Utterly ridiculous. en-US On complaining previous post, I wrote that “Complaints about a person without actually talking to them is worse than pointless. It’s damaging.” Let's dig into that a little bit.

The short version is that it’s damaging to the person the complaints are about because they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing wrong or their impact on others. It’s damaging to the team because bad behavior is going unchecked and the result of it spills over onto them. It’s no good for the manager, either, because without addressing the situation, there’s not likely to be any change, and who wants to be in a constant state of frustration?

Caveat time
Now, before we take this too far, I’m not suggesting that anybody should bring up every small annoyance. I’m talking about the big stuff, the stuff that makes you worry about putting people on projects and might ultimately block their growth or hurt their careers if it’s not addressed.

How ‘bout an example?
Let’s make up an engineer. We’ll call her Theodora. She is incredibly talented and has a ton of potential.

In planning meetings, Theodora chews her pen and I can hear her teeth clicking against the hard plastic. It bugs me, but nobody else seems to notice. She also resists giving estimates and seems almost hostile at times when she is pressed to give one. It has gotten to the point where Product Managers and others have started coming to me with questions that they should take straight to Theodora.

First things first: I’m not going to talk to Theodora about chewing her pen. That’s not worth my time unless it’s disrupting the meeting and in this case it’s just my pet peeve. Regarding her hostility about estimates, however, I’m going to have to talk to her. If I don’t say anything,

  • I’m telling Theodora and the rest of the team that it’s either OK to be hostile, or there are special rules for Theodora.
  • I’m robbing Theodora of a chance to grow. It’s likely that she’ll be asked for estimates throughout her career, so she should understand why I’m asking for them. More importantly, she should figure out a better way to handle situations when she doesn’t want to do something or doesn’t agree with its value.
  • I’m allowing communication barriers to form around my team and ensuring that I become a bottleneck for anybody with a question they should take to Theodora.
  • I’ll lose respect as a manager for failing to take action on a problem. Some jerk will probably come along in several years and write a blog post about how I should have talked to Theodora.

Note that it’s up to Theodora to correct her behavior; I can’t do that for her. It’s my job to point out that her actions have an impact she might not be aware of, and to make sure she knows the short- and long-term consequences. This gives her the opportunity to change her behavior and stop negatively impacting her team, her manager, and her own career.

Rebecca Campbell 2015-11-14T18:33:00-08:00
Has Anybody Told Walter? Walter, a fellow programmer at work, was failing. It was evident to me because people complained about Walter when he wasn’t around. They complained about his work, his attitude, and generally vented some pent up frustration.

Walter's co-workers complain about his work.

The first time I heard this, I was a little surprised at how upset they were.

“Has anybody told Walter?” I asked.

Nope. Nobody was talking to Walter about Walter. This was before I became a manager, but the lesson has stuck with me. Complaint without action is pointless. Complaints about a person without actually talking to them is worse than pointless. It’s damaging.

When I think about it, this is one of my most deeply held beliefs about management. I’ve managed software teams for nearly a decade now, starting with ownership of the schedule and parts of projects, then the people, then just about everything (up to and including IKEA furniture assembly). Now that I’m a middle manager occupying the fuzzy space between a VP and Engineering Managers, I’ve begun to reflect on lessons learned.

In those reflections, a single question represents the first and most important lesson I learned: “Has anybody told Walter?”

Virtually every manager you come across will tell you how important it is to communicate well. Clear communication with our direct reports is, I believe, the most important type. When it comes to a situation like Walter’s, communication about an individual’s performance (and perception of that performance) is vital for success.

I don’t know what was really going on with Walter because I wasn’t his manager and I didn’t ask him, but in retrospect it could have been many things. Maybe he felt like he was doing a crappy job and was just happy that nobody noticed. Maybe he came in every day thinking he was going to be fired. Maybe he didn’t know what was expected of him and figured that since nobody complained, he was doing a pretty good job. Whatever the case, Walter’s manager should have checked in with him.

Boil it down
If I was Walter’s manager and I could go back in time, I would take all those complaints and boil them down to a single piece of feedback. It’s important to limit critical feedback because people can’t change everything at once. But, just like in developing software, people can work through one thing at a time and achieve steady progress.

In Walter’s case, all the complaints essentially boiled down to, “We don’t know what you’re doing.” So I’d tell Walter, “Hey, you and I need to figure out a way to show constant, steady progress on your projects.”

