Managing Humans

— Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager —

Despite what you might think from its title (and subtitle), Managing Humans has a lot to say to all types of businesses, all types of managers, and, really, anyone who wants to lead or is trying to be a leader anywhere.

Tell the truth now. Wasn’t it just yesterday (or maybe earlier this morning) when you were buried nose-deep in the latest stats from Google Analytics or the quarterly reports from accounting and you blew off the real, actual person hovering outside your door? Or your boss yelled at you about some missed or slipping deadline and you passed that kick-the-dog behavior down the line to your direct reports? Welcome to management. Welcome to business. Welcome to humanity. Welcome to life.

At one point or another, if you’re in a leadership position (whether inside a business or out), you’ll probably get wrapped up in the nuts-and-bolts of everyday events and forget that work gets done through people — the messy and inspiring, frustrating and amazing hot-bodies-with-brains-and-feelings who work for and with you. No matter how challenging these folks can be — and we recognize them when we look in the mirror and see that they mirror us, too — we all work better, and work better together, when we’re seen for the real people we are.

In addition to the messiness of our humanity, manager/leader wannabes must deal with another confounding factor — technology (namely, computers) — which leads to the time-sink of e-mail, social media, and the pervasive black hole of electronic gadgetry and software. Today’s companies and independent road warriors run on some flavor of Windows, Linux, OS X, iOS, Android, Google, assorted mobile apps for smartphones, text messaging, and a Web browser or two. Nerd heaven. The rest of us are just the complicating interlopers in this space, but we’re tethered to it because we must use the magical black box with the related QWERTY keyboard or beam-me-up-Scotty system — or die trying.

Enter Michael Lopp, a k a Rands (his alter ego appearing in the form of a Weblog — blog), a manager of 15 years from Silicon Valley, California’s software development partyland. He worked at the likes of Apple Computer, Netscape Communications, Borland International, and Symantec Corporation, and has been as involved as anyone in the thick of our workplace culture’s latest incarnation.

As a person deeply immersed in technology and the science of computers, you might be surprised to find Lopp saying things like, “Your traditional management book is based on the idea that there is a science behind management. It suggests means of reducing managers and management activities to a pleasant set of rules that, if followed, will result in organizational happiness. This is not that book.”

You’ve just been given fair warning, as you listen in on the (mostly) boys’ club, to expect more than a bit of attitude and a smattering of four-letter words in the fictionalized-but-essentially-true war stories of corralling the nerd herd. Don’t be put off by the occasional raunch or rant or by the technology focus. What soon becomes obvious in Managing Humans is that people are people and management is management, tech-focused or not. And people are the most important ingredient in any company’s success.

Here’s a taste from early on:

“My definition of a great manager is someone with whom you can make a connection no matter where you sit in the organization chart. What exactly I mean by connection varies wildly by who you are and what you want and, yes, that means great managers have to work terribly hard to see the subtle differences in each of the people working for them.

“See. See the people who work with you. They say repetition improves long-term memory, so let’s say it once more. You must see the people who work with you….

“Being a manager is a great job (I mean it), but it’s your ability to construct an insightful opinion about a person in seconds that will help make you a phenomenal manager….

“Every single person with whom you work has a vastly different set of needs. Fulfilling these needs is one way to make them content and productive. It is your full-time job to listen to these people and mentally document how they are built. This is your most important job. I know the senior VP of engineering is telling you that hitting the date for the project is job number one, but you are not going to write the code, test the product, or document the features. The team is going to do these things, and your job is the team….

“Organizations of people are constantly shifting around. They are incredibly messy. In this mess, judgments of you and your work will be constructed in moments — in the ten-second conversations you have in the hallway, and in the way you choose to describe who you are.

“Meanwhile, you need to constantly assess your colleagues, determine what they need, and figure out what motivates them. You need to remember that what worked one day as a motivational technique will backfire in two months because human beings are confusing, erratic, and emotional. In order to manage human beings in the moment, you’ve got to be one.”

If you don’t do anything else, check out this little Flash video. Then, for other clues about care and feeding, read Lopp’s blog, where you’ll find the eminently useful Nerd Handbook.

Oh, yeah. Welcome to life.

Author: Michael Lopp
Published: Berkeley, California: Apress ©2007

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos