Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Through the Looking Glass or the Fear Factor of Management

I finally have a bit of time to try and catch up on some reading.  I don't know how strange this is, but I tend to read the same book two or three times, particularly if I can only read small segments at a time.  As I'm not the widely travelled road-warrior spending long hours waiting in airport terminals, and when I am sitting in airport terminals I tend to have a stack of day-job stuff to read/respond to, I find myself falling farther and farther behind in my reading.  The result is, I sometimes get to read a paragraph or two of a book, then get called away to deal with something. 

I've been working my way through two books over the Thanksgiving weekend, both on software.  Which ones do not really matter.  I resolved to start the smaller one over completely and see if reading entire pages at a time made it better.  (It did.) 

I have also been trying to catch up on my long-list of blog posts that I intended to read and see what the great ones of our craft can teach me.  The answer was: "Quite a bit."  One stuck out though and prompted this post. 

Selena Delesie wrote some time about Yes Men and the managers who like them.  I had read enough of that post to say "I need to look that up when I get a moment."  That moment finally came.  Toward the end of her entry, Selena wrote "Have you worked with or for someone who is a dictator-type who thrives on working with ‘Yes’ Men?"  This is my response: 

Yes.  To make matters worse, I did not even report to that manager, either directly or indirectly.  I was in a completely different reporting line than he was.  My Manager was a peer with him.  However, as he managed a large development group I needed to work with (as QA and BA and PM) it presented all sorts of challenges.  Forget that.  It was not a "challenge."  It was a "pain."

Management By Intimidation was the best way I can think of to describe his approach.  Really, it was un-good.  People who disagreed with him or had an opinion that did not exactly match his own were belittled, often publicly, or (as I learned later in private conversation then first-hand) had their position/employment threatened.  Fear was a great motivational tool. 

People who did not work for him but were in meetings with him could count on having any statement challenged, any assertion questioned.  "You can't prove that, you have no evidence!"  Never mind that the previous 15 minutes had been laying out evidence to support the statement he was challenging (gratuitously.)   And even when assertions were presented as "possibilities" you could be certain that anything that could be in conflict with what he wanted done would be publicly thrashed. 

Other managers were afraid of what he would say to the VP in private.  He created a mystique of "getting things done" at all costs.

In a matter of months, from the time when he first joined the company to when I needed to interact with him or his people on a daily basis, this job went from the best job that I had ever had to the absolute worst one.  In truth, I learned a lot during that time.

Managers in the business units were frustrated.  When speaking with them, you know, doing my job, about needs and business function, several actually hung their heads and said "It doesn't really matter, Pete.  No matter what I say, he's going to do what he wants to do and tell me this is the way it has to be."  When I asked why they did not go to their leadership and look for support, to a man (they really all were males) the response was "If I don't put up with this, he won't have his people do what I really need to have done."
One interesting thing was if you did not have to interact with him to get your job done, and he needed you, you were the best buddy he had.  Pals for life!  Until there was a change or he did not get something he wanted.
This guy was also a huge believer in bell-curves.  Particularly when they were applied to people.  He also loved metrics.  There was never a metric he did not proclaim the great value of, then manipulate to his own ends.  Flagrantly.  He also knew that no one would call him on it.  
Finally, I did.  Publicly.  In a manager meeting.  With the VP present.  Hell hath no fury like a bully and a liar who is called on behavior.  I knew it would cost me.  I did not care.  In the end, I could not work in an environment like that where people were truly afraid of the consequences of speaking out.  I would no longer be complacent in an environment where the cost of taking a stand on the moral high-ground was more fearsome than what the toxic environment did to the person as a person. 
I landed a new position.  I did not realize how the toxicity of the last one lingered on me and I made some mistakes there.  Nothing huge, but enough where my outlook had been changed to be more confrontational that it needed to be.  I learned from that, too.  That's another blog post though. 
I said I learned a lot there.  I did.  Here's part of what I learned: 
  • Managers may not be leaders, but they need to manage well;
  • Human Mistakes are learning opportunities, not something whose outcomes should be dreaded;
  • Intimidation only works if one is willing to be intimidated;
  • Sometimes in the office, just like in the schoolyard, bullies will collapse when confronted by a united opposition;
  • Make sure you are not the bully.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is Wanted and What They THINK is Wanted or Why Don't They Listen?

A funny thing happened the other day.  The 17 year old grandson was helping my lady-wife hook up a VCR (remember those?) to a TV.  Now, the story is, the lady-wife has a "studio" where she makes quilts and other fabric stuff.  She wanted a TV in the studio, with a VCR so she could play some of the instructional videos for techniques she hasn't tried.  Now, since she has a large collection of VHS tapes, her plan was to simply hang on to them and play them on the "old" TV with the "old" VCR hooked up.

