Saturday, August 3, 2013

Back from Kaizen Camp

Some of you are wondering what Kaizen Camp is. It's not a yoga retreat or a new Ben and Jerry's flavor. It's a place where a bunch of people that manage other people go to discuss latest management techniques that involve Agile, Scrum, XP, and other options that are typically not the straight up RUP or Waterfall methodology.

If you click the link to Kaizen Camp, have mercy - those folks are all about the people, then the process, and the technological subtleties of their web pages reflect this philosophy. They managed 175 of us pretty well, from getting us to put together our own program to assigning us areas named after Muppets, to getting us fed and watered in an orderly manner. this was my first year at Camp.

Overall, it was fun. It was definitely an activity for the self driving individual. I have always been the kind to make my own fun. There is a time and a place for those of us who do that, and Kaizen Camp is one of those places. For those folks dragged in by our office who typically like to be led to a place and then told to do whatever there, it was a bit harder. Principles we work with at camp - and which I work with daily - are around self-organization and trying to help empower people to make their own decisions. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him sign up for Kaizen Camp sessions, however, if they are one of those people who do not make their own fun or take charge of it, expecting things to be clearly laid out for them. Life is messy. Kaizen Camp is nothing like real life, except that it is also messy.

I spent time at camp trying to explain to the awesome person who got me to spend my own cold hard cash to go why the folks we brought - who are sharp and funny and bright and amazing in their own rights - were not getting out of it what we were: they needed a framework for understanding, a framework for being comfortable. They needed to understand how this place fit into the context of what they found meaningful. They needed a push.

Pushing is not self organizing. Culture shock ensued.

I did a session to learn something - how to manage a legacy code base and legacy developers who have ancient attitudes and how to bring them into this century. I did a session to show what I know - soft skills and how they solve hard problems in Agile. I went to several sessions (I think I actually only skipped one session total the entire time I was there, and by god I self organized myself into sitting down, getting re hydrated, and dealing with fires at work via email).

This was simply not possible for some of the folks who came to camp. They did not know what was expected of them, so in some cases they froze. There weren't technical sessions to talk about pairing or mob programming or hands on workshops (some people learn better when they're doing than by talking) and they just didn't grasp that they could put a session up and simply ask other people to come and show them. My good friend eventually introduced a session of this type which was relatively productive for them. Several folks that went were still baffled about what they got out of it.

And that ties nicely into my session on soft skills and agile; I've talked about the items I went over with the folks at Kaizen Camp in this blog before - heck, my headings came from the first year of blog entries. The gist is: a team is a group of individuals. They may work well as a team, which is awesome, but when the team isn't working well, and you've tried all the "team" stuff, its time to look at the individuals. For example, shy individuals who don't feel comfortable talking in sessions, or setting up sessions to get questions answered. Individuals who feel pressured by team norms to not speak up about times when they're less than comfortable with a direction they are going. Individuals who walk into work one day and throw a wrench into the works, pissing everybody off and generally making an ass out of themselves (and potentially other people reacting to them).

That is the time to put aside team thoughts and start poking at people thoughts. You always want to be observational, but not of just the team as a team. Individuals have their tells, and you can see, day to day, how they change. I'm no saying surveil them and make them scared of you, but knowing a good mood from a bad mood by body language alone is a good skill (and one I may discuss diagnosing more in depth in later posts). Then you can see if someone is having trouble speaking up, and help them by offering to speak up for them. Or, in the case of my friend, set up a session for them so they can get the benefits with some structure and support behind them, rather than let them continue to fear they're out on a limb by themselves so they don't try anything at all. Or, when that team mate comes in acting like a jack ass, you can protect him or her from themselves (and the rest of the team) and start the conversation with "You don't seem like yourself, is there anything I can do to help you? What's going on?" rather than let that person continue to disrupt the team and/or change opinions of that individual immediately; everybody has a bad day. This could be that person's...but you'll never know unless you ask.

Anyway, that was my immediate wisdom for Kaizen Camp. There's more percolating. The biggest piece I walked away with was that my insights and thoughts are valuable, too. Not just the people who know things or write books or have a zillion direct reports. I know I feel that way a bit - I do have a blog and all! - but its nice to have it reinforced by people I can see who are smart and dynamic and amazing. It reminds me that I have some dynamic and some amazing in here, too, somewhere, and I ought to get it out and dust it off. I am guessing, and this is sheer egomania because you're reading my blog, that you too, gentle reader, have some awesome and some dynamic in there, too. I challenge you to dust it off, buy it a drink, and take it out on the town this week.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What do you do when you hate your job?

You get another one.

In my professional life, I was out of work from mid March through the end of April (1.5 months). It was, for lack of a better term, "yucky." I felt yucky. I'd already done a lot of posts on leaving a job (in all various ways) and I tried to buoy myself up a bit, but things were kind of staggered blog production wise during this time period.

