Working with the people you manage

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
May 8, 2017
Tags: communication 27 management 34 rant 34

An em­bar­rass­ing per­for­mance re­view

A few years ago, I worked in a com­pa­ny in Poitiers. Things went well un­til our boss left, and a new one ar­rived. The new one ap­peared to be, well, a bit proud of his new sta­tus, and, nat­u­ral­ly, de­cid­ed that he has plen­ty of im­por­tant things to do and no time to com­mu­ni­cate with the de­vel­op­ers.

One day when he just got his new po­si­tion, we had to do the same one and a half hours trip to Paris. We bought our tick­ets sep­a­rate­ly, and when I learned that his train is one hour lat­er than mine, I asked him if he wants me to change my tick­et so we trav­el to­geth­er—this was an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­ni­ty for me, as I ex­plained to him, to pre­sent my­self and ex­plain what I'm do­ing in the com­pa­ny and what are my goals. He was much less en­thu­si­as­tic, and de­cid­ed to trav­el alone.

Six months lat­er, we found our­selves in a small meet­ing room. This was my per­for­mance re­view that the big boss was do­ing him­self in per­son. As the guy had still no idea who I am and wasn't even aware of that, the meet­ing was some­where be­tween bor­ing and hi­lar­i­ous. I found a few op­por­tu­ni­ties to clear­ly make fun of his ig­no­rance, but he ei­ther didn't un­der­stand or haven't re­act­ed.

The end of the meet­ing was, how­ev­er, large­ly em­bar­rass­ing. Per­for­mance re­views in this com­pa­ny made it manda­to­ry to spec­i­fy at least one tar­get for every em­ploy­ee for the next year. When it came to sug­gest­ing me my tar­get, my boss was sud­den­ly lost. Since he knew noth­ing about my pro­file, he was afraid to sug­gest some­thing com­plete­ly ir­rel­e­vant.

In a sit­u­a­tion like that, a wise man­ag­er would let the em­ploy­ee make a choice of a tar­get. How­ev­er, let­ting me do the choice would shift the pow­er from him. So my boss de­cid­ed to take the risk:

“You could cre­ate a base­line for test­ing pro­jects,” said my boss. He looked so hap­py to have found some­thing that I was re­al­ly an­noyed to break it. Af­ter all, it could still be in­ter­est­ing. So I bare­ly asked for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. He wasn't ex­pect­ing that, and at­tempt­ed to add de­tails, but end­ed up los­ing the track.

“Well, you're ex­pert when it comes to tests, so you'll find how to do it,” he claimed af­ter a long and painful pause.

“Ac­tu­al­ly, I'm not an ex­pert in test­ing by any means; I mean, I know how to test an app, just as any pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­er would know that, but that's pret­ty it.”

“But you do a lot of tests, don't you? And you know all that stuff about in­te­gra­tion and sys­tem test­ing, you could eas­i­ly do the base­line pro­ject thing...”

“Since I work here as a pro­ject man­ag­er and an ar­chi­tect, test­ing is rather out­side of the scope of my job. Be­sides, I still don't un­der­stand what I'm sup­posed to do. Maybe I should give you some time to think about it, and in a few days, when you do get a clear­er pic­ture, you can write me an e-mail.”

One month lat­er, I wrote my res­ig­na­tion let­ter. I nev­er re­ceived the e-mail I was wait­ing for so much.

It­er­a­tions of de­lays

In an­oth­er com­pa­ny, the hi­er­ar­chi­cal gap was much larg­er. In fact, one would feel the hi­er­ar­chy by just en­ter­ing the build­ing: there were sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tors and ad­min­is­tra­tive staff at the first floor; de­vel­op­ers had the sec­ond floor, with a sep­a­rate of­fice oc­cu­pied by the CTO; fi­nal­ly, the third was re­served to the CEO, the gen­er­al di­rec­tor and the cor­po­rate lawyer.

One day, the third floor de­cid­ed that the one be­neath it should start a new and very im­por­tant pro­ject. So a team was formed, and I was part of this team. Since both the com­pa­ny cul­ture and the prop­er skills were cru­cial­ly lack­ing, it was ob­vi­ous from the start that the pro­ject will not be re­leased any close to the ini­tial­ly pro­ject­ed re­lease date. It was clear to every mem­ber of the team, in­clud­ing our man­ag­er. The CTO came once per week to as­sist to our dai­ly half-an-hour meet­ing, and so he seemed to be aware of the nu­mer­ous dif­fi­cul­ties the pro­ject was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Things were, on the oth­er hand, rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent for the CEO and the gen­er­al di­rec­tor who, one day, de­cid­ed to pub­licly an­nounce the re­lease date with ac­cor­dance to one of the plans which was out­dat­ed months ago. Then, the pro­ject wasn't de­liv­ered, and the gen­er­al di­rec­tor had a few em­bar­rass­ing mo­ments with some of the cus­tomers.

