Technical momentum and shifting tides

I wrote some time back about how we all write throw-away code, how applications have life spans and you don’t want to work on the same code for two decades. Recently I was discussing this topic from a slightly different angle, in terms of how a product team’s technical culture has momentum and how important it is to be able to shift that momentum over time. I speak here of the collection of tribal wisdom and best practices that influence the technical decisions of a team over time, the technical values that the primary decision makers rely on when steering the ship.

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Picking up the workplace litter

We all want to work in better workplaces. Even people who have checked out, who have no connection to their work beyond their paycheck, could come up with ways their work environment could improve, or could get worse.

We all want it, but not all of us believe it can happen, and many of us don’t feel it’s our responsibility. And so it reminds me of how people approach the environment. As we head into spring here in New England, my mind shifts to the outdoors, and I can’t help but map the behaviors I see outdoors to the behaviors in the workplace.

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Cloudpets and culture

As a parent of an elementary-school child, I end up seeing a lot of children’s television. One of the most popular shows in our home is Teen Titans Go!, a brilliantly absurd comedic show about teen superheroes in the DC universe.

Since I see a lot of kids’ TV, I see a lot of kids’ commercials. One commercial I saw frequently last year was for Cloudpets, little teddy bears you could use to send voice messages to your kids from afar. The commercials showed a father who had to travel for business, a distant grandmother, and more all recording messages on their phones that their kids would listen to via their bears.

The bears themselves were not connected to the net. All messages would first be downloaded to a parent’s phone, and once approved, would be sent to the toy via bluetooth.

I immediately felt that this technology was an incredible waste of money (if you have connectivity, why not just call or send voice messages), but so are many toys, so I shrugged it off. I didn’t think of cloudpets again until last week, when Troy Hunt posted about yet another high profile breach (or rather, leak). I won’t spend a lot of characters outlining the leak; Troy does a great job of summing it up and he deserves the clicks.

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Shaping identity through naming

A few years back, during a project kickoff, we organized our engineers into teams, each intended to solve specific problems and deliver subsets of the overall project functionality.  Experimenting with some Agile concepts, we invited the teams to name themselves.

The team I was leading took this opportunity seriously; we campaigned for names we liked, we had suggestions both serious and humorous, and in the end we voted.  Our team name became Daemon.  We adopted the FreeBSD mascot for our informal internal communications, and often accompanied our team name with the following quote someone found online describing Unix daemons:

Thus, a daemon is something that works magically without anyone being much aware of it.

Over the next year, our team shifted to align with that definition.  We took pride in low bug counts, in delivering services that “just worked” and required very little configuration or setup.  Our focus shifted away from administrative use cases and focused more on infrastructure.  We sought out work that aligned with our mission.

In other words, naming ourselves helped define and shape our behavior.

We obviously took the name because we were proud of our ability to quietly deliver high quality work.  But that in turn shaped us to focus more on the traits we took from our name.

As another example, I’ve noticed this same pattern when defining strengths in performance reviews. Once someone names a strength, they are more apt to think of that as a character trait and seek out opportunities to prove it again.  Likewise, once the team leadership begins to discuss a person in certain terms, those terms may follow that person around their career (for better or worse).

So naming (or even labeling) can be powerful, and we should respect that.  Use it to your own advantage (the ever-present “personal brand”), help your teams use it to define their mission — but use it cautiously when defining others.

The strength of silence

I don’t remember the first time I was told about the power of silence in conversation, but I’m pretty sure it was one of my first management classes. I’ve run into the concept both formally and informally many times since then, and the usual context is somewhat adversarial.

For example, when performing a job interview, if you aren’t that impressed with an answer, wait a few beats. Does the candidate fill the silence? Do they elaborate? And does their answer dig a deeper hole or do they begin to climb out?  You can learn a lot with this technique: someone who immediately realizes the impact of their words and tries to work the conversation back in the right direction is showing a great deal of emotional intelligence.  Someone who manages the same feat but only after being prompted and guided is in a different place (this may not be a bad thing; it depends on what you’re looking for).

