Get Off Your Ass And Talk To Them

To preface: no, this is not dating advice.

One thing I’ve noticed during my time as an engineer is an over-reliance on technology to accomplish all communication ends.  By this, I mean that an engineer will sit at their desk and exchange a series of 20+ emails and instant messages to discuss a topic that could have been resolved with a two-minute face-to-face conversation.

Let me begin the discussion by saying that I am a text message fiend (as in, I send over 1000 a month).  I’m also a mild Facebook addict along with Twitter, email and various other social networking sites.  What can I say, I enjoy talking to a lot of people in a variety of ways.  There is nothing wrong with having some level of dependence on networking and communication tools; in fact, I wholeheartedly encourage people to reach out and communicate by any means at your disposal.  The unfortunate side-effect of our technology-driven society is that somehow, the longest-lasting time-honored and effective tool we have, has been largely forgotten: face-to-face communication.  Now, phone conversations also suffice for this to a large extent, but there is something about looking in someone’s eyes and watching how they elaborate on their topics with body language as well as voice inflection that merits a look at the physical proximity of communicating with others.

I recently moved across the country, from Reno, Nevada to Gainesville, Florida.  The move was not lightly taken, but was a huge next step in the life of my family.  This left us with nearly all of our good friends and direct family 3000 miles away.  We call our friends and family as often as we can, but to be honest, speaking with my mother and father is not the same on the phone as it was when we would go out to lunch and enjoy each other’s company for an hour.  By no means am I saying that you should take a different coworker out to lunch every day, but rather making the point that the phone simply is NOT the same as looking at someone while they talk to you.  I have also had many experiences where those 20+ emails went back and forth with no one really understanding what the other was trying to say, only for me to go physically stand in front of them and figure out that, in fact, we’re talking about the exact same problem and have more-or-less the same solution (obviously with some minor tweaks).  The language of an email wasn’t the right mechanism to see the nuances of the conversation, so while I thought my idea was being attacked, the other person was using different terms for their standpoint and feeling like I wasn’t listening.

A former coworker of mine was constantly reminded that his language and tone of his email was unacceptable.  Rather than adjusting his emails’ “tone”, he decided that it’d be easier to append a disclaimer to the end of his emails with rectification steps should his tone be considered inappropriate.  Needless to say, eventually this disclaimer disappeared because the problem was never solved by simply having it there in the email.  When you’d speak to him in person, you could see why people would see his tone as condescending and rude.  He freely spoke his mind and had some sarcasm throughout the conversations with him, however, none of it really was rude.  Back to the point at hand, the tone in his emails was the same, but without the lighthearted amusement that was included in his actual conversation, the essence of his discussions was lost and thought nasty.

Have you had an experience where a conversation through non-face-to-face means turned bad?  Or perhaps, clarified matters in a way that speaking directly to them couldn’t do?   I’m interested to hear!


The Trouble With Toilet Paper

Why the subject of toilet paper you ask? Well, mid-way through my time at my previous employer, someone in management or purchasing thought to themselves, “Hmm. How can we save some money on our lavatory expenses?  Obviously having the clean bathrooms cleaned less frequently is not an option, nor is perhaps having the lights shut off when the whole room is vacant… Ooh, perhaps, the urinals shouldn’t have been converted over to an automatic flush so that a gallon of water each time someone stands in front of it is wasted. No, no, they decided that it would be a great idea to buy cheaper paper.

Ok, so how does buying cheaper toilet paper and paper towels mix with management communication? I’m glad you asked! Looking from a high-level scope, it basically tells your employees that the company is so strapped for cash that they can’t shell out an extra $0.10 per roll in order for you to be more comfortable. Every time someone enters the bathroom and puts these things near their area, there’s a cringe at one of two possible outcomes: 1. The fact that it’s single ply AND cheap means that there are occasionally holes in the paper itself and now I have to use MORE of it to ensure that I don’t touch any of what it might pick up, and 2. I’ll chap what I have down there with the sandpaper finish that the paper provides.

Yes, I understand that this is all whining about something that is so trivial, but when you think about it, is it really trivial? When you decorate a house and put only large chunks of furniture in it with no smaller knick-knacks or sconces or the like, does it feel like it’s well done? I think the answer is no. And I can’t speak for everyone, but whenever I would go to the bathroom and see the paper towels (not to even mention the toilet paper), I think, “Management hates us.”  Well, maybe not so bold, but perhaps “management thinks we don’t deserve mid-range paper.”   Suffice it to say that my mood is in no way improved by the fact that simple things are being penny-pinched.

