Archive for February, 2013

Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part V)

Monday, February 25th, 2013 by The Director

(Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV)

Brad, the Middle Manager
I eventually moved on from the blue collar world (and, if we’re counting, the pink collar world, since that’s the color sometimes assigned to retail work) into the white collar world, although by the time I got there, business casual was the norm and the collars were not often white. Now, in many places, the collars at all are optional. I made a couple of moves from technical writing into software quality assurance, back into technical writing, and then onto Brad’s team as a Quality Assurance Analyst I.

Brad managed a team of Quality Assurance Analysts working on a chemical modeling and lab benchtop software suite for a large pharmaceutical firm. By the time I got into my cubicle, the project was late and on the verge of losing money, but that was beyond my purview. That was in Brad’s world, as it were.

I don’t know Brad’s background, but I do know that it was not anywhere in the technical realm of software. He did have an MBA, though, and when the company was hoping to move from a product-based business model (you build it, you sell it, people buy it) to a project-based business model (you promise to build it if someone promises to pay for it), it staffed up its ranks, including its management team. The org chart featured a vice president in charge of projects, a director in charge of projects, a bunch of managers in charge of teams on the projects (at this time, the plural form of project was still only anticipated, and the only actual project, as I mentioned, was in trouble), a set of leads on each team, and then team members. That’s three tiers of management where technical skill was optional, and in Brad’s case was sorely lacking (although his hiring of me proved his keen insight into the matters of personnel).

As far as I could tell, Brad’s main job duties included sitting in meetings with other managers and sometimes team leads (but not the actual meetings with technical staff—the team lead took care of that and assigning roles and day-to-day duties). I am pretty sure he made some PowerPoint presentations and reports of some sort, along with annual goals for the team and individual reviews of his team. But he pushed paper and handled the Parkinson duties of the team.

An anecdote into interacting with Brad: I wanted to buy a $35 text editor that I’d used before to help edit the various and sundry text files a Quality Assurance Analyst I would edit during the course of the day, such as configuration files, batch files, and the special files used by chemical modeling software import features. I told Brad I’d like it. He put it into his process and workflow, and he wanted a business case for it. So I wrote a document that included a comparison between the installed text editors, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Notepad, the advantages of the text editor I wanted (IDM Software’s UltraEdit—since I’ve named its competitors already loaded onto my workstation at the firm, I might was well offer an unsolicited testimonial to it). The document identified all the text files I’d edit with it as well as future uses for it (including the buzzword XML, which would prove important although not relevant at the time).

After reviewing the document, Brad called a meeting of the Quality Assurance Analysis team to discuss it. Before that meeting, though, the team lead called a pre-meeting to discuss it. The four QA team members gathered in a meeting room to discuss what a text editor was and why QA might need it. The importance of editing the data files we’d need to test or reviewing log files was a bit lost, but I mentioned XML, the buzzabbreviation took off. Although the product did not use eXtensible Markup Language now, someday it might. The buzzword traveled up the food chain, and Brad turned the either approved or got approved the purchase.

The process to approve the purchase cost more than the purchase itself, but it was the sort of thing that filled Brad’s day. Until the company, trimming its headcount to stave off the disastrous consequences of its altered business model, cut Brad during a set of layoffs. After that time, the QA Team Lead reported directly to the Director or the Vice President with no productivity loss.

Unlike Ron, Brad was not lost in the trappings of being a successful businessman; Brad was lost in the trappings of being a manager. Brad illustrated to me that managing people doing a task works best if you understand the task at hand and don’t get yourself into a situation where your only skill is holding meetings, preparing papers, doing group projects, and doing the sorts of things that earn you an MBA or used to suffice when you reached a certain level within a very large corporation.

In today’s fluid, lean business world, you have to make sure that you grok the thing you manage and that you can improve the efficiencies and add value to those under you. I kept this in mind when I reached the executive level and spent my time helping my people solve the problems they found in their jobs and increasing the company’s efficiency by boosting the employees’ efficiencies. If I didn’t call enough meetings, so be it. The point of the job was to do the job, not to talk about it.

You can read a hundred books about good business practices, but the lessons within them will only be the abstract knowledge distilled from a cavalcade of someone else’s success. The stories and ideas within them might slide from your consciousness like raindrops from a freshly washed (with the deluxe package including the clear-coat sealant) car. Even when you look back to the good bosses you’ve known personally and have worked under will seem translucent in the pleasurable glow you had from working with them and succeeding in your position therein.