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Let others help you

I recently sat through a meeting and got a little riled up.  I may come across as pretty low key, but I take some things seriously, and every once in a while my idealistic self threatens to take over.

I was in the middle of writing up a charged email on the subject — in fact, I had edited it four times to make it seem as calm as possible while still getting my point across — when a colleague came by for a chat.  I mentioned in passing that I was thinking of sending this email, and he just shook his head.  “Not a good time,” he said.  I was frustrated, but nodded, and saved the draft and picked up something else to work on.

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The self-appraisal as a business communication

Once more, I find myself writing about the self-appraisal, that much maligned part of the annual performance review so common in our corporate circles.  Can you believe it’s been eight years since I first wrote about the self-appraisal process?  My own approach to this topic has evolved considerably over time, and so has the corporate environment in which I write them.

Here at Dell EMC, the biggest difference between self-appraisals in 2009 and 2017 is that we no longer make use of open-ended documents. Instead of having unlimited space to wage a marketing campaign for ourselves, we’re forced to focus our thoughts on each question into just a few sentences. We often joke that we’re tweeting our strengths and weaknesses, and the comparison is apt.  With a strict character limit, every word counts, which makes strong communication skills vital in producing an effective self-appraisal.

I don’t have any “tricks” here, but I make a point to think of my self-appraisal as a piece of business communication. As with any such communication, there are some tried and true keys to effectiveness. Continue reading →

I could never be a manager because…

I’ve written about this subject before, but it’s a common topic that never really goes away. As someone who started technical and moved into management, who keeps close to friends and colleagues who stayed technical, I often hear the line: “I could never be a manager, because…”.

About a year go, our group went through some difficult changes and we had to let some people go — a substantial percentage of our project team lost their jobs. I traveled to a remote office and laid off several highly qualified engineers in one of the toughest days of my career, and then returned to corporate headquarters and watched all my peers do the same thing.

Commiserating with colleagues (and ex-colleagues) after the fact, I heard someone tell a story of a friend who had abandoned his role as a manager rather than have to tell someone they had lost their job.  At the time I just nodded, but the story has come back to me over and over in the year since. And while I would not begrudge anyone a personal choice like that, I know I would never make it.

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Fascinating article on health care data privacy leak

If you aren’t following Troy Hunt (and you care at all about information security — which you should) you should be.

A recent post of his went into detail on a poorly-secured server which left thousands of Indian citizens’ health care data exposed to the world.

I posted not too long ago about our expectations of privacy. This is exactly the sort of situation where nobody was hacked or infiltrated, but sensitive information was out there for the taking for months before anybody noticed.  This got a lot of attention (once it got into the right hands) because it was medical data — if these had been chat logs, it would probably all still be available for download.

 

Staying friends with your team

I had a conversation recently with a colleague about the challenges of having certain types of management conversations with a team that you’re socially close to. To put it another way, is it possible to deliver difficult messages to your friends? More broadly: does staying friends with your team compromise your managerial effectiveness?

When I started in management, the team I was given was the same team where I had been an individual contributor. In a situation like that, there are certainly some pitfalls: others on the team might be resentful they were passed over for the role, a close friendship with a colleague may be viewed as favoritism in the new team structure, and so on. That’s a difficult (but common) situation and makes the transition to management even harder than it is normally.

But let’s step past that scenario and into the “steady state” of management. You’re working closely with your team, have shared values and culture, and develop a strong working relationship. You eat lunch with them, invite them to social gatherings, give them holiday gifts, and so on. Some of them will undoubtedly be the people you are more likely to be friends with than others. In some ways, it’s not a question of whether you’ll become friends with individuals on your team, it’s what the impact of that will be.  From what I’ve seen, there are three main areas of concern:

  1. Delivering difficult messages
  2. Fairness (and the perception of fairness)
  3. Your own upward mobility.

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