Category: leading geeks

Next Stop: California!

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, one o...
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, one of California’s most famous landmarks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Confession: this is going to be an annoying blog post. It’s really a teaser, where I tell you I’m moving to California at the end of August, but I’m not quite yet announcing what’s going on.

Oh, and my husband is coming with me, so I’ll just get that bit of speculation out of the way immediately. ūüôā

I will tell you a few things, however (and use bullets, since I think in bullet points):

  • I am not staying at Amazon.
  • I am RIDICULOUSLY EXCITED about what comes next.
  • I have already¬†fallen in love with my next company.

A few more details, I suppose, might be in order:

  • If you’re in Seattle, I’d love to see you before I go! I’m throwing a house-cooling party on August 16th – let me know if you want the details.
  • I am going to miss Seattle. Fantastic food, weather that sucks much less than Boston, and some of the best coworkers and friends I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. And the view of Mt. Rainier from my living room didn’t hurt, either…

At any rate, stay tuned for my post late next week – I personally think the next bit of news will be quite exciting! ūüôā

Are you in love with your company?

I know it's not Valentine yet but I'm full of ...
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I have a confession to make: I fall in love with companies. And when I do, I obsess about them. I read back blog posts. I stalk employees and founders. I gather as much information as I can about them and subscribe to their mailing lists. If I’m in touch with people from that company, I occasionally pull out past emails and cuddle up with them at night.

Okay, maybe not ACTUALLY cuddle up with them at night, but you get the picture.

I often fall in love with the company where I work, and even after I leave some companies, I maintain my obsession. I pull out my old HubSpot sweatshirt (that says “we bleed orange” on the back) and wear it when I’m feeling blue. And you will pry my Kindle out of my cold, dead hands (not that I’ve left Amazon, but I just wanted to make that clear).

Being in love with my company gets me through the rough spots. Nothing is perfect, and sometimes I have tough days. You know, when I’ve overslept, been yelled at three times, and had my computer crash all before 10am.¬† When I have a chance to catch my breath after a rough spot, I can step back and remember why I fell in love with the company, and it provides me with a much-needed attitude adjustment.

When I was in legal, I wasn’t always in love with my company. I was, however, massively in love with the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA). My love of ILTA got me through the days when water poured through the server room or the SAN crashed hard. And then that love just wasn’t enough any more and I moved to HubSpot.¬† After I’d been at HubSpot for a while, I realized it was just like being at an ILTA conference EVERY DAY. The difference between being in love with an organization that had a yearly conference and being in love with a company where I worked was, well, night and day. My energy level quadrupled, and my tolerance for crisis went off the charts.

I have to ask: Are you in love with your company? When you step back from the day-to-day BS, do you love it? Do you still believe in your gut that your company’s mission is right? Are you obsessed with your company’s future?

If you’re not, why are you still there?

Does your staff feel safe?

CSF-Safety Vest & Triangle Kit
CSF-Safety Vest & Triangle Kit (Photo credit: redi-medic)

I was recently reading an article about why Agile implementations are failing (yes, I’m a total geek), and it got me thinking about safety. I haven’t thought much about safety explicitly (beyond being an Amazon Safety Czar for my floor, which is different from emotional safety – I have a bright orange vest :)), but now I realize how important it is for your team to feel emotionally safe at work.

If your staff doesn’t feel safe, things might get pretty rough.

  • They won’t trust you or your company. Everything you ask them or tell them goes under a skeptical magnifying glass and is hyper-analyzed. They may become hyper-critical
  • They’ll probably start looking to leave. Honestly, the moment I stop trusting my company, I brush up my LinkedIn profile and start checking TheLadders for likely postings.
  • They’ll stop telling you things that have gone wrong. They’ll be scared of your reaction and will delay telling you any bad news for as long as possible. For me, this is a nightmare situation, because I sincerely value the opportunity to work through issues WITH my team.

I’ve been thinking of ways to identify when folks don’t feel safe, and I’ve come up with the following:

  • Defensiveness. A few years ago, I found myself getting weirdly defensive whenever I received any feedback. I thought I’d gotten beyond a lot of defensiveness in college, but it was back with a vengeance. In retrospect, I firmly believe it was because I had stopped feeling safe with my boss. Because I expected to be attacked, I responded defensively to everything.
  • Lack of communication. Sure, sometimes folks are just quiet, but if you start not finding out about things that go wrong until MUCH LATER than they knew, guess what’s probably happening?
  • Work ethic nosedive. Heaven knows, I have no issue with Facebook use at work, but if a geek stops producing and never seems to be looking at work stuff, you probably have a problem. It’s most concerning to me when I see a shift and can’t come up with a reason for it (e.g., burnout or home “stuff”), since it could be a safety issue.
  • Crankiness. Do you have a geek who just seems to be a sourpuss? Okay, so they might just have dealt with a cranky user, but ongoing crankiness may be a sign of a safety issue.

