#105 - 19 Mar 2022
Be an uninspiring manager; Growing teams out; Conclude first
The Uninspiring Manager - Matt Schellhas
Too much of what I imagined an excellent manager should be early in my career (not having really seen any) was focussed on personal characteristics. Such leaders should be engaging, people-persons… and inspiring.
It’s not that any of those things is bad, of course. Those are all traits and behaviours that can be put to good use as a manager or lead! But so can the default behaviours of quiet, attentive, carefully-thinks-before-speaking introverts. Or of keep-ticking-things-off-the-list achievers. Or of caring, emotionally intuitive, confidantes. Each has default behaviours that are extremely helpful in the right circumstance, and are downright liabilities in others.
Schellhas makes the case against needing to be inspiring to be a good manager. In his view, people mostly already want to do a good job, and what they need to accomplish that is: information; skill; and willpower.
Inspiration doesn’t help at all with the first two, and only temporarily for the third. A better use of energy than temporarily boosting willpower with some rah rah stuff, he says, would be to put effort into fixing willpower-sapping features of the job. Fixing flaky CI systems that make writing tests seem useless, or removing unnecessary reporting.
One thing Schellhas doesn’t call out that I’ll add - being able to communicate a clear vision for the team is, in my estimation, a requirement of the job. People need to know what they are aiming for, and how their work fits into that. And that vision might even be inspiring! But that inspiration best comes from the work and goals themselves, not from some charismatic leader.
Larson here is talking specifically about infrastructure teams. But this could apply to growing research computing and data teams.
The constraints are keeping the core operations of an initial team with a broad remit going while growing and adding capabilities. The model he recommends and has seen work is to grow slowly and, as particular well-defined areas start emerging as being important, to “bud off” a branch sub-team with that specialty while the “trunk” team continues on with reduced scope. In our context, this could be two officially different teams with different managers/leads, or, maybe less ideally, overlapping groups of competence within a single large team.
(By the way, this is all perfectly consistent with beginning with a team that already has a well-defined specialty - GIS data science or web/mobile apps for data collection or managing clusters for AI/ML workloads. The wonderful thing about research, and expertise in general, is that it’s fractal. No matter how small a chunk of the big picture you start with, as you zoom further in you see more and more complexity. You discover whole new parts of the map to explore and become knowledgeable in.)
The key things Larson emphasizes here is to be clear (internally and externally) about what who owns what responsibilities as a team branches off.
I really like this documented hiring process by 18F in the US Government. It’s a well thought out process, and it’s written in a way that you could send to candidates so they know exactly what to expect. It’s even in GitHub. I also really like their technical pre-work - it’s either to provide some code they’ve worked on, or to do one of four exercises. The exercises are simple but non-trivial get-and-process-data exercises that would give a lot more confidence about ability to do real programming tasks than some kind of fizz-buzz.
Managing Your Own Career
Minto Pyramid - Adam Amran, Untools
Amran gives a very clear formula here for emails that you also see in advice for briefing boards (or in our case, e.g., scientific advisory committee.). Start with a one-sentence paragraph of the conclusion (or the ask); then a listing of the key arguments; then the supporting details. I’d add that the subject line should reflect the conclusion/ask.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I’m generally ok about writing to-the-point, skimmable emails. But that skill may have atrophied a bit recently. In my previous job, I didn’t send a lot of emails (we used slack internally mostly). When I did send them, as a manager and as a big fish in a small pond, I… could kind of assume my emails would be carefully read. In retrospect I kind of got lazy and leaned on that, which I now feel sheepish about.
I’m in now an individual contributor in a very email-heavy organization. I can see very clearly the effects of getting lazy about sending bottom-line-up-front emails. I’ve tried to communicate some points via email to some very busy account managers in the past couple weeks, and some of the points just did not get across. So it’s time to up my game again.
Not every email lends itself to this formula, of course, but sticking to bottom-line-up-front is a good general principle.
Some war stories from that weird liminal time when the internet was starting to genuinely be a thing but dial-up modems were still key pieces of infrastructure. (SLIP! PPP! T1 Lines! Alternet!)
Ever want to design your own chip and have it fabbed in the dozens or few hundreds? That’s actually possible now.
Why typography is so hard on web pages. Bring back metal type!
A little tool for building simple interacting systems (like predator-prey) and adding complexity, maybe useful for explaining simulations to school children? Loopy.
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,