Category: care and feeding

What do you do with needy geeks?

Most geeks tend to fall into one of two categories: The “leave me alone.  I can figure this out by myself” geek, and the “I need to understand ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING about this situation before I can be expected to even think about doing it” geek.  I find the former type fairly easy to manage; just swing by for regular check-ins, make sure you know what they’re doing, and let them go.  The latter, however, can be very difficult for a busy manager to handle.

The needy geek (as I will call her) also tends to fall into one of two categories: the “tell me everything” geek, and the “tell me stuff and I will take it away and over-analyze it and pepper you with questions” geek.  I have to be honest–both of these geeks drive me absolutely nuts.  When I have to deal with either of these geeks, my thoughts go something like this:

  • Why can’t you just figure this out?  Part of the project is to figure it out.
  • Sigh.  I hate repeating myself.
  • Go away.
  • Can’t you just figure this out yourself?
  • Please go away?
  • If I already knew everything about it, I would just do the damn thing myself.
  • Now go away.

Obviously, not a good train of thoughts for a manager.  I personally don’t like wishing that any of my reports would go away–I try to be more of a help and resource than that.  Honestly, my lack of patience with “needy” geeks probably reveals some of my own shortcomings.  I tend to lack patience.  I tend to under-explain projects.  I tend to expect everyone to understand everything I say the first time I say it.  So I had to train myself.  What works for me  is:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Realize that people need varying levels of resources to complete tasks
  • Try to gently suggest to the geek whatever path I want him to take
  • Be honest about my expectations–do I expect her to figure it out herself?  Tell her that.
  • Be more detailed about projects in the future

So what works for you?  How do you handle needy geeks?

Image courtesy of Tony Unruh.

Post-Traumatic IT Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic IT stressMy last job was a circus of IT disasters.  I arrived at the company just in time to have system after system crash and various others need to be replaced (having the windows open RIGHT BEHIND the blade servers was just FUN during blizzards, I tell you…).  It seemed that nothing had been configured according to best practices, and sleep was a very scarce resource–I once pulled 5 all-nighters in 8 days, and my staff was doing the same.  Every time my phone would ring, I would flinch, my heart would start pounding, and my hands and feet would get numb.

So I changed careers.

Flash forward a while until Saturday.  My husband’s company was having some trouble with their servers.  He mentioned that things might hit the fan as a result.  Next thing I knew, I flinched, my heart started pounding, and my hands and feet got numb.  In other word, I had the same stress reaction that I used to have to IT disasters when I worked in IT.

I have to assume I’m not the only geek who has experienced this.  So I started thinking about how you might notice this in your geeks.  I came up with the following:

  • Your geeks look like they’re overreacting.  Maybe it’s a simple system hiccup, but they’re running around with their hair on fire.  That’s your first clue that the hiccup probably isn’t the first they’ve survived, and they’re afraid of worsening hiccups to come.
  • Your geeks look like they’re underreacting. My first clue that my previous company’s systems were sub-optimal should have been that the staff would brush off any minor system problems.  I call this the “hard candy shell” syndrome, where they’ve been through so many disasters that they’ve had to build an emotional wall of uncaring in order to protect their sanity.
  • Your geeks are jumpy. I personally tend to jump & shriek at loud noises, but that’s not really normal behavior.  If your geeks wince or jump at every email or phone call, you might have geeks suffering from PTITSD (post-traumatic IT stress disorder).

There are probably other signs of PTITSD.  What are some you’ve seen?

Photo courtesy of r000pert.

Geeks & Gag Rules

If you’re a geek leader, are you gagging your geeks?  (No, I don’t mean with your lack of showering.  That’s probably a different post.)

Geeks & Gag RulesWhat I’m asking is whether saying certain things is verboten in your department/team/company.  Are you so paranoid that a user or customer will hear someone venting and get offended–I used to work in law firms, so I’m quite familiar with the easily, ridiculously offended phenomenon–that your geeks can’t express themselves?

I ask because this creates a very unhealthy environment for customer-facing geeks.  Heck, it’s an unhealthy environment for customer-facing ANYBODY.  Why?

  • You’ll never know the score. You won’t ever know what’s actually happening with the users/customers because your geeks are so afraid of saying something negative that they clam up.
  • You have ticking time bombs. For folks in customer-facing positions, being able to blow off steam helps keep them sane and polite to the customers.  That horrible thing they were saying about the user they had to tell for the twelfth week in a row to press pound to save a voice mail message?  They’re saying it to you so that they won’t say that horrible thing to the user in week 13.
  • Morale? Meet toilet. When people feel frustrated & gagged in their jobs, they become unhappy.  This means that when they complain, they won’t just complain about the users–they’ll complain about you/the company and your stupid rules.