Then I got a job. Two, actually. One place played hard to get, which is to say, they offered me verbally, then didn't come through with any of the paperwork for three weeks. When they did, the verbal offer didn't match the paper number. Further they weren't sure, so they decided they didn't want me, then called me back and offered it to me on a contract-to-hire. After the interview process, I realized whoever took that position was in a world of hurt because three people laid claim to the work output of that role, and each of them had a different idea of what that should be. Two of them the role directly reported to with a dotted line to the third.

The second job was down the street. Okay, a little more than that, but I live in Bellevue and it was in downtown Bellevue. The people with whom I interviewed said the standard things about "how do you handle disparate personalities" and other ways of saying "We have crappy people that don't change but can do whatever jobs they do, can you cope?" I said yes. It was also a contract to hire. No bridge commute, no downtown Seattle parking. I took the job.

And immediately hated it.

On the first day I was ushered into a room with my fellow program managers where we remained, no air condition, four people, tiny room, while we all got berated for being behind schedule and not having the teams' work planned out in sufficient detail. Yes, I got yelled at on day one for work I couldn't have done (or not done).

Parking was free if you walked the last ten minutes to the office daily (15 if you didn't rush). It was not covered, so if it had rained, I'd have gotten wet. My favorite restaurant in Bellevue was in the same building, but I ate there a lot, as we frequently worked through lunch. The remote team did not do what was on the project plan. They made stuff up. They broke the build. They wrote errors into the system. Then they wandered off to be unavailable for days or hours. Meantime, the local team got yelled at for getting behind, and my team got yelled at for not managing the remote team (over whom we had no control fiscal or otherwise) better. As a PM, I can use carrot sticks with the best of them. A remote team at a company not of the main company, with no interest other than being paid by the main company while they developed for their own product...that even I couldn't handle.

Daily I got the message that my work was insufficient, and if only I worked harder somehow this would work out. I began to get ill before going to work in the morning and having trouble sleeping at night. I was told that my personality was "too big" and that I needed to be quiet and let other folks handle things they consistently failed to handle.

I hadn't had a solid job for some time. A full time, non-consulting gig. I began to realize I'd need to do this for at least a year - even take the FTE if they offered it to me. Ugh.

A friend who had been very eager for me to work where she works did not have a position open when I was looking. A month into this job from hell, she had one open. I went on a Friday, interviewed, and got it. I felt awful, having helped the first company fill their position only to leave as fast as my legs would carry me. Now, seriously, I needed to stay for at least a year to avoid the label of total flake. Its in Seattle. Parking is free. I stay late. I laugh a lot. My stomach has stopped getting upset, and while I often stay up too late, it's not because I'm having trouble sleeping, its because I'm having more fun being awake.

I made a very hard choice that was ethically questionable for me, and difficult for the company I was leaving. I did make a mark on that company; they were getting rid of that remote team because of work I did (facts I gathered, statistics about work done v. not done, bugs introduced, etc.). On the day I announced I was going, my boss paid me the first compliment I'd heard in over a month working there. I was a bull in a china shop there, yes, but I got stuff done. She wished I would teach her other PM's how to do that if I had to leave. I was good for that place, but it was not good for me. I saw it, I was given an opportunity, and I left.

I've been in the new gig since mid-June. I'm still trying to figure out how much time to spend here v. at home. My face is a little sore because I smile a heck of a lot more. This place isn't perfect--like most places, there are folks here I'd cheerfully choke to death and then hide the body in the break room--but I'm getting used to it. Finding my rhythm. Realizing that staying here for a year for my resume isn't going to be hard. Thinking if I stay here for two I might want to move closer (the commute is a BITCH, people).

We adopted a new kitten (there are now three felines in the house and the delicate balance has shifted because there are more girls than boys). And I'm getting a handle on things. the meltdown of my primary computer, happened, btw, in the middle of the previous job, and has finally been brought to life as a Frankenstein monster box of awesome.

I'm not sure I'm done with this blog yet. If you're reading this, thank you for hanging out for me. I have a few more stories to tell. I just had to get healthy and happy to tell them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Re-run: Treasure the Worst Job You've Ever Had

