Leading Geeks

Can they actually be led?

Category Archives: teambuilding

Useless Feedback

English: Angry cat

English: Angry cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An email ruined my weekend.

(And I’m still mad.)

It was an email filled with extraordinarily useless feedback, including completely false accusations. The person who sent it was so unaware of her own behavior and self-blindness that I’m still bewildered, puzzled, and confused.

My gut response, of course, was to reply with an email that would set her straight! It would point out that SHE was the problem – not me. That I had no fewer than five examples of other people who had experienced insult at her hands. I wanted to make sure that she never – ever – falsely accused me of things that were HER FAULT again.

A far smarter (and less pissed) person  stopped me before I could send this email. This email that would have been filled with feedback just as vitriolic and useless as the email that ruined my weekend.

I’ve decided (based on the advice of this wise person) to wait until I calm down and to respond later to the false accusations. What I did on Saturday was to ignore the email and re-ask the simple question that I asked in the first place. Why? I have to get this project done! Her response, as insulting, juvenile, and horrifying as it might be, is completely immaterial to the project itself.

And now, as usual, I find myself introspective. I wonder how many times I write my own judgement into email exchanges where it will be completely useless, distracting, and unproductive.

In order to not be as much of a PITA as this woman was this weekend, I’ve decided to ask myself the following questions before shooting my mouth off at someone:

  1. Am I just pissed? Do I simply want to make the other person pay? If so, I need to put down the computer and hit the punching bag instead. My words can be really brutal, and I need to be careful about how I use them. If I’m not pissed and will move forward, I can go on to the rest of these questions.
  2. Am I writing an insult? I might think that the other person is being cold and emotionless in her email, but calling ANYONE that is an insult, no matter what. Maybe I think she’s being overly emotional, but actually telling her that will either exacerbate her emotions or just piss her off.
  3. What result do I need? This question was the brilliant one that my friend asked me this weekend. I WANTED to tell this person where to get off. I NEEDED to push the project forward. The interesting thing is that answering this question was what caused me to fork my actions – get the project done first, and deal with her problematic communication style later (after the holidays and after I calm down).
  4. Is my feedback useful? If she can’t take action on what I’m writing, why am I writing it? If she asked me for an example and all I did was restate what I wanted (without giving an example), I gave her useless feedback. Am I using too many sentences? Is what I need from her clear?
  5. Am I being truthful? Am I accusing her of something that’s actually my own fault? Am I telling her that she’s the troublemaker when I know that I’ve had arguments with three other people on the team similar to the one we’re having now? Am I accusing her of something that’s just untrue? Maybe I’m pissed and I’m trying to pull in something bigger so that she understands her actions better. I’m probably better off not doing that – all I’ll do is offend her and make things worse.
  6. How does she think? At my day job, I work with a couple of guys who are my exact Myers-Briggs type. This means that I can communicate with them in my own language, as it were. I can explain my motivations for doing something, and they’ll have similar motivations – my reasons will just make sense. This is NOT the case with this weekend’s offender. In order to get her to change her communication style such that her emails no longer ruin my weekend, I need to understand her better. I need to understand what kind of motivation SHE needs to change her behavior.
  7. Do I just want to hurt her back? Am I just looking for my pound of flesh? Do I just want to hurt her like she hurt me? Yes, this is the same question as #1, but when I’m mad, I need to stop and think more than once, so I put this in here again.

Eventually, I won’t be angry any more (usually my anger lasts less than an hour – this was a horrifying email!). If I’d sent the vitriol-filled hateful email, I’d eventually feel bad about it. I’d also possibly have damaged a relationship that I want to last a long time. As satisfying as it would have been to rip her a new <expletive deleted>, that would only have been momentary satisfaction. I’m really glad that someone talked me off of that ledge, and I have a feeling I should bookmark this post for the future!

Jumping on the “WTF Yahoo!” bandwagon (re: working remotely)

I realize that pretty much everyone is writing about the Yahoo! work from home debacle (hi Jim!).  Just in case you’re living under a rock, here’s the salient part of the memo:

Image representing Yahoo! as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.

I’ve heard lots of good and bad points about this, but several things just boggle my mind. Here’s my list.  In order to attempt to be entertaining, I’ll start each point with my actual knee-jerk thoughts.

