#106 - 26 Mar 2022
Making change easier; Falsify yourself
Well, it finally happened. The time came for something I’ve been dreading since taking completely outside of academia; something which held me back from taking such a job earlier.
I had my first meetings with former colleagues from the vendor side of the table.
And… it was fine! It wasn’t weird at all.
In retrospect, this was an odd thing for me to have gotten worked up about, because I’ve been through almost exactly this transition before. When I went from being a postdoc in a research department to staff at a research computing centre, the shift from “researcher” to “service provider” happened the same way. Internally, it felt like a huge identity crisis going from “academic” to “staff”! But that was all stuff going on in my head. It certainly didn’t come from interactions with other postdocs or profs or grad students, where if anything I became involved with more projects than before. I was still a colleague; only the things and expectations I brought to the table changed.
With that, on to the roundup!
Rubick has a plan for making changes manageable for your team:
Always be listening
Keep a management backlog (!!)
How to make a change: problem, diagnosis, remedy
Socialize your plan
Communicate the change
As an experiment
As reversible, if true
Watch your iteration speed
and Ben-Yosef emphasizes the importance of bookending the change with lots of communication, which too often we deeply specialized people tend to forget. “The old way was bad, this way’s clearly better, what more is there to say?”
As managers we’re all always keeping an eye out for potential problems, as Rubick suggests, but keeping a management backlog is a terrific idea. Keeping track of apparent problems is an excellent way to guide further listening and evidence gathering. That’s how you figure out which problems continue to make themselves apparent, and which were transitory or imaginary, and so hone your mental model of what’s going on with the team.
One thing I’d change with Rubick’s approach is to start communicating about the problem and diagnosis first, to see if people agree. That also gives you an opportunity to solicit possible remedies maybe you haven’t thought of. Even if you have a remedy in your back pocket, and end up going with it, having people contribute to the change process will make everything easier.
Both authors talk about the huge challenge in actually pre-communicating the change and then following through. Even if people didn’t like the problem, change is uncomfortable. It takes a lot of talking and people-work to make process changes. (A google search for “change management” in quotes returns 113 million results).
I’ve never fired anyone for technical incompetence - Jonathan Hall
A good reminder from Hall that we tend to over-emphasize super-specific technical skills when we’re hiring, and under-emphasize “soft skills”. We do that even though the technical skills are more readily learned, and even though we know at some level that if we regret the hire it’s more likely to be because of the soft skills.
As technologists and people immersed in the research world, it’s easy to retreat into sort of a false but comfortable objectivity when facing uncertainty. And hiring is all about uncertainty! It’s easy to say “they flunked the [programming language X] test”, and yes that’s probably a semi-objective measure. But is day-1 fluency in language X, under the unnatural conditions of an interview, really a core requirement for success in the job? Or is it something they can learn in parallel with learning the code base if they’ve already demonstrated success in language Y?
It’s not that we shouldn’t probe for demonstrated technical success in the relevant areas - we absolutely should continue to do that! But that’s the easy part. The much thornier management situations come from hiring someone who’s technically fine-to-excellent but is causes real team problems because of non-technical behaviours. In hiring we need to probe those areas at least as much.
Managing Your Own Career
Energy Management for Newer Managers - Cate Huston
One of the first things new managers discover is that they have to abruptly switch from having a relatively few deep tasks they’re working on to many tasks, much of them fairly small. So there’s a lot of discussion and about task management and task management tools.
(Note “task management”, not “time management”. It’s not a power given to we mere mortals to manage time. We manage tasks. One of the key skills new managers have to learn to apply to tasks is gracefully declining them).
Not all of the tasks are equal. Some might take longer, true, and so that’s the usual focus with task management. It’s quantitative and easy to track.
But some tasks are just harder or more draining, especially when you’re starting out. They may take the same time, but they take more of you. Depending on your inclinations, a common one to find tiring is having a performance or expectation discussion with a team member. It might only take a few minutes, or kick off a larger discussion which consumes an entire one-on-one. And it could distract or otherwise drain you for the rest of the afternoon. Or the task might not be hard or draining exactly, but require something particular of you. Maybe you have to be particularly alert to learning some challenging materials, or to pay full attention during some one-on-ones.
It gets better! Like with physical tasks, hard management tasks can get easier as you develop certain “muscles”.
But as Huston points out, being aware of this and adjusting your task lists accordingly is important when you’re starting out in a new role. That role might be a first-time person or project manager gig, or a director job, or even taking on substantial new responsibilities within a given role. You’ll be doing new things, and it’s worth paying attention to what drains your energy and what pumps you up, and try to schedule accordingly while you’re getting used to things.
It’s really, really hard to let go of an idea you came up with. We built the entire scientific method around that fact!
And so outside of science and the rigour of hypothesis testing and unfriendly reviewers, it’s too easy to cling to ideas that clearly aren’t going anywhere. This is especially true in people or project management, where you lack the immediate feedback that comes with doing hands-on technical work. The resulting sensory deprivation can be disorienting, allowing you to believe all sorts of nonsense. (In new contexts where you haven’t experienced feedback yet, this can be true too: e.g. “it will be weird to interact with once-colleagues from the vendor side of the table”).
Dagdeviren reminds us that continually being curious, and asking open questions of others, can help us with this. Lundberg says that you don’t need to wait for others; you can try the scientific approach and attempt falsification yourself. That can involve probing and questioning your assumptions, trying “pre-mortem”s, listing tradeoffs, and trying to construct other possible solutions.
Miss the olden days of
talk for in-terminal interactive chat? No interest in making “long distance” calls to those outside your L2 broadcast domain, stranded on the other side of a router? Why not (besides the many obvious reasons, of course) write a chat app entirely based on ARP packets?
60% of university staff and grad students in the UK are planning to leave the higher ed sector in the coming years.
Having a new computer for work has made me think about keyboards quite a bit - Ars Technica has a nice overview of mechanical keyboards for newbs like me. They don’t all have to go CLICKY CLICKITY!! CLICK all the time.
Drawing a circle without using floating point numbers.
A high end RISC-V CPU you ran run on your favourite cloud provider FPGA node - VRoom.
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,