I haven’t been thinking about this issue for long, so I’m sure I’ve missed things. What other safety warning signs are there?

Managing stupid(ly)

Astronomical Clock
Astronomical Clock (Photo credit: simpologist)

A few years back, I realized I was killing my staff.

I thought I had found the ultimate in productivity. In order to manage my completely ridiculous inbox, I found a system.¬† Each night, I’d leave the office late and go wait for the bus. While I was waiting, I would use my trusty Blackberry to clear out my inbox. I would merrily send emails as follow-ups, delete things, and set myself up for a pretty darn productive next day. Hey – I’ve always loved the concept of Inbox Zero (even though practicing it in Outlook is pretty much impossible). This made me, well, happy.

I’d go home, make (well, order) dinner, and relax, knowing that I was prepared for the next day.

And then something really annoying would start happening – my Blackberry would start going off. My team, fresh from their own dinners, would start replying to my email. Being a rather Type A personality, I’d then feel the need to read the email, which kind-of messed with my evening, but I got enough email from others that it didn’t mess it up that much. I’d ignore the email until the next day (except for urgent ones), and go to bed.

The next morning, I’d walk into the office, perfectly chipper because I knew what my day entailed. On my way to my office, I’d do my usual check-ins with my team (my office was at the end of the hall, so I did morning drive-bys).

Oddly, I found exhausted people who would immediately ask me if their response was OK, or expect me to have responded to their responses.

Sometimes I can be a bit slow, but after a few weeks (months?), I realized that my team was stressed and becoming less productive.¬† I eventually even realized it was my fault. When I was replying to email after hours, they assumed I expected them to do the same. Sadly, they were already working enough, and I wasn’t expecting it. But I was the manager, and that’s what I was doing.

So I stopped. It was downright painful to have to come in each morning with a full inbox and deal with things I could have dealt with the night before, but the change in my staff was worth it. Their stress levels went down, they eased into their mornings, and they became more productive because they stopped working stupidly.

Here’s the thing with being a manager – YOU are the mold. You are what your team attempts to replicate. If you work stupidly, they work stupidly. If you work late, they work late. If you answer email at all hours, they answer email at all hours.If you manage stupidly, you’ll eventually kill them with stress. Or at least lose them to your competitors.

It’s easy to manage stupidly. Are you managing stupidly without realizing it?

Working stupid(ly)

burning a candle at both ends
burning a candle at both ends (Photo credit: Mayaevening)

I have a confession to make: I’ve been working stupidly. For a while now, I’ve been working all hours. Sometimes I start at 5am and end at 7pm. Sometimes I put in 60 hours and then work another 10 on the weekend. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and check my email.

Quite frankly, this is DUMB.  I realized how dumb when I started at 9am and left at 6pm a couple of days last week and then did NOT work more at home.  You know what happened when I did that? I was more productive.  Yup. I got more work done at a higher quality when I cut time OFF my day. I spent last week producing a kick-butt set of graphs and various other analyses that are going to make up a foundational document for my role.

At the same time, however, I felt horrendously guilty. There I was, waltzing out of the office at 6 to go home, read a book, and recharge, and there my co-workers were, still in the office. Still toiling away at their desks.¬† Even knowing that I’m a better asset when I restrict my hours, I felt awful leaving.

I know that restricting my hours makes sense.  When I restrict my hours, all sorts of things happen:

  • I am able to work crazy hours and get crazy things done during emergencies, because my tank isn’t empty.
  • I am a much smarter person! My insights are brilliant, my documents beautifully written, and my analyses are razor-sharp. (Well, smarter, better, and sharper, anyhow.)
  • I am easier to get along with. I don’t snap at folks as often.
  • I understand what my co-workers are saying much faster.
  • I have a better attention span.
  • I have time to geek out reading all the new leadership books and resources. ūüôā

I’m hoping that, by writing this post, I can stop being dumb. I can stop buying into the cult of overwork and be more valuable to my company, my co-workers, and my spouse. I also secretly (well, not secretly any more) hope that my co-workers read this and start leaving the office at sane hours, but I need to realize that I am responsible for my own actions. Therefore, I need to leave the office at a reasonable hour, limit working from home, and STOP BEING STUPID.