The other half of this is fascinating to me also. By providing thinner paper, people appear to use more of it each time they go. It’s not unheard of to see someone take the amount of paper provided by the automatic dispenser and yank down to obtain 3-5x the original amount to dry their hands. So all in all, it seems a wash because the money saved on quality is made up for in quantity. I haven’t seen numbers on it (so if anyone in accounting has any idea if the gain is worthwhile, please comment), but the point is not about cost.

While the world is shifting around all of us, layoffs are occurring, deficits abound, paychecks and benefits are being cut, why would an organization decide to do something mildly demoralizing to their employees which will be felt (literally) every single day and possibly more than once per day? HELP ME PEOPLE. Please explain! I know it’s a bit of a rant, but it’s not ABOUT the toilet paper; it’s about all of those little things: coffee brand change, or removal altogether, cancelling holiday parties, charging for things that we never charged for, etc.  The list can go on and on, but the reality is, the employees notice.

P.S. It should go over the roll, not under 😉

Engineer Seeks Job, Tips for Jobseekers

Having moved across the country, my previous networking achievements hold little sway. I now live in the grand city of Gainesville, FL, with a population nearing 200,000 during the school-in-session months. Beyond the gorgeous vegetation and un-abating humidity during the days and nights, I find myself in a situation where my communication skills are in greater demand than ever before.

Where previously I could walk in and show myself to anyone I needed to speak to, I am now on the outside of the adminosphere of every company in the city. My communication focus now has shifted to showing myself and my skills to others in the form of two little documents called the Resumé and the cover letter. This is a personal challenge for me because I’ve gotten used to being verbose in order to communicate what I need, so as to avoid any confusion. Now, brevity is the calling of the day. Here are a few things I’ve discovered about the job hunt that can hopefully assist an aspiring engineer:

  • The cover letter should be no more than a page long. I’ve had several people read and edit my cover letter, and the last reviewer had the best advice for me. “I’ve been guilty of looking at a cover letter and saying to myself, ‘I don’t have time to read all of that.'” When you think that these managers have potentially tens to hundreds of applications to look through, brevity is preferred.

    My cover letter went from 1.6ish pages to under 2/3 of a page with only three paragraphs. The first is my mission and what I want. The second is why the company would want to hire me, highlighting my skills. The third is optional (though I don’t think so) and covers some research on the company and touches on how I see the need for their company and humbly request and audience.

  • Focus on the points of the job. That middle paragraph (the top can hint at some things also) is the place you have to show what you’re worth. Often, online systems perform a keyword match of the resumes and cover letters to determine what percent match a particular candidate has to the position that is open.

    So, copy the text from that duties/responsibilities/skills section and ensure that you cover as many as you possibly can without simply keyword stuffing your letter. Obviously, once you pass through the virtual firewall (so to speak) a human will read it, and if you simply stuff your letter to get through the system, a person will know and likely throw it out.

  • Let the resumé speak for itself. The cover letter need not include everything you’ve done. If you have proficiency in twenty programming languages, don’t list them in your cover letter. Don’t include EVERYTHING you’ve ever done, because your resume has a purpose too! Its purpose is to itemize the details of everything you find relevant to the open position. Remember, the cover letter is simply there to show your interest and give an overview of why you need to be the one chosen.
  • Show some interest in your hopeful new organization. Spend some time looking at what they do and include it (maybe in that final paragraph). Not all managers expect that, nor do all appreciate it, but those that do may find it hard to hire you if you’re merely feigning interest. Doing some research shows some level of interest from you, and can push you beyond the round filing cabinet just for the small amount of effort you took.
  • Don’t rely on one job website to satisfy your research. I’m on Careerbuilder.comMonster.comJobs.netCraigslistLinkedIn, and probably a few more that I don’t get emails from regularly. I can’t tell you how many jobs have been only posted on one of these sites. If you find a new one, bookmark, signup and check back frequently to see if there is a posted job that you haven’t seen before. Worst case is you get another daily email until you find the job right for you.
  • Be available. Almost goes without saying, but I submitted an application online and received a callback two hours later. Be available, because if you’re not, those recruiters may not call you back a second time.

Hopefully this advice will help some of you. What are your thoughts? Any suggestions I’ve not mentioned? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Long Time No Speak

Hello everyone!

I must apologize for my absence over the past month. It is not due to a lack of interest, nor a lack of topics to cover, but rather, school ended, I was married in early June, which was then quickly followed by completion of renovations to the house, moving from Nevada to Florida with all of my possessions, and now, after one week in, going on a three week honeymoon.

I will write as possible, but I don’t expect it to be within the next several weeks. Please bear with me and I will return!


Should You Really Be A Manager?

