Entries Tagged 'Management' ↓

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.

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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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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Development Manager vs. Engineering Manager

My title at EMC is “Software Development Manager,” but my job is definitely “Software Engineering Manager.”

Usually in a software engineering organization, at some level there is a split between the Development team and the Quality team.  The Development team, in theory, is evaluated on its ability to Develop software.  The Quality team likewise is evaluated on its ability to Qualify that software.  While nobody wants the Development team to produce a buggy product, in the end it’s the Quality team who makes the decision on whether the software is bug-free enough to ship to customers.  You don’t trust the Development team to make that decision.  It’s a system of checks and balances.

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New manager?

I recently got a message from a colleague and friend who was embarking on a bit of a career adventure, going from a strictly technical role to one where some formal management was going to be required.  After (tongue-in-cheek) offering my condolences, I shared the story of the first real lesson I remember learning as a manager.

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Areas of concern

Early in my career as a manager, I attended a discussion where the question was raised: are we people managers or business managers?  Is it more important to be good with people, or to know the business side of your product?  Over time I have realized it’s much more than just those two – and I’ve begun calling them the axes of concern.

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Iterative development of performance reviews

If you’re in software, you’ve heard of iterative development.  Simplified, its intent is to rapidly create a working piece of software and then continue on small cycles of improvement on that software, until the stakeholders want it released.

This isn’t a post about software development, though.  Instead, I’m sharing how iterative development has changed my approach to performance reviews.

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Why managers matter

I am a technical manager, and work with many others.  We’re people who “grew up” in the industry with our arms elbow-deep in source code.  It’s not unusual for me to hear my peers complaining about “overhead” work and wishing they could do “real” work.  But what they might wish for as work isn’t necessarily what their teams need them to be doing.

So what is it that we as managers do that matters?

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Management as a practice

Working at EMC, I often run into highly technical people in management roles.  Almost every manager I interact with could tell a story of transition from technical contributor to manager.  It’s not unusual to have senior managers directly contributing to a product, and recently my senior director recently called in an individual contributor to discuss coding practices after he stumbled onto some things while reviewing the code quality dashboard.

With this in mind, I am not surprised when I walk into a manager’s office (or cube) and see a bookshelf with books about programming languages, software design, code quality, and so-on.  I think it’s healthy, actually.  In the role we’re expected to play, it’s important we be able to speak the same language, be able to detect poor practice from early signs, and so on.

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Becoming a manager – fear of politics

Last time I wrote on this subject, I covered only a third of the equation of the decision to become a manager.  There were still some open questions, including figuring out what skills and talents I could bring to the management table, and how to deal with the vague “ugly stuff” that most technical contributors seem to fear hides behind the manager’s job title.

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