Entries Tagged 'Corporate' ↓

My thoughts on Disrupted

During my commute (and while doing yardwork), I listen to books using Audible. Unlike everyone else who mentions Audible, I don’t have any advertising affiliation there, so I can’t give you a link to sign up. Sorry, but I’m guessing you can figure it out :).

Recently I wrapped up Dan Lyons’s bestseller Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. Dan Lyons, who found himself out of work after a lengthy media career, took a job at a Boston-area start-up (HubSpot) where the average age was half of his, and wrote a book about the experience. It’s a great read, even more so if you’re in the industry in any way (and doubly if you’re over 40).

As Lyons has worked as a writer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” I came in expecting some wacky hi-jinks and light-hearted but pointed criticism at the ridiculousness of start-up culture. And while that is present, the overall package is much darker, and it’s worth experiencing it for yourself. To make sure I had a bit more context, as soon as I finished the book I read some of other press about HubSpot, including their official response to the book (posted by one of their founders, in a LinkedIn post).

As someone who cares about how people are managed, a few things stood out, and I felt they were worth writing about here. As a disclaimer, I’m talking about how Lyons portrays HubSpot. I have no direct experience with the company, and I am not assuming that what he’s relating is actually happening.

People Management

Lyons severely criticizes the management culture at HubSpot throughout the book. From individual line management (where young men with no management skills or experience do a poor job of managing others) to executive management (where a frat-boy sales culture seems to be encouraged by executives who value “cultural fit” without thinking too hard about how that impacts diversity and inclusion), everyone has some share of blame. The relationship between Lyons and his direct management is always portrayed as clunky, and sometimes downright toxic. In passage after passage, I found myself wondering why his management couldn’t handle any given situation better. So much of the difficulty could have been avoided if management had been receptive, open, transparent, and supportive.

Of course, we all know the people-skills side of management is not given enough weight in general, and this is especially true in a fast-growing cut-throat environment.

I’ve said over and over in my career that the first lesson I had to learn as a young manager was that not everyone likes to be managed like I do. Perhaps, in a very homogeneus workforce, this isn’t as easy to learn early on. This may especially be true if that homogenus workforce is inexperienced and not very demanding of their management, which it sounds like was the case at HubSpot. Maybe in that situation, you can put people into management roles without much coaching, and not have it backfire spectactularly … until you have someone join the team who is outside the norm. And when that happens, saying it’s a cultural mismatch is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it?

Human Resources

This brings me to the second thing that jumped out at me. I’ve always felt that there’s an inherent conflict of interest when you have to deal with HR about anything sensitive about the company itself, because disrupting the corporate norms isn’t necessarily in HR’s interest, though it may be in your interest. For example, how many harassment claims seem to get shoved under the carpet at companies because it’s easier to shuffle people around than replace one executive?

This conflict seems to be even greater when the company is a start-up and so much of each person’s compensation is tied to stock which has no value yet, but whose value will eventually derive completely from shareholder confidence in the company. As an HR person (perhaps the only HR person) in that company, what’s your incentive (besides your own ethical code) to dig too deeply into something that may hurt the company?

So, in the book, when Lyons asks HR “Do we have any statistics about diversity in our workforce,” and they answer, “Why?”, it’s partially because there isn’t a clear separation of role here for HR. HR is proactively acting as a mix of HR, PR, and Legal. This is exceptionally true in a start-up environment but it’s not unique to that. I don’t know the best way to address this, except that in countries where strong legal protections exist for workers’ rights, it’s very much in the company’s best interest to adhere to those laws, and that falls directly into HR’s area of expertise (i.e. protecting the company from itself). It’s unclear to me, though, whether American voters have any strong desire to press forward in that realm.

Diversity and Inclusion

Speaking of diversity brings me to a tougher question in the book, and perhaps its central thesis. Lyons spends significant time discussing ageism at HubSpot and in tech in general. His points are all valid, and everybody should read them and absorb their implications.

I couldn’t help, though, being a little uncomfortable with some of Lyons’s own blindness towards inclusive behaviors. While talking about how uncomfortable older workers with families might be in the youth-oriented start-up culture, he hits the nail on the head. But then he brags about how confrontational and brash the newsrooms of his early career were, and lauds the raunchy jokes he’s free to make as a writer in Hollywood. It leads me to wonder if he’s really concerned about inclusion on principle, or just making sure he’s included. Because I’ve worked with many people who would be as uncomfortable in his dick-joke writing room or his confrontational newsroom as he was in the “everything is awesome” frat-house kindergarten.