...because it's always possible you'll get a worse job some day. On the bright side, as much as you learn from regular old failures, you can learn some amazing things from the spectacularly failed ones.
Note, this re-run may or may not have to do with my previous state of employment before securing my new job which (so far) is very far away from the worst job I've ever had. Still, I knock wood and cross fingers and try not to walk under any ladders. in the interim, while I'm doing every superstition in the book that my luck holds out, here are some of my previous words on the topic of bad jobs. Enjoy!
I used to think the worst job I ever had was when I was 17 and I worked at a toystore that is now (thankfully) out of business. The Assistant Manager had a god complex, and I have spatial awareness problems, so of course, we got on great. The hardest aisle in the place to clean at night was the board game aisle, as everything was stuck in tight, like a Jenga puzzle that's never supposed to fall down. When he figured out I couldn't do that aisle, it became my nightly job, and he kept me and everyone else well past closing until I finished it or he relented around midnight and let someone help me.
I think, as a boss, he had some deluded idea that annoying the rest of the staff and humiliating me might teach me spatial awareness. Or he was just a controlling asshole. What I learned from that job is that you can quit bad jobs. My father specifically asked me to resign because he was driving me home and he was tired of the guy keeping me so late. I never told my father why the guy kept me so late, as I assumed my father would punch him or something (The ImPerfect Manager is daddy's little girl, and will be until I'm 101...that is the only case where using "little girl" and my name or The ImPerfect Manager is appropriate, by the way, unless you want to see the ImPerfect Manager punch someone herself). The learning experience derived, however was that sometimes, the paycheck isn't worth it. You don't quit a job lightly, and despite the desire to do so, you don't burn bridges when you go. But you can go, and you can hold your head high (and sometimes that's easier to do when the Assistant Manager's face shows that he has just realized that being down a person means he has to do some chores now, too).
Several jobs later, the next job that I thought was the worst in the world was doing customer service for a popular metropolitan newspaper in the Bay Area (still in business). I wanted to be a reporter, so I walked in and asked if they had any jobs. I also needed a job, so the fact that they did have jobs, even non-reporting ones had some appeal. The manager treated all of us like we were 10 year olds trying to steal candy--from the girls my age paying their way through college to the retired ladies making a few extra bucks, none of us got any respect, at all. That wasn't the main problem, though.
The main problem was the customers. It's a newspaper, not a spleen. I never actually said that to people (nor liver nor heart nor brain, which some of them could have used). An example phone call was a woman that went off on me for 10 minutes, not cursing, but actively yelling (people who called frequently knew that they could be hung up on for cursing but not for yelling) about the fact her newspaper was stolen and how upset she was as a result. When she finally wound down I finally put the receiver back to my ear and calmly asked for her name and address so that I could rectify the issue for her, to which she calmly replied, "That's okay, I stole my neighbor's paper." I then had to ask for their address and dispatch a paper there and hope that no one else was talking to her neighbor in the meantime. Co-workers nearby began actively laughing, creating an issue as the lady on my phone and folks on with other reps were wondering if they were being laughed at, while our boss stormed in because enjoyment was something she was thoroughly opposed to while you were at work.
What I learned from that job is that you can give less than two weeks' notice. It's not polite. It's not professional, but some notice is better than no notice. Turnover in the department was 3-6 people per month in a department of 12. I lasted a little over a year. I gave my notice and the boss read me the riot act about not giving her two weeks'.
That was when I also learned that, yes, work can be a power struggle, but sometimes you are the one with the power.
I asked her, very politely, if that meant she wanted today to be my last day, or if she was okay with me working one more week, because those were her options. She was floored. She was used to having the power all the time. In a way, she had some: she could choose what my end date was, but I got to choose the options she could choose from; also an important lesson. Sometimes in life you don't get to make the actual choice, but you can shape the only available choices. My boss at the time chose the additional week. She was extremely kind to me for the first time I worked there for that week, somehow expecting that would cause me to stay. I was the highest productivity worker, and I earned awards for the department in preventing users from quitting the paper, so I could understand her reluctance at me going. She was, however, still a shrill, power-hungry person with poor people skills and no management skills, and the customers were still angry and/or lonely people, so I still quit on the prescribed day and never looked back.
Later I thought the worst was this tech support gig I had; I was the tech support supervisor, but this not-so-young upstart had moved in and was kissing up to the boss and going out of her way to make me look bad; okay, that sounds like paranoia, and maybe it was, but it didn't mean she wasn't out to get me. As the supervisor, I got all the escalations, the truly angry people that you could hear through the phone from across the room. After six or eight of those folks I was often shaking and red in the face, which would be when my co-worker felt the need to call the boss in to ask about things that she didn't need to call the boss in for. She was prompt at pointing out errors...to my boss, and not to me, often when they were resolved not as errors, when the boss was safely not present. She was a fun person.
We were still not supporting brain surgery, but people can be very passionate about video games. We had one lady go through each person in tech support over the course of a couple of weeks because she would eventually get fed up with them not helping her and declare they were part of the CIA conspiracy behind her being unable to play her games online. One day I was listening to her spout about the fact that her house was bugged and her internet was being deliberately disrupted through the use of aluminum foil when she interrupted herself to briefly say, "Bye honey, I love you" and kissed someone in the background. That day I learned that even crazy people can find love. This cheered me considerably. I, too, shortly thereafter found the love of my life. I don't think he believes in CIA conspiracies directly related to the Internet, but you never really know a person.
I also learned to document, document, document. When my co-worker attempted to usurp the job I was doing and my boss asked me what job I thought I was doing (as she suddenly couldn't remember), I pulled out the document I had her sign with my job description and duties. I found a nice job in QA at another company shortly thereafter, and in the pretense of good faith, gave her the template for my job description so she could promote my co-worker to that job, knowing in my heart of hearts that the co-worker actually didn't meet the requirements to do the job. Which I knew they would notice very shortly as she went through the "perfunctory" HR interview process. I didn't learn that revenge is a dish best served cold, but I did learn that revenge is a dish best served politely, with the rope that you've given the person in question that is the proper length with which to hang themselves.
Revenge in the work place, by the way, is not about revenge at the end of the day; people don't respect that, and you don't respect yourself (no matter how food it feels to get someone at first, you always know that you should have been professional). But comeuppance is an entirely different thing. Tattle tales do not prosper in business. People who are competent and shine brightly can't help but reveal the shadows around other people.
The next job, the QA job, was great for a long time. It was the Dot Com Boom, and I learned so many things and was so eager to come to work every day. It was only towards the end when my days were all 12 or 13 or 14 hours long that it became my latest "worst job ever." The team would meet and send in a sacrificial lamb to the boss's office which was right next to the door to get out of the building to the parking lot (and he had a large window on the parking lot itself). If no lamb was chosen, the first person that walked past his desk would get pulled in and persuaded to work longer. It took us a while, but eventually we took turns, most of us getting to go home after only 10-12 hours and the unlucky one staying at least another two. In this job I learned that while I love my work and my friends there, I love not working and my friends outside of work more. The boyfriend at the time (now husband) missed me, which was a unique feeling, both awesome and scary.