Employees rely upon the knowledge and leadership direction given them by their superiors.  This is not a new or novel concept, however in looking at many of the managers out there where I’ve worked, the fact is that many of those managers are not capable of the job they perform.

I was placed under a manager recently, who exemplified the phrase “promoted to the level of incompetence.”  This man’s leadership style was not just bad, but entirely lacking.  He showed this through his actions as a manager in the following ways:

  • When asked by his superiors if a project could be done in a certain time-frame, he would never ask the engineers doing the work; merely being a “Yes man”.
  • During meetings, when one of his engineers would point out a problem, or a time conflict, he would chastise them in front of the group and all but guarantee that the issue was not an issue.
  • He wouldn’t accept the reality of what the current technology could do, and so, would offer solutions based upon a ten year old technology that had long been abandoned.
  • Little communication came from his office until the time had come for action to be taken.

I could continue the list, but suffice it to say, management and leadership were NOT his forte.  The problem is that this type of scenario occurs because of the intrinsic desire for people to move up in an organization, and for the established leadership to recognize good performers and try to promote them.

Ponder this.  You are a new engineer and you got your first job.  You love the job, and you’re engaged by the work, so you pursue your projects with fervor and excitement.  A year or three in, you receive a promotion for the great work you’re doing.  You continue and after some more years, gain another promotion!  Eventually the time comes to make a choice: do I stay an engineer, or move up into management?  Your manager offers you the option of either, and what choice do you make?

Think hard!

The answer for most people I’ve spoken to is “Management”.  I then continue probing and asking why management is their goal.  The response usually falls back to “pay is better, and you get bonuses.”  Now, this logic may very well be true, but the fact is that the position of manager holds its own responsibilities and duties that an engineer does not need to concern themselves with.  It also comes with those responsibilities that many engineers don’t understand.

But I can totally lead a team!

That may be, but it also might not be.  Leadership and management positions hold completely different requirements to be effective!  Engineers are detail oriented and focused on tasks at hand.  Leaders must be somewhat detail oriented, but predominantly they are big-picture people:

  • They must be able to see skills in others and determine how to deploy those human resources.
  • They must be able to prioritize tasks, even when the desired tasks may not be at the top of that list.
  • They must understand that an overly personal relationship with one member of the team can have adverse effects on the rest of the team.
  • They must be able to make the hard choices of when and how to fire employees (I’ll keep the PC sugarcoating out of it).

Obviously there are many more facets beyond the small list above, but the fact is that being a great engineer does not equate with being a stellar manager.  When contemplating your future, or when another engineer is thinking of their future as a manager, the real question to ask is, “Are you capable of performing the job?”

Money is great, but staff and senior engineers make a good amount of money.  If you are hesitant to meet new people, communicate effectively, or make the hard decisions that are required, then management really isn’t for you.  If you love writing code, making CAD schematics, debugging and getting projects done, it likely isn’t going to make you happy and fulfill your goals and interests.

Obviously, many people make the transition successfully, as evidenced by the large number of upward-bound employees at large software companies around the world, but the decision must be based upon more than “more money” or “more power.”  It should be based on your goals for your life.

What suggestions would YOU make to someone contemplating moving up in an organization?  Pitfalls?  Please share them in the comments!


Task Management 101 For Managers

As a manager, one of your jobs is figuring out how you can score the best projects for your team.  After all, the best team wins in everything!  That’s not true, of course, but it IS the implicit assumption that most people run by.  After all, the best teams get the biggest budgets, the best and highest profile projects, and the best rewards for completing those projects.

Alas, you must take the projects that your manager dictates, though this isn’t really a problem.  After all, someone is paying you to do the work that needs to be done, and they, like you, are always looking for the optimal way to spread their work over their resources.

So here you sit, looking at a list of tasks that must be completed by your team, and you are wondering where to start.  Here is my outline of the steps you should take to get your priorities straight and look AWESOME to your superiors:

