Dear Managers, remember to get your hands dirty once in a while

Have you noticed how specially in larger organizations we see some (or even most) managers becoming paper-pushers, spending all their time in meetings and answering emails (in their iPhones & BlackBerries!).  It’s not surprising how this behavior also starts disconnecting them from the real work being done “in the trenches” by their testers and developers.

The funny (or sad?) thing is how I am seeing this behavior now on small companies and even start-ups.  These companies look to hire a “big-shot” manager to “help make their team more mature”, and this guy automatically starts managing things from his office behind closed doors and on sterile whiteboards and emails.

I saw this last week, and it really drove me mad to see how this person completely failed to appreciate the environment where he was and the way he was failing to adapt to it.

Acting like a “big-world” manager is bad in a number of ways

1. You are not able to contribute from your expertise (technical or other) to the process, and in the best of cases you are responsible only to shift away obstacles from the guys doing the real work.

2. You are disconnected from the application being developed or tested, and here again you loose the ability to influence or even “make the calls” by yourself.  This is why many “professional managers” can’t make a decision on the spot without consulting with the people who actually have the knowledge needed to decide.

3. A disconnected manager is also not aware of the real challenges, pains and constraints encountered his team on their daily work, and so he is less effective in his efforts to help them succeed.

4. Lastly a big-world boss finally looses the respect of his team, since they understand that other than the ability to fire them (which is not in itself a small thing!) he has little or no effect in the tasks they do as part of their day-to-day work.

What to do about it?

Don’t get me wrong, I know that delegation is a necessity and it is even good for the correct functioning of any team, but as a manager you need to find a way to keep in touch with what is going on in your team and your product.  This is not easy (who said being a manager was easy in the first place?) but there are some tips you can use in order to help you out:

1. Take 2 half days a week to do “real work”.  If needed block your calendar in advance for the whole year, make sure that you only give up this time when it is really important.  Don’t just set aside the time, but coordinate with your team to take some of the tasks (and responsibility!) on you, while trying to be balanced and perform tasks from as many types and sources as you can.

2. Set work meetings with people on in the team where you pair work with them.  Regardless if you do tasks on your own or not, take time to do pair work with members of your team (pair-development, pair-testing, peer-reviews, etc.).  This will allow you not only to know your system, but also to get a chance to work and evaluate your team members on a professional level.

3. Follow a feature or project from end-to-end.  Once in a while you can take the time to “adopt a feature or project” from beginning-to-end, giving you a good idea of your process and allowing you to be a real contributing part of a work team.  You don’t need to take work on yourself, but be part of all the important meetings and make sure to prepare for them by following-up on the correspondence around it and being part of all the technical challenges and decisions.

4. Create special events such as Bug Hunts or Field Weeks to create opportunities for you and other managers to participate.  These events allow you to make quick and deep sessions in which you can still grasp specific aspects of your projects without requiring a long-range involvement with them.

A good manager understand that management is an art in itself that needs to be learned and perfected; and the way to be effective and fair is to stay connected to your team and understand as much as possible about the products you are working on, the challenges and nuances of the daily work.

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3 Responses to Dear Managers, remember to get your hands dirty once in a while

  1. Joe Strazzere September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Good article, Joel!

    It’s a challenge for Managers. Your time is taken up so much by meetings, planning, budgeting, team issues and dealing with upper management, that little is left for anything else.

    I’m fortunate enough to be a hands-on Director of Quality Assurance. I not only get to lead a terrific QA Team, and help with the overall direction of the company, but I also get to perform some hands-on testing myself on occasion, and pair up with some of the QAers on my team. For me this is the best of both worlds.

    Recently, my company was acquired by a much larger firm. With all the transition tasks, I have far less time available for “getting my hands dirty” than I’d like. I’m hoping this is a temporary thing, but fear that the big-company culture won’t allow me to go back to my previous mode of operation.

    We’ll see.

  2. Joe Strazzere September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Good article, Joel!

    It's a challenge for Managers. Your time is taken up so much by meetings, planning, budgeting, team issues and dealing with upper management, that little is left for anything else.

    I'm fortunate enough to be a hands-on Director of Quality Assurance. I not only get to lead a terrific QA Team, and help with the overall direction of the company, but I also get to perform some hands-on testing myself on occasion, and pair up with some of the QAers on my team. For me this is the best of both worlds.

    Recently, my company was acquired by a much larger firm. With all the transition tasks, I have far less time available for “getting my hands dirty” than I'd like. I'm hoping this is a temporary thing, but fear that the big-company culture won't allow me to go back to my previous mode of operation.

    We'll see.

  3. joelmonte September 15, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Thanks Joe!

    From what I've read from you over the years and what you wrote here I think that you don't belong to the group of “Big World” Managers I described above (no offense meant 🙂 ).

    IMHO the fact that you know there is an issue points at your underlying working method and values. I am confident you will find a way to compensate between the big company culture and your managerial values.

    Good Luck!

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