DAVE: Jamison Dance.
JAMISON: Hello, friends.
DAVE: AJ O’Neal.
AJ: Yo, yo, yo, coming at you live from my bedroom.
DAVE: I’m your host Dave Smith filling in for Chuck who is at the Microsoft Build conference this week in San Francisco. Today we have with us a very special guest, Marcus Blankenship.
DAVE: Marcus, would you like to introduce yourself?
MARCUS: Sure. I am someone who likes to help software managers build great teams and give developers great bosses. So, that is sort of what I love to do. And I love to be on shows like this. So, I’m really excited about this.
DAVE: Alright. So, where do I get good bosses? Is there a good boss store?
MARCUS: There is. How come everybody is worried about getting good developers but nobody’s worried about getting good bosses. There’s no Elance for bosses, is there? Although…
DAVE: I don’t think so. [Chuckles]
MARCUS: I suppose that wouldn’t yield good bosses. It didn’t yield very good programmers.
MARCUS: I want to start with a quick poll if I could. I’m curious. I’d love to hear from each of your guys. Do you remember the worst boss you ever had? And Aimee, would you go first? Tell me a bit about the worst boss you ever had.
AIMEE: [Chuckles] Oh joy, I get to go first. [Laughs]
JAMISON: Aimee doesn’t like badmouthing people. So, this is hard for her.
MARCUS: Don’t use their real name.
AIMEE: Hopefully it’s okay if I pick one that was not in software.
MARCUS: Of course.
AIMEE: So, I would say my worst boss, she was at my very first job. And I think the issue there was that she had a really hard time separating out her work life from her personal life. So, her personal life bled over into work and made it a little bit difficult sometimes.
MARCUS: Oh, she was your worst boss but it only made it a little bit difficult?
AIMEE: I’m being nice. [Laughs]
MARCUS: What was the impact on you? I’ve certainly had employees where their work/life balance flowed over and it had various impacts. But as an employee of this person, how did it impact you that her life flowed over in inappropriate ways?
AIMEE: It just really probably distracted me from focusing on what I was supposed to focus on. So, I think there were a couple of incidents where it would get really loud and there may or may not have been a cellphone thrown across the office.
DAVE: Did they ever flip any tables? I’ve heard that’s a thing.
AIMEE: No, no. Luckily the phone was not thrown at me. But [laughs] I mean yeah, it just distracted from my ability to do what I needed to do.
MARCUS: How much did you respect this boss?
AIMEE: Ooh, yeah. It definitely detracted from that. I had a lot of respect at first but of course I think the more you get to know someone the more they show their true colors. So over time, that kind of degraded.
MARCUS: Mm. I’m sorry to hear that.
DAVE: I tend to respect a good cellphone throwing though. That takes [inaudible].
MARCUS: I think an iPhone you can skip on the water like a smooth rock a little bit. But well, thank you Aimee. I appreciate that. AJ, tell me about your worst boss.
AJ: Again not a software job. I worked at a grocery store and this was back in the high school days. Because unfortunately I went to a vocational high school so I actually got a fairly real job right after high school. But while I was in high school I worked at a grocery store and my manager just… I was just a number. I was just a peon. I was just there to do exactly what I was told and no more and no less. And I did have another job that I had a really great manager that was also a food services job. But this one, yeah it was just… I was my employee ID and if I did not function the way that a robot functions then I was a malfunction.
MARCUS: Got it. Yeah, okay. That sounds pretty terrible. Dave? Tell me about your worst boss.
DAVE: Okay, this is going to go meta on you, but I am my own worst boss.
DAVE: Mic drop.
AIMEE: That thought crossed my mind too.
AJ: That was going to be my number two.
DAVE: Nobody is more critical of me. Nobody does a poorer job of managing my time than me. And so, yeah I’m pretty bad. [Laughs]
MARCUS: But come on. You must have some example of another human being.
DAVE: I do.
MARCUS: Okay. [Laughs]
JAMISON: Dave, you’re actually my worse boss too. So, we have that in common.
DAVE: Career goal achieved.
DAVE: I’m at the top of someone’s list.
DAVE: I have had a very difficult to work with boss. And the primary thing that made this person difficult to work with was that he or she did not listen. He or she would talk over me and my input was never really part of the conversation. It was very one-sided. Literally I’d be in the middle of a sentence and this person would just begin talking like, “Oh, I guess you weren’t listening at all.” So, to me that was the number one most frustrating boss experience.
MARCUS: That’s pretty awful and yet I suspect all too common. Okay Jamison, round us out here. Tell me about your worst boss.
JAMISON: My worst boss. I don’t think I feel comfortable saying I’ve had a worst boss because then I’m going to think of something worse probably later on. But…
MARCUS: Okay, a bad one.
JAMISON: I’d say maybe a boss that I didn’t enjoy working for was someone who just did not respect the people that worked for them. You got the impression that they thought that we were all [inaudible] incompetent, which [chuckles] may or may not have been true.
JAMISON: And that we would always be kind of incompetent and we were just waiting to screw some things up. That was a not fun person to work for.
MARCUS: That sounds pretty awful too. Well, the reason I asked about this is because I hear there’s a lot of commonality in what everybody said here. Aimee’s got this boss that created a really unsafe environment is what it sounds like. A lot of things made it… Aimee, would you agree with that?
AIMEE: Yeah. It’s just like I was saying. Hey personal life really bled into work life. So, I mean I wouldn’t say it was physically unsafe. It’s just a cellphone.
AIMEE: As long as she’s not flinging it really hard at your head and she was [inaudible] a really tiny lady.
DAVE: Not like this was Major League cellphone pitching or anything.
MARCUS: No, and there probably wasn’t a lot of throwing, right?
AIMEE: It was just… actually, it was only one incident. But I don’t know, yeah. I would have a hard time saying it was unsafe. But it just, like I was saying earlier, it just made it more difficult to do what I was there to do.
MARCUS: I think that… it sounds like there’s… I heard this theme of people said that my boss didn’t really respect us. I was just a number. I was nobody to my boss. My boss maybe acted… maybe I’ll say Aimee it sounds like sometimes your boss was a little unpredictable. I don’t know if anybody…
AIMEE: Yes. There you go. That’s a good word for it. [Laughs]
MARCUS: We use that phrase. And I hear these same things from developers all the time. So, whether it’s in food service… we sort of imagine maybe all the bad bosses are outside of software development. Do you think that could be true? Because I don’t know that anybody used, at least not explicitly used, a software development example. So, maybe there’s just…
DAVE: I did.