This job taught me that work-life balance was not just a set of buzzwords for Buzzword Bingo. If I didn't get enough down time my work suffered, and if my work suffered, the people who reported to me and depended on me suffered. I saw that directly, and I couldn't allow it to continue. So I eventually moved on to a more normalish 40-45 hour work week and the ability to have dinner at home every night.
The next worst job also started out well; I was working for a new Dot Com...and then the Dot Com crash happened. Of 130 people, I was one of 13 to actively help close the doors. For the last six weeks we were open, we couldn't touch the code, so the team came in and played Diablo 2 every day. That part was fun. But the looks on people's faces, the not knowing about their livelihoods as the desperately tried to sell the company...that taught me that my youth and work viability was probably not going to last forever. Which sucked, because Diable 2 is pretty fun if you're being paid to play it.
The company did eventually get bought out by another company (still in business today). One of the 13 was a strange little man who only got stranger. And stranger. Then creepy. Then legally harassing. You never want to know that a person at work wants to know what it would be like to stroke your hair. Or that he thinks your co-worker should jump out of a birthday cake in a bathing suit. Or that he wishes another co-worker would lie naked on a bear skin rug so he could observe. That dude creeped out everyone, and our bosses wouldn't do anything about it. They had a soft spot for socially awkward coders...and no respect at all for those of us being harassed.
I learned in this job that men and women can be sexually harassed and that being sexually harassed is very unpleasant. Eventually, my friend and I gathered the group, took statements, and wrote a nine page back and front single spaced document that we gave to the HR maven. This taught me that sometimes, you have to take things over your manager's head. I felt good about it. I felt empowered...only to learn that since our bosses had refused to address this problem with him, this was "technically" his first offense, which, pursuant to the HR handbook, meant they could not automatically fire him.
I had never thought the world was fair, but this job taught me that it could be really, really far from fair. Sometimes doing the right thing still ends up without a happy ending. This sounds so logical, and my thinking very Pollyanna, I'm sure, but when you have 9 front and back pages on disgusting behavior you kind of think you're going to win. We didn't.
This man who knew us and what we'd said about him remained, playing his music so loud the entire room could hear it through his earbuds, not talking to any of us directly, but leaving pictures of his hot Russian mail-order bride in various states of undress around (I wish I were making this up). It was a mercy when Microsoft hired me and moved me out of state.
A couple of jobs later was the death march project from hell. In interviews, when interviewers ask me about the worst project/things that went horribly wrong on projects, I mention this one. It is, to this day, still the worst job, ever.
I was a new project manager. I took what we were calling "The Boston Job." My first inclination this might not be good as that no one else wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. A 6 hour plane ride to Boston in the middle seat later, I met the nice people, laid out a backlog to use Scrum and set up sprint planning, and then spent another 6 hour uncomfortable plane ride back a few days later.
In the ensuing weeks, the project was transferred from the original team who contracted us to a small and growing fiefdom. The new owner wanted the entire consulting team to move to Boston for the six months of the project. That was danger sign #2. When we declined, he hired everyone with a pulse that could touch a keyboard in his native area. This was danger sign #3.
Things started out okay...we planned sprints and started working. He agreed to everything. He met on the phone for daily stand up meetings to discuss team progress and to agree to the day's work. Then he'd randomly order his team in Boston to do ANYTHING ELSE BUT WHAT WE AGREED. He called repeatedly to change things mid-sprint. Me, my mentor, my dev lead. I had to change the number for my dev lead (switch phones with a different group and take the dev lead's phone) to get him to stop calling the poor guy. This, at this point, was Danger sign #37 or so.
Then the daily calls about how I was a horrible project manager and person for not changing everything daily for him began, in addition to his calls to my boss and the daily stand ups where he pretended he was a normal human being. He began instructing his team to undo work my team had done (and he had actively paid us to do).
This was the first project where I understood the concept of "firing the customer." Sometimes, customers will price themselves right out of your working for them, not by the negotiation of a contract, but by the amount of money you end up spending trying to manage them. This project also taught me how to talk to upper management. I wasn't exactly confident all the time, but frustration can make you braver than you'd normally be.
The CEO, however, wouldn't let us end the contract, despite the customer actively working against us. The customer was not well liked within his organization; if we could complete this work, we'd look amazing to the rest of the org, who'd likely sign on to spite him and because if we could handle him, we could handle anything. He called it a "prestige" project. I did not tell him what I called it, as I maintain that swearing in front of senior management is a quick way to get fired.
So returned to my team with the news...and a bag of goodies. The customer's team would undo their work and write crappy, horrible, non-project related code in the morning well before my guys got in (they were in Boston, we were in Redmond). For every piece of code they had to undo, rollbacks they had to manage, thing they had to explain for the 10th time, whatever, they could reach into the bag and get a Starbuck's card, a Farside book, or a toy. I couldn't make the project less bad, but I could make their immediate circumstances less bad. I paid for a lot of lunches and listened to a lot of venting. Most of all, I kept the yelling at myself; the customer was hung up on when he started going off on the team. This did not make me more popular with the customer.
What I learned, though, is that if you put it all on the line for your team, they'll do the same for you. They worked longer hours. We worked on a continuous integration platform; if the builds were building right and the tests were passing, all the bars would come up green. This didn't happen because crazy people three timezones away were frequently breaking things (like the VPN connection to make this thing work). On the first day they got all green I was out sick; so they took a picture of themselves (all thumbs up and smiles) and the monitor in the background, with all the bars green.
I had always known that people are what make a job great. I just learned, in that moment, how great they could make a job.
Towards the last few months the customer was more and more irate, but I cut scope, re-arranged resources, and set the schedule. I suggested to the CEO and my mentor they tell the customer I'd been fired from the project to make him happy; in fact, it would have made me happy, too. They agreed to do it on the condition that I wasn't actually fired from the project. I'd keep doing my job, managing the project, but they'd let him think I was no longer on it; my mentor became the new face of the team. This thrilled the customer...until he learned my mentor wasn't any more maleable than I was. However, it bought us some time and good will.
We did it. On time. In budget. Within scope. We partied that day at lunch. I brought boardgames that afternoon. That weekend, I got a hoop permanently set into the top of my right ear to remind me of how bad this all was, and to be greatful for what I have now comparitively. I still reach up and touch it sometimes, and smile, because no matter how hectic things have become, no one was planning on calling me daily and telling me I was a bad person over it.
I learned from that project that I'm stronger than I thought I was. That a group of people is stronger than any individual. That in the midst of anger and frustration and chaos there are moments of magic and bonding. Most of all, I learned that being a manager--project or people or both--was what I loved more than anything else I'd ever done, and even the worst job I'd ever had didn't diminish that. Instead, it made it bigger and brighter.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Taking Risks