Back it up
I firmly believe that third-hand complaints should only be used as the basis for change if it’s unavoidable, so I would back up my first statement to Walter with observations I have personally made. Something like:

“I’ve noticed that you tend to assign yourself 15 stories at a time and then disappear for weeks. During that time, you don’t tell anybody what you’re working on. In standup meetings, you sort of wave your hands and say that you’re still working on the same thing as yesterday. This doesn’t tell me or anybody else where you’re at with the project. I’m unable to communicate to other people what you’re doing and frankly, I worry that you’re not making progress.”

Based on Walter’s response, I might need to use stronger language and explain more about the impact on the team or the company, but I’d use I statements rather than passing along third-hand complaints wherever possible.

Come up with a plan together
Before coming up with a plan, it’s important to make sure that Walter believes there’s a problem to solve. If I haven’t convinced Walter, he’s not going to be motivated to change. But let’s say Walter is convinced. At that point, it’s likely that Walter will have some ideas of his own. Either way, I’d sit down with him to figure out how he can demonstrate steady progress. It might be as simple as setting a work-in-progress limit and/or asking for better reports at standup, or it might require a more creative solution.

Be prepared to repeat yourself
I may think Walter understands the problem. Walter may in fact understand the problem. But anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks later, there’s a strong chance that he will slip back into old habits. Hopefully, I’ve got a strong rapport with Walter and can gently remind him to do better. Either way, it's best not to get frustrated and be willing to repeat myself or add new information to the conversation as I track his progress.

Summing it all up
The single biggest lesson I learned early on, even before I began managing people, is that you have to actually talk to people and set clear expectations if you want them to change. I am most comfortable giving critical feedback when I can boil it down to a single area, give the feedback from myself, and then partner with the person in finding a new pattern. I’m always prepared to repeat myself because we are all humans and change, after all, is hard.

Rebecca Campbell 2015-11-01T15:01:00-08:00
#1 resume mistake led teams and projects.

I don't hold it against anybody because it's an easy mistake to make, but it does make me think of heavy pipes and Miss Scarlet in the Conservatory. Every time.

Clue cards:  Ms. Scarlet in the Conservatory with the lead pipe

Rebecca Campbell 2015-10-25T21:33:00-08:00
Swimming with whale sharks "Follow the Omar," says Umberto, one of our guides.

We have been waiting patiently on the back of the boat for several minutes and now there’s a brief flurry as things spin into motion. Omar, in his tan swim trunks, with tribal tattoos on his upper arms and a stylized fish between his shoulder blades, secures his snorkel and jumps in the water. I follow suit along with three others from our boat, a family in wet suits and comically long flippers that they brought all the way from Denver.

I am closest to the whale shark, which we have sought for hours and is now swimming toward us. After splashing into the water, I put my face in and look around the dark gray-green water through my snorkel mask. As the bubbles clear, my inner monologue goes something like, "Where’s the Omar? Where’s the shark?"

"Oh! There it is!"

I am face to face with a whale shark. It’s swimming right at me, calmly, its graceful body swaying back and forth, propelled by it’s large tail fin. Time pauses for a moment while I watch, the breath through my snorkel the only sound. Then I figure I should get out of the way.

Before jumping in, we were given two rules by our guides. 1) Don’t touch the whale sharks. 2) Follow the Omar. If I don’t move, and fast, the fish and I will collide. (In retrospect, the whale shark is a much better swimmer than me and probably would have made an evasive maneuver. But I just don’t think that quickly.) I paddle my way to the left and watch it glide by, a remora fish hanging out beneath its belly. A woman in our boat (part of the big-flippered family) told me that nearly all whale sharks have remora fish, little familiars that swim along and keep them company in the big wide open sea. Or maybe she said that remora fish like the protection, the free ride, and the leftovers? Something like that.

After only three minutes in the water, I am left with a memory of an intensely beautiful moment: the unexpected darkness of the water, the sunlight filtering through and lighting up suspended pieces of sea weed, dappling the spotted back of the whale shark, the grace with which such a giant fish can move. On the way back to Isla Mujeres, my eyes scan the water for dark shapes, with a newly enhanced sense of wonder at just how amazing those shapes can turn out to be.

