COVID-19

The surprising benefits of working from home

Schwinn Collegiate

I realize I’m fortunate that COVID-19 hasn’t affected my or my wife’s employment. I’ve written about my challenges adapting to the changes lockdown and reopening have brought, but at no time have I missed a mortgage payment or chosen buying groceries over paying the electric bill. I merely had to adapt to the changes and forge a new normal.

I’m still working from home. My company has announced that we’ll keep it up through at least Labor Day. Word on the street is that it’s unlikely we’ll return before 2021.

Fortunately, there are some real benefits to working at home. Now that spring is truly here I often go for bike rides on my lunch hour! I have always loved to ride my bike. For years and years I’ve struggled to make time for it. It’s easy to get a ride in when the bike is 20 feet away in the garage and I have an hour to myself!

I use my lunch hour in other ways, too. On rainy days, I develop the film I’ve shot lately. The other day I ran over to Meijer to buy a few staples we ran out of. These are things I used to drag myself through while tired at the end of a workday, or put off until the weekend.

I’m also sometimes able to start dinner for the family during a gap in my work schedule. Before, making dinner after my wife and I both come home meant we frequently didn’t eat until far later than any of us like. Or we were both too tired to cook and spent a ton of money going out. But working from home I can often arrange my afternoon to prepare a roast or a stew or a soup that can cook while I work the rest of the afternoon. We eat earlier and have the rest of the evening to do other things.

Also, not commuting is giving me a full hour back each day. I’ve mostly used the time to write more in my blog — posts like this one!

My evenings and weekends are more open now, because I work from home. It is going to be hard to give that up when we are eventually called back to the office.

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COVID-19

I feared I wouldn’t adapt well to working from home

I touched on this in one of my earlier COVID-19 reports, but I’d like to expand on it today: I am surprised to find I don’t mind working from home long term.

I always feared I wouldn’t enjoy it. I like the human contact the office gives me. I worried it would be a lot harder for me to build the relationships I need to influence decisions. Also, I like having a place where work happens and a separate place where home happens. Finally, I have always been sure that if I worked from home, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the refrigerator.

Where I work, we are in the final days of a large, complex, and critical project. I’m the lead project manager. I was handed this project in flight and asked to straighten it out. The kinds of things that go wrong at this point in a project like this are happening. I liken it to bombs dropping overhead while you stroll through a minefield.

Office

About 25 people are working on this project, and four executives over my head anxiously await its completion. All of us are at home. Thanks to Slack, a text-based asynchronous communication tool, and to Zoom, a videoconferencing tool, communication is flowing well. Thanks to Jira and GitHub, a work-ticketing system and a code-management tool, I can watch the work flow. I know that the team is working hard, and I know when they’re blocked. I know when I need to act to unblock the team, and I can keep executives fully in the loop.

Productivity is comparable to nine weeks ago when we were all in the office. We’re not missing a beat in communication.

It works because we all work from home. We all have to use Slack and Zoom. There are no conference-room meetings or hallway conversations.

I find that when some people work remotely and everyone else is in the office, the remote workers have to work triply hard to stay in the loop and be heard. I know of a couple companies that make a hybrid remote/in-office culture work, but it takes a lot of intentional energy to keep it working. It’s easiest when everybody works remotely, or nobody does.

It helps a lot that my first nine months with this employer were in the office. I built relationships and influence the way I already know how: in person. I don’t know how I’d build it if I started with this company right now, while we’re all still at home.

I was right about one thing, though: I can’t stay out of the refrigerator.

Other pandemic reports from fishyfisharcade and Ted Smith.

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Essay

Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.

I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

Handley, WV
Handley, West Virginia, pop. 350 — where my dad’s family is from

I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.

I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.

That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.

It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.

I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.

But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I managed the testing team. Production went down while all of the site operations managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”

Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.

I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.

I first shared this post on my software blog, here. It felt like a general enough topic to share here as well. It expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.

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Personal

Last day

Today is my last day at my job. Yes, the one I started in January. I start a new job on Monday.

My soon-to-be-former employer has been a decent place to work and I haven’t been unhappy. I lucked into a good boss who was helping me see some of my blind spots and was challenging me to grow as a leader.

There were things I didn’t enjoy about this company, things typical of a company in its business climate at its phase of life. And I didn’t see a growth path beyond perhaps a promotion to Senior Manager. But given that it didn’t hurt to work there, I thought I’d soak up as much experience as I could. I’m still early in my engineering-leadership career and I need to build credibility.

About eight weeks ago a recruiter from another prominent local employer of software engineers contacted me about joining them as an engineering manager. I know that this company has completed a business and technology transformation that was starting to pay off in their marketplace. They were also using more modern processes and delivery methods. That’s exciting stuff. But the job was a lateral move at the same pay and I told them that I couldn’t consider a change unless it was for a higher position and more money.

I figured that would be the last I heard from them. I was stunned when they contacted me again a couple weeks later, saying they’d recast the position one level higher with a compensation package to match.

