#100 - 11 Feb 2022
Rands community channel; offboarding continues; reducing drag when work is dynamic; the unreasonable effectiveness of one-on-ones; the stay interview;
A slightly short newsletter today, as I finally claw my way back onto the Friday schedule.
One community update from last week - there was a fair amount of interest in using the Rands Leadership Slack as a pre-existing place with a large (>20,000!) leadership and management community as a place to discuss topics of interest. If that sounds potentially of interest to you, we’d love to see you there! I’m @ljdursi (as I am most places).
Otherwise this week I’ve mainly been continuing to offboarding myself from my current job. The coming week is my last (and I think the final 1:1s are going to be tougher than I was anticipating). Most of the knowledge transfer has now been done — although to wrap it up, next week I’m giving a demo of a key piece of technology to the team. Manager does a demo! What could possibly go wrong? This week there’s been a lot of 1:1:1s, with a team member and either I and my replacement, or the replacement and our boss, about transfer of responsibilities or “what’s next” conversations.
One thing I’ve been doing in my last two one-on-ones with team members is going over our work together, and putting together letters of reference which then get also turned into LinkedIn recommendations. Hopefully the team members will stay happily part of the team for a long time to come, but being a reference is a key responsibility of a manager or supervisor, especially in academia, and I want to make sure that I get these things written up while our work together is fresh in our mind. Having a record from previous quarterly reviews and one-on-one meetings is a huge help in putting these letters together. Also, routinely distilling information from those meetings into the cover sheet of the one-on-ones was a huge help when handing over managerial responsibilities to my replacement.
Like so many things in management, the preparation that is making this handover easier — one-on-ones, quarterly reviews, keeping meeting notes, distilling them every so often — was not difficult, complex, or even very much work. It just took a bit of discipline to keep routinely doing the little tasks that help things run smoothly. And that, after all, is all professionalism is. Our team members and our research communities deserve research computing and data teams that are managed with professionalism.
So, what’s next? As you know, supporting research computing and data teams in their work to, in turn, support research, is very important to me. Starting Feb 21st, I’ll be doing just that but from the vendor side of things; I’ll be a solution architect for NVIDIA (and the second NVIDIAian I know of on the newsletter list - Hi, Adam!). After five and a half years working on single project, I’m really excited to be working with a large number of research groups and teams again - a bit like my work from long ago at an HPC centre, but wearing a different hat. I’m a bit nervous about the different expectations and pace of the private sector, but genuinely pumped to be playing with a large number of different technologies to support groups trying to tackle a large number of different problems.
What does this mean for the newsletter? Not a lot of change, really. NVIDIAs policy on social media (including newsletters) is very reasonable; the changes are really going to come from me wanting to be (and be seen to be) even-handed and balanced.
I’ve been steering away so far in 2022 from commenting on specific new technologies coming out, to see how that goes; and the newsletter is actually better for it. There’s a zillion places you can go for the latest “speeds and feeds” update; that’s not what this newsletter has ever been about, even though it would slip in sometimes. So there won’t be any conflict of interest around new or updated product announcements; they won’t really come up here.
If there is some item that in some way is related to NVIDIA that I think is genuinely important for our community to know about, I will link to it in the roundup, preferably an article from a third party, but will refrain from commenting on it; and I’ll go out of my way to make sure any such links are balanced by related links touching on news from other vendors, which will also go without comment. But I expect that to be a pretty rare occurrence.
Other than that, I’ll probably have some kind of disclaimer in the newsletter — I work for NVIDIA, but opinions expressed here etc etc — but there won’t be drastic changes.
And with that, on to the roundup!
Prioritization, multiple work streams, unplanned work. Oh my! - Leeor Engel
Engineering managers: How to reduce drag on your team - Chris Fraser
The sort of work that needs to be lead by someone from the research world tends to be pretty dynamic. The dynamism makes prioritization and focus especially important.
Engel describes some principles for managing work in such a dynamic environment:
When everything is important than nothing is important - prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
Pareto principle: what’s the most important/tricky 20%?
Finish what you start first - (I, not uncommonly for people with our training, struggle with this one)
Reduce uncertainty as soon as possible - do experiments and proofs of concept and expect a bunch of them not to pan out
Reduce context switching by having team members on one or maybe two streams of work
Fraser’s article is superficially on a completely different topic. We’ve talked before (#31, #68) about how the key to speeding teams’ progress isn’t about urging them faster so much as removing things that make them go slower. But key items Fraser points out that cause drag are the same things Engel urges us to work on:
Reduce context switching (reduce streams of work)
Improve communication and clarify goals
Other items - improve trust with regular one-on-ones, and implement the tooling the team needs - are the bread-and-butter of management work.
Levels of Technical Leadership - Raphael Poss
Management is hard, and time consuming, and takes one away from hands-on work. Not everyone wants to do it, even as they grow in their careers.
It’s becoming common understanding that there’s a need for a technical individual contributor career ladder — a path for growing in technical responsibility and impact without taking on people management responsibilities.
But there’s an ambiguity there. Management, for all its challenges, has the clarity of a career step-change. HR records someone as reporting to you, or they don’t; more bluntly, you can fire someone or you can’t. There’s no gradations of in-between. What does “increasing technical responsibility” look like?
If your organization doesn’t have such a track yet, or is reconsidering one, this article by Poss gives a nice overview. It explains how the analogue nature of “increasing responsibility” allows for organically increasing responsibilities over time.
The stay interview is the key to retention right now. Here’s how to conduct one - Michelle Ma, protocol
The State of High Performing Teams in Tech 2022 - Hypercontext
We’ve talked a little bit about the challenges of retaining team members these days. Most of us haven’t seen a huge exodus, but I’ve certainly seen several key members of various teams move in the past couple of months, including one on our own.
In the first article, Ma talks to Amy Zimmerman on “the stay interview” - kind of an exit interview, but while your team member is still with you. Why wait until your team member leaves to find out what was wrong?
Keeping track of how happy people are and what they’d like to be doing is a good topic to routinely bring up in 1:1s and quarterly reviews (#60), but Zimmerman goes a little deeper with some of the questions:
“What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about working at Relay?”
“What might tempt you to leave?”
“If you could change something about your job, what would it be?”
“What talents are not being used in your current role?”
“What should I do more or less of as your manager?”
Some of the others should really come up in first one-on-ones (Laura Hogan has a good set of first 1:1 questions), but are good to keep coming back to.
It may feel scary to explicitly bring up questions like “what might tempt you to leave”, but the fact is your team members are almost certainly not going to retire from their current job with you. The more frankly and frequently you can have these career direction conversations, the longer you’ll be able to align the work they do with their personal goals.
In the second article, the folks from Hypercontext did a survey on high-performing tech teams, and there’s some good stuff in there, most of which won’t be surprising to long-time readers of the newsletter (routinely communicating goals and expectations is important, managers are useful but only if they’re run well, more junior people and people from groups that are not overrepresented are less likely to be comfortable speaking up in meetings).
Key to this discussion, though, is the important of one-on-one meetings on retention. Managers who have one-on-ones with their team members do a significantly better job of retaining their staff.
I can not recommend this highly enough - is your inbox too full? Just archive it all. Add an “inbox_2021” label if it’ll make you feel better. It’ll still be there and searchable and responses will still show up in your inbox.
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,