  1. First and foremost are the deadlines.  Personally, while I despise day planners and do all of my scheduling electronically, I still print out hard calendars when I have to arrange tasks in my year like a puzzle (this happened a month or so ago when my partner and I realized that we had a hundred things to do and no idea when we could do them).  So sit down and put your deadlines on the calendar.  Don’t worry yet about the work required, just put down the hard-fast deadlines.  If one deadline is soft, put a mark for the desired completion date and give yourself a wavy line to indicate that it can possible go X days beyond.
  2. Now that everything’s on the calendar, the next step is ponder the tasks assigned to your team.  How large are they?  Field issues may be a line of code changed, back through quality assurance, and out the door.  A large project may be nine months long and require six people to complete in time.  Likely, if you’re managing your own engineers, you have had experience as one beforehand (I would hope), so use that knowledge and gauge the length of time required for each project.  If you can’t, leave it blank.
  3. Once everything’s “estimated”, you are on to the next task.  I put the quotes around estimated, because the reality is that once you have been in management for some length of time, your ability to accurately estimate development time is somewhat muted.  So, this step is actually starting the estimation process.  First, set up a meeting with your engineers and tell them about the projects.  By sharing the work expectations for the year, you are sharing that responsibility with them, and letting them know that your decision are not arbitrary.  Leave everyone with a copy of the task list and assign someone to estimate the length of each project.
  4. Now, you can setup a follow-up meeting, or you can merely have your engineers reply to your inquiry via e-mail.  Either way, you must receive a response so that you can move on to comparing your estimates with your engineer’s.  If they don’t match by some acceptable range of error, you need to discuss why they are so different with the engineer.  Both of you should indicate what assumptions you were making and where the time came from.  Mind you, a full-on Gantt chart is not necessary at this phase, but a good guess requires some thought.
  5. Now that everyone is in agreement about timelines, your task becomes to look at the priority of the projects.  Some, must be ready on-time (or before), while others are on the back burner.  There are also hot projects.  At my current company, we have varying degrees (though no one really knows which supersede which), from “hot” to “volcano hot” to “nuclear blast hot” and several more in between.  Field issues generally take highest priority, but there are some customers that make unrealistic demands that you MUST meet.  If there is any doubt as to the actual priority of the project, ask your manager and find out.
  6. Once priorities are determined, connect your estimates with your priorities with your calendar of deadlines.  Top projects generally are due first, and so, allocate them immediately following the current tasks of your engineers.  For the rest, focus on the priorities, and place the lesser ones further down.
  7. Last step (before deploying) is to determine which engineers should get which tasks.  You know your engineers and their capabilities, so do your best to place each project with care, because the engineer who gets a task they aren’t good at, likely will take longer and do a poorer job of implementation than another who loves that type of work.  Mind you, you’re not playing favorites here.  You’re simply playing to each of your team’s strengths.

Once you have the plan, you must deploy the plan.  I prefer transparency, as do most people I interact with.  No surprises there, and if there are any changes, notify the team.  Have a meeting and go over the plan and what your thoughts are.  Welcome changes if they are forthcoming, but don’t let the team dominate and choose their own tasks.  If you do, very likely you have an engineer who is shy and won’t speak up about wanting to do something.

What other helpful hints do you have to help with project prioritization?  Are there any steps I left out?


Lazy Co-workers, What Do I Do?

Now that I’ve addressed the main addressable points about working with lazy project managers, let me leave you with some general points.  First off, if you want to (and you WANT to, I know) resolve your problems with lazy people in general, this resolution comes through direct communication and documentation.  In fact, document EVERYTHING.  Any request you know that was made and not fulfilled, mark it with a description, date, and time (and if you want, a severity level). Continue reading “Lazy Co-workers, What Do I Do?”

Kick That Lazy PM Into Gear

Project managers are essential to system functioning, but as I described before, some are just plain lazy!  Take a look at the post to get an idea of some problems that arise, but here, I want to discuss some strategies to deal with them.

  1. They don’t respond to requests for information.  One thing I have learned through my life is that people will communicate only as much as they deem necessary to maintain whatever level they want to have with you.  I mean, if they don’t want to talk to you and converse, get over it! You can’t force something that won’t happen, so don’t push for a friendly relationship that is mutually beneficial.  If the PM is unconcerned with that email you sent out yesterday, and avoiding the telephone call you made earlier today, the time has come for you to walk over and ask your question in person.  They can’t push you out effectively when you’re standing there staring at them.  (One caveat to this, of course, is ensuring that they ACTUALLY are ignoring you and not merely too busy to respond)
  2. They come to meetings noticeably unprepared. The boy scout motto of being prepared is ignored by many people including those lazy PM’s who can’t seem to understand that meetings have one purpose: to get things done.  To “help” them out, a couple days before the meeting, contact them (actually speak to them, no voice mails or emails) and ask what they plan to have accomplished at this week’s meeting.  You likely won’t get an answer to this request on the phone, so leave them with some things YOU expect to have discussed.  Follow up with an email to the group asking for their input on what needs to get decided during the meeting, and on the day of, ask the PM for an agenda of the items that need to be discussed that day.  If they don’t provide one in time for the meeting, print out the emails your team has thrown around and have them ready.  If the PM won’t take charge of the meeting, the time has come for you to do so.  Now, at least you’ve given everyone a day or two chance to add items and you can begin with your own concerns, and move on to those of everyone else.
  3. They behave reactively, rather than proactively.  This personality trait is one that takes time to overcome, and effort.  First step here is to be proactive yourself.  If you push them to think of things before they want to, it will likely get done before they would have accomplished it.  I don’t mean to inundate their inbox with emails or harass them with phone calls, but rather, at the beginning of the day, contact them and discuss the points you need to be discussed.  This will force their brain to align itself to yours for at least the moment.  If you ask for resolutions to issues, discuss with them how long it will take, and call them shortly before the due-date.  If you wait until the due-date is reached, you’re pushing back the procrastination beyond YOUR acceptable limit.
  4. They are unresponsive unless the boss asks or you go talk in person.  My overarching point in this area is that communication is up to YOU.  If they don’t reply until you go talk in person, perhaps you need to speak to them in person every time you need to talk.  Again, they can’t ignore you when you’re standing in front of them, so that’s what is needed.  If there is a pattern of unresponsiveness, you may need to move on to their boss to find out a more effective way of keeping them accountable.  That could mean emailing their boss first, and having the boss ask them directly to ensure that communications are responded to.