Well, the dear grandson looked at her TV and VCR and the cables and pronounced "this will never work."  It seems that she needed a converter and completely different set of cables to make the TV worked.  Her response was simple, "I just want to watch some videos."

"But it won't work like this.  You won't get any channels."

"I don't want to watch TV, I want to watch some videos.  That's all."

"But everything is digital now.  This won't work without the right antenna and cables."

"I don't want to watch anything on TV.  I just want to watch some videos.  That's all."

"So, you don't want to watch TV?  Just watch some movies?  Oh."

Now, how many times do you have conversations where the IT/Development/Lords of Software "KNOW" what the users want to do?  Have you ever dealt with folks who KNOW they know the business better than the people doing the business?

Yeah, I've dealt with them, too. 

I remember one Very self-Important Person who told me flat out that "We drive technology and they don't know what the technology does or why they need a new system to replace what they have."  I asked "What problems are they having that we need to change their systems and all their business processes?"

I was told that I clearly did not understand what their mission was or what my role was.  I was working as a Business Analyst at the time.  I knew then that I clearly did not like the idea of Lords of Software running a business because the people who are supposed to run it did not understand technology. 

The moral of the story?  Remember who is the servant and who is served.

Friday, November 12, 2010

On Communication and Documentation

East is East and West is West
And Ne'er the twain shall meet.

Kipling knew more about developing software than some people I can think of, or have worked with on occasion. 

I had a conversation this week that reminded me about good ol' Rudyard's poetry.  I was talking with some folks I know and they were rather muttering about how they can't get questions answered.  The funny thing is I've had conversations like that before.  They all go something like this:

Me:  "Hey, I've have a question about HIJ function in XYZ project."
Them:  "The detail design has everything in it."
Me:  "OK, well, I read that and the requirements doc and I'm still not sure about something."
Them:  "The detail design doc has all the infromation you need."
Me:  "Well, I read that and there's a couple things I don't understand.  I wonder if we can talk about them."
Then: "We don't need to talk.  Everything is in the documents you have.  There's no room for questions."


Dear people,

Documents should assist communication, not replace it.  Communication involves more than writing, or reading, a document.  Since not everyone shares the same world-view, it seems that sometimes, when someone writes something, other people read it and may not understand completely.  How can that be if "Everything is in the documents?" 

Maybe it should be "Everything I think you need is in the documents."  I'm not sure. 

It always strikes me that the point of "Communication" is something that got talked about when I was taking classes an eon or two ago.  I learned that communication is a process of transferring information from one person to another.  I don't recall anything about "documents." 

Now, don't get me wrong.  Documents are great!  I've written some myself!  I have read many of them written by other people.  The point of it is that the information should be conveyed between people.  Documents can record decisions.  Documents can support conclusions.  Documents can serve as memory aides.

Documents are not, in themselves, communication.  Just like East is not West. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Perspectives and Guy Fawkes and Movies

So, working on my computer this morning, I saw a Tweet from a well regarded tester that said:

Remember, remember the 5th of November, The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason Should ever be forgot.

Being of the mindset that I am, my immediate reaction was "Guy Fawkes?  She's an American, what is she on about Guy Fawkes and the Bonfire Night for?" 

So I asked if she had made a Guy?  (Seemed perfectly reasonable I thought.)  Her response was a little, well, not at all what I expected.  We were several tweets into the conversation when I realized her tweet had actually nothing at all to do with Guy Fawkes day and was based on V for Vendetta - the movie.

From that point on, both of us understood why the other had no clue what we had been talking about. 

This was pretty quick, compared to when things like this happen in the office, on projects.  I sometimes wonder how it is that people can fail to realize that they are using the same terms or phrases or buzz-words and talking about completely different things.
So, Movie or Historical Event or Project?

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match...

Conference Attendance 101 or Learning while Conferring

A couple weeks ago I blogged, excitedly, about my experience speaking at the TesTrek conference hosted by QAI in Toronto the week of October 18.  I think this consititutes Part 2 of that post.

When I was younger and more "fill the schedule" oriented than I am now, when I went to a conference or user group meeting or seminars or whatever, I tried really, really hard to "get the most for the money spent" by being in a track session or workshop every single minute and moving quickly from one presentation to the next.  I made a point of not getting drawn into conversations because I might miss a presentation.  Even if there was not a presentation that I was really interested in attending, I made a point of going anyway.  I needed to get my (well, my boss' anyway) money's worth!

How foolish of me.

