#32 - Link Roundup, 4 Sept 2020
The difference between a team and a working group; Burnout triage; Scaling yourself as a technical manager
Our last AMA (Ask Managers Anything) question was:
For non-embedded teams, what do you do to keep researcher clients / stakeholders up to date on progress of work?
We received one answer:
Our communication with stakeholders - leadership, projects we were supporting, research community members - was always a lot more structured than our internal team communications. So everyone working from home wasn’t as big a deal. For our team we’ve had to be a lot more deliberate in creating communications channels to replace the loss of “water cooler” interactions. But we have always maintained pretty scheduled meetings and emails with stakeholders. Walk-ins were pretty rare. So we haven’t lost much. We have a couple of projects that had dashboards of different kinds and those have certainly taken on new importance for having other parties feel like they are “in the loop”.
I think the AMAs have been pretty successful! We got a big initial burst of questions which we’ve gone through. I think I’ll give it a few months and try this again.
Are there any other recurring features you’d like to see in the newsletter?
For now, on to the link roundup.
The distinguishing feature of a real team is mutual accountability.
This 10-word quote nicely summarizes the article. A team isn’t just a collection of individuals with related tasks; it’s a group of people who feel they can rely on each other’s contributions and hold each other accountable to that. When that is set up and working well, the team is an entity in and of itself.
My own managerial style tends to be a bit more reductionist, and I tend to interject myself into peer interactions more often then is often helpful. When I remember to let go a little bit and encourage team members to rely on each other (and give them the space to work up to relying on each other for increasingly big tasks) the team-formation process can begin. (This article by Warren Lynch is a good introduction to the Tuckman “forming, storming, norming, and performing” model of team formation).
Simple Burnout Triage - Ben McCormick
McCormick suggests one simple question for your team members to make sure they’re not edging towards burnout:
If you take the pace & quality of the last 2 months of your life and repeated it again and again, how long would you be able to sustain it?
If you get an answer ranging from “I could make this work, but..” to “I can’t go on like this”, then that raises increasingly serious red flags. The only non-worrying answer to this question is something along the lines of a genuine “oh no, this is good, I can do this indefinitely”.
Managing Your Own Career
Emotional Resilience In Leadership 2020 Report - Jonny Miller & Jan Chipchase
It’s been a long six months or so, and even if their teams are doing well, a lot of managers are feeling exhausted. Leadership is lonely and tiring at the best of times, but trying to manage a newly distributed team while keeping things on track and juggling the new challenges in our own lives makes it even more so. And if we’re not careful, that can lead to burnout. It is a lot harder and more time consuming to recover from burnout than it is to avoid it.
This is a long read, but if you’re feeling more and more exhausted and stressed it’s worth it; and even if you’re not, just the first section (a couple of pages of a google doc) is worth spending some time with. Some of the key points are:
We tend to recognize the importance of big and sudden external stressors (“this new project just got dumped on me”), but the low-grade ongoing stressors, external or internal, will get to you just as much.
Like “sleep debt” - if you’re not sleeping enough you’ll be overtired and it takes more than a couple normal good nights sleep to catch up - emotional/stress debt piles up too and has to be paid off before you get back to “normal”.
Being stressed out ripples outwards and can bounce back (think of being in a bad mood and so getting into an argument with a colleague that then makes work tense). This can cause avoidable spirals of stress.
When we know we’re stressed and tired we know what to do, but low-grade ongoing stressors can sneak by our defences. Just being aware of them and knowing we can take action to short-circuit spiralling consequences of stress, in ourselves, our team members, or our close ones, can help a lot.
Scaling yourself as an engineering manager - Sally Lait
Speaking of new projects being dumped on you…
When our responsibilities grow, we need to grow too. That means focussing on the truly important, not doing the things that simply don’t make the cut of the priority list, getting the help you need. Not discussed in this article, though it’s at least as important, is delegating tasks and efforts you know how to do well and were doing previously to your team members, helping them grow as well.
This article also gives some time to two items that don’t get discussed enough. First is that the processes you’ve built that were serving you well - your own processes or process with your teams (how you were doing staff meetings, etc) may need to change; these should always be up for reconsideration.
The second is that you’ll need to communicate what’s changing and why to your entire team. You may be less available, temporarily or not, and a team member who could previously chat with you easily is going to assume the worst if suddenly you seem aloof and less communicative. Any changes you make should be communicated clearly and probably repeatedly to your team (and any other affected stakeholders).
Product Management and Working with Research Communities
Ten simple rules to increase computational skills among biologists with Code Clubs - Ada K. Hagan et al.
Bootcamp-style training can be very useful for getting research trainees “over the hump” and starting to be effective with developing software for their own use. But it’s pretty well understood that retention of that material fades quickly unless it’s in regular use. For the majority of attendees who don’t regularly use what they’ve learned afterwards, the benefits of the bootcamp can quickly fade away.
In this article, the authors describe their approach to “Code Clubs” (think journal clubs) to get research trainees ongoing practice with writing personal research software. Sessions can be “BYOC sessions”, where attendees rotate bringing their own code or problem and present it; the facilitator breaks the attendees into sub teams with a very specific goal and (refactor the code to make it more generalizable and more DRY is an example). They can also be more tutorial sessions, where again their is a hands on component but it follows a presentation on a new package or technique.
These ongoing sessions are known to be more effective at building longer term skills, and can follow a bootcamp. The authors give ten rules for facilitators thinking of running such sessions.
Implementing Shape-Up - Nolan Phillip
I’ve written before about shape up, the development process out of Basecamp that has longer cycles (6 weeks) than typical agile, and focusses on pitching competing efforts for the next 6 week cycles. As you can likely tell I’m interested in this approach for research software development, as an attempt to to balance thenmedium-term planning cycles needed when you’re genuinely in somewhat uncharted territory with short bursts of execution. (My own default is to focus on the longer term, and I sometimes need to be dragged kicking and screaming back down to the day-to-day and week-to-week focus of execution).
This is a description of how shape up was implemented at one company. In this case it was added entirely on top of a weekly sprint cycle. The first week focussed on planning and shaping the goals for the upcoming 6-week effort, weeks 2-7 focussed on execution, and week 8 was a cool-down week/preparations to begin again.
HTTP status codes came from a protocol for submitting batch programs to computers in the early 70s, by way of FTP.
Finally - I can work with spreadsheets, but stay in the terminal and pretend I’m still a researcher. sc-im is an ncurses-based spreadsheet program.
The thermodynamics of Turing machines as a fundamental connection between computation and physics.