Corporate Kool-Aid

The final thing I’ll mention which rubbed me the wrong way in the book was how Lyons portrays what I tend to think of as fairly mainstream corporate “stuff.” Whether it’s intentionally softened jargon or being terminated upon giving your notice, Lyons acts surprised at standard operating procedure for a 21st century company. I can understand being surprised at these things if you had been living in a newsroom bubble for the past 30 years, but Dan Lyons covered the tech industry for a living for a good chunk of his career. He went to conferences, interviewed corporate PR drones, and generally absorbed the mainstream corporate world for years. I find it unlikely he was as surprised by everything he encountered as he acts when he writes about it. I wonder if he’s intentionally playing this up a bit for an audience who is coming from further outside. I don’t blame him if he is, but it does impact the readability a little.

Overall, I found the book darkly fascinating. It was addicting, even though some days when I shut off the audio player I was stressed out and feeling depressed about our industry’s future. It’s definitely good reading, but it’s worth reading it with an eye towards your own workplace environment and how you can avoid falling into the pitfalls that obviously befell both HubSpot and Dan Lyons himself.

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.

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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Lessons from the 2016 election

Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, the increasing amount of publishing and scrutiny of (previously) private communications (from both major candidates and their parties) should be interesting. It’s not isolated to politics either; we’ve seen similar situations unfold with celebrities and movie studios. And there are lessons here for managers and for tech-savvy individuals in general which are worth examining.

There’s been significant analysis and condemnation about the wording of the emails between various DNC officials, whether it relates to bad-mouthing Bernie Sanders or unflattering characterizations of vast numbers of the voting public. The same held true during the aftermath of the Sony Pictures hack. There’s been remarkably little condemnation of the repurposing of these private communications for public analysis, though. Everyone seems to believe that the greater good (or just the greater curiosity) outweighs respecting the privacy of these communications.

This is a valuable insight into the reality of 21st century communication.

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Looking back at EMC

With tomorrow marking the start of our new home under the Dell Technologies umbrella, we got a lot of mileage today out of the joke, “Enjoy your last day at EMC!”

The truth behind the laughs is that the feelings are bittersweet. When Data General was bought out by EMC, there were similar feelings – had we “won” or “lost” in being acquired?  In this case, since Dell isn’t a competitor to EMC, it’s more clear cut. Fewer people feel we’ve “lost” (though some do – I don’t know what “win” they saw coming that nobody else saw).

I personally am a little sad to see EMC go, from the standpoint of a Massachusetts success story being folded into something bigger. But I’m glad to see such a clear vision for the future. I’m excited by the business leaders and their plans. People who aren’t in the industry ask me if this news makes me nervous or scared – I can honestly tell them “no.” Change is a constant fixture at EMC, and while this is change on an unprecedented level it is less nerve-racking to me personally than the dot-com crash or the 2008 recession.

The other side of this is that people who were paying attention were already nervous. I attended a session in the summer of 2015 about EMC and its place in the transforming IT landscape. The constant calls for EMC to split off VMware, or otherwise make drastic changes in response to shareholder pressure were a big part of the conversation.  Discussions with my colleagues suggested that something “big” would have to happen in the fall of 2015 if EMC was going to remain recognizable in a few years.

Something big did happen, of course, that fall. And it’s finally completing tomorrow. And out of all the “big” things that might have happened, I think this one has something good in it for the employees, customers, partners, and shareholders. I’m on board.

Tomorrow I’ll be a Dell EMC employee. I’ll pause and reflect on all that made EMC unique and amazing. And then … back to work. Because we’ve got to help make Dell EMC unique and amazing.  The battle continues!

These are exciting times.

New day, new team

Today I logged into the system and saw that the team I’ve been leading for a few weeks now is formally now reporting to me.  I didn’t write about the change for the same reason I don’t write about a lot of my day-to-day issues as an engineering manager: it’s hard to make the content interesting while still respecting the privacy of the people involved.

My responsibilities aren’t changing, not in the grand scheme of things.  I’m still leading a team which is responsible for doing a lot of the “guts” type work in the SRM Suite, which includes functionality from ProSphere, Watch4Net, and Storage Compliance Analyzer … and unless you’re a customer or a fellow ASD employee, I don’t expect that means anything to you.

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What you remember

I didn’t want to write a 9/11 post, to try and put such a huge event in the context of my tiny corporate blog.

But I had a conversation with some colleagues and family over the weekend, and I thought it would be useful to record one piece of information about that day.

I remember many things about that day, sitting here at EMC in Hopkinton.   But one thing that stuck with me over the years is that my manager at the time gave me a hard time about leaving at mid-day to be with my wife, who had been sent home from her work in a high-rise building (if you remember, many high-rise buildings were closed and their employees sent home) and really didn’t feel comfortable being alone.

I’m sure we were working on something really important that day. I’m sure that manager did what they felt was best for the corporation on that day.

I have no idea what I was working on that day.  But I do remember exactly how that interaction felt.  And I remember how absurd that feeling is, in the context of the world-changing events that took place on that day.

It’s a lesson as a manager I carry forward.  I write this not to call out my previous manager but to remind all of us as managers that the world is bigger than our deadlines.