Leading Geeks

Can they actually be led?

Category Archives: ethics

Is this what men feel like at work?

I am ridiculously happy with my job and my company.do I want to be a man?

And, this morning, I realized that – until now – I’ve never worked anywhere that I could just be me. Where I’m treated with respect. Where I don’t have to reassert myself many, many times in order to be treated like a peer, and then have to tell myself many, many times that it’s ok to be considered a bitch and get ahead rather than be considered nice and stay stuck.

My colleagues respect what I say. Seek my opinion. Follow my leadership and simply expect me to follow theirs.

I don’t have to constantly prove myself in ways that men around me don’t. I don’t have to yell at meetings. I don’t have to pretend that I’m someone I’m not. I don’t have to make the choice between a bitch who goes somewhere and a fun person who doesn’t.

And then, this morning, when I was reading about the GitHub engineer who quit, I found myself wondering, “Is how I feel with my current job what men feel like at work?”

Suddenly, it makes more sense to me that men are more easily considered superstars. Because here’s what’s happening to me:

  • When I don’t have to spend my energy fighting, I spend it on ideas and execution instead.
  • When I don’t worry about how my comments come across, I express my thoughts more.
  • When I don’t get disproportionately penalized for being wrong, I take more risk.
  • When I don’t feel held to a different standard, I take care of myself and don’t get sick as often.
  • When I don’t find myself judged by my gender, I can ignore it and make better working relationships.

I realize that men have other challenges at work. I’m sure they’re challenges I can’t even imagine. And I know that no one escapes the repercussions of crappy, political, hostile environments.

But without gender pressure, I can get more done. I can be better at my job. I can be happy at work. My stress level is shockingly low, despite feeling all the stresses of a crazy seed-stage startup and the full measure of our growing pains and limited runway.

Is this what men feel like at work? It’s more powerful than I ever imagined.

My thirty-five cents on tech and sexism

Chromosome X

Chromosome X (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you read any common tech blogs, you’ve noticed a bit of an explosion over sexism. There was the stuff at TechCrunch Disrupt, the brouhaha over the Business Insider CTO, and, while not strictly tech, the New York Times article on gender discrepancy at Hahvahd Business School. A bunch of folks have talked about how we need to sit up and take notice – and they’re right.

I’m not jumping on that bandwagon, though. I’m going to write about my personal experiences and preferences.

For anyone who hasn’t been following me for a while here, a bit about my background: I went to MIT. I used to run legal IT departments. I changed careers and went to HubSpot, and then spent two years at Amazon. Somewhere in there, I got an MBA from Simmons School of Management, the only all-female MBA program (can you say VERY DIFFERENT from everywhere else?). Recently, I started as Head of Growth at RecruitLoop. Experience in all sorts of male-dominated environments? Yeah; I have that.

I have experienced (many) vendors presenting their entire sales pitch to my 2nd in command just because he was a man and I was a woman. I have experienced doubt about my tech chops at every turn. I have experienced being “the little girl who spends our money” until I nailed my MIT diploma to the wall. I have experienced being told that I was hired because I was pretty and had curly brown hair. If you name the gender cliche, I’ve probably experienced it.

In all of this experience, I’ve come to some conclusions:

  • I would rather deal with juvenile, overt sexism than subtle dismissiveness. 
  • I would rather work with a bunch of idiots who I can call on their bullsh*t than work with a subtly higher bar than my male colleagues have.
  • I would rather personally start the “that’s what she said” jokes than be judged by every little thing I do.

In other words, in the “brogrammer” culture, I can call people on their crap. In the subtly sexist culture, what exactly do I have the ability to call out? In the “brogrammer” culture, I can just be the chick who will kick the crap out of you if you’re an ass. In the quietly sexist culture, I have become the whiner no matter how I approach it. Someday, the brogrammers will grow up a bit. The quiet ones, however? I’ve never seen any of them change. And working in a quietly sexist culture has been one of the most demoralizing experiences of my career.

I realize not all women have these preferences. I realize not all women are hard to overtly offend. I realize not all women can easily say, “Dude, did you REALLY just go there?”  I realize not all women will do shots, play flip-cup, and drink scotch. And that’s okay.

As I said at the beginning of the post, this is just my preference. My personal aim is to help my company achieve an inclusive balance, which includes me and anyone else who would be an asset to the team. I’ve read enough studies on gender diversity to know that this must include women. So, as others have already said, we (as an industry/culture/world) need to figure this out.