MARCUS: Oh, you did. Okay. Okay.
DAVE: [Laughs] I was trying to keep in under wraps because it’s Jamison.
MARCUS: Yeah. So, I guess the reason I thought it was… I thought that was an interesting way to start was, because I think it’s really important that developers – and I’m going to say developers especially even though I think all humans deserve a good boss – but I think it’s really important that developers have a good boss. And who would disagree with that, right?
DAVE: Well, I don’t know. It seems to me like in the industry developers don’t tend to put having a good boss at the top of their list when they ask people, “What’s your ideal job?” Most people don’t say, “I want to work for a good boss.”
MARCUS: Mm. That’s true. What do you think we focus on? And I was a developer for 20 years. So, I’ll just say ‘we’. What do you think we focus on instead when we’re out looking for a job?
DAVE: Most people go straight to the peers I think, like ‘Who am I going to be working with?’ not ‘Who am I going to be working for?’
DAVE: Usually in my experience people say, as long as the boss is tolerable and stays out of the way for the most part, I’m happy as long as my peers are awesome. That’s the number one criteria. Would you guys agree?
AIMEE: Yeah. Especially too because I feel like at a lot of companies a lot of times the bosses or the managers, they don’t necessarily… that’s not their favorite part of their job.
DAVE: Yeah, or they’re unwilling too sometimes.
AIMEE: Yeah. Like they want to just program and then be a manager the rest of the time as much as they have to.
MARCUS: As little as they have to.
MARCUS: Okay. So, they’re like programmer plus plus. They’re like, in a perfect world they’d be 80% coding, 20% other messy stupid stuff called managing.
DAVE: Or a hundred percent [inaudible] [Laughs]
DAVE: I’m just kidding. That is the stigma though, right? It’s like management has a pretty bad rap I’d say in our industry.
MARCUS: I agree. Well, let’s think about it. What do you think is the number one cultural icon for managers in tech?
DAVE: Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.
MARCUS: You got it.
MARCUS: That’s it. And I’ve spent a couple of years researching that. That is the one everybody can name immediately. So, why would any of us want to become bosses? That’s crazy.
AIMEE: Looks good on your resume.
DAVE: So, I can rule my team with an iron fist.
MARCUS: Is anybody here a boss?
DAVE: I am.
MARCUS: You are?
DAVE: [Laughs] The fun guy. The one guy who made the iron fist comment.
MARCUS: Yeah, I was… I think we see the management style coming through.
MARCUS: And are you one of those bosses, like the other people here… so, I thought it was interesting what people said. Like when you talk to people in the industry programmers look for bosses who stay out of the way, just let them be, and have amazing coworkers. It sounds like maybe as an industry we’ve put bosses in the backseat in our minds as they really only do harm. And so, let’s just interact with them as little as possible rather than imagining how a great boss can give us an amazing benefit. Does that sound appropriate?
DAVE: I’ve seen that, yeah.
MARCUS: So yeah, and I guess the whole reason I’m just talking about this is I find this interaction really fascinating. I’ve been the programmer and I’ve been the boss and I’ve been the company owner. And I got to tell you, my absolute worst feat when I became a boss was being the pointy-haired Dilbert boss. That was…
DAVE: Mmhmm. Yeah, me too.
MARCUS: Just… I was a terrible boss because I didn’t want to be the boss, if that makes any sense. I really just wanted to be the coder. And I liked the money though. Don’t get me wrong. [Laughs]
AIMEE: I actually wanted to ask a question here. So, I listen to another podcast a lot called Software Engineering Radio. And they just came out with an episode this week on a practice they’re calling Developer Anarchy where they don’t really have a boss. And of course because they’re interviewing the person who started this it sounds very appealing. But I’m curious what your thoughts are on situations like that. Because it did sound really, really good where the bottom line that the person starting the company always said when people asked them “What do you want me to do?” because they look to him as a boss and he just said, “Make me money,” which is really all it boils down to for our jobs. So, I’m curious your thoughts on that kind of environment where you don’t really have a boss.
MARCUS: Does anybody… I’m just curious. So, I haven’t heard that phrase before. So, clearly I need to do some research. I have heard of the Valve playbook where everybody gets to decide the projects they want to work on and it’s self-organizing teams to the extreme.
MARCUS: So, does anybody here work in an environment where it’s like Developer Anarchy?
JAMISON: I have worked in an environment like that. It was very much modeled off after the Valve playbook. The thing about Valve is they make a few billion dollars a year. [Chuckles] With a few hundred employees they’re one of the most successful companies on earth. It’s really tempting to say, “Look at all this cool stuff Valve does. We’re going to try it.” And there, it’s such a unique situation with total control over everything they build and some of the most valuable software products and platforms that exist on the earth. And it can be hard to make it work in other situations. I would say my experience with it was mostly negative. It wasn’t horrible. But I think that life would have been better if we didn’t follow that model for as long as we did.
DAVE: I’ve had a similar experience with Jamison. Aimee, I actually heard this episode and my boss and I have been debating the merits of this approach myself.
DAVE: And what I believe… I believe Jamison hit it on the head. And what he said was that Valve is able to get away with that because they are the exception to the rule. And one of the things that that guest said on that episode was that this works for teams who have a very short market feedback time. So, they were in internet advertising when he did that, at least one of the cases.
AIMEE: Yup, yup.
DAVE: And they were able to put out code into production and within a matter of a couple of hours they could measure their code’s fitness for the job and see if their revenue went up or down. And so, it’s like, “Well yeah, get management out of that. Just let the developer iterate rapidly and they can have direct access to the success metric.” And I was like, “Well, that doesn’t really describe any team I’ve been on.” Unfortunately the feedback time frame for me and products I have worked on is usually measured in weeks at best.
JAMISON: The other thing that can be an issue sometimes and I know places like GitHub have had struggles with this, is when there’s no explicit hierarchy you go off an implicit hierarchy, because humans are social people.