The fact that the gen­er­al di­rec­tor de­cid­ed to com­mu­ni­cate a date with­out both­er­ing to con­sid­er the opin­ion of any­one who was work­ing on the pro­ject wasn't the scary part. What as­tound­ed me much more was the fact that every­body on the team knew that the pro­ject will be de­layed. I mean, if CEO en­tered the room and asked: “Hi, do you think you'll be able to de­liv­er in three weeks?” he would re­ceive two re­ac­tions: si­lence—from the guys who learned that in or­der to keep their jobs, they should keep a low pro­file, and ex­cla­ma­tions like “Are you freakin' out of your mind?!” from the guys like me who were leav­ing the com­pa­ny any­way. Or the CEO or the gen­er­al di­rec­tor could have asked a few ques­tions about the pro­ject in­for­mal­ly to any de­vel­op­er and re­ceive enough in­for­ma­tion about how wrong things are go­ing there. Or sim­ply as­sist to a few meet­ings and see by them­selves.

In­stead, they de­cid­ed to stay in the ivory tow­er, where pro­jects are al­ways fol­low­ing the orig­i­nal plans. And they de­cid­ed to broad­cast the re­lease date, with no con­crete data about the pro­ject, aside the for­mal re­ports from the CTO, which were ob­vi­ous­ly to­tal­ly use­less, since they were un­able to re­flect the ac­tu­al state of the pro­ject. They did many oth­er de­ci­sions the same way as well, but this would go to a dif­fer­ent ar­ti­cle.

Those who do the right thing

Lat­er, I found my­self work­ing for a French pe­tro­le­um com­pa­ny. There are many, many good things I re­mem­ber from this job, and one of them was the way those peo­ple man­aged hi­er­ar­chy.

About twelve de­vel­op­ers and busi­ness an­a­lysts, a group of ex­ter­nal ex­perts in spe­cif­ic fields help­ing the group, one prod­uct own­er, one man­ag­er, one boss, and one big boss were work­ing all to­geth­er. And when I say to­geth­er, I mean all those peo­ple were ac­tu­al­ly in the same open space.

At the very be­gin­ning of the pro­ject, two boss­es had their of­fices, and so did the prod­uct own­er. They were still reach­able, and they were al­ways here dur­ing the dai­ly meet­ing, no ex­cep­tions. Lat­er, they de­cid­ed to aban­don their of­fices and re­lo­cat­ed to the open space, so the boss had ex­act­ly the same table space as a de­vel­op­er or a busi­ness an­a­lyst. And that was ab­solute­ly great: they were not just show­ing that they are part of the team, they ac­tu­al­ly were part of the team. They were aware of every­thing hap­pen­ing to the pro­ject on dai­ly ba­sis; they were talk­ing with us, and go­ing to lunch with us. And so, when they need­ed to take de­ci­sions, they knew ex­act­ly what they were do­ing.

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing with teams

I'm a strong be­liev­er that every de­vel­op­er should at any mo­ment have a choice be­tween work­ing re­mote­ly, or in a sep­a­rate of­fice, or in an open space. My slop­py, rough es­ti­mate is that only twen­ty per­cent of the time will be spent in an open space, while the re­main­ing eighty per­cent of the time will con­sist of work­ing with­out en­sur­ing a per­ma­nent vi­su­al con­tact with the cowork­ers.

This doesn't mean, how­ev­er, that de­vel­op­ers who work re­mote­ly or in their own of­fice shouldn't com­mu­ni­cate. In fact, fre­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key both for the well-be­ing of the pro­ject, but also for the well-be­ing of the team it­self. This ap­plies to de­vel­op­ers them­selves who will need to share in­for­ma­tion about their work and the is­sues they en­counter, but is not any less cru­cial for all the peo­ple who grav­i­tate around the team of de­vel­op­ers—ex­ter­nal con­sul­tants such as se­cu­ri­ty ex­perts, cus­tomers' rep­re­sen­ta­tive (prod­uct own­er, or what­ev­er is the next buzz­word in Ag­ile), sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tors and data­base ad­min­is­tra­tors, and, last but not least, the boss.

When you're call­ing your­self chief some­thing of­fi­cer, or even a man­ag­er, it is tempt­ing to get your­self a pri­vate of­fice, and put a dis­tance be­tween you, the big boss, and all those peo­ple who work for you. But then, you're los­ing much more than you win. With no reg­u­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion, you can't take smart de­ci­sions. By not know­ing your peo­ple and not know­ing your pro­jects, you are not mak­ing your­self a ser­vice.

I've ob­served many com­pa­nies with strict hi­er­ar­chy, and no­ticed that those where peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cor­po­rate castes weren't talk­ing to the out­siders found them­selves tak­ing re­al­ly spooky de­ci­sions. So, please, go talk to peo­ple you man­age; you'll learn much more than by re­main­ing in your pri­vate of­fice.