  • “Well, there goes your recruiting.” I have to admit that I didn’t quite understand the work from home (WFH) culture while I was at law firms, since most firms have a pretty strict not-working-from-home policy for non-lawyers (we’ll get into the nightmares of that haves vs. have-nots culture some other day). Now that I’ve worked at tech companies (HubSpot and Amazon), I’ve realized that being able to WFH or work remotely is an essential part of recruiting top talent. Your candidate for kick-butt lead engineer needs to take care of his mom in Tuscon? Let him work from there 3 weeks a month. Or permanently. He’ll work better with an easier life, and you don’t miss out on his awesome talent.
  • “Dude, if people aren’t being productive remotely, MANAGE THEM BETTER!” I don’t think Yahoo’s primary problem is with remote workers – I think it’s with craptastic managers.  As Jim points out, “Effectively managing remote workers requires more effort and overhead.” Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. To me, it doesn’t sound like the problem is with remote workers, but with crappy managers. This is an awfully expensive and ham-fisted way to save your bad managers’ jobs.
  • “If you need to lay people off, lay them off. Don’t do this BS that makes you look like you’re managing in the stone ages.” Yeah, so I went to a kick-butt business school that made it really clear to me that remote workforces and the ability to WFH is truly the wave of the future. It doesn’t mean that you have to go to business school to realize that this is a giant leap backwards in modern management practices.  I mean, do we not have videoconferencing, phones, planes, instant messenger, and the ability and money to use these?
  • “Yes, face-to-face has kinda neat value. However, if your employees don’t value that enough to come in more regularly, you have a culture problem.” If your culture lacks the collaborative spirit that makes employees value corporate visits and coming in regularly, you have a larger culture problem. Ticking them off by instating this policy isn’t going to fix your culture.

I realize that very little of this hasn’t been said already, but I just had to contribute to the discussion.  Am I right? Am I crazier than usual?

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.

On Interviewing

I have to admit that I find the process of interviewing prospective candidates for a job to be an odd mix of exciting and nerve-wracking. While I absolutely love getting to know people and thinking of the possibilities for them within my organization, I find I often worry about making candidates comfortable and not breaking any of the intricate set of HR laws surrounding interviews. Overall, though, I really enjoy it.

Interviewing geeks has its own challenges, as many of them come in to the interview extremely nervous and shy. Since I can hold a meaningful conversation with a coffee table, I usually talked to them until they would eventually stutter out a few replies from which I could get a decent read. If you’re not as ridiculously extroverted as I am, however, you may find interviewing geeks challenging.

If you’re interviewing geeks, you have to first define your goals. They should be in these general buckets:

  • Technical ability. Can they execute the geeky part of the job?
  • Personality requirements. Can they execute the non-geeky part of the job?
  • Team fit. Will they have credibility on both geeky and non-geeky levels with their fellow geeks and the company as a whole?

Once you’ve defined what belongs in those buckets, figure out how to get to them.

  • Technical ability: What kinds of situational or technical questions do you need to ask? Should you give a written or computerized test? Make sure that the questions are appropriate to the level of the position for which the candidate is interviewing.
  • Personality requirements: I love behavioral interviewing for this. Propose a situation to them and ask how they’ve handled similar situations in the past or would handle this situation in the future. Ask them to tell a story about the last time they got angry or made a mistake.
  • Team fit: You may be able to determine team fit from their answers to the above, but sometimes geeks don’t give much away in their personality even while telling behavioral stories. In that case, it’s time to schmooze. Ask how their weekend went or what they do for fun, and volunteer your own weekend stories and your hobbies. This piece has the most two-way conversation of the entire interview, and those of us who tend towards the quantitative often forget the value of this “useless” chatter.

I haven’t always been perfect in my interviewing (note to self: write blog post on terminations), but as I started defining my goals (“buckets”) and figured out how to get to them, I was able to much better identify good geeks.

On Skepticism

At the ILTA ’09 conference in August, I attended a couple of sessions by Jason Dorsey, the Gen Y guy. At the second of his sessions, he mentioned a service online that helped people find couches to crash on. Then he said, “You Gen Xers in the room are looking this up right now to see if I’m telling the truth.” I quickly dropped my Blackberry and pretended that I hadn’t been doing exactly that, much to the amusement of the Boomer sitting next to me.

Gen X leaders aren’t as common as we should be. At the point in our careers when the previous generation should start retiring to let us take over, they’re not. Their 401Ks have been decimated, and they just don’t feel old yet (hi, dad!). I was very fortunate to be able to move into leadership early in my career.

