Rant: I Am Not a Cat Herder

Cat Herding image CC-BY courtesy of carterse on Flickr; click to view originalIt’s a no-brainer. It’ll happen. If I were the betting kind I’d lay good money on it. Any time I’m mingling at some social event (cocktail party, BBQ, conference hallway track or pub outing, etc.) there will be at least one conversation which proceeds thusly:

Them: So, what do you do?
Me: Oh, I’m a software engineering manager.
Them: Ah! You herd cats! <insert self-satisfied chuckle at their oh-so-original witticism>

My typical response is to grit my teeth, smile wanly and change the subject. But ya know what? I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore. I’m rather fed up with the all-too-common misconception that managing software engineers is as chaotic and fruitless as wrangling a passel of felines. Seriously, if you’re a dev manager who describes his/her job as “Cat Herder” then just get the hell out of the business now. You don’t respect your staff and you’ve entirely missed the point of your job.

At no point in the management process should there be anything resembling “herding.” If your team requires herding then the problem is not the typically independent and outspoken nature of the software developers that comprise it. The problem is you. You don’t know how to be a manager. Communication, negotiation, mentoring, prioritization, leadership… These are the skills of a successful dev manager. Failure to learn, employ and constantly improve these skills leads to a team full of cats, loose cannons, powder kegs, prima donnas…choose your favorite negative descriptor.

It’s possible to learn these skills but only if you realize that it’s necessary. A good first step toward that is to stop implying your staff are unmanageable by calling them cats. Respect them as the intelligent people that they are, listen to what they have to say and clearly communicate the direction the company needs them to go and why. You’ll find that what you end up with looks a lot more like a functional and efficient team than cantankerous felines.

Book Review: “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson from O’Reilly Media

Book cover for The Information Diet

“Much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance—ignorance that comes not from a lack of information, but from overconsumption of it, and sicknesses and delusions that don’t affect the underinformed but the hyperinformed and the well educated.”

This is the general thesis of The Information Diet, a new book by Clay A. Johnson, published by O’Reilly Media. In it Johnson explores the state of information production and consumption in our society, how he perceives it has changed (for the worse), the cultural, emotional and neurological reasons why this is the case, what may happen if the pattern continues unabated, and how we can work to reverse the trend.

The analogy of information as food is maintained throughout the work. I knew this going into it and anticipated the comparison would wear thin rather quickly. Aside from being personally bored by the first chapter—which summarizes the history of food industrialization and the obesity epidemic, subjects into which I’ve delved for years—the analogy works surprisingly well for the entirety of the book. Through this strong parallel to such a well-covered and -publicized public health issue Johnson is able to engage the attention and sympathies of the reader more or less immediately.

Unlike many of the more conventional “diet” books on the market, The Information Diet does not spend most of its pages on a detailed plan you could follow to reduce your intake of junk information. Johnson does, of course, give some tips on how to do this, but most of them are summed up in his Pollan-esque statement of “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.” Instead, the majority of the book is concerned with the dangers of our current information diets. It is, to maintain the food metaphor, more manifesto than menu. Those of you who read the title then pick up this book hoping to see detailed steps to achieve Inbox Zero may be disappointed on that front. However, if you’re looking for motivation to make a more fundamental shift in your attitude toward information intake you may have come to the right place.

I am myself someone who already keeps her inbox hovering at or just above zero, who regularly scrubs her RSS subscriptions of feeds which were added more for whim than value and who filters her Twitter and Google+ to raise the signal to noise ratio. In this way I’m not really the appropriate audience for this book. I am the choir to Johnson’s preacher.

However there’s a stronger reason why I am not the audience for this book: I am neither political nor activist. The final chapter of the book is pure manifesto, enlisting reader assistance in using their newly-reformed information diets to effect governmental and political change. Considering the author’s background his concern with changing government is no surprise, however I admit that I was as turned off by it as I am by most other forms of activist outreach (political or otherwise). This isn’t Johnson’s fault. It’s my own hang up.

To be entirely clear: this is a good book. It’s well-researched, well-written and covers topics with which I believe more people should be familiar. It’s a good book, just not good for me personally. I recommend that anyone with an interest in any form of information consumption pick up a copy and make up their own minds.

Disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free via the O’Reilly Blogger Review Program.

Technical Job Postings: Know Your Audience

Spotted in a job posting for a technical position:

$Company is a values-based, social change platform that leverages individual and institutional leadership and investment to positively impact local and global communities. $Company pursues multiple, related strategies to promote this mission. From green nonprofit centers to programmatic consulting, donor advised funds to fiscal sponsorship, grants management to risk management and more, $Company gives members of the nonprofit and philanthropic community freedom to focus on the change it wants to see. For more information, please visit www.domain.tld.

