Pirates, with their action-oriented nature, may clash with robots who prioritize structure and predictability. Pirates love to dive headfirst into challenges, making bold moves that could disrupt established processes and methodologies. This can drive robots nuts, who value order and consistency. Robots might see pirates as reckless and disruptive, while pirates may view robots as overly rigid and resistant to change. This tension can manifest in disagreements over project timelines, technical approaches, or the adoption of new tools and technologies.

Ninjas, the silent and adaptive problem-solvers, may find themselves navigating the challenges created by both pirates and robots. While ninjas are masters at resolving issues before they escalate, their contributions can sometimes be overshadowed by their flashier counterparts. They might also end up constantly adapting to the inefficient systems created by robots or compensating for the lack of systems resulting from pirates' actions. Pirates might think ninjas are too passive, lacking the drive to make bold decisions or take control in critical situations. The ninja engineer can feel like they’re the glue keeping ‘this whole thing’ from falling apart, and the emotional burden of that style of work can lead to individual burnout without the rest of the team realizing it.

In Harmony

When pirates, robots, and ninjas work together, they create a mix of software engineering talent that leads to remarkable outcomes. In this balanced state, the energy and creativity of pirates, the orderliness and precision of robots, and the adaptability and foresight of ninjas come together to form a cohesive and efficient team.

Imagine a pirate engineer introducing a bold solution to a complex problem. The robot refines the idea, ensuring stability and alignment with best practices, while the ninja anticipates potential issues and suggests adjustments, optimizing the solution. The unique strengths of each archetype complement one another, creating a well-rounded team that tackles challenges effectively and delivers high-quality results.

“Pirate, Robot, Ninja” also works as a coaching framework. Asking a pirate engineer to “Think Like a Robot” can contextualize the endless list of procedural concerns and process that can cause the Pirate’s eyes to glaze over. Telling a team of Robots do to do a Pirate Sprint will shake up routine and surprise the team with just how much they’re capable of when they hoist the colors and feel the salt spray of the sea. Ninja’s can be coached to build and share their work in ways that the Pirates and Robots on their team will understand and appreciate.


I’ve found the “Pirate, Robot, Ninja” valuable again and again to understand a the dynamics of technical teams and how best to manage the personalities on them. Yes, there are limitations to analogy and of course there are gaps in a 3 role archetype that risk going down a role-playing game rabbit hole (”Okay, so “Monks” are supportive like Ninja’s but combat experts like Pirates…”). Still, the framework is a fun, easy way to coach some not-so-obvious approaches to work in a fun and vibrant way.

Disclaimer: The author of this piece is most certainly a pirate who, through a lot of mistakes, has learned to understand the robot and is infinitely indebted to the ninjas on his team.