#98 - 29 Jan 2022
Common challenges; The Void of Success
I’ve had great conversations with managers this week. And while the the discussions were great, they weren’t all sunshine and light. Managers are facing some common struggles right now. We’re all wrestling with two big challenges: industry hiring like mad; and the likely end of a pandemic wave.
Industry’s sustained hiring spree means we all have to fight to hire and retain team members. Anyone with strong skills and a LinkedIn profile has to fend off requests for conversations about attractive positions. To hire and retain we need strong career ladders, which is something we can work on together. We need to find ways to build on the strengths of our teams and our work places, which is something where we can benefit from can sharing ideas.
And as another pandemic wave looks to subside, we face the opportunity and challenge of more in-office work. As was pretty clear even in 2020, “everything resets back to 2019” isn’t going to happen for most of our teams. On one hand, pure remote is out of reach for many. On the other hand, being expected to commute in every day like clockwork is going to rankle many team members, and the opportunity to hire from a broader geographic catchment area is too valuable for a lot of teams to forgo entirely.
So many of us are wrestling with what hybrid work arrangements will look like. Hybrid is going to be much harder than in-person or 100%-remote teams, each of which has pretty clear expectations. There’s mostly just one set of best practices for working on-site, and one set of emerging practices for 100% remote. Hybrid will be different. A whole spectrum of arrangements are “hybrid”; there’ll end up being a few clusters of good practices depending on what teams decide to aim for. Finding and disseminate what works for our teams will take a lot of knowledge-sharing.
I’ll make sure to focus on some of these topics in the coming mont.s
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And with that, on to the roundup…
The Void of Empowerment - Aviv Ben-Yosef
Ben-Yosef talks about the void managers and leaders of successful teams can feel in steady-state when, frankly, they don’t feel needed. Stuff is working well, there are relatively few fires to put out, and the Universe is unfolding as it should.
But that’s success. It gives options for growth, letting you take on new responsibilities while delegating work to team members for their growth.
One thing I really like about this article is a distinction it makes: working on the team vs working in the team. Working on the team via mentorship and coaching, or hiring or improving processes, should be the priority. Working in the team - putting out fires, rolling up the sleeves and helping with work - is unlikely to ever reach 0% of your time, but if you’re putting out the same kinds of fires or pitching in on the same kind of work routinely, that’s a problem that should be addressed.
One of the things we can do to make ourselves more successful hiring is having really clear goals for what we’re hiring for - what a successful hire would be doing day to day in the job. Then we can perform principled and transparent evaluations of the candidate’s ability to start doing those things.
In the first resource, Kaplan-Moss has fleshed out his series on what does and doesn’t make a good work sample test in technology. There are good introductory sections, including goals for a fair test (they should simulate real work, be no more than 3 hours work, be flexible with scheduling, provide as much choice as possible, use them to start discussions rather than be scored pass/fail; they shouldn’t be surprises, tested internally, and be late in the process). Then he talks about different options - coding homework, pair programming, bring your own code, reverse code review, and labs and simulation environments. There’s good concluding sections too, especially on what doesn’t work (including white-boarding code).
If you are going to provide one of these environments, new tooling makes it easier. In the second article, Olsen talks about using Github Codespaces for some of the work sample tests described above - certainly coding, pair-programming, code review, and labs. Obviously other cloud instances, or maybe even a vagrant VM, has some of the same environment; but Codespaces tight coupling with GitHub and VSCode makes it particularly useable if you use those tools at work.
(Relatedly, here’s a nice DevContainer template for doing ML work as an example.)
Don’t Hire a Former Employee Before Asking These Questions - Marlo Lyons, HBR
“Boomerang” employees are employees that come back after leaving, or in our case hiring trainees who have worked with us in the past. They bring a lot to the table. They already know the work; they know the people; and they themselves are known quantities. Hiring is incredibly uncertain, and the clarity of already knowing how a given employee will work out is not to be dismissed lightly.
But, Lyons tells us not to leap on the opportunity to hire boomerang employees just because it’s the easy thing. Maybe they are exactly what you need right now. But maybe what you need now and what you needed then are different. If they are what you need, then by all means hire them - their existing knowledge of the work and relationships with team members are invaluable, and they now bring important additional perspective! But be sure and ask the question first.
Managing Your Own Career
Hot Streaks in Your Career Don’t Happen by Accident - Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
In this article, Thompson reports on the work of Northwestern University economist Dashun Wang on hot streaks in people’s careers. The subhed of the article: “First explore. Then exploit.” gives a pretty good summary.
Hot streaks — streaks of successes — come, in Wang’s research, are “equally likely to happen among young, mid-career, and late-career artists and scientists”. Rhey come preferentially at times after the person has gone through an exploration/experimental stage, of trying different things, until they find success. Then the “hot streak” is a series of moves exploiting this new approach; as that winds down (due to lack of further opportunities to use the approach, or simple boredom), a new “explore” phase starts again.
This applies to us in science support just as much as scientists. As we try new strategies, either as a people manager, technical lead, or product lead, some of our experiments are going to be more successful than others. But if we’re not experimenting and trying new and different things, we’re not going to be able to have new hot streaks.
How Bad is QWERTY, Really? - it’s not as much slower as everyone thinks, there also maybe aren’t as big RSI consequences as people worried, but it maybe is also easier to switch away from than you might have thought?
Missed out on the OldenDays of IBM System 360? Here’s a 360/50 Simulator.
Or you could get online with an Atari 800.
And that’s it for another week. Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share about the newsletter or management. Just email me or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and good luck in the coming week with your research computing team,