JAMISON: And so, we’re really adept at creating hierarchies. And if you don’t have a manager to look to who can help and your career and help your team be effective, it turns into this popularity contest where the people that have power are the cool people. Because someone will always have more power. And that can cause some problems as well. So, it definitely has some downsides. I think it’s really bad for mentorship. [Chuckles] It’s really hard to have a good mentor when everyone does whatever they want and no one has any responsibility over anyone else.
AIMEE: Oh yeah. I was going to say that, too. As someone newer I wouldn’t want to be in an environment like that. [Chuckles]
MARCUS: Yeah. I have to say, I’m probably not a fan. And I think you all hit on the important points. The first one is a lot of companies do things that are very unique. And that doesn’t mean that you can just pick up the practice and drop it in and say, “Well now, we’re going away from management and so everybody in IT gets to run around and just do whatever you want as long as it’s valuable.” I have a feeling that would not really go over well with anybody. And the second thing is as somebody was talking I had flashbacks from junior high and high school of yes, we were all students. In theory we were all equal.
DAVE: [Laughs] Yeah.
MARCUS: But I was the lesser of many, many equals most of the time. So, being at the bottom of that power status chain meant that there was a whole lot of stuff that was really frustrating for me. And I do think we all really look for hierarchies. And I think that because we look for them as people, that means we tend to want them to some extent.
So, it’s actually one of the things that I believe is when the developer has a boss who appears to not want his job, because they’re spending as little time developing as possible… I’m sorry, as little time managing and as much time developing, that sends the signal that, “This job sucks. And I don’t really want it and it’s not valuable. The really valuable thing I do is code. The less valuable thing I do is lead a team of six developers.” Yet at least most people would look at that and say, “Well, don’t you see that you could impact the lives of six people for good? That you could help six people become more productive and get far more done than you could do individually? Why are you spending so much time in the code when you could really be creating a great software team?” So, I think that people act developers, in the places where I’ve worked the developers that are the happiest work in a hierarchy that’s clear versus a hierarchy where it’s a little confusing.
JAMISON: I want to go back to the anarchy thing. I think it could be more appealing if you are in a situation where you’re unhappy with the way management runs things. Then if you’re sitting around griping about people that don’t know what they’re doing who are responsible for you and the decisions that happen in the company, it would be really appealing to say, “If I can just do whatever I wanted, I would bypass these bozos and get real stuff done.” So, probably…
DAVE: Mm. Kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
JAMISON: Yeah. It probably depends a little. And it probably is better in lots of situations than having really, really terrible management.
DAVE: Yeah. No management might be better than bad management, right?
JAMISON: Yeah, yeah.
MARCUS: It could be.
JAMISON: I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a hundred percent down on the idea. I could see the appeal to it in certain situations.
MARCUS: I guess it seems like one of those situations where you’ve got to have the right mix, the right mix of individuals. Management has to have the right mindset towards it. And maybe, my guess is in a lot of ways you’re going to probably have really high turnover, not because people don’t like it but because you’ve got to find a team that gels together and is willing to work together in a certain way. Because my…
DAVE: That’s actually one of the points he made in the podcast is he said they could actually vote people off the island, right Aimee?
AIMEE: [Chuckles] Yes. [Laughs]
DAVE: [Laughs] And they said they did turn people over a lot. It was like, it’s not for everyone. So, they’d get in and then the team would decide, “You’re out.” And that happened a lot.
MARCUS: Yeah, exactly. Netflix, and you probably know this, Netflix uses the sports team metaphor for their teams. Adobe is more like a family. You come in and you work there and if things don’t work out here, we’ll get you over there and you can always work for that weird uncle. And it’s like, but you’re part of the Adobe family so we’re going to do our best to keep you happy and look after your long-term growth and everything else.
And Netflix is like, you know we’re an NBA team. And if you don’t score enough points this season, you’re out. And there are no hard feelings but our job here is to win games. And so, we’re going to trade you out as soon as it appears that things aren’t getting better. And they have things like the keeper test and other… they have a really high turnover. But they’re always looking for the best of the best. And they have the idea that they can bring in great people, plug them into great processes, and just do that repeatedly. And some people will only last a month and some people will last 10 years. But at the end of the day, everybody plays a role on the team that’s very defined. And all you have to have is an attitude of if you just go and you play this role, if you don’t score enough games they’ll swap you out and you go play for another great team.
DAVE: So Marcus, you’ve spent it seems some time helping coach managers become managers and stuff. What have you found that best helps people to adapt into this new role, say coming from a developer background?
MARCUS: Yeah, first I found it’s really hard to make the transition, which maybe that shouldn’t be shocking. I’m not sure. Was it hard for you?
DAVE: Insanely hard, yeah. And yeah, my whole professional life has been magnetically drawn toward leadership and I’ve had to actively back that off. I’m like, “Look I’m not ready to do that. I want to be… I’m just a coder. I want to be a developer.” And finally after about 15 years I decided to just give in to the collective, to the Borg, and assimilate. And yeah, it’s been really, really challenging in ways I never would have expected. But it’s also been really rewarding and exciting.
MARCUS: Well, that’s great. First of all, so if anybody out there is listening I want you to notice that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Once you make the transition it can be rewarding and exciting. I find that it’s difficult at the beginning and in the middle it gets very messy. And a lot of people get stuck in the middle and they end up in this half and half situation. So, the first thing is to recognize it is a transition. And it’s easy to get stuck, especially if you’re in an organization that almost structures things that way like, “Well, we’ll promote you to a team lead but you got to code 75% of the time.” And people will get trapped in that bog o trying to both be a great manager and a great contributor. And I think that’s one way that people get stuck. And organizations actually almost set that trap unwittingly for people.
But the other thing I think is there’s this enormous sense of self-identity change that happens. Did it happen to you when you had to think of yourself differently, as you’re not a software engineer anymore, you’re something different?
DAVE: You mean like self-loathing that I’m becoming the pointy-haired boss?
MARCUS: Oh my gosh.
MARCUS: Well, I didn’t mean that exactly but if it’s happening, we should talk.
DAVE: No, I mean that’s the fear.
DAVE: Is that I will move into that persona.
MARCUS: That’s exactly right. And I remember I felt really bad after about a year of managing because I… so, I love to code. Do you guys love to code? Do you just love it?
