June 10, 2004

How many posts?????

What follows is my NotCon talk broken out as a set of blog posts, so people can discuss the individual slides, or add more useful advice if needed. If they feel like it. Which I hope they do as it was a bit of a faff... :-)

[Update - as some people are coming directly to this page, there's a powerpoint of this you can download over at http://www.sparklefluff.com/siam]

Posted by Tom Dolan at 06:02 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Shit, I'm A Manager - The Talk

Shit, I'm a Manager
An introduction to the soft skills of
people-management for the
previously proudly unmanageable.

This talk was originally intended as a 45-minute talk at NotCon 04, but there wasn’t time for that. It also wouldn’t fit into a standard lightning presentation, so after a bit of begging Dave Green let me have twenty-minutes-and-no-more-including-questions. This is about the limit of what I thought I could get through in that time.

Anyway, quite often, when I’ve been talking to now-getting-on-a-bit techie friends about work, the thing that seems to strike terror into their hearts is the day-to-day work of people management. And yet, when I dig down a bit further, the problems aren’t quite so hard after all, and with some nudging they can actually turn out to be positive benefits.

The only reason I can say this is that I used to be one of the crappest people managers I knew, and over the course of a few years I became one that people actually wanted to work for.

So this talk is a heavily-edited mix of that pub advice and my own bitter experience.

I’m assuming that you’re someone technical who’s either about to start managing people, has just started managing people, have been managing people for ages and it’s all going tits-up, or just want to know why your boss is acting so weird.

Anyway, lets begin by looking at some of the things nobody tells you you’ll go through when you first become a manager...

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Becoming a Manager is Cack Because...

Becoming a Manager is Cack Because...
  • This is a new job
  • It is harder than the old one
  • You are answerable and taking blame
  • You’ve probably had no training for it
  • Your confidence may be shot

The fundamental thing that nobody tells you is just how different this new job is from your old one. You have pretty much changed career. Instead of being judged on how well you code, design or write copy, your job now revolves around the entirely new set of skills around managing people.

And it’s horrible, and hard,particularly at first, and everyone will give you shit. But then that’s why the money’s better.

The other thing to bear in mind is that you’re unlikely to get any training for your new career until things start going wrong. (And if you’re wondering why your boss has to go on a week-long residential course, just think how many bad habits need to be fixed in *them*!)

As a result, you may end up thinking that they’ve made a mistake, and everyone’s expecting you to fail, and that you’re shit.

But take heart, we’re going to get you through this. Let’s take it back to basics…

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So What Is This 'Management'?

So What Is This ‘Management’?
  • Working out what you want staff to do
  • Telling them it so they can do it
  • Making sure they are still doing it
  • Working out how to do it better next time

This seemingly simplistic definition of management is actually incredibly useful. There are a number of times when I’ve been going into meetings where I’m feeling uncomfortable for a non-specific reason, or where I feel like things are getting out of control, and coming back to this list makes me realise I’ve missed one of the key stages out.

If you can get to number 3 on this list, then chances are the project will happen in something like the timescale you planned.

If you can get to number 4, you’ve reached the holy grail, because this is the point where Your Job Gets Easier. So that’s something to aim for.

Of course, what I’ve documented here is the craft of management. The ‘art’ is to do this without pissing your staff or boss off. So let’s have a look at them for a moment…

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Who Measures Your Success? (And at what?)

Who measures your success?
(and at what?)

 Management skillsPrior skills
Your staff80%5%
Your Boss15%0%

I wanted to look at how the people above and below you think about you and the work you do. So I’ve taken a view of the intellectual effort the organisation expends on you over any decent period of time.

And it breaks down, in my experience, roughly like this:

Most of the time spent thinking about you is your staff worrying about how well you are managing them - keeping the plates spinning to maximise the value of what they’re doing.

They’re also a bit worried about your previous experience, but only because they don’t want to write code you could just tear apart. But hey, that’s good, it keeps them on their toes.

Your boss is thinking about lots of other things, but when he does think about you, the only thing he thinks about is how well you’re managing the team. He’s not interested in your coding skills at all. This is even true in hybrid management jobs where you’ve kept some day-to-day work. From the top, the management is the bit that matters.