I've written in previous posts about the risks that you undertake when you become a manager. I caution caution, as it were, at every turn. 

However, I want to also suggest that you do take risks; both with your professional life as well as on potential people in your life. Since this blog is work and career focused, I won't go into your personal life or attitudes on taking chances on other humans, but concentrate on the overall affect of taking chances on (and with) your career and with other people that you work with.

A brief caveat to the "not talking about risks with people in your personal life": if you find someone in the office attractive, the company allows you two to date (ie: you aren't their boss or they or your boss or the company allows fraternization), and there are no complications (ie: whatever you think of as a complication--for example, if they're married, that would be a complication for me), there are specific risks you are taking by trying to go out with them, beyond the "sexual harassment" worries I write about; there are potential issues with what happens if it doesn't work out (which most people consider), but there are also issues if it DOES work out, which most people don't consider. You will see each other every day. No matter how much you grow to love that person, distance sometimes does make the heart grow fonder. You are basically risking an unpleasant work situation if things don't work out, and if they do, you're risking your relationship with that person every time you go somewhere together because you see each other every day at the office. So think about that. 

Myself, in the past, have vetoed going out with co-workers. Maybe I was just not being asked out by the right ones, or maybe I was too cautious. That, however, was a risk I don't regret not taking..

In your professional life, you're going to take risks in terms of commitments you make to do the daily job such as scheduling specific things and delivering them, or hiring a specific person instead of another (or even getting the company to agree that someone should be hired when that budget could go somewhere else). You are also going to take risks on decisions you make regarding your professional career: stay at the company where you are, or go somewhere else? Take the promotion and the new responsibilities, or stay where you are comfortable and good at what you do? Wait longer before enhancing your skill set to learn more about what you're learning now, or leap into a new skill set entirely? 

I have always based career decisions on these things: 1) how old am I (no really), 2) how will it affect all parties involved, 3) is this a step in the right direction for me?