MARCUS: Thank you. At least someone said yes.
DAVE: More than my own mother. Just kidding.
MARCUS: I got my first…
JAMISON: She listens to this podcast, Dave. She’s offended now.
MARCUS: Oh no.
DAVE: Sorry, mom. Love you, mom.
MARCUS: I got my first computer at 12.
MARCUS: It was a Commodore VIC-20. I wrote Assembly and BASIC on it. I was in front of a black and white TV in junior high. I was super nerdy and all I ever wanted to do was write software. And so, when I didn’t get to do that anymore I had a pretty traumatic identity crisis and kept… whenever things in the management side got hard you would find me running right back to the code. That’s just what I would do. So, making that transition was really tough from an identity perspective. And I didn’t… and then I really feared becoming something bad. And I think you hit the nail on the head. You fear becoming a bad boss. A micromanager, a pointy-haired boss, whatever it is. So, this new thing you’re becoming at first only feels like it has downside, right? We don’t have a lot of great inspirational bosses. I’m certainly not a Steve Jobs. And I don’t think… he was a great leader. I think that’s very different than being a great manager.
And then thirdly, I had to do all this failure, all this feeling bad in my new position in public because I was not supposed to act like I knew what I was doing in front of my team, even though I was incredibly unsure if it was the right thing to do at any given time. And I was always worried about being that pointy-haired boss. So, I had that very much a novice feeling and yet I felt like I was performing on stage in front of seven people that were watching my every move.
DAVE: Mmhmm. So, would you say that that transition to manager is a lot like people who are entering the development industry and use the term impostor syndrome a lot?
MARCUS: There is a lot of impostor syndrome, absolutely. And it’s interesting. I think I entered development earlier than that phrase was used. I don’t think I realized that people feel like impostor developers. But they definitely feel like impostor managers. Is impostor developers actually a thing?
DAVE: Oh yeah. People talk about impostor syndrome a lot.
MARCUS: Maybe it’s a human thing.
DAVE: Oh yeah. I think it absolutely is.
DAVE: I think any time you’re trying something new I think it can happen to you.
MARCUS: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, and I guess you asked practical things. I think a lot of it is realizing that it’s not easy. And the other thing is finding management practices and structures that you can plug in and start at least with a fighting chance. For example, I am a huge fan on doing one-on-one meetings. I think every manager should do a one-on-one meeting with every developer every week. I’m just a nazi about it. And I think that if you step into management and you’re not sure what to do, just that single meeting is going to improve your chances of success tremendously.
DAVE: So, what do you tell a developer who’s manager doesn’t do that and never has talked about it? What are your options?
MARCUS: Well, and I actually get emails from developers who wish they had better managers and feel powerless. But since only one of you here is a manager I’ll just ask the question: do you feel like you have any influence on your manager? Can you suggest things that you want to change and improve the relationship with that manager? Or do you feel like they have all the power in dictating the way the relationship happens between you and them?
AIMEE: I would say for me, so I’m not going to speak about my new position because I’m still learning the ropes there but at my previous position I pretty much felt the whole time that things I said would be taken seriously. But obviously the more valuable you are as a developer, the more you contribute to the team, the more people are willing to listen to you. [Chuckles] So, I think it takes time before you’re able to speak up and have the respect of others around you.
MARCUS: I’m glad you felt like your boss would at least, even now I hope you feel like even though you’re just learning the ropes that your boss respects you.
AIMEE: Oh, definitely yeah.
MARCUS: I’m just going to ask this Aimee. Does your boss do one-on-one’s with you?
AIMEE: Right now I’m still so new there that we haven’t set this up. I think I have one this week actually on my calendar. But again because I’m still new it’s hard to speak to that. But in my previous role, we had them every other week. And yes, they were very helpful.
MARCUS: Okay. Let’s see. AJ, any thoughts?
AJ: So, I have mostly worked freelance. And now I am my own boss again because I’m co-founder. But when I worked as a team lead I started doing one-on-one’s and I think that it was really beneficial. I think Jamison you were there when I started doing that. I think [chuckles] that was actually the month you left. So…
JAMISON: I don’t [remember] [inaudible]
DAVE: See how that works out.
AJ: No, but I thought it…
JAMISON: It was a while ago, so I don’t know.
AJ: I thought it was really, really good. And I felt like it was very personal. It helped develop the friendship. Because I don’t want to be somebody’s boss. I don’t want to tell them what to do. I want to say, “Hey, you’re an asset and how can I help you be happy and be the best asset you can be?”
DAVE: So Marcus, I’ve heard you use the term boss or manager and the term lead interchangeably. Do you see those as the same thing?
MARCUS: I think they’re highly interchangeable culturally. I think that people will talk about their boss and people who have a boss they’ll say, “Oh, my boss said this and my boss said that.” And it doesn’t really matter that person’s title. Nobody has a boss business card. So, I think when I talk about it that way I’m just referring to the fact that one person is responsible for another person’s work. Does that make sense?
DAVE: Well, how about the word manager versus the word lead or leader?
MARCUS: I think manager and leader are different things, although they’re very closely related. Lead is oftentimes like lead developer, team lead, tech lead. I see those as titles given to people who are first stepping into management out of an individual contributor role. So, maybe your question is what’s the difference between a manager and a leader?
DAVE: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
MARCUS: I don’t know if I’ve quite figured it out. Because I think there is a lot of overlap. I usually think about it like this. A manager’s job is to help their team produce as much value as possible for the company. And that will involve sometimes “managing” things at various levels. There’s a little bit of project management. There’s people management. There’s hiring activities. There’s termination and firing and correction and valuating tools and possibly evaluating architecture and lots of other things that are really the activities of the person who’s responsible for getting as much as they can out of another team of people.
And some people stay stuck in the management activities and never really move to the next level of what I think of as leadership activities which is I tend to have this idea it’s more about relationship and inspiration and guidance. And I guess becoming that manager who… my dad was in the Navy and he used to say he had a captain that the whole crew would go down with the ship for if that makes any sense. And it was the idea of he worked on a boat and if the boat sunk, the captain would go down but the crew was so loyal to them, the crew would literally, this was his hypothesis, have been willing to stand on the deck with the captain and go down. Does that make sense?