Making effective business arguments

I know, lame title.¬† But I recently had an experience that reminded me that it’s not easy to make an effective informal business argument, and I wanted to record some of my take-aways. Note that I’m not going to tell you whether I’m the person who may or may not have made some of the errors below :).

Argument (Photo credit: andrewmalone)
  1. Think about timing. Running up to someone and saying, “Hey! Here’s this great idea!” may not be the best plan, especially if your proposal is going to turn his world upside-down. If you have a Really Big Idea, ask to grab a cup of coffee or schedule some time on his calendar to run something by him so that he doesn’t lose an hour unexpectedly the day before a big proposal is due.
  2. Watch how you start. “I’m about to tell you about this completely awesome idea because I’m awesome,” (well, or something like that) isn’t a great way to start talking about your idea. “Hey, I think this thing will rock for <something she cares about> and I wanted your thoughts,” is a much better way to come at it. Telling her you’re awesome out front will probably gain you an eye-roll and an unreceptive ear.
  3. Always remember WIIFM. Honestly, your target wants to know “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) immediately, if not sooner. If you’re asked, “How does that help my department?”, your answer really shouldn’t be, “It doesn’t.” Because you know what happens next? He’ll say, “No,” and instantly work on finding counter-arguments. (More about that in an old post On Feet.)
  4. LISTEN. That’s in all caps because your target will be much more willing to listen to your thoughts on your proposal if you, in turn listen to hers. She might even have great ideas that build on your proposal or that will massively help you make your argument to others, and not listening means that you’re hurting yourself. You’re running this by her in order to get her opinion, so listen to it. Which leads me to my next point…
  5. Never–ever–be disparaging. You’ve probably worked, “That’s dumb!” out of your vocabulary (okay, fine, I’m still working on that one), but you need to realize that telling your target that something will be easy for his team (when you don’t actually know how his team’s systems work) is equally disparaging and frustrating. Likewise, belittling his arguments (no matter how dumb you think they are) will only tick him off, which will guarantee that you lose him as a listener, partner, and advocate.
  6. Please don’t yell. Yes, your idea is WICKED exciting, and your voice might get loud because you’re excited. But try to remember to breathe and not to yell. Especially if you’ve ignored points 1-5, yelling just makes listening to your argument a miserable experience, and your target will be less likely to listen to your other ideas in the future.

I’m sure I’ve missed some. What are other ineffective ways to make business proposals?

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?

Actually solving problems

I get it. We’re all stressed. Most of us are working ridiculous numbers of hours and maybe only about 40% of it is in our primary skill set (or at least that’s where I am right now).¬† But after reading this story about a keyboard/mouse issue at the Shark Tank, I had to let this out before I burst.¬† WHY DO WE INSIST ON NOT SOLVING PROBLEMS?

English: A Microsoft Arc wireless mouse. You c...
Microsoft Arc wireless mouse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this story, the user insists on keeping her mouse pad, even though it doesn’t play with her new wireless mouse, which came in a wireless keyboard/mouse combo.¬† What does the geek do?¬† He walks out of her office.

Seriously? No, really, seriously?

He doesn’t say, “Okay, we’ll use your old mouse, then,” swap it, and then walk out with a great story to tell over drinks to other geeks.¬† He walks out, because he couldn’t get beyond what he saw as stupidity and stubbornness.¬† He decided to be stupid and stubborn right back.

Quite frankly, if one of my geeks had done that, he would have received a stern talking to, if not an HR write-up. Solving her problem is this geek’s job. Maybe it’s annoying as all heck to have to cater to “stupid users,” but it’s your job, so suck it up.¬† Try to figure out a way to actually solve the problem.¬† If you can’t move the mountain, go to the darn thing, will you? If you can’t budge the crazy user, at least try to make her happy.¬† TRY. If you fail, chances are that she’ll be way more likely to swap mouse pads.

I see behavior like this more and more. We have arguments where we should actually negotiate. We complain about problems rather than actually trying to fix things.

Stop it already, okay?

Management styles: chutes, shields, and shows

I’m becoming convinced that there are three basic types of managers: chutes, shields, and shows.¬† Each of these types should be preceded by a certain word that I won’t say on my blog, so let’s call it stuff.