Several years ago, I was sent as a "technical person" to a user group meeting for a software package my empplyer had purchased, installed and was using.  I was the senior programmer for supporting the integration and customizations, and since they introduced a "technical track" that year, the software company "hosts" made a big deal about sending "technical experts" to learn about what was coming and what was going on.  After a series of presentations with the same people sitting within a few seats of each other with the same "you've got to be kidding" looks on their faces as I'm sure I had, a small number of us began comparing notes.  We skipped the next session, grabbed some drinks from the bar in the conference center, got out our pads of paper and did out own "track."

We had a number of people with similar experiences and problems and decided that we knew as much as the sales people who could not answer a single question about the product they were supposed to be giving us "technical information."  The next day and a half I had two legal pads full of notes, diagrams and a stack of business cards from the folks sitting around the table.  In my memory, we had 8 or 10 people who "snuck out" and "wasted the company's money."  Except that all of us had solutions to problems we encountered that the vendor had not been able to address - and each of the solutions had been implemented somewhere and actually worked. 

A few years ago at a regional conference, I ran into a couple of people who shared the same "this presenter does not get it" look on their face.  The fact that one of them was a speaker I had listened to the day before, and been really really impressed with his information, did reinforce that a bit.  We proceeded to have a "hallway conversation" that turned into several people sitting in comfy chairs drinking tea and/or soft drinks talking about the topic for the presentation we had just been in.  We compared notes and war stories and annecdotes and experiences - and everyone came away with new ideas they did not have before (and did not get from the presentation we had all attended.) 

From that point, every conference I've been to, I intentionally leave holes in my schedule.  Lets face it.  There may not be a speaker I want to hear or a topic I "really, really want to learn something about." 

So, instead, I may seek out other interesting people I've seen during the conference, or heard ask intelligent questions, who are milling about (during that period between sessions) and talk with them - ask questions, SOMETHING.  Those have been really enlightening the last couple of years, and lead to some great contacts and insight that I may not have gotten elsewhere.

Now, I know that walking up to someone can be a bit intimidating.  So what - do it anyway.  If they are speaking at the conference, they may well be open to a good conversation.  If not, they may be as equally lost about "what session to go to next..." and maybe the right one is the one that starts in the hallway with the two of you and see what happens.  More may join in and it could last and hour, or 10 minutes. 

Either way, share conact information - let them know how to get in touch with you and find out how to get in touch with them.  Easiest way to do that?  Give them your card!  Now, don't be like the guys who were talking with me at TesTrek and have a rather sheepish look and say "Our company doesn't give us business cards so I don't have any..." 

TOO BAD!  Business cards are cheap!  A simple black ink on white card ("classic look...") can be made pretty inexpensively at most big-box office supply stores, or any small printing shop can help you.  All you need is your name, something to identify what you do (like, in this case "software tester" might be appropriate) email address and phone number.  Your address might be nice, but not needed.

So, since folks like lists, here's my list for conference attendees to do or bring for the the conference:
  • Business cards - lots and lots of business cards.  Even if the company doesn't give you some, get some made;
  • Laptop or netbook computer or smartphone - great for taking notes (or checking email if you "chose poorly") and tweeting about the good (or bad) points the speaker is making;
  • An open mind - You never know what you might learn and how that might relate to your interests, both personal and professional;
  • Did I mention business cards?
  • Note book / scratch pad.  Yeah, I know, many conferences will give out folders or portfolios and a lot of conference centers have little note pads for jotting things down.  The problem is I find those note pads too little.  The portfolios may be useful for other things - like holding all the papers/CDs/DVDs you may collect;
  • An open schedule - Have lists of "must see", "good to see" and "want to see" sessions, but don't feel you need to have every single timeslot open;
  • Your favorite mints or hard candy;
  • Business cards (did I say that already?);
OK.  In the interest of "balance," here's my list of things to NOT do or not BRING:
  • Work.  Leave the office behind.  Your boss sent you there to learn, so learn.  Those people who are trying to suck you in now are the same ones who want all of your attention all the time anyway, including on weekends if they think they might get it.  They'll be waiting anyway to ruin your day when you get back.  You're there to learn.  Learn to talk with people you don't know and learn about them.  It may help you in your job.
  • Work email.  Yeah, I know, I mentioned bringing the laptop to check email or whatever. That work email that needs attention yesterday if not sooner can't really be dealt with while your in a conference session, so leave it for a while.  Come back to it later - another hour or two won't make that big a difference.  (I know. I've broken this rule, but just to be the exception that proves the rule...)
  • Extreme self assurance in the "rightness" of your position.  Put the ego in "Neuteral" and you may learn something useful.
Be modest and humble.  You don't need to know all the answers.  If you did, there would be no reason for you to be there, right?  Be open to new ideas, particularly ones that challenge your own ideas.  Listen to what the other person has to say and weigh their message carefully before deciding to file it under "ignore."  You may learn something, even if it is only insight into why you disagree with a given view.