MARCUS: So, I see managing as being a whole realm of activities and leading being I guess the next step up of many of those activities. And oftentimes I think about leadership as occurring… it’s more the soft skills, more of the aspirational pieces. Maybe you can tell I haven’t quite figured it all out. I don’t think I’ve got a great definition yet.
DAVE: Yeah, it’s definitely fuzzy. Not that your answer is fuzzy. I think in general people have a fuzzy idea of the difference between those two.
MARCUS: So, I guess if you’re a manager, if someone says, “Oh, I’m not really a leader,” well yes you are. In the same way as the captain of the football team was a leader even though actually he wasn’t a manager. And there’s lots of people that are leaders in life and in organizations that don’t manage anybody… and then there’s other people who are managers who don’t aspire or inspire at all. And no one really wants to follow them. They just kind of are, I don’t know, they’re just there doing management activities and oftentimes I think those people haven’t really embraced their role. So, they have not become leaders yet. But on the other hand their team looks at them as a leader so I’m probably wrong on about 90% of what I’m saying.
MARCUS: And I guess there’s this great… have you guys ever heard of leader-member exchange theory? LMX?
DAVE: No. Nope.
MARCUS: So, if I can get a tiny bit nerdy, there’s this wonderful sociology called leader-member exchange and it sits in direct opposition to what a lot of other leadership theories are based on. And most leadership theories are based on the idea of somebody is a great man, the Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon. People are leaders because they’re born that way. So, hence the saying leaders are born, not made. And in the 70s the sociologists started studying work in a more serious way. And they realized that there was this other really important key. And this other key was not about the individual attributes of one person at the top of a group or an organization. But it was about the relationship between every leader and every member in his group. And they called that relationship the exchange that they have.
And so, thus was created this field of study called leader-member exchange. And it’s abbreviated LMX. And the theory postulates that it is this relationship between the leader and the member that is the most important thing in determining job satisfaction and job performance as well as a whole host of other good things. So, they basically said that people or if you have a really good relationship with your boss they would say you have high quality LMX is the way sociologists talk about it. If you have a high-quality relationship with your boss you are much more likely statistically to be happy, to be satisfied, to stay longer, as well as to produce better. You’re going to produce more stuff, better stuff, all that other things. And inversely if you have a terrible relationship with your boss you’re more likely to leave soon. You’re more likely to just punch a clock. You’re more likely to not really care about the work, all because of your relationship with your boss.
Now after I’ve said that, I’m curious. How does that resonate with you guys? Does that seem like it would be true? Or does that seem like maybe that doesn’t make any sense?
AJ: So, a friend of mine was telling me about a study that’s been done over a couple of decades. And the number one key factor in happiness, in fact the only factor that was trackable over the study was the success of interpersonal relationships leading to happiness. And none of the other things, health, wealth, et cetera, correlated well enough over the course of the study to be significant. So, I think people matter most.
MARCUS: Wow. I’m going to have to look that up. That sounds like a really impactful study. And when you think about a boss that you worked for that was really great, that you had a great working relationship with, do you think it colored the work you did?
AJ: So, the best boss I had was actually the pizza place I worked at. I worked at Little Caesars. And they guy had really high expectations. Like, if you were late to work and you would get fired. It was a two-strike policy. But he was super accommodating. As long as you called in and said you needed whatever, a schedule needed to work out or you were sick or whatever, as long as you communicated, totally cool. He cross-trained everyone so we could all do each other’s jobs so finding someone else to do your shift was super easy. I was really happy. I loved going to work. I was working at a pizza place but I was happy.
MARCUS: That’s awesome. And you can just imagine that… And I’m just going to be like if a guy who manages a pizza place can make employees want to come to work and be enthusiastic there, the boss/employee relationship must matter a lot. Because that doesn’t sound like a great job. At least not on the surface.
AJ: I mean yeah, I stood next to an oven and pulled pizzas out and then rotated over to put the dough in. [Laughs]
DAVE: It’s better than say, writing C++. But still, it’s okay.
AJ: Yeah, it probably was better than writing C++.
DAVE: And see, that’s the kind of thing that terrifies me as a manager, because I can’t measure that. I can’t even know, and sometimes I can’t even know how I’m doing in that area. It’s so hard to know. Have you been able to train leaders to say, “Here’s how you can know if you’re doing a good job?” even in this one area?
MARCUS: I think… so first of all I think it is measurable. But I think it starts with your gut. So, I guess I would ask you first how do you think people relate to you? And if we were working together I would say, go through a little exercise of scoring how you think the quality of relationship with each person on your team is. And maybe in three or four different areas. But then I think maybe what you should do is learn to get feedback better. We all need a REPL in our lives. Coders need a REPL for obvious reasons. But you know what? As a manager you need an evaluation loop to know how you’re doing. And you need to get feedback to improve, right? Because I can tell right from your voice, that is the thing. You want to be a great manager. You want to be the Little Caesars manager for your team. But is it happening? And I think that you can start to ask your team really honest questions and be vulnerable and ready to hear the hard truth of when it’s working and when it’s not. And create an environment by which behind closed doors and sometimes even in team meetings people can give you feedback because they know the reason you want it is to improve. I have found that being tremendously motivating for developers if they know why their manager wants feedback and they know that it’s because they want to get better. And we all need that, then developers are willing to take the risk to give feedback to their managers. But without that, it seems like, “What’s in it for me? And why are we doing this? What if you use this for evil instead of good?”
AIMEE: That kind of brings me to a question I wanted to ask. So, for the people that are managers, what is it that you wish you could ask of your employees? What kind of feedback do you want from them? What do you want them to bring to the table when they come into their one-on-one’s?
MARCUS: Mm. That’s a great question. And I think every environment’s a little bit different. I’ve worked in agile environments where the manager didn’t do a lot of direct tasking of the person because they took it off of a board and they were product owners. And the developers knew where to get their tasks. In that case I think I… but there’s always a set of training initiatives, at least almost always, training initiatives and business initiatives and other kinds of things that the manager and the developer agree are important. And so, sometimes it’s a matter of preparing, “I’m going to want to know where you are on those initiatives, right? We said that you were going to learn ES 6. Are you learning it? How’s that coming? Are you doing the online workshop?” or whatever.