When I wonder how old I am, I am actually thinking that, as a younger person, I'm likely to take more risks as I have a lot more time to make up for any stupid mistakes I make (and I made some, you will, too). As I get older I realize the window to recover from the stupid is smaller, but, as I get older the fewer (I hope) stupid mistakes I make. 

When I review how it will affect all parties involved, not only am I considering the company, my boss, my co-workers and my team, I'm also considering my family. In fact, my family gets more weight than any of the other parties--including me. I never want to burn bridges in the professional world, but sometimes that is a risk that can be taken. I suspect that if you're reading this, you never would casually blow up your team or company, but sometimes you might think of it spitefully (even if you never do it). You want to make decisions  that don't hurt the people with whom you work, or the potential checked reference that is your company, but you also want to make choices that fall into line with the third question: is doing what I'm doing a step in the right direction for me?

I left a job that started at 8 am and ended when I sneaked past the VP of Engineering (he would intercept and send people back with just one more thing), typically around 9 pm. It was fabulous experience. I learned a ton of stuff. It was my first job as a QA Manager (and, technically, project manager, technical writer, customer service manager, and general cat wrangler). Awesome people to work with. But weirdly, I wanted to go home and see the new boyfriend (who is now my husband). The VP was not happy. He never wanted to see anyone leave. In addition to making him very unhappy, the team was very unhappy; it was a start up, and I was part of the glue holding it together. My leaving and a few other key people and the company dissipated relatively quickly, which I anticipated. Finally, I took a position LOWER than the manager position: I became a lead. It took me years to regain my managerial spot (and I missed that a lot), but at the time it was the right decision for me to go to a better paying job that would actually be only 8-9 hours a day. 

The point is, in the heat of the moment of a potential transition (which always has a lot of risks, whether it's willing or not, or an opportunity or not), these three things--how much time do I have to make it right, who all is affected and how, and is it in the right direction for me--is not as obvious as it is at this particular moment in time. So think it over, and maybe refer back here (if you like) when you need to.

I'll write more on taking chances with people in a future post. Until next time!


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Saying Just Enough, But Not Too Much

In real life--ie, not your job--you often explain why you're doing things as part of informing people that you are doing things. For example, "I can't make that weekend to go out because we're having a house guest over from out of town."

Sometimes in work life, its important to explain a choice or decision similarly: "We cannot go with the blue color scheme because it looks too much like our competitor; please see the attached image copies."

However, its important that in professional and business communication (and to a certain degree in private communication), that you don't always include the reasons why for things...or even how. Often when and where will get you a lot further without starting a discussion about the other things.

For example, telling your boss that you're suddenly free on Monday because the client cancelled the all day meeting seems innocuous enough...except your boss (or anyone else) might wonder WHY the meeting was cancelled. You end up having a long discussion about the fact that you didn't do anything wrong, that the client had a conflict, and may even end up explaining the death of the main developer's cat to multiple people during the day. Instead, "Monday works fine" would have been a much better "when can we meet" than "Monday, because the client cancelled." If there are questions (such as people remembering you had a meeting and now you don't), you can take them off the main email (where lots of other people are) and answer individually.

Generally, when trying to decide how much to include in communications is dependent on the number of recipients of that information, their investment in the information itself (perceived or actual) and whether producing that information will help or hurt progress on the existing items or any future ones.

For example, an email to a large group should be succinct and not trigger additional questions that people will (because they naturally do) hit reply all and ask. Try to leave justifications and explanations out of emails to large recipient lists unless its a summary of what you've all agreed to or some subset has agreed to and agreed to pass on to the rest in this form. So, "free lunch today at 1 pm in the break room" to the entire team is way better than "free lunch today at 1pm in the break room because the sales meeting cancelled." There will be people who want to know why it cancelled. They may email or email you or email sales. Some might suddenly worry the company has lost a client. Keep it short, sweet, and if there are additional questions, take off reply to all and reply individually.

Investment in information is often hard to gauge, but also a strong indicator of reaction to reasons, explanations  etc. in your communications. A complete lack of investment--"Why do I even care?"--may be the response to such information, which is bad for morale and can hurt trying to get them invested in the future. For example, "Hey Bob, we're all going to this symposium on Java, wanna come?" might be more effective than "Hey Bob, we're all going to this symposium on Java because the company is transitioning from C++ to Java and you need to know this stuff in six months to a year" for some people. Specifically people resistant to change, or ready to road block it entirely. It doesn't mean you don't tell Bob about the change, but you don't tell Bob about the change at the same time your trying to invest him in that change. That typically spells disaster; either Bob will go out of fear and not be his best, Bob will go and be passive aggressive about, or Bob will not go in hopes to affect the outcome of the transition (ie: make it not happen/make it not real to him). Bob might be the type that would go to prep for the transition, and if he is, then he's already invested (at least as much as the inviter knows), and the full reason for inviting could be included.