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) photo by Sylke Rohrlach, CC by-sa 2.0 license

Rebecca Campbell 2015-06-24T13:03:00-08:00
My cough is gone and I'm not sad after all This is a follow up to a previous post.

While I'm very glad to have experimented with an Android app to track my cough, I don't think it's the right answer after all. Not because it didn't work, but because it became socially awkward. At the peak, I was logging somewhere on the order of 40-50 coughs per day. Because I am a manager, I spend a lot of time in meetings. So what that means is that if I were to fully utilize the app I built, I would interrupt all of those meetings first by coughing and then by playing with my mobile phone. Turns out, that's not very professional.

So I'm back to the drawing board. I've had some ideas for alternatives.

  • I could just update once every hour with an estimated severity for the last hour. But of course, I wouldn't estimate while I was sleeping, but I could have the app wake up and just send a severity of zero because I don't cough at night. In fact, I think I want the app to wake up and record weather and air quality data anyhow so that the graphs make more sense and I'm still collecting data even when I'm not coughing.
  • I could just update once a day right before bed with an estimate for the full day, but then I won't get info about things like my morning commute or differences in coughing around mealtimes.
  • I could write every cough in a notebook and do data entry at the end of the day, but who wants to do that?
  • My favorite idea is to do essentially what I've been doing, but with a totally different user interface. Instead of tapping on my phone, I could build a ring or a bracelet (depending on how small I can make the hardware) that just has a button on it. Then I could tap the button 1-4 times for the severity of a cough, which I could do without attracting attention, and I wouldn't have to focus on my phone and miss out on what other people are saying. Because what's the point of a meeting if I'm not even going to pay attention?

So it's back to the drawing board on this one. I'm hoping to do a little Arduino project to test out a one-button solution, which means I have a lot of learning to do. If I go for it, I'll let you know what happens.

Rebecca Campbell 2015-02-13T10:32:00-08:00
I might actually be sad if my cough goes away

Anyhow, that's just the background information. The ridiculous impulse I'm having right now is that I actually want to cough for just a little while longer because I just wrote an Android app to track it. Why didn't I think of this before? It's a very simple app that just asks for a severity level: 1, 2, 3, or 4. When I cough, I pick a severity and click a button. Easy as pie.

After a button is clicked, the app goes out and gets weather from OpenWeatherMap, air quality from AirNow, and then logs everything to New Relic Insights, which is a data analytics platform (disclaimer: I work for New Relic). It has been a lot of fun to build, and I signed up for an Android course through Coursera so I can learn about the things I inevitably did wrong as I slapped it together.

My plan going forward is to clean it up and put it out on Github so other people can fork/contribute/laugh at my source code. I hope it will be useful for others who want to track similar symptoms that have them seeking specialists. In light of that, my next step is probably to find a better way to store the data. Insights was an easy way to get started, but I have a limited retention policy and it's not good for sharing the app with others, should anybody else want to use it. I also want to play around with D3.js to see if I can come up with a good way to visualize the relationships between, say, humidity, temperature, and the severity of my cough. Of course, there are a lot more things I can do with it. For instance, it would probably be good to know when I start or stop medications, start and stop exercising, etc., so I could add some sort of event logging. Jesse also had the idea of doing a little Arduino project that will let me get temperature and humidity data for the room I'm in rather than the current weather in whatever city I'm in.

Here's a look a the super minimal user interface. This could definitely look better, but I was eager to start collecting data before I start mucking around with pretty buttons.

And here's some sample weather data in Insights (air quality didn't fit in a screenshot). I don't have enough data yet to show some good graphs, but this gives you the general idea.

To sum up, this has been good fun, and I'm excited to be writing some code. I'll be even more excited if it helps me gain insight into this cough of mine. I think it will. I mean, even if the steroids stop the cough, cold air will still be a trigger, so maybe I can use it to figure out the minimum conditions needed before I can ride my bike to work again. That would be pretty sweet!

Rebecca Campbell 2015-01-11T21:15:00-08:00
It's not only misery that loves company I'm not alone in my love for Eleanor Beardsley's voice. I think it's fantastic, though I'm surprised to find out that there's so much debate on the topic. Don't people have anything better to do than post their opinions about NPR announcers' voices on the internet? Oh wait... Oops. ]]> Rebecca Campbell 2014-07-20T15:05:00-08:00