As a Gen X leader, I found that leading and managing other Gen Xers was incredibly easy. Here are my tips for managing Gen Xers:

  • Maintain honesty and credibility
  • Address their skepticism
  • Be yourself

Luckily, this leadership style works well for geeks, too, since their intelligence and natural skepticism means that many of them have Gen X attitudes even if they’re older or younger than that generation.

I have to wonder whether anyone has studied Gen X attitudes (skepticism) and juxtaposed that with geek attitudes (also skepticism). I also have to wonder if that means that Gen X geeks are incredibly difficult for non-Gen X non-geeks to manage…

On Caution

I’m not a particularly cautious person. I’m the person in the room who wants a quick decision and subsequent quick action. I get bored discussing alternatives after a decision is made, and a slow phasing-in of something sometimes feels like slow torture. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think through the problem in order to reach a good solution, this means that I tend to want to move into action immediately without rethinking things.

My lack of caution can be both a strength and a weakness. In crisis situations, my willingness to jump in and try possibly risky solutions has allowed me to solve the issues quickly. (Well, most of the time, anyhow.) There have been occasional times that my lack of caution costs a bit of time, but that has been the exception rather than the rule. In day-to-day life, though, I could probably benefit from having a few more second or third thoughts. I’d certainly get in less trouble with my mouth!

As a leader, it is my responsibility to balance caution and action. I’ve learned that I have to have at least one person around me who tends towards caution in order to best achieve that balance.

I first experienced this in my second IT job. I worked with a woman who I actually nicknamed “repercussions woman” for her ability to identify and voice her concerns about any project or action. At first, I found her constant raining on my parade quite frustrating. I’d already carefully considered things and formulated an action plan, so I didn’t want to hear anything that would change my implementation! As time went by, however, and she saved my bacon more than a few times, I learned to bring everything to her (often before formulating my action plan) in order to get her insight. Her talent for finding potential issues balanced my tendency to plow ahead, and our collaborative work product ended up being much stronger as a result.

I’ve led many geeks with similar talents for finding potential problems and “thinking things to death”. Their talents help me to be a better, stronger leader by bringing up consequences while my talent allows us to accomplish things quickly. The combination leads to a stronger department and better overall results.

On Transparency, Part II

My apologies for the 2-week gap; I’ve been developing content for a blog that will launch mid-May.

But on to the subject: transparency. Again. In Part I, I discussed opening up my master project list to my peers and the anxiety that provoked. Now I’ll be talking about transparency inside my own department.

As the head of a (geek) department, I find it sometimes difficult to determine how much information to disseminate to my geeks. Unlike giving information to my peers, this uncertainty is not motivated by my fears. The primary reason I find it tough to figure out how much info to share within IT is that I read too much.

I’ve read articles on transparency and agreed with them. I’ve read articles on information overload and agreed with them. I’ve seen staff who drop out of meetings because they “just don’t need to know” and the information would confuse them or increase their stress levels. I’ve seen other staff completely frustrated by lack of information about what’s going on in other parts of the department. What’s a geek leader to do?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to that one. In my last department, we were small and seated all in the same area. At least once each day, we’d end up congregating at the Lit Support Specialist’s cube right outside my office. We would chat about anything and everything, ranging from childhood memories to weekend plans to current and upcoming projects. This worked well for us.

My current department, however, is twice as big and very spread out. We often congregate in the Help Desk area, but usually not the entire team together. I eventually realized (thanks to some rather gigantic “hints”) that the casual method of information sharing that worked at my last firm wasn’t going to fly at my current one.

So I started having weekly 30-minute meetings. I moved these meetings from the training room to the Help Desk area, since the Help Desk folks were having trouble making it on time and staying. After trying a few different times, we settled on a time when most of the firm was at lunch so the phones weren’t quite as continuous.

At some of these meetings, I do most of the talking. For example, when I started a new change management procedure, we spent most of the time talking about that. At other meetings, we go around the room and each person talks about his or her current projects or issues. Each geek shares as much as he pleases or tunes out if he doesn’t want to know. They have access to my master project list (the live document) and can question anything they please. (Somehow, this doesn’t cause me any fear. This is probably a good thing.)

We’re still trying to get to the appropriate level of granularity, since not all my staff talks to each other often enough to disseminate solutions to specific problems. I have to admit that I find that frustrating, since a 30-minute meeting is only long enough for brief discussions. But we’re getting better.

