Friday, September 30, 2016

I Can Manage

For work reasons, I've recently become interested in resources for those new to line management. I put out an appeal for suggestions on Twitter and Managing The Unmanageable was recommended by Thomas Ponnet, with a little cautious reservation:
This quote from the book's preface sets up the authors' intent nicely:
There is no methodology for the newly anointed development manager charged with managing, leading, guiding, and reviewing the performance of a team of programmers — often, the team he was on just days before. There are no off-the-shelf approaches. Unlike project managers, who devote hours and hours of study toward certifcation in their chosen career path, development managers often win their management roles primarily from having been stellar coders while displaying a modicum of people skills.
The book is long - over-long for my taste - and, rather than try to rehash the whole thing, I'll take the liberty of making an exceedingly crude precis:
  • people are all different
  • ... but there are broad classes of characteristics that it can useful to acknowledge and look for
  • people are motivated by a relatively small set of important things
  • .. and, after a certain level is reached, salary is not usually the most important thing
  • hiring well is crucial, and can be extremely difficult
  • ... and a manager should be thinking about it even when they are not actively hiring
  • to do well, a manager  needs to be organised
  • ... even more organised than you probably think
  • to command respect from a team, a manager should be able to demonstrate relevant skills
  • ... and need to know when is a good time to do that and when to step back
  • to enjoy the support of a team, a manager needs to show empathy and give protection
  • ... and that sometimes means letting them fail; but shouldn't mean setting them up to fail
  • to function well within a company a manager needs to establish relationships and communicate well
  • ... in all directions: down, up, and across, and in different media
  • a good manager will reflect on their own actions
  • ... and look to improve themselves
  • the source of a team culture is the manager
  • ... and, once established, it requires nurturing

Perhaps these things seem self-evident. Perhaps some of them are self-evident. Broadly speaking I think I'd agree with them, based on my own experience. And, in my own experience I find that I learned many of them only incrementally and some of them the hard way.

Which is where a book like this can help - it's a brain dump of wisdom from the two authors mostly, but also from a bunch of others who offer nugget-sized bites of experience such as
Managers must manage - Andy Grove
with associated commentary:
I’ve used Andy Grove’s phrase innumerable times to coach my managers and directors of programming teams. When confronted with a problem, they can’t just "raise a red flag." I’m always available when needed, but good software managers find ways to solve problems without my involvement or executive management direction.
And here's handful of others that chimed with me:
Don’t let the day-to-day eat you up - David Dibble 
David made this statement to make the point to his management team that managers have "real" work to do; that the seemingly urgent—e-mail, meetings, the routine—could easily fill a day. Only by being intentional about how we use our days can managers overcome letting that happen 
If you’re a people manager, your people are far more important than anything else you're working on - Tim Swihart 
Tim notes, "If a team member drops by at an awkward time and wants to chat, set aside what you’re doing and pay attention. They may be building up the courage to tell you something big. I’ve noticed this to be especially true when the sudden chatter isn’t somebody who normally drops by for idle conversation." 
Managers who use one-on-one meetings consistently fnd them one of the most effective and productive uses of their management time - Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby 
The statement is a match for our own experience.

We have two ears and one mouth. Use them in this ratio - Kimberly Wiefling 
While I love theory and can happily spend time in talking shops, dissecting semantics and splitting hairs, as my recent MEWT experience showed ...
... I also recognise the value of activity to explore, inform, test, and back up the theory. I like to think of myself, still, as a practitioner, and Managing the Unmanageable is a book written by practitioners and grounded in their practice, with examples drawn liberally from it.

It's unlikely, as Thomas Ponnet suggested, and I'd agree, to fit exactly with everything that you're doing right now with the team you have in the place you're working - especially as some of it is very specific to managing software developers. Parts of it will probably jar too. For instance, I found the suggested  approach to levels of seniority too simplistic.

But what it can do is give you another perspective, or inspiration, or perhaps fire warning shots across your bow from some position not too dissimilar to yours, and rooted in the real world of managing people in technical disciplines.


  1. Hi James,
    That's a good reflection of the book but I'd like to add two things. One is that I see it as more positive than it was portrayed here. The reason for that is that while some things are self-evident and we 'know' them it's something else to actually 'understand' them. This book helped me with that by providing many examples from the experience of the authors.
    The other is that the authors are on Twitter and can be contacted and I'm sure are happy to help or clarify things.

    1. I agree. The fact that something stated simply appears self-evident doesn't mean that it must have been known to, or thought of, or experienced before by the reader. Also, that simple precis obscures so many of the rough edges and unexpected anomalies that old hands know are there.

      I'd certainly recommend the book to others and, in fact, I already have.