A panel from Gary Larson's Far Side comic: What dogs hear blah blah blahI don’t know about you, but my eyes slid right off that description right around the word “leverages.” After investigating $Company more I can see that it’s a very respectable organization with a long history of assisting non-profits, both organizationally and financially. And, yes, if you take the time to play through the buzzword bingo in their description, it does actually tell you that. So…uh…why couldn’t they just tell us that?

When writing up a technical job posting (or any job posting, for that matter), keep your audience in mind. You are going to get better responses to a posting which uses clear, direct language than one which reads like it was written by a marketing intern looking to impress. Frankly, this sort of thing just scares technical people away. They read it and think, “Wow…is the entirety of $Company that stuffy and corporate? Is it one of those places where everyone wears suits and Casual Friday means a polo shirt instead of button-down? No flip-flops? Hrm… There are postings for other companies which sound more my style. I’ll put my effort into applying for those instead.”

In this case, I’d rewrite the description above to make it more casual:

Since $year, $Company has been helping non-profits with organization, logistics and finances, freeing them up to be the change they want to see in the world. There are $number non-profits of all sizes using our tools, including $np1, $np2, and $np3. We’re looking for a socially-minded $position to join our team.

That’s just a first pass and undoubtedly isn’t the best description possible but I’ll wager you a pint of good beer that you read it and found it more appealing than the original. Aside from improving on the stuffy tone, this version accomplishes a few things the first doesn’t:

  • Tells you up front how long $Company has been around, establishing credibility and stability.
  • As a programmer you now know that there are tools to be built. This gives you an idea of what you’d probably be working on. Also, who doesn’t like good tools?
  • Gives you an idea of the extent and nature of the clientele of $Company, helping establish $Company’s identity and philosophies. For instance, if $np1, $np2, and $np3 are all institutions with which you strongly agree then you can be more confident in fitting in at $Company, which is willing to be publicly identified with these institutions.
  • States outright that they’re looking for socially-minded people. If you’re just looking for a paycheck you probably should look elsewhere.

Bottom Line: Never forget that when you write one of these things you’re advertising that job position. Take the same care in audience discovery and wording as you would with any other marketing outreach. Be honest, be direct and use the language your audience expects to hear.

Book Review: “Process Improvement Essentials” by James R. Persse, PhD

tl;dr: A well-written book I’d recommend to all in the IT field who have any interest in working smarter rather than harder to bring their projects in on time, on budget and to customer spec.

Cover of Process Improvement EssentialsProcess Improvement Essentials, written by James R. Persse, PhD, delivers on its title. The field of process improvement is large, detailed and complicated—much more so than I would have expected before reading this book—yet Persse manages to curate, condense and present the topic in a highly effective and approachable manner. Which, I suppose, is to be expected considering the subject matter in question.

One method Persse uses to curate and condense is by limiting his target audience to IT professionals. The entire book is presented from the point of view of improving the quality of IT deliverables in whatever form they may take so, as a techie yourself, you can pick up this book without fear of getting mired in descriptions of processes (billing, accounting, manufacturing, marketing, sales, etc.) in which you may have little direct interest.

The book itself is organized into two sections. The first discusses process improvement in a more general sense and was the part of the book which I most enjoyed. The philosophies of process improvement resonated well with me, however that’s no surprise as I’m already predisposed toward the concept. Persse’s writing is clear, engaging and filled with quotes which struck me enough to write them down. Some examples:

From my experience, technology industries—corporate software, systems development, and operations—have been somewhat immune from the cleansing light of public failure.

Companies that are doing well are rarely motivated to initiate process improvement programs or quality initiatives.

…everything we do should be somehow traceable to satisfying the customer.

After all, if you hire competent people, you should probably get out of their way and let them do their jobs.

The second section of the book is a fairly in-depth overview of three process improvement methodologies: ISO 9000, CMMI, and Six Sigma. While moderately interesting, I recommend initially only skimming this half of the book then returning to it more in depth when/if your team decides to undertake one of the methods detailed here. This half of the book will be valuable both in aiding selection of the best method for your team as well as for basic reference while implementing it.

In a profession fraught with projects which are over budget, overdue or outright canceled more often than they’re successfully concluded, I would recommend that every IT professional pick up and read a copy of this book at least once in their career. Even if they only read the first half, the raised awareness of quality and process can only help improve the overall IT project success record.