#38 - 16 Oct 2020
Fist-of-five voting; how clear are your goals to your team; do your team members feel safe speaking up; more flexible work
I had a couple of good talks with fellow managers (in title or de facto) this week resulting from either the newsletter or the SORSE talk last week.
The problems each were wrestling with were tricky and stressful, and it was a reminder of how lonely management can be. I hope this newsletter - and the AMAs (Ask Managers Anything) section we had for a while, and will have again - helps cut through that a little bit. I also I hope we can find or build more forums for exchanging knowledge, advice, or even just sharing the victories and defeats in research computing.
There are some good general management or especially leadership management fora out there such as Rands Leadership Slack, which I quite like; but that audience mostly wouldn’t understand the particular culture of research (and especially academic research) that these managers were wrestling with.
If you do have questions that you’d like to get the readership’s input on, do hit reply and email it to me, and I can share it in the newsletter
With that, let’s get on to the weekly roundup:
Learning with Fist of Five Voting - Jake Calabrese
We’ve talked before about the benefits of not asking your team binary yes/no questions about agreement but “on a scale of 1..5”; e.g. in #31 when mentioning the use of zoom polls. This gives people who aren’t comfortable with a direction a way to express that without coming out and saying no. And if a number of people vote 1 or 2 or 3, that will give them a bit more confidence in discussing why.
Calabrese describes a simple and fast way of doing the same without needing polling functionality (but also without anonymity) - holding up a hand with 0-5 digits showing varying levels of support for an idea. 0 (just a fist) is more or less adamant opposition, 5 is wild support, and anything in between is in between.
Are We Clear? - Paulo André
It can be mystifying to us, who constantly are looking at big picture goals and nudging things in the direction of overall strategy, that the team don’t automatically understand the goals we have for them. But our team members, lacking telepathy, can’t see the stuff that’s rattling around inside our head all day. The only thing to do is share those goals and vision again and again and again and again, verbally and in documents and and in actions.
There is no plausible amount of talking about goals and strategy that is too much. And André reminds us that Google’s Project Aristotle (a followup to Project Oxygen) found that structure and clarity were one of the 5 most important factors in team success: those factors were, in order:
Team member dependability
Structure and clarity
André suggests a sobering test to see how aligned your team members are on the goals:
Here’s a quick test: try asking each of your team members to describe their understanding of the goals of the team, and what the plan to accomplish them is.
Do Your Employees Feel Safe Reporting Abuse and Discrimination? - Lily Zheng, HBR
If we want to support our employees, especially team members who experience sexism or racism, we need to make sure they have opportunities to report that abuse and discrimination. Although our teams are typically small, we’re often in large institutions which have mechanisms that can help, such as employee assistance plans (EAP), explicit offices for EDI or that handle sexual harassment or racial discrimination complaints, or ombudsman offices. It’s our responsibility to know what those resources are an to make it clear that they’re available to employees.
We also have to take any complaints that any of our team members trust us with extremely seriously, and to take their needs into account when deciding how to proceed.
Embracing a flexible workplace - Kathleen Hogan - Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer, Microsoft
You may well have read that Microsoft, a pretty staid company, is leaning way in to distributed work:
Work site: … However, for most roles, we view working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as now standard – assuming manager and team alignment. Work hours:… Work schedule flexibility is now considered standard for most roles. … Work location: (.. e.g. city and country): Similarly the guidance is there for managers and employees to discuss and address considerations…
It’s likely going to be the case most research computing teams will follow suit (maybe not about working from other countries, because of the requirements of some national funding agencies, but in most other ways). And I don’t see the kind of introspection about this in research computing I’d like to see, beyond “it’ll be nice to keep working from home and go into the office some times”.
I’ll write about this more, but I think this is going to end up redistributing research computing teams substantially. Once Universities get used to the idea that “our research computing teams don’t have to be here physically”, the next step is “do they have to be here organizationally”?
Small research computing teams will likely stay in place, there’s always some advantage to having some local expertise; the large research computing teams that learn to run distributed teams well are going to have a pretty easy time picking up great talent, attracted to the breadth of opportunities that being part of a large team enables. It seems pretty clear, however, that undistinguished medium-sized teams — expensive enough to be an important line item but with a muddy story about why they’re important — are going to be fielding increasingly skeptical questions from administrations.
Teams with clear specializations that bring clear benefit to a research organization are going to do ok, and those that don’t are going to have a year or two to make that clear benefit obvious to decision makers.
Customizing pandoc to generate beautiful pdf and epub from markdown - Sundeep Agarwal
A lot of us write in Markdown and want to repurpose documentation, writing, or tutorial material into PDF and/or epub with pandoc; one problem is that the default templates are pretty ugly. Agarwal goes through a few basic steps showing where and how to insert formatting to improve the output so that it’s something that can be distributed without a lot of manual tweaking afterwards.