Obviously, I don’t think you should gag your geeks.  Letting them complain, laugh, and blow off steam makes for a healthier environment overall.  However, there are certainly some things to avoid:

  • A bitter culture. If ALL your geeks do is complain, you end up with a pretty miserable team of geeks.  Make sure you encourage positive, happy, and fun talk as well.  Keep in mind that a lot of culture starts at the top, and make sure you act & speak consistent with the culture you’re trying to create.
  • Putting things in writing. When I worked in a law firm & helped out with e-discovery projects, I was STUNNED to see what people sent to each other in email.  Encourage your geeks to vent verbally only.
  • Disrespect. Granted, your geeks won’t always respect every user or customer, but a basic respect for the people who help employ them is very important.  If there’s no baseline of respect, your users will know it during the phone calls even if the geek plays everything else by the book.  Again, this is something you can set from the top, by having a basic respect for them yourself.

This is a balancing act, so you HAVE to communicate well with your geeks and truly listen to what they’re saying.  But please trust me when I say that you don’t want to gag your geeks.

Photo courtesy of Bernardo Borghetti

On Illness

I love my nieces and truly enjoy spending the holidays with them, but this year, I returned home with a very bad cold. And, as I usually do, I forced myself to go to work with it (although I did work from home for a few days, since there was no way to get that much Kleenex at work 🙂 ). This is a bad habit of mine. I have gone to work with walking pneumonia, viral meningitis, swine flu, and countless colds with less ominous names. Why? It’s what I was taught.

At my first post-college job (as a chronic migraine sufferer–thankfully I’m not any more!), my first review went something like this:

“You’re completely amazing. We would need six people to do all the work you do. However, you take all of your sick time, so we’re rating you a 4 out of 10.”

And my bad habit was born!

That said, many geeks–especially IT geeks–do the same thing. They’re aware that the company needs them to come in and fix things, so they drag themselves to work and infect everyone else. The problem is exacerbated by the rigid way that many companies count sick time; many geeks have to save their time for sick kids, etc.

Counting sick time rigidly and creating a culture of coming in despite illness backfires. Sick people infect other people, who perform poorly or take time off. This costs companies much more money than simply letting people stay home when they’re sick!

As such, I was quite impressed by HubSpot’s recent time off policy change. They stopped counting time. They said that they were fully cognizant that everyone put in more than 40 hours/week, and we were professional enough to handle balancing getting our jobs done with taking time off. What does this mean for me? I’ll probably be more likely to stay home when I’m sick. Sure, I’ll work from home (since I’m a type-a workaholic), but my coworkers have much less to fear!

On Boredom

I truly hate being bored. I don’t mean “I have nothing to do” bored, I mean “I’m doing something that requires less than 1% of my thoughts but doesn’t leave me free to think/do something else” bored.

I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment. I’ve noticed that most geeks also hate that latter form of boredom. I can’t say I’m surprised–most geeks are intelligent, creative, and like using their brains; the antithesis of boring work.

The problem with this is that with my job and with the jobs that many geeks have, we have rote, boring work that HAS to get done. This work is very easy to delay until it becomes a problem for me, for the geek, or for someone else at work. To avoid this, I employ the following strategies:

  • Identify the boring work. If I want to avoid the work badly enough, I can conveniently “forget” that it exists. I try to identify what I have to do but might prefer to ignore at least once a week.
  • Don’t delay gratification. I’m a morning person. If I try to kick off my day by getting the boring work done “first”, I may as well just go home. Instead of investing my high-energy morning creativity in interesting, creative tasks, I have just frittered it away by doing energy-sapping, boring work. By waiting to do boring work until my mid-afternoon slump, I maximize my time and energy investment. (Note: If I weren’t a morning person, I would probably reverse the process and do boring stuff first thing when I was mostly brainless.)
  • Assign a time to boring work. Approving invoices is perhaps my most tedious task. When do I do it? Friday afternoons, of course. Why? My brain has already left the premises, so I may as well spend my time wisely and do my rote tasks then. Also, by assigning a time (which is on my calendar with a reminder), I don’t allow myself to conveniently “forget” to do the work.

But enough about me. How do you handle the boring parts of your job? What works for you? I’d love to learn new strategies!

On Passion

I keep contemplating the recent statistics that indicate some huge percentage of workers will be fleeing their jobs once the economy bounces back. I find I’m more interested in the other side; the people who want to stay in their jobs. What makes them want to stay? Aren’t they under the same pressures as the others? Aren’t they just as overworked? Don’t they have the same bosses/teammates/working environments?