Finally, does the information or lack thereof hurt or help the point of the communication? Talking to folks at a higher level than yourself, it helps to include that someone at their peer level or higher okayed the decision and requested you pass it on/they do the specified task. Talking to folks at a higher level having a political pickle with the person who requested you pass on the information or they do a specified task might encourage you to leave the name of the person who made the request out...at least initially. This is because it could hurt their compliance with the information or the task associated.

In general, you want to pass along enough information so people can invest in what you're passing on and make informed choices about understanding as well as complying with any task requests. You don't want to be guilty of withholding information, but at the same time, you don't want to include information that could be confusing, start a fight, or otherwise cause problems for you, the information, existing tasks, or future ones.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Know Your Story

In everything we do, we need to know our boundaries and what we're capable of. You might be able to lift a car off your screaming child, but its probably not in your regular wheelhouse of abilities. As my mother might say, "Butter might not melt in your mouth" which is a Southern way of saying that you're both a smooth talker and a little removed/distant at the same time, or you might be the type that sits down for eight hours, wakes up, and marvelous things are done.

Whatever it is that you do well, you need to know it, and you need to be able to convey that to other people.  Sometimes we don't know think enough about it ourselves to have the list readily at hand. So the first step in the process is finding out the good stuff. Note: this can't be your own compilation alone. We often think, for example, that we hide how dry the turkey is at Thanksgiving every year like a champion, when everyone knows that your lips pucker with each bite and you drain three glasses of water. Our perception of ourselves is a good place to start, but not the last place to end. Put together a list of what you think you're good at for whatever reason--since this is a blog about management and work, you're probably going to want to start with your competence in those arenas--and then go over that list with people you trust to be honest with you but not in the "break your spirit with honesty" sort of way.

While you're at it, you might want to solicit what they think of as your weaknesses and compare their list to your own mental list. Its hard to hear your best friend explain that you can be a "bit bossy" (trust me, she's been kind enough to tell me when I've asked), but its better to hear it from her than third hand from a potential employer who indicated that was feedback they got from a reference.

Now you have the good and the bad. Put the story together. For purposes of work, this is how you got to where you are now, the ups (mostly) some downs (because people to whom you tell this story aren't going to believe there were never any downs), lessons learned, and plenty of examples. Try to find the humor in the overall pieces; people who laugh with you invest with you in the story you are telling. Try to find the honor in the story, for example, refusing to give less than two weeks of notice because despite the fact the new job thought you were a rockstar and wanted you immediately, you would never hurt your friends at a previous company that way. Try to find the humility in the story: I messed this up, but here's how I un-messed it up and learned the error of my mistake.

Now that you have an idea of the story, write it out, like you'd be writing an essay for a future employer or to your boss for a raise or to someone who doesn't know you...whoever the appropriate audience should be. When you're done, read it out loud. It's probably pretty dang long. Now, start cutting up your story. Break it into pieces that demonstrate specific things about you. Humility, honor, learning, etc. Take these sub-stories and make them fast, easy to remember, and remember to provide examples of your life and your choices in them. Now you can string them together, if need be, or target any specific part of your story, if need be. Interviewers or HR folks are rarely going to have time to hear the entire story of you, but you need to know it. It adds to the confidence in all the smaller stories you can tell about yourself. It answers the questions people will have about you and the story you are telling.

Let me just say for the record here: don't lie. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: "No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar." The story of who you are is made up of memories you already have and can lean on; you don't want to make up additional stuff you have to remember, that will be less reliable than the truth.

By the same token, you don't need to tell the whole truth to everyone, all the time. For example, the fact you hated your boss in one job with the passion of a thousand fiery suns is the truth, but not necessarily one you need to share in the story of your work experience. It leads to other questions, and other stories about why, which may have truthful answers, but which cause the listener to start drawing conclusions of their own about you. In the world--let alone the work world--it is easier to assume that someone with a grudge is the actual person with the problem than the person against whom you have the grudge. There are very few things you can say to prove things otherwise, and often trying to do so will simply make it worse. There are a large number of truths out there like that. If asked directly, be honest, but if not asked directly, pick a different story to tell.

The story will change and grow as you do. You'll swap some anecdotes out with more successful ones, with funnier ones, to ones more appropriate to a specific instance; but you'll always have all the stories to choose from, and they'll always be true. Because you know the stories (and the entire story they make up), you'll be able to follow any line of questioning wherever it may go and answer honestly.

The reason I recommend knowing your story, especially in a blog about management, is that you're going to need to tell parts of it throughout your career. Mostly to other people, but sometimes to yourself. When you're picking an employee up who just fell down, and you are dusting them off, they need to hear about a time when you did the same and things got better. When you're talking to upper management about defending a decision you've made, you can use a story as evidence of how you've made such decisions in the past, and that they can trust your judgment as a result. When you're talking to a screener on a phone call, hoping to get to the next part of the interview process, you aren't off guard: you have what the political arena call "your talking points" and you know what you're going to say so you are less nervous. You also know instantly if this is the right opportunity for you or not, because you know your whole story, the good and the bad, and whether or not this opportunity is a good fit. Further, you can tell the appropriate parts of your story to the screener or interviewer so they can understand if it is a good fit or not.