I have to wonder, though, if there’s ever a “perfect” level of internal transparency. If so, anyone know what it is?

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 Correction

One of the greatest challenges in management is correcting staff, especially when you’re somewhat annoyed at them. While it might feel really good to vent your anger by stalking into your geek’s cube and start yelling, “What the $%^&* were you thinking!?!?!?”, this isn’t the best way to maintain her respect or team functions in general. And, I have to admit, I have a temper, which makes the yelling part even harder to resist.

How do I deal with it?

So glad you asked…

  1. Find out what actually happened. Your question to the geek shouldn’t be, “What the $%^& did you do to the managing partner’s computer?”, but should be, “So, what’s up with the managing partner’s computer?” And it should be said in a true tone of inquiry, rather than anger.
  2. Think about it. Think before reacting or thinking (If I, an extreme extrovert can do it, so can you–honest!). Make sure you’ve listened, and ask whatever follow-up questions you need to ask so that you feel like you thoroughly understand the situation.
  3. Figure out how to phrase your correction. Usually, this will become somewhat clear as you understand the situation. I find that I usually phrase correction starting with, “In the future, I’d prefer it if you…”, or, “I understand why you did that; in order to fix this, can you please…”
  4. Recognize if there’s no need for correction. Once you understand the situation, you might find that your geek didn’t actually do anything wrong. Don’t be tempted to correct anyhow.
  5. Strategize for the future. Let your geek know how you prefer these situations to be handled. Or ask for the geek’s input on how to prevent it from happening again. You might learn something.

It’s not easy; as I said, it’s one of the greatest management challenges out there. You’ll probably make some mistakes (heaven knows, I have!), but, if you can keep your temper, you can fix the situation (at least for the future) and keep your geek relatively happy.

On Attitude

Approximately two years ago, in my class on Authentic Leadership, we read an article (can’t find the citation–sorry!) on how having a positive attitude led to better working results in every single profession. Except in attorneys, which probably says a lot about my career choice to be a Leader of Geeks in the legal industry, but that’s not actually the topic of this post.

I find that geeks easily fall into sub-optimal attitudes, which usually fall into two categories. The first is what I call the “stupid user” category, where they develop the attitude that anyone who doesn’t work in their department or on computers is too stupid to function. The other I call the “end of the world” category, where they develop a Chicken Little attitude about anything that goes wrong.

A good example of the “stupid user” attitude is the Saturday Night Live sketch, Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy. From Wikipedia:

In the sketch, Fallon portrays “Nick Burns”, a caricature of the stereotypically condescending computer expert. Burns is the systems administrator for a large corporation, who is apparently always on-call to support technical problems. He is presented as a nerd, wearing multiple pagers and cellular phones.

He would start troubleshooting a problem by rattling off instructions to the character in confusing technical jargon, and quickly gets fed up by their relative technical ineptitude, eventually yelling his catchphrase, “MOVE!” He then sits at the keyboard and fixes the problem himself, gloating at the relative ease of the solution (“Was that so hard?”). There are two other recurring lines in the sketches: at the beginning of the segment, whenever it is mentioned that Nick Burns is coming into the office, Chris Kattan‘s character mutters, “I don’t like that guy”, and at the end of the segment, Burns exits, and comes back sarcastically yelling, “Oh by the way, YOU’RE WELCOME!”

My favorite example for the “sky is falling” attitude comes from real life. At one point, I had the pleasure of experiencing two server room waterfalls in one week’s time. After the first waterfall, I brought someone who is a software engineer in real life with me to help with the clean-up. He spent his entire time there saying things like, “You’re so screwed.” When I asked him (not as politely as I should have) why he kept doing that, he said that it was normal for his work environments. “We sit around and talk about what a mess things are, then we figure out how to fix them.” I didn’t take him with me to clean up after the second waterfall…

Neither of these attitudes is a good working attitude. The first attitude is antithetical to customer service; the users won’t like the geeks, because they feel like they’re being talked down to or belittled all the time. The second attitude leads to negativity and frustration–it is simply not a positive attitude to have.

In my work environments, I watch for these attitudes and actively discourage them for several reasons. First, I really want to create a service organization inside my law firm. Second, it’s just more fun to work around positive people. Finally, I want better work product from my geeks, and, since they’re not attorneys, a positive attitude leads to better working results.

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