#9 - Link Roundup, 27 Mar 2020
Feeling recognized reduces burnout; moderating discussions over video; creating the perfect meeting agenda; three signs of a failing hiring process.
It’s been quite a week. Research teams across the world are contributing to the effort against COVID-19.
If you’re working somewhere where you can help out in those ways, it can be great to feel like you’re contributing to those very timely efforts - that you’re doing something to help.
On the other hand, if you’re not in that position, it’s easy to feel like you’re on the sidelines while important, urgent work is going on somewhere else. But that’s not the case.
The COVID-19 danger is enormous and immediate, but we face many other challenges once this one passes. Whether the work you do is in areas of climate change, environmental science and ecology, or new-generation power systems like hydrogen cells, renewable power, batteries, or the grid systems to connect them; other areas of health research like cancer or heart disease; food science for a growing world; finance and the economy — or basic research with no obvious immediate application but which could lead who-knows-where! — the world needs more, better, and faster research to tackle the many issues ahead of us and to take advantages of new opportunities we don’t even know exist yet. And our teams help power that research.
The world is discovering that it can make huge, wrenching changes in the space of days if it wants to. This newfound willingness to act - informed by the results of research from groups around the globe - puts us in a much better position to take on the challenges that we will face after the current crisis has passed.
Whether you’re working overtime now on the needs of the current crisis or putting in work that will help us deal with — or avoid! — a future issue, thank you for the work you and your team do and the research you help drive forward.
So let’s look at this week’s link roundup!
The headline says it all; this reports on a study that reports the titled result. There’s a lot going on right now, and your team members are feeling a lot of pressure from a lot of directions - make sure to honestly recognize their work and their accomplishments. And right now, working at anything approaching normal productivity is an accomplishment.
Moderating Discussions over Video - Beth Andres-Beck
Working remotely and communicating online doesn’t really introduce new problems so much as it greatly amplifies exiting problems that can otherwise be papered over with in-person interactions.
Some meetings are pretty straightforward and translate well to online - standups, or team status updates. But it if you want to have a brainstorming meeting or a meeting to come up with a new solution to a problem - or even choose which problem to solve - rather than just a round table of updates, doing it virtually takes some extra thought. Moderating those discussions well takes some doing even in person - our team this week had an opportunity to see some online meetings where this was and wasn’t successfully achieved virtually. (Taking notes on what doesn’t go well is a good starting point to running your own meetings better…)
In this article, Andres-Beck takes some lessons from her experience in quite a different environment - from those of her small liberal arts school professors who did a very good job and moderating classroom discussions in the humanities (which are typically much more engaging than lectures in STEM fields).
The whole article is a bullet-point list of things you can straightforwardly do, so I can’t really summarize it; do read it. Some suggestions that stood out:
Have the other videos in gallery view, so you keep an I on if people are engaged
For up to 10 people I don’t bother with raised hands. For more than that some video tools have a built-in mechanisms: for the rest you can use chat
Have one person, ideally not a participant, take collaborative notes so everyone else can pay attention
Establish your facilitation plan up-front and communicate it
Cover the goal of the specific discussion as well, and frame any expectations
As much as possible, prompt for specific kinds of comments, rather than using open-ended questions
People aren’t getting the usual signals to stop talking, so don’t be shy about interrupting
How to Create the Perfect Meeting Agenda - Steven G. Rogelberg, HBR
The title oversells the blogpost here, but Rogelberg suggests one useful and relatively easy thing to do to improve agendas, and it ties into one of bullet points from above about covering the goal of the discussion clearly.
The article suggests that instead of having vague agenda items like “Revisiting performance of data ingest module” or “New system uptime” they should instead be clear, focussed questions “What changes could drop data ingest times from 1hr to 10min like Prof X needs?” or “What are acceptable, feasible uptime requirements for the incoming data-analysis cluster?”. This takes more thought, but starts the conversation off in the right direction — and has the advantage that it’s clear when the agenda item is finished (when you have answers to the questions.)
Right now our HR departments are all tied up with issues larger than our upcoming positions, but as things stabilize into our new normal, we in research will still be able to hire — which isn’t necessarily true of our colleagues in other sectors. It may be easier to hire (because of job losses and fewer new jobs elsewhere) or harder (because everyone will want stability and not want to switch jobs if they have any choice at all), but it’s still important we do it well — our team members are the people who do the work that powers research.
This article talks about debugging a hiring process that isn’t going well. Their steps are:
Acknowledge your bias so to go beyond it
Reset your expectations
Articulate definite skills and behaviors, and why they are important
By and large we hire infrequently so it’s hard to see patterns and distinguish between “we’re not hiring well” and “the last hiring round was tough”. That makes it more important, not less, to make sure we’re doing a good job each time. Their step three about articulating behaviours, I think is really important.
In technical fields we tend to overemphasize “2 years of experience with [technology X]”, and I don’t think that’s helpful; if you have someone who has tackled similar problems before and has a history of learning new stuff, the lack of that experience isn’t important - and if they haven’t tackled similar problems before and have no history of learning new stuff, even 15 years of experience as an expert X-er is unlikely to be what you need.
We’ve been trying to focus on behaviours - not attitudes, not knowledge, but behaviours - that we need in the team. We come up with them by thinking about team members who have been successful, and the specific things they have done that have helped the project and the team; or specific things that we don’t have people doing that we need. So we’ve been moving away from technology shopping lists to include some responsibilities like:
Respectfully reviewing other team mates’ code, and incorporating respectful code reviews into your own work
Eventually represent [project] at collaboration meetings, advocating for success of the collaboration as a whole in a way that is aligned with [project]’s goals
Design and Implement solutions with minimal supervision, frequently validating the approach with teammates and collaborators
and requirements like:
Demonstrated ability to work both independently and in a team
Demonstrated willingness to initiate collaborate with external partners, especially with international colleagues
Demonstrated ability to learn what is needed for the task at hand
Demonstrated tendency to improve the team’s tools and processes
Lazydocker - a tui for monitoring and performing bulk actions on docker containers.
Do you work on a Mac and have a favourite iTerm pane setup for certain kinds of tasks? Automate their creation with itomate.
An early-ish (2013) and influential book on working remotely in the modern tech era, “The Year Without Pants” about Wordpress by Scott Berkun, is available in digital formats for free.
I finished the ebooks and email sequence for my one-on-ones quickstart; I have to say, for sending out automated emails in a sequence, ConvertKit is super slick. I wonder if it could be used for email-driven courses in research computing topics.
An awful lot of us are discovering the limitations of our workplace’s VPNs. When things return to normal and we can make changes, tailscale’s peer-to-peer architecture (with a hub-and-spoke control plane) looks really interesting.
Apparently csh is punk rock.