I am really a fan of, you all are seriously going to throw rocks at me okay, but I’m a fan of time sheets. I’m just going to duck now, okay.
DAVE: Throw the cellphone.
MARCUS: Throw the cellphone.
MARCUS: I’m a fan of time sheets because as a manager it’s not just enough to see, “Oh, you worked on project 1, 2, and 3.” When I can take a look and see, “Oh, you worked on project 3. Last week you thought that might take four or five more hours to finish. It looks like you put 27 hours in and you’re not done,” that is not a place for punitive “Why are you doing this? You’re bad.” But that gives me as a manager some insight into, “This guy might need some training. This gal might need some support or maybe she got blocked, or maybe that thing’s a lot different than I thought it was or even than they thought it was.” I find that looking at how people are investing their time in their work yields tremendous amount of information to me as the manager. But a lot of people hate doing time sheets. So, this is why I say you’re probably going to throw stones at me. But I found them to be incredibly useful. And I worked in client services at an agency when I owned my own agency. So everything was billable by the hour. So, it made a really easy reason to have to do time sheets.
But yeah, I think the employee should prepare questions, should prepare things they want to talk about, should come into the one-on-one ready to make it productive. And the manager should do the same thing. In fact, I think they should actually share a common set, like a Google Doc, of one-on-one notes or use something like GetLighthouse.com which is a SaaS that helps track promises and activities spoken about and committed to in one-on-one’s across multiple weeks. But you do need to… I think both sides need to come to that meeting ready to talk and ready to be honest.
JAMISON: So, I want to push back on the time sheet thing.
MARCUS: Go ahead.
JAMISON: I agree that I can see the value in knowing how the people on your team are spending their time. But it seems like that ignores the fact that there’s a cost to collecting that information. And specifically the cost of making people fill out a time sheet is making it feel a lot like you have this person looking over your shoulder all the time. You’re not trusted. It’s [inaudible] work to do. So, it seems like the underlying principle of “know what your team is working on, know how they’re spending their time” is good. But it feels like there could be a less authoritarian way of getting that information.
MARCUS: I think it depends on the context. So, first of all you do have to realize there’s a cost of collection. And that cost is both… and as a manager you have to be willing to pay the cost. We don’t ask people…
JAMISON: Well, the cost is the morality of the team. That’s…
MARCUS: Well, there are two costs.
JAMISON: So, you can expend some of the morale of your team in filling that out. And then if the benefit makes up for it and you boost the morale more from that information then it’s good. But I think [chuckles] a lot of teams would not be benefited from the cost of it.
MARCUS: I think there are two costs. There’s a real-time investment. Let’s say it takes 15 minutes a week to collect the time. So, that is overhead. So, that’s a real cost.
JAMISON: Yeah, but that doesn’t seem like a big part of it at all.
MARCUS: Well, that’s probably not the part you’re worried about is my guess. You’re worried about this feeling that, and I like how you said it because I think it’s real, developers will feel like they’re watched, right?
JAMISON: I think that’s one of the hallmarks of bad management in developers. And developers are very sensitive to micromanagement and a lack of trust. And so, anything that just has a hint of that is pretty easy to trip their pointy-haired boss sensors, I think.
MARCUS: I think that that’s highly cultural and that I think people have become much more sensitive to that in the last 10 years. If I can just be completely frank. I can tell you 10 years ago when I was working in enterprise, and my guess is there’s a lot of people listening to this show whether on enterprise or they work for an agency and their time is billed by the hour, that they do, do time sheets. And my guess is some of them hate it and some of them don’t even think it’s terrible at all. Because I ran a team of five developers and never once was asked if we could not do time sheets. And I did that for eight years. Never once did someone complain about time sheets.
So, I think that if it’s used for evil, if it is actually a part of micromanaging, pointy-haired boss management I guess it’s like a hammer. I think anything… you can certainly a lot of great houses with a hammer or you can do a lot of damage with it. I won’t deny that culturally maybe that hammer has got a bad rap. But I think it’s coupled with poor management who says, “Management is really just measuring everything about my team that I can measure.” Because I think that is poor management.
JAMISON: Sure. Yeah, that makes sense.
MARCUS: My guess is, are there things that other people measure, not time, about what programmers do? It used to be lines of code, right? Function points. I don’t know. What do poor managers measure now in substitute for the relational work they should be doing with their teams?
DAVE: I don’t think I’ve ever had a manager that measured something numeric about my work in the same vein as lines of code. Thank goodness.
MARCUS: That might be a hallmark of a bad manager.
JAMISON: Would I commit a lot of JSON files to the repo?
JAMISON: Super productive.
MARCUS: Super productive.
JAMISON: Crank those lines of code out. Committer GitHub modules, or committer Node modules I mean.
DAVE: That’s the classic Dilbert cartoon where, is it Wally who says, he finds out that there’s this incentive for whoever fixes the most number of bugs on the team gets a cash reward and Wally says, “I’m going to go code myself up a minivan.”
MARCUS: That is one of my favorite Dilberts. Yeah.
DAVE: And it’s like classic incentive system that’s been twisted for bad use.
MARCUS: Exactly. And I certainly…
DAVE: That’s a…
MARCUS: Well, I’m just going to say before we leave the topic of time sheets I’m not going to say everybody should be doing time sheets. But I think there are organizations that would benefit from them. And I think the other thing is they bring… I guess I think of it as it’s another tool that people could consider. I think everything must be done though, if we go back to LMX, to increase and improve the relationship between managers and developers. So, if your time sheets are seriously getting in the way of that, then I would say you should probably consider throwing them out. Because while it’s not a friend relationship it must be a deep trust, high-quality task-related business relationship in which two people are willing to really be very friend-like even if you’re not actually friends.
DAVE: So, as a developer I think a lot of people ask the question, two-part question. A, am I manager material? And B, am I ready to go into management? What do you tell people who ask you those questions?
MARCUS: So first of all, I think everybody is capable of being a manager. Because just like the person said earlier, human relationships are the most important things in our whole lives. And LMX theory tells us that relationships with our employees are the things that matter the most. And we all know how to create relationships. We all do that professionally and personally and romantically and for all kinds of different reasons. So, I think if you’re a human being, you can be a manager. That’s my sense. It doesn’t mean you won’t have some work to do. But there’s real work in learning anything and learning to do it well. What was the second part of the question?