But the lessons you learned from your bad bosses are distinct because they were painful. If you, with enough therapy, can look to them to understand why your bad bosses were bad bosses, you can be a better boss yourself. I’m not talking about studying the psychological motivations or getting in touch with them emotionally to understand what compelled them to behave as they did; I’m talking about understanding why what they did was ineffective as a manager or leader.

Besides, they took a little bit of your soul in those brief hours/days/weeks/months/years you worked for them. Shouldn’t you take a little something back?

Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part IV)

Friday, February 22nd, 2013 by The Director

(Part I, Part II, Part III)

Lee, the Purchaser
The art supply store hired me as a shipping/receiving clerk, which was mostly checking in the supplies as they came off the truck to make sure that Koh-i-noor had sent us the number of pens they said they did and the number of pens we had actually ordered. The store catered to the business community who needed foam board for presentations and to students who needed specific pads of paper for their art classes. In addition to clerks, commercial inside sales people, and a shipping/receiving clerk who was also responsible for custodial duties, small computer administration, and miscellaneous electrical repairs, the store had a dedicated purchaser, an employee whose full-time endeavor was to map the sales of individual products and to order enough to meet anticipated demand. Her name was Lee.

In the early 1990s, personal computer usage was in its infancy, and the store’s inventory was maintained on a minicomputer with thin client terminals. Lee printed out reams of product lists to use as she checked the back stock and the items on the shelf to make her predictions, which were more astrological than based on past sales.

In the late summer, as the store was preparing for the back-to-school rush that produced much of the annual sales, a truck arrived with pallets of paper products, from notepads to 4’ by 6’ boxes of heavy cardstock. The receiving room of the store could handle about 3 pallets of product comfortably. This particular load comprised 14 pallets, including two double-sized pallets containing bins of foam board. The truck driver mercifully left his trailer at the exterior loading dock for a half hour lunch to give the receiving clerk the chance to restack and rearrange pallets to fit six pallets uncomfortably into the warehouse.

“Why so many?” Lee asked, incredulous. She carried a printout of the expected order. The receiving clerk took the papers from her and pointed out how the four on this line translated into so many cubic feet, how the ten on this line translated to so many more cubic feet, and so on. The order matched the delivery.

Fairly often, we worry that someone has forgotten to take the customer into account when making plans or acting. However, Lee, working with numbers in the abstract and little ticks on lines on sheets of paper, became divorced from the realities of the product. The concrete products that filled the warehouse and many backaching hours for the receiving clerk as he somehow fit these products into slots and shelves to make the warehouse navigable.

Lee taught me to remember the customer and the product. In too many instances, particularly in the software industry, the customer-facing professionals keep the customers too much in mind and have little understanding of the technologies of the product or even the things for which the customers will use the software. Instead, their focus remains on pleasing the people who place the orders, and they might find themselves promising more than their teams can deliver. Much like Lee might.

(Part V)

Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part III)

Thursday, February 21st, 2013 by The Director

(Part I, Part II)

Ron, “I Own the Business”
Ron was an older gentleman operating a computer assembly and sales business from a converted shotgun shack in the southwest corner of St. Louis. The living room was what you might call the commercial sales division with three desks and tables piled with papers and unopened mail. Ron was not very organized. The dining room was a retail sales floor of sorts with a number of custom assembled machines on display to, generally, nobody. The old kitchen held the bookkeeper and the woman whose sole job was filing return material authorization requests for the cut-rate components that Ron favored. An addition and shed that filled the former back yard held a number of young technicians assembling computers and slightly older technicians repairing computers. The one car garage facing the alley was the loading dock, with a desk for the receiving clerk to check in and label individual components to make it easier for the RMA lady to process when they came back and steel shelves that held a number of broken bits of computers Ron accepted in trade. Piles of boxes littered the floor, since the receiving clerk discarded packing material over his shoulder as he worked. Ron hired me to be a clerk Friday, which meant to do whatever he wanted. In my three months there, this included filing copies of invoices from years past, acting as accounts receivable by calling, without training in the niceties or legalities of bill collection, numbers printed on inches of fan-folded, pin-fed, green-and-white lined paper, receiving (and receiving a tongue-lashing for wasting time in cleaning up the loading dock), computer delivery or pick-up in the far-flung suburbs of St. Louis, and ultimately as a computer assembler when one left in a fit of apoplectic pique.

