Category: teambuilding

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?