Having worked for many software companies in this market over nearly 30 years, I know people pretty much everywhere software engineers work in central Indiana. So I contacted a couple people I know at this company and asked what they think. They were enthusiastic about the work environment and about the company’s prospects, and said I should join them.

So I went in for an interview. It went well, and they offered me the job. It was easy to say yes. This choice is right for my family now and for my career in the future.

But it feels all kinds of wrong to quit a job after just five months. Having managed people for 20 years I know full well how disruptive it is. I did not enjoy telling my boss, who has treated me well; or my team, which I enjoyed very much, that I was resigning. Fortunately, they took it well.

I’ll come home tonight with my things in box, which I’ll carry with me to my new job on Monday.

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Personal

Day one

I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.

I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.

The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.

Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.

Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.

One way to Lucas Oil

Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.

I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.

I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.

Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed. 

Yet nearly everyone I spoke to had some level of concern — dare I call it bias? — that I’d need to be a committed technologist to be able to lead engineers. It’s bunk. Here’s a great article that explains how your VP (or Director) of Engineering is different from your Chief Architect or Chief Technology Officer. Search Google for “VP Engineering vs CTO” — you’ll find many similar articles. I’m a classic Director of Engineering, with strong people and process skills, and enough technical skills to get by.

Still, there’s no way to escape that I did not spend enough time in the technology at my last company. I took a JavaScript course online and read a book on functional programming so I could understand the approach and language the engineers were using. But I can’t draw you an architectural diagram of that application, can’t tell you much about how the application is configured on the server, and know little about the state of the codebase and what challenges lie ahead in it. I needed to know those things as Director of Engineering. There were just so many challenges I needed to solve at that company with straight-up leadership that I kept deferring getting into the tech. I will not make that mistake again.

This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.

After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door. 

It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.

I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.

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Personal

I always thought the reward for doing a good job was that you got to keep the job

Another thing happened while I was on my blog hiatus last month. I was fired.

I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. I had led the building of “version 1.0” of our product. I doubled the engineering staff to an even dozen, put in the practices and processes they used to do their work, and collaborated with the product-idea people to make sure the engineers had solid backlogs of work to build from. In short order we turned a chicken-wire-and-chewing-gum prototype into a real software product that sold well and provided real value to customers. I’m proud of what my team and I accomplished.

Those accomplishments apparently didn’t matter in the end.

To tell you the whole story would probably violate the confidentiality agreement I signed. I’m left to guess at much of it anyway, as they wouldn’t tell me why they were letting me go. Financial considerations could have played a role. My boss and I had lately been at serious loggerheads over some matters and I feel sure that hurt me considerably.

I saw some classic signs that it was coming: of my boss canceling meetings with me, of some of the successes for which I had once been praised being reframed as not so successful after all, and of me being left out of tactical and strategic discussions. My boss even suggested strongly that she was losing confidence in me. I was dead man walking.

I’m astonished by how fast things turned. I had been praised as a key player through about the end of the summer. My performance had netted me an off-cycle pay raise, and there was talk of promoting me to Senior Director.

When my boss messaged me late one afternoon to ask me to meet with her at 8 am the next day, I knew the axe was falling. (The office would have been deserted at 8 — in the software startup world most people reach the office well after 9.) There was no way I was going to toss and turn all night in stress and worry and then make the 45-minute commute just to get fired. So I made her do it that night at a nearby Starbucks.

My exit left me feeling played, brutalized, and ultimately humiliated. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy since then processing what happened and my feelings about it so I can be at peace. I’m not quite there yet but I am close.

Those of us who work in software must simply accept its volatility, especially in young companies trying to find their way. Fortunes turn for the worse and layoffs follow. Strategies change and people who were once key players suddenly find that they are no longer the right person for their role, or that their role is no longer needed. This involuntary exit isn’t my first — in 30 years I’ve been laid off twice (I wrote extensively about the last time, here) and fired one other time (and then un-fired; read that oh-so-hilarious story here).

Of course, I have only so much financial runway. If I don’t take off in another job before about the end of the year, my family will be in challenging circumstances.

I remain well known in the central-Indiana software community, so I immediately started reaching out to colleagues to reconnect with them. I always asked them for introductions to people I don’t know in the local industry. It’s remarkable to me how willing people who don’t know me are to meet me for coffee on the recommendation of a shared colleague. It has been interesting and fun to make those connections. Some of them revealed opportunities that haven’t been made public yet.

I also applied for a couple jobs that were available. One of those applications led to a solid interview. The title is Engineering Manager, so I’d be stepping back a level from my last job. But they’ve given me an idea of the salary and it’s not much less than I was making before. It’s a well-established company, and those generally pay better, job to job, than startups. They like me and tell me they want to offer me the job, but as of today my candidacy is held up in some corporate red tape and I feel like it’s a coin toss whether it will come out in my favor.

I remain charmed by the startup world and would love to hold out for a leadership role at another young company. But landing one of those jobs — any job, really — takes patience and serendipity and I need to support my family right now. Wish me luck. If you’re a person of faith, my family will be grateful for your prayers.

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