Ron was the worst boss you could imagine: His self-importance and scattered brain combined to provide moments where he would cross from the front office through the showroom to the accounting room to get the accountant to get “that guy” (the clerk Friday) to come to place a telephone call for him. Instead of coming to get “that guy,” the accountant instead made the call from her phone to ask the call recipient to hold for Ron. Another time, Ron came up to me as I was stocking parts, and led with a noun of direct address to address me directly: “Mark,” he said, gesturing at me. “Brian,” I corrected. “Mark,” he continued, wondering what the gag was. Ron fired me, essentially, by telling me that I would not be needed after Christmas when I told him I was taking the week of Christmas off to have dinner with my father 400 miles away. My father was in a brief remission from cancer that would prove terminal, and my brother had leave from the Marine Corps. I took Ron seriously, unlike one of the sales people who brought in doughnuts every time Ron fired her—and Ron’s wife assured her that she was not fired. But on the Monday of the week after Christmas, Ron called me at home the first work day after Christmas to find out where I was. After I could not convince him that he fired me, I quit over the phone. “Without any warning?” he asked.

I’m sorry to go on so long about Ron, but he is a treasure trove of stories that seem parablic, but actually happened.

Ron’s business stayed afloat not because of Ron’s business acumen, but because of dedicated employees led by Ron’s wife who kept the business going and managed its transition from a business forms printer into a computer dealer in the early 1990s as the business world was rapidly transitioning to desktop computers. The core of loyal employees kept the business a going concern, so some amount of bluster and possible incompetence at the top might not be fatal for a business, but it does make a difference. Ron also reminds me that too much in the trappings of success and importance—spend four minutes to get that guy to dial a telephone—impede progress and efficiency. One really has to gauge whether additional staff and whatnot actually improve efficiency or whether they merely prove Parkinson’s Law.

(Part IV to come)

Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part II)

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 by The Director

(Part I.)

Mike, the Telemarketing Manager
Part-time telemarketing fundraising is a tough gig. Wearing a headset, one sits at a table with a computer monitor and keyboard. A mainframe or server somewhere dials a stream of telephone numbers, and when someone answers, the monitor displays information about the person along with the approved script for the fundraising customer. One then tries to sound as fresh and chipper to this potential mark, I mean “donor,” as one did when one started the shift ten and a half hours earlier. Success ebbs and recedes—one gets a couple of the voices on the line to agree to joining the society or supporting the law-enforcement fraternal organization, and one gets confidence that translates into further sign-ups, or one gets a string of hang-ups and angry voices whose ire deflates one’s confidence, which breeds further lack of success. After darkness falls, the calls stop, and the person with the lowest total for the day empties the trash cans. It’s low-rent Glengarry Glen Ross with less swearing and less individual opportunity.

Mike, the manager of the roomful of twenty or so twenty somethings happy to be working outside of retail, was missing his front teeth. A homemade tattoo of his prison number colored the inside of his wrist. The tattoo, he told us, was so that when he got angry in his car, if he reached for the illegal gun under his dashboard, he would see the tattoo and think twice. He boasted that the only two things he had not been to jail for were rape and murder.

Colorful nature aside, Mike was not actually a bad boss. He was a boss in a bad workplace, a workplace that suffered enough turnover that the newspaper carried a running ad for telemarketing fundraisers, and the shop had new interviews—and empty chairs—daily.

Mike, though, was good at the job. His deep, resonant telephone voice bred success as a telemarketing fundraiser. Eventually, he worked his way up from the interchangeable tables through the PCs (previous contributors list, a special phone list of people who had given to the campaign in other years and were expected to be easier marks, I mean “donors,” in successive years) to managing the stable.

Mike demonstrated that one’s past is not necessarily relevant to one’s ability to perform in a position. The right confluence of talents and drive can lead to success regardless of other less savory incidents or experiences. When looking for someone to fill a position, or whether judging someone’s abilities at one’s current job, one must focus on the present and not the past.

(Part III)

Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part I)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by The Director

Leo Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike, but dysfunctional families are all unhappy in their own particular way. Management lessons you receive from your mentors are pretty much the same, too. They reflect the best practices and some gleanings of a lifetime of achievement and success. They can seem a little plain, clichéd, or easily forgettable. Or maybe I just didn’t pay attention when things are working. Therefore, the things I learned from my inspirational bosses blurred together, but the lessons from bad bosses I’ve endured remain stark and memorable.