DAVE: Am I ready? How do I know?
MARCUS: I think you start to be ready to become a manager when you start really caring about the team. I see this a lot in senior developers as they start to not just focus on the lines of code. One of the first thing that happens is people start to be really concerned about process. And they think about how we work together. Junior developers oftentimes are really concerned about, how big is your function? Or the different parts of the code that they are learning. Programmers in their middle years are concerned about writing really high-quality code that has great practices surrounding it. And I see senior people being concerned and putting more emphasis on how the team relates to one another and the practices and process and relationships within that team. I think if you’re thinking and spending time on those kinds of ideas, you’re probably… then you’re ready to start moving into leadership positions.
JAMISON: So, I want to talk a little but about some of the assumptions under the conversation we’ve been having so far. I feel like we’ve talked a lot about the burden of management and how it’s hard to get into. It does come with… I mean part of the burden is the giant weight of added money and prestige and power, too. So, it feels a little disingenuous.
DAVE: Where am I going to put all my gold? [Laughs]
JAMISON: Yeah, yeah. It feels a little disingenuous to complain about how hard management is when often that’s like moving up the career ladder. But also there are a lot of people that maybe don’t want to go into management. And if they feel like the way to be more respected is to be a manager, then that can cause a lot of stress too.
JAMISON: So, what do you say to people that they recognize the value of good management, maybe they don’t feel like they have the skill set to do it well, and they don’t think they’d be happy doing it well, or they just love other parts of the job. What do you say to those people about maybe progressing in their career, being happy?
MARCUS: Well, first of all I think everyone should optimize for happiness. So, if you love coding, and I really did love coding, if you love certain kinds of work that aren’t leadership and management work I don’t think you should go into management just because it brings more money. And I do actually think organizations should reward and many, many organizations have a technical track where we see people going into architect or senior architect or principal scientist or other kinds of terms that means… oftentimes it means they’re not managing a team. But they have a lot more influence in the organization. And they’re spending time on technology in different ways than they did. So, the do see a progression. In fact, my guess is most great organizations have that sort of thing. Have you guys seen that too?
JAMISON: Yeah. I know Facebook makes it very explicit that there’s a parallel management and technical track and they’re equal in pay, in prestige, and you can progress to be a senior technical leader without being a manager.
JAMISON: I think that’s pretty common in other organizations as well.
MARCUS: I think it is. I think I’ve heard it. It is exactly the same at Microsoft. And I know at the company I worked at for 14 years, a big global enterprise, we put in place that exact thing. And once… it basically went Junior Programmer, and eventually we eliminated that title because people thought it was offensive, so programmer, senior programmer, and from there you could split into being a team lead or an architect. And from there you could go up to department manager or a senor architect. I think those kinds of things are really important.
I will say that culturally within the company though there always seemed to be a sense of the people on the management side looked at the people over there and thought, “Oh, you don’t want to be one of us.” And I don’t think that’s right. But I think it happens. And I’d be a liar if I said that culturally… it’s one thing to say, these are equal pay, which they were. These are equal status. Sure, that sounds great. But at some point it seems like one of those tracks terminates more quickly than the other.
DAVE: Terminates in terms of pay?
MARCUS: I think just like, my guess is if you wanted to be the CTO then you would probably have to be on the management track. I don’t know if they would let you be the CTO or the CEO if you were on the technical track. I think at some point, that would just…
DAVE: Oh, I see what you mean.
MARCUS: That would truncate. There would be not rung above a certain level where on the management track typically we see people then moving into, okay I’m a department manager. I’m the vice president of engineering. I’m the vice president of IT, senior vice president, all the way up to CTO or CEO, sorts of executive roles.
DAVE: So, speaking of those kinds of roles, can I just be blunt? Why would anyone ever want to be a department manager? [Laughs] It sounds awful. In your experience are these people like, “Yes, I want to be a department manager”?
DAVE: Or are they like, “This is a stepping stone to CEO.” What’s going on in these people’s minds?
MARCUS: I was one of those people. Okay, I didn’t even make it to full-on department manager. I was the assistant software services group manager. I was the ASS GM.
JAMISON: At least you weren’t the assistant to the software services group manager.
MARCUS: Yeah. I knew that was coming. I knew it.
DAVE: That what I was thinking. [Laughs]
MARCUS: And the acronym was ASS GM. So I had to basically live with that as well, which I didn’t like.
MARCUS: So, the reality is why do people do it? Well, to some extent it becomes the… every organization’s different. And every organization has a different ladder. And so, when you are sitting at the team lead or the senior team lead level and someone says, “You know, would you like to be the department manager for the software engineering group?” you say yes if that’s the track you’re on, if that’s where… that seems like the next logical step. I don’t think there’s any seven-year-olds that sit back and think I really want to be a department manager. But I could be wrong.
DAVE: [Laughs] That’s true. I’ll give you my very short and innocent experience. But when I decided to formally move into management which by the way I define as you know people’s salaries.
DAVE: That to me is the difference between management and leadership.
MARCUS: I think that’s a good point, yeah.
DAVE: [Chuckles] That’s basically the difference. I had been in leadership roles before. Team lead, and that was great. But I never knew how much people got paid. Manager is now you know how much people get paid and you got to help them with that.
MARCUS: And you can fire them.
DAVE: Yeah, exactly. So, firing and salaries. [Chuckles] That’s like the two things that you’re in management when you have to do those things.
DAVE: Well anyway, on my team a vacancy appeared. And the people who were showing up to fill that vacancy, the team just wasn’t super excited about. And I said, “Look I don’t love the idea of going to management and I certainly don’t want to be a department manager when I grow up. But I love this team and I want them to have somebody who really cares about them and who can really help them and make an awesome environment for them.” And so, I volunteered for that reason. And I am struck when I hear about people in mega corporations who are like, “Well, I want to go be a department manager.” Like what is it that motivates them? Do they have similar kinds of motivation as I did for my team? Or is it something else? Like in your experience when you talk to these people.
