#82 - 10 Sept 2021
attrition is ok, and so is process; prioritizing DEI; How many people can someone manage; deciding
Let’s Discuss Attrition - Subbu Allamaraju
We’ve talked about people leaving before, and that post pandemic such departures will rise. Allamaraju reminds us that this is good and healthy and not to freak out:
Attrition is natural
Reasons for attrition vary
Attrition is an output - you can only control the inputs
In my team we do a relatively good job of celebrating new opportunities for team members where they go. This is one of the things academia I think does right - recognize that people moving on is just part of their career development. We pretty actively stay in touch - so much we may get our first boomerang team member this year if we play our cards right!
But Allamaraju makes another good point, and one which I don’t see called out very often:
Every exit gives you, the manager, an opportunity to improve the team structure and dynamics. Attrition loosens the team fabric and gives you a chance to reshape it. Don’t let go of that opportunity.
The departure of even a valued high-performing team member is an opportunity to grow the team in new directions.
The culture of process - Cate Huston
The defining transition between hobbyist and professional, between someone in research who codes a little or does a bit of sysadminning and running a professional team providing research computing and data services, is that you no longer just focus on mean quality but also variance. You’re no longer trying to just get good results, but consistently good results. That means, painful though it might be, introducing some process.
Huston has a few ways to think about process as, frankly, a fabric connecting the team members:
Process as an agreement about how we work.
Process as a way to answer questions.
Process as (documented) culture.
and this suggests a starting point for process - documenting how the team does things, ideally after some discussion, so that as new people join they can get up to speed quickly.
But as a team grows or its needs change, process can’t stay rigid - agreements shift, different questions are asked, culture updates. New processes may need to be created, and old ones retired, ideally after discussion. Huston describes changes to processes in her team - growing the hiring process of a team, trying “process experiments” on a team (and tossing out the ones that didn’t work), and building support for change. She also points out that any process change is going to get a mix of obliging and enthusiastic support, and questioning and out-of-hand disagreement. I don’t know if it’s useful to think of that in terms of personality types, but certainly accepting that any process change will lead to a variety of reactions is important.
Towards the end, Huston emphasizes that with process - as with technical decision logs! - it’s important to explain the why. That helps build agreement, and helps make it clear when it’s time for a process to be updated or retired.
9 metrics to help you understand (and prioritize) DEI - Kat Boogaard, Culture Amp
Every job posting in academic or academic-adjacent institutions has some boilerplate about the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion. But research computing and data is worse than both academic research and tech when it comes to any kind of representation.
We’re scientists, and we fix things by collecting data and then performing experiments to see what makes the measurements improve. Boogaard suggests nine metrics to find out where you are and where you’re going, in three broad categories - the employee “lifecycle”, the employee experience while they’re with you, and company makeup.
Hiring - diversity of applicant pool and hiring panel
Representation - finding out where you stand now
Retention - are you attracting diverse talent just to preferentially lose non-white men because of lack of support?
Advancement - again, are you attracting diverse talent but only promoting some of the usual suspects?
Job satisfaction and engagement - are there common threads between employees who aren’t happy and engaged?
Employee resource group participation - if you have such resources, are they being underused?
Accessibility - do all employees have the tools and resources they need?
Leadership - does your leadership look like your organization?
Suppliers - are EDI issues hiding in vendor relationships?
How Many People Can Someone Lead? - Pat Kua
Whenever I give my “Help! I’m a Research Computing Manager!” talk, this is a question I get. Kua here says 5–7 (I often say 7 ± 2), but says it depends and gives a very helpful list of things it depends on. It includes the obvious things (a more experienced team - individually and working collectively as a team - requires a little less of a manager/lead, so you could lead more of them; similarly a more experienced lead can lead a few more people).
But there are a couple of nice other points here. The basic idea is that the manager/lead has a finite time budget, and the more of it goes into other things, the fewer people they have the time to effectively manage. Some of the things he points to are:
If the level of institutional bureaucracy is high - and for many of us, it is - then more time is spent on paperwork and administrative tasks, and so there is less time available to effectively manage or lead people
Leadership scope/leadership roles - if you are not just responsible for the people but also coordinating project delivery and also technical leadership, (a) that’s an exhausting role and (b) you’re not going to be able to lead as many people effectively. (Personal note: it looks like we’ll be getting a technical project manager shortly for our team and I can’t even tell you how excited I am about it).
Managing Your Own Career
Ok. So, You Can’t Decide - Michael Lopp
Sometimes you just can’t decide. Lopp’s experience is that this is from one of two causes:
There’s something you know in the back of your mind that you need to find out first, or:
You just need to suck it up, take the plunge, and decide
I think those of us who came up from academia are more often stuck in the second case than the first. There’s always one more thing you can read! But at some point you just need to decide.