Finally, it never hurts to know yourself a little better. In the work world, we often take a moment to look at ourselves at review time, or when we're looking for work, but rarely at other times. Taking the time to know your story and the stories that make it up is so worth it; the returns are endless for the entirity of your career, but also for your general peace of mind. No one is going to follow this advice and achieve zen management master, but hopefully being able to clearly communicate to yourself and to other people about yourself will make your work career and management life a lot easier.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sticking Your Neck Out, or as Other People Like to Call Them: Recommendations

In the modern world, getting a job is always difficult. Even if the market is booming--during the start up boom in the 90's, they were grabbing people off the street and dragging them into start-ups--the whole process of getting a job that is both one that you can do, one that you can stand and one that is right for you can be pretty difficult. Add in any extras like a bad economy, a glut of people with your skill set and/or a hungry younger workforce willing to work for much less than you, and things get downright intimidating out there.

When you look for a gig, one of the final steps of the process used to be checking your references. This is where a potential employer called the people you listed to ask about your previous work experience, or their experience with you as a person. By this time they were basically hoping not to hear that you were a serial killer or had some kind of unnatural obsession with calendars, especially based on the fact that you provided them the list of people to call and talk to in order to tell them that you are good to go in terms of hiring.

These days, because the market is tighter (we have been in a pretty nasty recession and in theory we're on our way out of it, but still), employers are starting to sort of skip to that part first. Enter in places like LinkedIn, where referrals and recommendations are stored for anyone to see at any point in the process.

What this means is that, as a manager, you're going to start getting asked to provide referrals to employees, co-workers...even friends. Further, you may find you require their referrals as well. Some employers don't even want to move forward with a potential hire unless they can see some feedback about that hire that is positive or otherwise convinces them that the potential hire could be a good fit for their company.

Once upon a time, referrals and recommendations were more formal than just writing an email or posting on a website. You might write up a sheet of paper expounding the qualities of the person, sign it, and then they'd take it to whomever their new prospective employer might be. Those days are mostly over. People prefer a post on a website that anyone can see. Occasionally they want an email they can share with as many potential employers as they'd like. As a result, its getting easier to make recommendations and people are therefore more easily asking for recommendations. Even, perhaps, people that you might not want to recommend.

There's the rub. There are societal expectations that you will give a good recommendation even if the person is your apartment complex's gardener's third nephew twice removed. Meantime, potential employers are expecting that you will give fair assessments (if not a little biased towards the positive as these sites allow you to accept or reject recommendations and very few people proudly present the "he'd be great if he just wasn't so lazy" recommendation). Further, you may have future contact with these potential employers, either because they work with your firm or you may try to get work with them in the future.

I think the thing to do here is what you would have done if we had gone back in time and you were hand writing or typing a recommendation. Would you go to this trouble over this person? Do you now them well enough to say at least a paragraph of good things about them? Do you believe that there is a paragraph of good things about them in existence?

If the answer is yes, then by all means, provide a recommendation. Do your best to write at least three things about the person, no matter the format. And no damning with faint praise, either: "She'll be your absolute best employee because she gets extremely jealous when anyone else succeeds!"  Commit to writing a good recommendation, and believing in and standing behind that recommendation or...don't write the recommendation at all.

You may have to face the complex gardener's third nephew twice removed and tell him that you're sorry, but you don't know him well enough to provide a recommendation and maybe he could try someone else, but you should do that rather than writing a recommendation for him; you could be asked about it later, and if you don't remember his name (let alone the recommendation your wrote) it reflects badly on you--not on him.

In this day and age the one thing you still have going for you is integrity. If you water that down providing recommendations for people you don't know, or worse, don't deserve it, then it can affect you as well as them later on. Ever recommendation you write is you saying to people reading that recommendation "this person is worth sticking my neck out for." So you really ought to make that statement true.

This also means that, when soliciting recommendations, you should not put people in a bad spot, yourself. Ask them to write about what they do know about you, and only if they're comfortable. Never, ever, leave it to the automatic request system on some website to request a recommendation or referral. Personalize the message, or, if you cannot, email them before the website does to let them know its coming and what you're hoping to get/expect.

When someone does write something for you, accept that it may not be the glowing awesomness you hoped for; a former boss might say you were diligent and timely and effective, but could use some help with your detail work because that is the truth for them (even if it might not be the truth for you). You have then got to make the decision about whether to make that review public (your original intention before you knew there might be something in the recommendation that makes it slightly less useful for getting work) or potentially hurting the feelings of/burning bridges with the person who wrote the recommendation.

In summary, while computers, email, etc., has made the process of referral and recommendation so easy that my nephews can do it, it doesn't necessarily mean that they should. It also doesn't mean that it should be treated trivially. What you write represents you. What people write about you represents actual human feelings and time they took out of their busy lives for you. Appreciate what you get, be gentle and deserving with what you give....and good luck on any future recommendations.