The long and short of it is that when people aren’t responding to you, or doing their job correctly and effectively, there is a problem with the team, and that problem needs to be resolved.  These are some strategies to employ when you’re first seeing problems, or when you feel that the problems can be resolved without much escalation.  My next post will discuss what to do when these simple strategies don’t work.


Top Problems With Lazy Project Managers

I’ve already discussed that project managers are a necessary addition to a development team, as well as the fact that some are overzealous, which takes its toll on the team dynamics. Today I want to discuss why lazy project managers are actually terrible and destructive additions to any development team.

  • They don’t respond to information requests.  How many times have you contacted someone with a question and not wanted to receive a reply?  I’m not sure that’s ever happened to me, because generally I ask questions with the expectation of an answer.  This is no different for project managers, and in fact, the majority of their job is balancing the plates up in the air while shuffling people toward the end goal.  This requires providing INFORMATION when individuals need it.  An engineer, artist, designer, etc. should not have to ask twice, or even three times for an answer that is relatively easy to obtain.
  • They come to meetings noticeably unprepared. I’ve been to numerous meetings where everyone arrives on time, is ready to contribute and discuss, and all that is necessary is the person in charge to get things underway.  In fact, the project manager has that duty.  So, the meeting begins, he/she then asks what needs to get discussed.  Wait a minute, shouldn’t the purpose of a meeting be to have an agenda?  A plan of action?  Open ended meetings tend to be rather unproductive and useless, which is why we rely upon the manager of the project to get things focused.  Not knowing where people are, what they are to do, or why the meeting was being held in the first place is a huge issue with productivity in teams.
  • The behave reactively, rather than proactively. A sign of any truly great person is their ability to see problems ahead and act on those before they become a problem.  Lazy project managers, however, sit in their cubicles and no one really knows what they’re doing with their time.  The idea is based on the knowledge that they don’t go out of their way to resolve issues ahead of time.  Until YOU go speak to them, the issue doesn’t exist as far as they’re concerned, and in reality, once you leave their office, it gets shoved to the back burner for some YouTube amusement.
  • Are unresponsive unless 1. The boss asks, or 2. you go and talk in person. Everyone is interested in maintaining their job placement for as long as it suits them.  This is a fact of the working world, so of course, when the boss asks a question, the answer must be somewhat forthcoming.  With non-supervisor people, however, the communication channels tend to be more lacking.  In fact, sometimes, the communication becomes non-existent.  This forces the coworkers to actually go to the project manager with questions because they likely will never get answered via the telephone or email.
  • They destroy team enthusiasm and engagement. This is less a feature of lazy project managers, and more of a symptom of having one on a team.  When a project manager is performing their duties to the best extent possible, they provide a level of cohesiveness to the team that is hard to obtain any other way.  This aspect is removed, however, when the project manager is lazy with respect to their duties.  The ties of comradery never fully develop, and in fact, many times are reduced to merely “having to” work with your team on some project that no one cares about.

There are some things I’m missing in the above list, however, these are the most problematic issues I have seen in my time engineering.  Project managers can, and I would argue MUST, be the lynch-pin in any development project.  Success or failure to launch lies significantly on their shoulders, and as such, they should be treated with reverence and respect so long as they get off their asses and do it.

Mind you, more often than not, the project managers I have worked with have been proactive and successful, but those that cause problems are the ones that stick out in peoples’ minds.

What have I missed?  Am I off-base?  Let’s discuss in the comments!