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 😉

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?

 

Dealing with Regulators and compromise

I presently work in an environment ripe with regulation.  The gaming industry (and by that, I do not mean video games for WoW players, or XBOX) is the most regulated market in the world.  More so than even health care, in fact.  As such, one of our largest points of contention revolves around regulators.  These regulators are not one cohesive body, but rather, different entities in every different jurisdiction around the world.  This poses some interesting problems with respect to how engineers and managers design products for release. Continue reading “Dealing with Regulators and compromise”

How to Handle Ineptitude

men discussing something

Ineptitude is a difficult issue to combat because there are, obviously, different levels of ineptitude.  They range from someone who is selectively disinterested in a specific task (I would argue this is the most frequent), all the way to completely dysfunctional.  In the case of the latter, expedient dismissal is the best option.  That being said, dismissal is a difficult issue to work with based upon your own organization’s policies regarding termination, and so, I won’t go into detail beyond documentation and getting them out as soon as is practical.

In the case of selective disinterest in certain pieces, however, there are some things you can do to help them to integrate more effectively into the team.

Continue reading “How to Handle Ineptitude”

A Manager’s Focus

In the world of business, you can look at required tasks several different ways. At the largest scale, you can look at how a company’s stock price fluctuates with organizational decisions, ROI, Resource management and supplier/customer relations.  Each area you turn to, there are many different components which aggregate into the whole.  You can keep going further down until you finally hit those workers who are doing the seemingly menial tasks that must be accomplished in order to get the answers you (the manager) need to have in order to perform your job satisfactorily.http://www.sudospeak.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif

Continue reading “A Manager’s Focus”