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If It Feels Awkward, It's Good

Robert is a newly promoted engineering manager. Not too long ago, he was “one of us”, a developer in the trenches who was producing high-quality code, and still found the time to help other developers solve hard problems. Now, he is supposed to do this thing called “managing”, but thinking about himself as a manager or boss makes him feel rather uncomfortable. He sees himself more like what some people adequately call “programmer plus plus”: Still “one of the guys”, just with some extra 20%-or-so responsibility on top.

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Recalibrate Your Productivity Sensors

Becoming an engineering manager is a paradigm shift that many struggle with at first. I think that one of the psychological difficulties for new engineering managers, and certainly one that I was having, is that of perceived productivity. To a developer, managing people can feel mind-numbingly unproductive because you seemingly “cannot get anything done”.

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One-on-Ones: Beyond Status Update

If you have been doing one-on-ones with your employees (or your boss), you might have experienced a certain kind of conversations. They drag along awkwardly, or feel a bit shallow. You do not make progress on anything meaningful. Instead, the conversation is little more than a status update. But status updates are not what one-on-ones are for, because you could have those “out in the open”, without meeting privately. The real value of one-on-ones is to make progress on the employee’s long-term goals, to build rapport, to identify problems that keep the employee from reaching her full potential, to toss half-baked ideas around, and so on.

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Feedback: Open or Anonymous?

Providing timely feedback is one of the most important management tasks. Without feedback, we do not know if we are meeting the expectations of those around us, and it is harder to grow personally and professionally. In an ideal organization, every employee not only receives feedback about her performance, but also regularly gives feedback to several people.

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Taking Notes During 1:1s

I am struggling a bit with a seemingly minor question, and that question is if, how and when to take notes during 1:1 meetings. Ok, I think the “if” part can be handled pretty swiftly: Yes, you should take notes during 1:1s, because it signals to your employee that you take seriously what he says, that it will not be forgotten, and that you can be held accountable in case you fail to follow up on the action points discussed.

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Are We Growable Or Fixed?

I am confused. Some people say you can become everything you want if you just put in enough effort, hard work, and discipline. Others say that you should focus on your strengths, because you will not turn your weaknesses into strengths even in a hundred years of dedicated practice. Who is right? As with all complicated real-world questions, I guess the answer is not that clear or simple, so let’s try to define the two concepts a bit more thoroughly.

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A Primer on Giving Critical Feedback

Giving feedback

Have you ever told an employee, or even a peer, that she is going against expectations, and that she should do something differently? To a lot of us, this can feel very uncomfortable. We do not know how the other person will react. Maybe she will become angry, or upset, or won’t want to be friends with us any more (my three year old son’s favourite these days). Last minute, we ask ourselves what gives us the right to tell people off, and somehow there is no good opportunity to have the conversation, and, in the end, we postpone giving the critical feedback indefinitely. Does this sound familiar? It certainly happened to me.

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Better Together

A friend of mine recently came back from a visit to a pretty successful software company, and one of the things that impressed him most was how well their engineering and product people know about each other’s domain. Engineers know about the why of the product, the rationale behind certain feature decisions, and the plans for the future. Likewise, product people know, at least in rough terms, how the software works, how it is structured, and what design decisions and tradeoffs are in place.

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If You Want to be Understood - Listen

“If you want to be understood - listen.” This is the tagline of the movie “Babel” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (1), but it probably did not take a Hollywood movie to make the saying well-known in one variation or other. I am, by nature, a better listener than a talker, but I still find it necessary to actively remember this saying from time to time, and I think it is something that, in management, is very useful to keep in mind.

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Leaders Cannot Replace Managers

Last week I saw a presentation where the concepts of leader and manager were compared (supposedly). The presentation showed two variations of a picture with some workers in ancient Egypt (or so) pulling a huge block of stone with a rope. In the first variation, a “manager” was sitting on the stone block, giving orders. In the second variation, a “leader” was pulling along with the workers, pointing out the direction and cheering his people on.

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