English: Chute spillway of Pando dam
English: Chute spillway of Pando dam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stuff Chutes

Especially if you’re a new manager, is is incredibly easy to be a stuff chute. If you’re a chute, you take all the stuff generated above you, concentrate it, and direct it directly at your staff. You’re a chute if you:

  • Always tell your team about any and all stress/upset by the Powers That Be (PTBs)
  • Use implied pressure from the Powers That Be to motivate your staff (note: NOT motivating. NOT. No way, no how.)
  • Ensure that the Powers That Be know exactly who did anything wrong (who wasn’t you)

If you haven’t figured it out, you don’t want to be a chute. Maybe you think you’re doing things right by being transparent about the “hair on fire” attitude of the PTBs, but what you’re really doing is concentrating all of the stuff from them and stressing out your team with it. Unfortunately, chutes tend to have stressed out staff who dislike their employers, which leads to morale and retention problems.

E3 2011 - Captain America's shield from Captai...
E3 2011 – Captain America’s shield from Captain America: the First Avenger (Sega) (Photo credit: Pop Culture Geek)

Stuff Shields

It’s definitely harder to be a stuff shield. You have to walk the tightrope between transparency with your team and shielding them from the stuff from above. You’re a shield if you:

  • Give your team credit for everything that goes right while taking the blame for everything that doesn’t
  • When the PTBs go into panic mode, indicate that there’s stress above, but don’t go into enough detail to pass that stress along
  • Motivate your team positively, rather than with threats

In the battle of the corporate world, shields sometimes fail (as you might), but you can always re-arm.¬† (Did I push that metaphor too far? Sorry about that…)

Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Thea...
Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Theatre – landscape (Photo credit: brokentrinkets)

Stuff Shows

The most annoying managers create their own stuff, so I call them stuff shows. They might also be chutes – or even (rarely) shields – but they primarily function as shows. You might be a show if you:

  • Regularly lose your temper or show your extreme stress to your team, especially in the context of trying to make them do things
  • Give your staff instructions, only to change them afterwards (possibly multiple times) with no justification or explanation to help them understand why the change is necessary
  • Expect your team to read your mind, and chastise them for not conforming to your (secret) requirements

I can come up with an almost endless list of how to be a show, but I’m hoping you get the idea.

Clearly, you’d rather be a shield than a chute or a show. Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few managers who are shields who haven’t spent significant time and effort on meeting the needs of their team. How to be a shield, however, is a post for another day.

Are you a bottleneck?

Is your staff frustrated? Do you feel like they’re all inefficient? Is there a line every night out your office door and a long queue of email from your team awaiting your reply? If so, I have news for you – the problem probably isn’t your geeks. The problem is mostly likely you.

bottleneck (Photo credit: DailyM = Differentieel + JeeeM)

You have become a bottleneck.

You probably meant well.¬† Or maybe your team is new.¬† Or maybe you suck at documentation (heck, I sure do).¬† You probably have great reasons for it, but it’s still an issue – geeks get incredibly frustrated when their boss becomes a bottleneck.

Honestly, it’s going to take significant effort to stop being a bottleneck.¬† However, it’s entirely worth it – your team will be happier, your stress will be lower, and everyone will get a heck of a lot more done.¬† Here’s what you need to work on:

  • Trust. Look, you have to trust your geeks.¬† You have to trust that they’ll do their jobs, and you have to communicate that trust to them.¬† Yes, this means you have to accept that they might not do things exactly the same way you will, but if you don’t trust, well, get used to having to hire replacements. ūüôā
  • Communicate. Your geeks must be clear about your expectations, or they’ll constantly double-check things with you.¬† Proactively communicate about what you expect to see from their work.
  • Establish Patterns. If each project has a different reporting mechanism, you’ll get stuck telling everyone how to report on each new task.¬† You’ll also get stuck double-checking their work, since they’ll never know what constitutes acceptable results and reporting.
  • Teach. Giving someone step-by-step instructions differs from truly teaching someone. Spending extra time making sure your geeks understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, how you think about problems like the ones they’re trying to solve, and what success looks like means that they can pattern-match for subsequent tasks. And that means that they won’t queue outside your office as much.

Investing this time will certainly help with frustration, stress, and constant questions.¬† You should note, however, that you’ll still need a good way to keep tabs on projects and problems once your geeks no longer ask you about everything. The best advice I’ve ever read on how to do that is in The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. It’s a quick read, and totally worth it (even if it’s not on Kindle yet.¬† Grrrrr.)!