MARCUS: I don’t understand those people at all. I’ll be honest. These are the people in college that had some weird IT management degree which I think is kind of useless. But I don’t understand why people would want to lead other people they didn’t really care about. It’s funny you tell that story because I have a client, a coaching client, that has literally told me that exact same story. And he describes it as this. He says, “So, I took one for the team and I stepped into the leadership role.” And I was like…
DAVE: Yes. That’s exactly the words I use. [Laughs]
MARCUS: Do you mean like in baseball when you lean your shoulder into the pitch and you put yourself in a place of harm to benefit other people? And he’s like, “That’s exactly what I mean.” So, I think it’s really too bad that that’s the way oftentimes we perceive management. But my guess is those are the people like you and like him and I’ll even throw myself in there. I didn’t excitedly go into management because I kept wanting to be a coder. But you did it because you love the people you work with. And you see an opportunity to make their lives better.
DAVE: Cool. Well, I wish we could talk some more but we’re running out of time. Is there anything we should have asked you that we didn’t ask?
MARCUS: I think you… well golly, I think we’ve just been all over the place.
MARCUS: No. I think this has been really fun and I really appreciate everybody’s time. I hope that if you’re thinking about going into management you consider it because as somebody here earlier said, it brings… once you cross the chasm, and it does feel like a chasm, at least it did for me, you start to see that working through a team of developers is immensely satisfying. Seeing that you can trust those people, seeing that you can protect and provide for them, and that you are a part of building great software by giving people a great place to work, I think it’s a wonderful job. And if you’re a manager, I hope that you decide to go out and talk to with your people more. And you decide to invest more in that team because it is you that sits in the position of making the biggest difference about how they feel about their jobs. Psychology Today, I’ll end with this quote, they said the boss/manager relationship is the lens by which all other activities are viewed by the employee. So, just remember, they are looking at you and what you do really matters.
MARCUS: Yeah, that’s it.
DAVE: Awesome. Our guest today was Marcus Blankenship. Marcus, if people want to meet you or find out more about you, where can they go?
MARCUS: They can go to my site, MarcusBlankenship.com. I’ve got a newsletter where I write about all this kind of stuff. And I’m going to MicroConf in a week. So, if you’re there I look forward to seeing you.
DAVE: Thanks very much. Alright, shall we move to picks? Aimee, can you start us off today?
But the other one I want to pick back on my health kick, I have a new favorite protein bar. And you can get them at GiveBar.com. So, I used to be a huge fan of Quest Bars. I would venture to say these are even better than Quest Bars. So, if you’re into that kind of thing, you might want to order some of those. Or see if you can find them at a grocery store by you.
And that’s it for me.
JAMISON: Now. Are you sponsored by them?
JAMISON: That was a very polished pick.
AIMEE: But they’re so good.
AIMEE: They’re so good. I [sound like] I sponsor them.
JAMISON: I think our mission now is to get you sponsored by them.
DAVE: Yeah. [Laughs]
JAMISON: So you can get free ones.
DAVE: So you can go from pick to pitch.
AIMEE: Oh my god. They’re really, really, really good. So anyway.
DAVE: Alright. I’ll try that out.
DAVE: Alright. Thanks, Aimee. Jamison, your picks today.
JAMISON: I just have one pick. It’s an album called ‘Luck’ by an artist named Tom Vek. He’s kind of an eclectic electronic-ish but also kind of generic rock-ish artist that’s just been my soundtrack for the past week. He’s got some good stuff on it. That’s my pick.
DAVE: Marcus, do you have picks for us today?
MARCUS: I do. I’ve got a book by Bruce Tulgan called ‘The 27 Challenges Managers Face’ as you might have expected. It’s a great book if you are a manager in the first five years of career. It’s like one of those cookbooks where you just turn to a chapter and he highlights, if you’ve got this problem here’s a few ideas about how to deal with it. And I think it’s really useful.
DAVE: Alright. So, today…
JAMISON: Dave, I have another pick.
DAVE: Oh Jamison. Bonus pick.
JAMISON: Yeah, bonus pick. I am got the worst…
DAVE: One more pick.
JAMISON: self-promoter, marketer person ever. The React Rally Call for Proposals is open right now. If you are interested in speaking on React or React-related topics we’d love to hear from you. It’s at speak.ReactRally.com. Tickets will probably not be on sale by the time this goes out. But information about tickets is always on ReactRally.com. So, check those things out.
DAVE: Didn’t you guys have the first round of early bird tickets go on sale?
JAMISON: Yeah. They went on sale last Friday. I think they sold out in five seconds or something.
DAVE: Whoa. [Laughs]
JAMISON: Yeah. So, it’s good for conference organizers because it makes us feel less stressed about getting put into debtor’s prison.
JAMISON: It’s bad for people that want to go because that means a lot of people didn’t get tickets. But we’re doing another early bird round and then tickets will go on sale at the beginning of May probably after we’ve announced the speaker line-up.
DAVE: Okay. So, early bird on sale now or will be going on sale again, maybe [inaudible] this comes out.
JAMISON: Yeah. Unless they sell out in five seconds again.
JAMISON: But [inaudible].
DAVE: And then general availability will be in May?
JAMISON: Lazy bird. Is that what we can call those?
DAVE: Lazy bird. Early bird, lazy bird.
JAMISON: Lazy bird tickets go on sale in May. Yep, that’s it.
DAVE: Thanks, Jamison. Okay. I have two picks for you today. On the topic of management one of the books that have been really influential to me is called ‘Multipliers’ by Liz Wiseman. This is a book about qualities of leaders where they can really help their people. I liked it because it was really people-focused and it helped me get a framework for how to do leadership which had been really nebulous to me before then. And my second pick is our new podcast, Jamison. Jamison and I started a new podcast called Soft Skills Engineering. More on Twitter at softskillseng. And we actually talk about topics kind of like today’s topic a little bit. I think we will have an episode about that coming up. And we talk about the everything else in software engineering that’s not technical. We talk about relationships and working dynamics and arguments and all kinds of fun things that we don’t often talk about. So, it’s good stuff.
JAMISON: It’s kind of like an advice show. So, if you have a question…
DAVE: Yeah, yeah.
JAMISON: You can ask it and then we answer it. And if no one asks a question, we make one up and answer that one.
DAVE: And we pretend like someone asked it.
DAVE: So, that’s our show. That is it for today. Thanks everybody for joining us.
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