After college, I put my English degree to use in various low-wage jobs where I quoted Shakespeare and Melville to unimpressed co-workers. I worked in retail, I worked in warehouses, I worked in a plant operating a piece of machinery that could have removed my arm, and I worked in a pseudo-office environments for a variety of bosses and foremen. Some showed me the right way to do things specific to that job. Others, though, taught me the wrong way to do anything.

Donny, the Produce Manager
I put myself through college working in a grocery store as a bagger, a checker, and eventually, a produce clerk. After the ownership changed, the new owners brought in managers from their other stores to run ours, their new flagship store. They replaced a thoroughly professional produce manager, who showed his keen insight into management by bringing me aboard, with a younger, less expensive manager. Donny had managed the produce department at the new owners’ first grocery store and felt he had a special relationship with one of the owners in particular. This special relationship did not prevent Donny from assigning denigrating nicknames to the owners, and Donny loved to share them with other employees.

Donny’s tenure lasted about a year with the store, during which time he did the minimum work required to keep his employment, relying on his employee to carry the burden of bringing the department’s appearance to standard. Donny spent his days reading the newspaper in the store’s break room and, when he was on the sales floor, regaling me with stories of his satyrical youth and attempts at a satyrical present. Possibly a step ahead of termination, Donny secured an assistant manager position at a larger chain’s store, ironically one owned by the store’s previous owners. Donny closed out his tenure by spending even more time in the break room and making a show of how little he was doing and cared.

Strangely, Donny’s new job and its expectations of effort and professionalism did not suit him. He approached my store’s ownership and management for a position with our store again. He was rebuffed, and not in the fun way his satyrical tastes preferred.

Donny taught me a couple things about workplace relationships. First and foremost, a special affinity or cordiality with someone further up the org chart will not necessarily provide any extra benefits if one is not a productive employee. Don’t mistake a kind word now and then, some bawdy humor shared with a smirk, or other fraternity with professional esteem.

Secondly, Donny emphasized that burning bridges can very often work against your long-term best interests. Remember all the “It’s not you, it’s me” speeches your friends have gotten when they’ve broken up? Use that template for your exit interviews, because someday you might find yourself in another situation in a position to accept work or consulting projects from the very organization or people you cannot stand now. After all, you’re really looking to leave an entire situation, not just a company or some people. Remain diplomatic, and you’ll keep your options open.

Thirdly requires another anecdote. Donny found a contest in one of the monthly produce periodicals. A fruit grower urged produce managers to celebrate National Pear Month by creating an elaborate display of the grower’s pears. Contest participants could send pictures of their creations to win fabulous prizes with the grower’s logo on them. Donny ordered several cases of exotic pears that the customers of our bread-and-butter small grocery would never actually buy, created a simple display on a simple table, photographed his child eating a pear by it, and won something from the contest.

The story offers many counter-examples to what one should do: squandering company resources for personal advancement, for example. But Donny had his eyes open for a small opportunity, an esoteric chance, and he put effort toward it, yielding success. In the course of our day-to-day work life, it’s far too easy to get bogged down in the forest, looking at the trees, and miss a very interesting and potentially beneficial vine or shrub growing amid the trees. Even bad managers can provide good lessons, so don’t dismiss everything they do or say. Just most of it.

(Part II)

When Krux Becomes Corporeal, The World Will Suffer

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 by The Director

So maybe we should count our blessings that he is yet undefined:

Krux the Unyielding, the Slayer at the Intersection, grows nearer to this dimension

What is krux? No doubt the method by which news organizations can turn a profit on the Internet. Which remains undefined.

But a tip of the hat to the developers in the world who name their objects, attributes, and methods to sound like the names of demons.

What Would Michal Handzus Do?

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013 by The Director

This is Michal Handzus:

Michal Handzus, Truncated

Michal Handzus is a center in the NHL, and regardless of wherever else he has played in with what other teams he has hoisted the Stanley Cup, he will always be a St. Louis Blues hockey player to me and there’s nothing more attractive to me than a woman wearing #26 in the Blue Note. But that’s neither here nor there.

The image you see above is a corrupt, truncated jpg.

You see it correctly because some photo editors and some Web browsers are forgiving of that problematic jpg.

If you’re testing any sort of image processing in your application, you have to wonder, “What would Handzus do?”

Or, you’re not a hockey fan, you can find another truncated jpg image here.

QA Music: Testing the Boundaries of Life Itself

Monday, February 4th, 2013 by The Director

That’s the only way I know.

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