On Termination

Firing a geek should be the most difficult task for any Geek Leader. If it’s not, the leader should consider that he or she might be too angry to be rational about the situation. I would personally rather handle a broken SAN and pull 5 all-nighters in 8 days (which I have actually done) than terminate an employee. To deal with this necessary evil, I’ve adopted the following strategies:

  • Involve HR. If your company has a Human Resources department, use them! No matter how contentious your relationship may have been in the past (“What do you mean that a wooden bear that poops M&Ms might not be appropriate for the office?”), they’ll still probably be professional enough to help you through the process.
  • Speaking of process, if your company has one, you must jump through those hoops. Yes, even if they seem nonsensical.
  • Keep an open mind. If you’ve decided to warn the employee, be willing to accept that he or she might actually improve!
  • Document, document, document. If you warn the employee, write up the warning to put into his or her personnel file. Keep a log of unacceptable activities. Make sure there’s a paper trail.
  • Obey the law. If your company has very few policies around employee termination, you may want to consider doing some research and involving legal counsel. This is especially important if the employee is in a “protected class” due to age, race, etc.
  • Have a wingman. If you’ve jumped through all the hoops and still have to fire the employee, don’t do it alone. Ideally, involve HR and/or someone further up the food chain.
  • Be direct. Come up with and rehearse your opening lines that communicate that things haven’t been working out and therefore you have made the unfortunate decision to terminate the person’s employment. You’ll probably be nervous during the process, and having rehearsed lines helps.

It shouldn’t ever be easy. You’re taking away someone’s livelihood. Unfortunately, it is all too often necessary to terminate an employee for the good of the team/company. The best leaders–the most respected leaders–do not hesitate to fire a non-performer. Keep that in mind, and do what’s right. Follow the process, and get it done.

You probably won’t sleep well the night before. Frankly, I’d be worried if you did.

Dear Geeks:

(Before anyone gets excited, this is not intended for or aimed at any specific geek or non-geek who has ever worked for, around, or with me. It was originally inspired by this and this, although it isn’t the same format. Thank you.)

An open letter to geeks, from a geek leader:

I like you. I like working with geeks. You’re intelligent, have odd senses of humor, are creative, and usually shower. I chose to move into geek-dom, and, once here, decided to stay. Eventually, I became a leader. I know some of you don’t quite understand why I would want to do that, but perhaps you can attribute it to a management gene or being dropped on my head as a child (or maybe hitting a house with my head going 20 mph when I was in 2nd grade, but I digress).

But here’s the thing: I still think you should know some stuff.

  1. I’m human. I make mistakes. Shocker, I know. Do me a favor and tell me, rather than letting me look like an idiot, okay?
  2. I experience political pressure. Which, in turn, sometimes makes me tell you to do things you think are stupid. And sometimes I can’t even explain why. Please ask, though. See #1 for the reason you should ask.
  3. If we don’t work in an IT/software company, please learn how to talk non-geek to the, well, non-geeks. Actually, this applies even if we do work in an IT/software company.
  4. You have this job in order to provide value to the shareholders of the company. Either you make the stuff or do the work that makes money, or you support the people who do. Shockingly, very few companies will pay you to just sit around and be geeky.
  5. My top priority is to run the department according to #4. That’s why I have the job. They don’t pay me to just sit around and be management-y.
  6. I want to have fun. I want to be a team. But #s 4 and 5 have to come first. Doing both at the same time is optimal, but sometimes we won’t have fun. I know it sucks.
  7. I care more about you as a human than as a geek or a cog in some corporate machine. Does this sound counter to #s 4, 5, and 6? Yup. It’s a balancing act. See #1 for why I mess it up sometimes.
  8. My job as a manager is to enable you to do your job. Your job is to accomplish the goals I set as a manager and the goals of the company. In my world, you and I work for each other.
  9. But I’m still a manager. If I excuse myself during off-color conversations, it’s because I’m trying to be appropriate. Especially since we’re probably different genders.
  10. The way this all works is that we all act like adults. You do what I ask you to do without my telling you how to do it, and you ask me for help or push back when it seems odd, strange, or impossible. We communicate. We don’t kvetch about each other without first discussing the problem face-to-face (or at least phone-to-phone if we’re a remote team).

I think we can all figure this out, really. It’s a matter of respect and priorities.

Sincerely,
Jenn

P.S., It’s okay to shoot the flying monkey into my office. Just be warned that I’m easily startled and might shriek…

On My Values

My values as an IT Director and as a human being:

  1. Everyone is equally deserving of my respect (until they do something pretty extreme to lose it). My staff, my co-w0rkers, the end-users at my firm, my family, complete strangers across the world, and absolutely everyone is a valuable person to me. My references to “geeks” or “users” are not meant to be condescending in any way.
  2. I shoot straight. I value complete honesty, and hold myself to that standard. What I say is what I mean; there is pretty much never a hidden meaning. One drawback is that I might not “get” that others read negative meaning into my statements.
  3. I work hard. I am an incredibly driven person. If I don’t pay attention, I will work myself until I am absolutely sick. Do you see a tweet at 10:12 AM? Chances are that I took 30 seconds to tweet between tasks, but since I’ll work through lunch and far into the evening, I hope you don’t begrudge me that 30 seconds. Do you see a blog post at 10:13 AM? Well, chances are that I wrote it at some obscene hour in the middle of the night and set it to post during business hours so that more people would see it.
  4. I take care of my staff. I rarely ask anyone to work harder than I push myself, and I usually have much more sense when it comes to their sanity or health than I do with my own. I also consider it to be part of my job to get to know who they are inside and outside of work. Maybe you’ll come across a non-work conversation once in a while, but as I mention in my post On Geek Socialization, this is a good thing for the team and the firm’s IT service.
  5. I care about the customers. I have my job so that I can provide the best service possible to the end-users at my firm. I call them “users”, not to be condescending, but because that is the common term used in IT, and this is a blog for and about leaders of geeks.
  6. My family is important to me. I almost always put work first, but I’ve learned that there are certain things I need to do in order to keep my family speaking to me and keep myself sane.
  7. Laughter is important. I like to have fun at work. Heaven knows, we all spend enough hours there… I go into more detail in my post On Humor.
  8. I have feelings. Yes, they get hurt sometimes. Especially since I’m a generally positive person, and I greatly dislike it when people misinterpret things that I do and say as hurtful. I get stressed sometimes. I make mistakes. I’m human. I try to apologize and move on.

As a blogger, I should mention that none of the geeks mentioned in any post on this blog is a real geek. Do you think you see one of my staff here? Sorry, but you’re wrong. Maybe something might resemble something one of them did one time, but it could just as easily be based on a news article or anecdote from a colleague.

On Honesty and Perception (and Humor. Oh, my!)

Last night, on my way out of class, my prof told me to enjoy my new purchases (I’m starting a new job Monday and needed a bit of wardrobe refreshment). I replied, “Thanks. Now I just have to hide the receipt for the shoes from my husband.”

Her reply was, “Because of the principled leader that you are, of course.”

Now, my MBA program* has this tagline: Educating Women for Power and Principled Leadership. I’ve done my best, through electives, to really emphasize the leadership piece of mine–effectively concentrating in “principled leadership”. I also mention in a few of my posts (like that one On Honesty) that I hold myself and my staff to high standards of principled behavior.

And my husband already knew that I had spent a ridiculously huge amount on this pair of shoes–I called him right after I bought them.

I found myself thinking, “Does she really think that I wouldn’t tell my husband how much I spent on a pair of shoes?” (This coupled with the thought of, “Well, this time is at least better than when I bought that pair of $460 Dior sandals but thought they were $160 until I got the credit card slip thanks to messy handwriting on the label…”)

I think I can take a lesson from this: be careful with my jokes! I know that, at core, I’m a very honest person who would never hide the cost of shoes from her husband, but have I ever made that clear to my prof? Probably not–the class has 40 people in it, and I love cracking jokes and making controversial statements.

How people might perceive me is directly related to what I say. I think I might try to be more cognizant of that in the future.

*With which I’m almost done–one more class, nothing left to turn in! Woohoo! Ahem. That last paper ate last week, hence the blog hiatus…

On Honesty

One of the funny things about geeks is that they can be rather un-trusting people. Perhaps they don’t trust those who are not geeks themselves. Perhaps they’ve been lied to many times in the past. Perhaps they think stupidity = dishonesty. Perhaps they’ve actually worked in the business world.

Well, that last one is my cynicism coming through. But seriously, how many times are geeks lied to during the day?

Geek: Did you make sure your computer is plugged in?

User: Yes! Of course! Do you think I’m an idiot?

Geek goes to desk; computer not plugged in.

Personally, I’ve always valued my own honesty. For example, one conversation from early in my career:

User: Jenn, it was amazing how fast you got the network back up!

Jenn: Thank you; but it might have been better had I not crashed it in the first place.

This honesty often surprised my bosses, co-workers, and staff. If I had information that I could not share with my staff for business/HR/other dumb reasons, I’d say, “Well, I do know something, but I’ve been asked not to tell you. I know it’s annoying, but please trust me that I’ll tell you as soon as I can.”

I encouraged this honesty in my staff. Yes, we might have been better able to get users to do what we asked them to do if we made the consequences sound more dire, but that wouldn’t be honest, so I wouldn’t allow it. Unless it was funny. I mean, if we could tell them they’d be eaten by wolves if they didn’t reboot, I would have sanctioned it. Because hyperbole is a literary tool, and they would obviously recognize it as a joke. Also? I can’t figure out where to get hungry wolves in Boston.

The results of my honesty surprised me. Anyone who ever worked for me trusted me, even if I had to terminate their employment. One person to whom I had to do this said (when I assured him it wasn’t personal), “Jenn, I absolutely trust you when you say that.” It was mind-blowing to me at the time. After all, honesty is just part of who I am.

As a result of my experience, I have to say that one very good way to be a leader of geeks? Be trustworthy. The results will amaze you.

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