While some of them might not have the same boss/pressure/working environment ugliness that the “departers” do, I think most of the “stayers” are probably in the same situations as their cohorts. I think the biggest difference is that the stayers love something about what they do.

They might not like certain aspects (boss/pressure/etc.), but there is something about the stayers’ current jobs that ignites their passion. Maybe they love the work. Maybe they love the industry. Maybe they love the team or the flex hours or the proximity to their kids’ schools. Whatever it is that they love, it’s both a personal priority and a passion.

If you’re one of the departers, you probably want to consider your priorities and passions for your next job. If you haven’t identified what’s important to you, you probably won’t find it. If you don’t find it, you’ll be yet another departer. Personally, I’d much rather be a stayer. How about you?

On Crisis Fatigue

I’m not (usually) horrifically rude, but I happened to glance at the page of the woman next to me on the bus this morning and saw the words “crisis fatigue” at the top of one of her lists. Then I stopped reading and started typing this (honest!) because it got me thinking about the impact of crisis fatigue on geeks.

I don’t know the last time I talked to someone who wasn’t crisis fatigued to some extent. Just think about the news that we see every day:

  • The economy and its parade of tax hikes, layoffs, bankruptcies, and pyramid schemes
  • Swine flu and pandemics
  • Wars and violence–both foreign and domestic

Then add politics, traffic, weather, and the total randomness that folks call news. Now add work. It just seems like, as a society, we’re chronically over-stressed, under-staffed, over-caffeinated, under-funded and just plain tired.

Now think of geeks. Many of them live in environments of almost constant crisis. Servers and switches crash, applications are buggy, and few work environments these days have the staff or budget to fully replace the equipment or fix the problems. Add to that the sheer complexity of the products or systems supported and you can be certain that most of the user community has no idea why there are so many problems and why they’re taking so long to fix.

Are there ways to remedy the geeks’ and users’ stress? Absolutely. I’ve talked about having fun and communication as good remedies. But is it hard to remember to share a joke or communicate properly? Absolutely. There aren’t enough resources–humans, time, money, or hours in the day–to do things perfectly and remember to implement the remedies.

As a leader, it’s my job to be aware of crisis fatigue and attempt to implement remedies despite being crisis fatigued myself. Do I always succeed? Nope. I’m sick, exhausted, and stressed just like everyone else. But I do my best, and I’m glad that my moment of bus rudeness has made me more aware of the problem.

On Transparency, Part III

To continue my omphaloskepsis on transparency, I find myself asking the question, “Why bother if they don’t even look for the information?”

A comment on my last post pointed out that the meeting wasn’t the point–the availability of the information was. While I certainly agree, I should mention that nearly all the information was already available in a central repository or two, but people still kept asking me for it. Saying, “go look here” every time seems awfully rude.

Which brings me back to my initial question: why invest the time and energy making the information available if no one uses the resources?

I’ve heard answers to this question like, “You have to train them.” Or, “They might only use the information if nothing else is available, but that’s when it’s really valuable.” While both answers have merit, there’s still one elephant in the room to me: scarce resources.

In this economy, very few IT departments have adequate resources. Some of us struggle to find the bodies for day-to-day support. Others can do that, but run out of bodies if anything goes wrong. Still others can handle those, but can’t do any projects. Given that daily user service is our first priority, how exactly do we find the time to also make information available?

While I don’t have a good answer for the “how” question, I’ve realized that making resources available both internally and externally is worth the time. Why? It all comes back to user service:

  • Users feel better served if geeks can answer their questions more readily.
  • Geeks feel more empowered if they know they have (or can find) information.
  • Users feel less helpless in a crisis if they can find an update faster (or know where to look).

I’m still trying to figure out how to train everyone to look in the developed resource repositories (namely the intranet for the users and the knowledgebase for the geeks), but I’m a little more satisfied that putting the information out there is worth it.

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?

Why IT Goes Nuts Sometimes

I still have lots of thoughts on the transparency discussion going on in my brain; eventually they will become a useful blog post.

However, I just thought I’d share briefly on why I go nuts sometimes…

So it’s time for us to renew an SSL certificate. How do I find out? The email goes to my predecessor’s email account.

But not to his name; that was to an old network engineer who left well over a year ago.

Okay; fine. I go to the link, try to renew, etc. I can’t. I don’t have the password for it, and it’s not on my (10 page) password list.

Again, fine. I’ll put in the email of the technical contact.

Doesn’t work.

Try a different one.

Still doesn’t work.

Try every possible permutation of every IT Director or Network Manager/Engineer and domain name. No luck.

Email customer service rep that I need help renewing, because I cannot get the website method to work.

What does he do?

Sends me the same $%^&* links, and says I have to renew that way. And you all wonder why I’m slightly nuts sometimes?