… and what in the world do I do when I realize I’m not!?

I spend a fair amount of time, as a people manager, dealing with ‘fires’, everything from building a rush interview loop for a candidate with other offers, to escalating a show-stopping problem that appeared late in the working plan for a high-profile project, in the hopes that we finish something like on time (or, perhaps only kind of late…) You may have used the four quadrant model to identify a fire, in the past – fires are urgent tasks, which may or may not be important (refer to Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more on the four quadrant model).

Fires represent one exciting part of my job, where I get an opportunity to act decisively, which appeals to me greatly; the high stakes that come with every fire keep me interested and stimulated, while letting me learn something new every day. (Learning motivates me more than most of the other verbs do.)

You may have already experienced one or more negative states in your work life, but when you have many urgent matters competing for your attention, you risk one or more of a state of overwhelm, making frequent errors and finding peer mistakes, or even your own and others’ burning out.

In order to ensure I stay on top of the ‘right things’ without simply working harder and thus overworking myself into a state of burnout, I create a rubric that helps me evaluate and prioritize among the many items jockeying for attention. For each project or deliverable, I ask myself:

  • Is this something that I / we may fix through some kind of preventative measure? If not, how do we generate a fix?
  • How do I / we measure success in this arena? We don’t want to work to produce an outcome we can’t perceive – and if we can’t measure it, we can’t perceive it.
  • What’s the expected lifespan and level of impact to deliver this control? (the ratio here should be favorable – if we work for 6 weeks to deliver a fix that will disappear in the next quarter, was it worth the effort?)
  • Number of owners or systems impacted? Who’s the customer, and how many of them are there? We generally prefer a greater impact over a lesser one, but sometimes (say in certain compliance cases) we may have to prioritize a fix for a smaller number of affected customers.
  • Number of resources impacted (e.g. groups, Teams)? There may be one owner or a single system, but there could be a much larger number of Teams, posix or ldap groups, etc. utilizing that system or reporting up through that owner. We should account for their numbers in our impact calculation, when relevant.
  • Is this a one-off or repeating request? Certain workflows repeat on a regular basis, e.g. quarterly or annually. If I know I will generate this report once a month, I am more likely to automate as much as I’m able vs. a one-off report that answers my manager’s singular inquiry.
  • Do I enjoy doing this myself (am I able to deliver on my own) or is this better delegated? You don’t want me writing your enterprise HTML or CSS, even though I’m theoretically able. However, if you want a 3 year plan or vision for our roadmap, I can whip that out no problem, and I enjoy learning about a team and our software ecosystem in order to draw a compelling vision that retains current employees and appeals to prospectives.

Once I have this data for each project or priority, I can play a kind of multi-dimensional Tetris that shuffles employees’ career goals, the business goals, and available projects and features so that we meet as many of these at a high-enough quality level, as close to on-time as we are able. For the items that I must deliver personally, I give a little extra thought and consideration to what I’m able to automate and what I’m not, and then craft a plan to deliver it – including blocking off what seems like an appropriate amount of time on my calendar to actually do the work. I monitor those stats, too, so that I can improve my estimations over time.

With the above, and with regular check-ins with stakeholders and leadership (including my direct manager) to improve my understanding of the business context & details of requirements, I know that I am pretty likely to be focusing on the right thing. I can’t always be 100% certain that I’m right, especially when I’m working mostly-autonomously. But I can be certain *enough* to get my work done, without blocking on outside input.

I’m pretty swamped with career chats, annual performance review season (writing, meeting with all the organization’s managers and senior individual contributors to talk about everyone and how we can help them meet their career goals), and hiring for three positions that opened in 2021 (I hired 2/3 by the 19th of January, so I feel pretty good about all the work, even if it does feel like a metric ferk-ton of effort already). Despite being so busy, I try to schedule time for self-reflection. I wanted to share with you a brief scene from a recent performance conversation. During one topical conversation I had with one of my direct reports, I caught myself saying, “Look — your success is my success. I’ve got your back, but I need you to do your part: pay attention, and talk to me. “

I noticed, as I said this, that my words had quite the affect on him. I could tell from the long pause, from the hitch in his voice when he replied, that he felt deeply moved. I think he had never seen that kind of buy-in, at least not at the level I projected, from a manager before. (I wish I’d asked whether he had or hadn’t, honestly…I might sometime soon.) Having a strong effect on him meant a lot to me, in return. I like these moments.

One of the things I absolutely love about management is actually the ability to get to know someone at more-than-surface level, where I get to do what I call ‘play 3d Tetris’ with business goals, personal / career goals, project work, and deadlines. I get a lot of joy from meeting the business’ goals by fulfilling my team’s career goals. I enjoy meeting customer needs by crafting new business goals and massaging my teammates’ curiosity and their stated goals so that everything synergizes into a greater whole. (Except, I kind of hate that I used the word ‘synergize’!) I work to understand my space deeply, foresee and outline a compelling vision my engineers can get behind, and work to give it all life.

Hopefully as 2021 moves along, I’ll get to share with you, the blog reader, stories of building and sharing a vision, rallying the troops, and delivering customer-obsessed software. Wish me luck!

I have a longer post brewing in the back of my mind about how I formed my management thesis. The tl;dr: Over the years, I’ve had several truly terrible managers (and no, they weren’t all in my tech career, and no, I will never say who! So don’t bother asking, mk?) I’ve developed my management thesis more by weaponizing my self-awareness, than through any exceptionally good example in my direct manager position. All the while I occasionally think “no, I don’t want to be *that guy*”. I use that directional indicator to ‘sharpen my sword’ and improve despite the adversity of having terrible managers who weren’t in my corner, who would take advantage of my caring kindness. I’m also less of a pushover these days, thank goodness.

If you have any questions about how I learned to set reasonable boundaries, pay attention to my thoughts & opinions, etc. please feel free to comment or direct message me somewhere! I’m easy to find online. I’m sure I will write more on those topics, later. I just can’t be sure when, until I start to actually write.