There’s an important corollary of this…

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When the going gets tough
you should do
is your old job

God, we’ve all done it. Things are grim, I’d better muck in…

No. That’s the last thing you should do.

You can delegate the coding work - pay people overtime if you have to. But you can’t delegate the management part. If you stop doing that, then *nobody* is managing the team, and things will spin out of control.

The other consequence of “oh, I’ll just look after the design of the homepage” is that you instantly lose your perspective.

And Perspective Is One Of The Most Important Things A Manager Needs To Have.

Do everything you can to hang on to it - your staff need you to make sensible decisions while they’re in the thick of it.

Also, if things are that damn busy that you feel the need to get involved, it goes to show there’s even more stuff that needs you to have perspective on.

Okay, lets take a look at some of the real howlers in people management…

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The General Traps

The General Traps
  • Doing what you pay your staff to do
  • Managing your staff’s staff
  • Being the weak link in the business chain
  • Having to win
  • Slagging off other teams/managers
  • Sticking to your own (new) kind
  • Wanting to be liked
  • Too much email

Some of these are things I’ve heard about, some are things I’ve done. You may be able to tell which are which.

Anyway, let’s get onto things you don’t have to worry about…

Posted by Tom Dolan at 04:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Myths of Management

Myths of Management
  • The perfect manager
  • You can’t ask for help
  • You must have the solution
  • Geek knowledge isn’t power
  • Budgets are hard and scary

Time to move on to some of the softer skills…

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Empowering Staff
  • “That’s unfortunate. So what are you going to do about it then?”
    (Jon Lewin 1959-1999 RIP. He was fab.)
  • “You have to give producers something to produce”
    (Anthony Pugh)
  • “If you can let people do the thing they really want to do, they will do a good job”
    (Mark Cossey)

Empowerment eh? Yadda yadda yadda management newage wankspeak eh?

Well, often, yes. But here are three important quotes that did make a difference to me. The first comes with a story attached.

Posted by Tom Dolan at 04:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


  • Behaviour not people
  • You are giving the feedback
  • Stick to facts
  • Avoid ‘the praise sandwich’
  • Empathy: Drill down to root causes, weaknesses and interests.
  • Is it actually you?
  • Start small, and do it immediately
Okay, the conflict slide. At which point I’d like to point out it’s okay to be a bit scared when doing this. If you’re scared *all* the time however, something is wrong and you need to work out what you’re going to do about it.

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  • Team meetings - for team-wide info only
  • Routine meetings - for each staff member, not you
  • Task-setting meetings - do your homework!
  • All other meetings - is just chatting?

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Hire, Sire, Fire

Hire, Fire, Sire.
  • Don’t hire in your own image
  • Prepare your staff for moving on
  • Appraisals
  • Training requirements

Posted by Tom Dolan at 04:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

So What Can I Do?

So what can I do?
  • Acknowledge it’s new
  • Stop buying technical books
  • Develop your skills
  • Talk to other managers about the process
  • Ask your staff where weak spots are
  • Debug your management
  • Lead by example
So, hopefully you’ve had a lot of useful information here, so lets look at what you can do when you go back to the office on Monday:

So where does this leave us?

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The Payoff

The Payoff
  • This starts off hard
  • Remember what your job is
  • Improve your skills one day at a time
  • One day, you’ll stop missing your old job

Posted by Tom Dolan at 04:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Any Questions?

Any Questions?
For negotiation, skim the first few chapters of
  • Willam H. Ury - Getting to yes
  • Susan Jeffers - Feel the fear and do it anyway
Borrow from your parents/boss
  • Blanchard & Johnson - The one minute manager
Be inspired by
  • Andy Law - Experiment at Work
  • Eddie Obeng - The Project Manager’s Secret Handbook
Get your life in order with
  • Mark Forster - Get everything done and still have time to play
  • Mark Forster - Make your dreams come true
Admire the extreme machiavellianism of
  • Andrew Rawnsley - Servants of the People
  • Neal Stephenson - Cryptonomicon - the Epiphyte strand.
Perhaps buy (I’ve got no idea if it’s any good)
  • Paul Glen - Leading Geeks

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