Some Observations on Management

I’m coming up on my first year anniversary of being a manager. I’m figuratively still dipping my toes into the management waters. I’ve made more than a few stumbles, but I think I am at least beginning to understand a few things about what it really means to be a manager.

In many ways it is a very different sort of job. It is true that someone else manages every employee, even me. The president of the United States is still accountable to the people. Even the self-employed have to manage themselves (and their customers) or they starve. What’s really different being in the management role is that as a manager you set direction.

Maybe this is not all that surprising to you. I can just tell you that as a manager it feels surprising. Being a manager is in many ways like being a driver of a car. The car would just sit there inert if the driver did not start the ignition. While it may seem trivial that is the essence of management, but it is also its most crucial aspect: you get to turn the key. The system does not work at all if someone doesn’t turn the key.

But it’s not always a great thing to be someone who has to make decisions. If you are indecisive by nature then management is not for you. But if you are comfortable making decisions and (just as importantly) comfortable dealing with the consequences of your decisions then you may be management material.

I must confess the “turning the key” part of management is something I like. I’ve directed people in their work for many years. But they were always multitasked. They were not directly accountable to me. When push came to shove my projects often got short shrift. Someone else, usually a manager, had more clout than I did. Now at least some of the people who work for me are accountable to me and no one else. I provide direction on what needs to be done. But just as a driver does not tell the engine how to do its work I rarely tell my staff how things should be done. I assume they are competent in their field.

Just as it behooves a driver to check the oil and the tire pressure before taking off on a long drive, it behooves me as a manager to monitor my employees’ work. The key though is to monitor, not micromanage. If you notice your engine kicking up you don’t necessarily take it immediately to the mechanic. Maybe it will smooth itself out, or maybe you need to add a quart of oil. The same is true with management. You learn to respond cautiously to perceived problems. I have to figure out when the situation requires me to initiate some maintenance. And this becomes a judgment call. Often a can of oil solves the problem but if it doesn’t then it’s time to call the mechanic.

It would be pointless to suggest that no work would get done if management were not there. Prior to my hire work continued for a couple of years anyhow. My staff rotated through the management position as temporary details. The engine kept running because a lot of inertia was in place. What was missing though was vision. My team excelled on handling the tactical problems of the day. But they couldn’t implement a long-term strategy. Instead they operated like an airplane in a holding pattern.

I often wonder just what the heck I do all day. How do I add value? I do not modify a line of code. If the system goes down I can’t fix it. On the surface my days look pretty trivial. I read a lot of email, much of which is way too micro for me to read all the way through. I prepare briefings for management. I listen to employees and pass relevant information up the chain of command. I schmooze with customers and suppliers. I listen to employees who come in my door and want to rant. It doesn’t seem like these things should justify my inflated salary.

But I have come to understand that I am not there to punch a clock. My job is not to turn out so many widgets per day. My job is to make sure the team is oriented and moving in the direction that I largely set. So in some sense it really doesn’t matter whether I work four or twenty hours a day. There is not necessarily a correlation between effort and effectiveness. The driver does not always have his attention completely on driving either. Part of his mind is listening to the radio, or thinking about other problems, or wanting to boink the cute chick in the car next to him. It is important that he drives well and is mindful of other cars and obstacles around him. On a more complex level this is what a manager does. He tries to be very aware of the environment around him and move his team through the various obstacle courses called reality so that the work gets done.

And this, alas, is where I need more schooling. Being decisive and confident in my driving doesn’t necessarily mean that I have earned the trust of the drivers around me. In fact I bump into them regularly and they are not happy about it. But slowly I am leaving my trainee status behind and feeling like I have earned my operator’s license. I understand I can’t treat my customers quite the same way I treat other drivers. They are not peers. They are my customers. I spend more and more of my time listening to their concerns and figuring out ways to make them happy. I have to do this while keeping my team happy.

And that’s the biggest challenge of management. It often feels like being between a rock and a hard place. Customers always have more demands than can be fulfilled. They always want something bigger, better and faster and they want it yesterday. Employees want to do a good job and feel valued, but they also want to have a life. And work has to be done efficiently. Processes cannot always stop to satisfy the special request of the day. So a lot of management is learning to say no in ways that sound like you are actually saying yes, and smoothing out feelings among employees so that they system works with the maximum efficiency.

In some ways it sounds like a virtual job and not a real job. At its essence management is a people job. And it is a necessary job because whether we like to admit it or not we need management. (Or more precise, we need effective management.) A team runs for a while without leadership but eventually it peters out and stalls.

The effective driver is usually not just concerned with what is immediately in front of the car, but is also thinking about what is around the bend and miles down the road. To make that sharp curve he must have all the car’s components tuned just right. When he does the car slides around the curve smoothly. When he doesn’t the car runs off the road. It’s not so much the effort required to turn the steering wheel that makes an effective driver, but knowing how much to turn it, when to turn it and how carefully to apply the brakes.

For a manager though it’s like being driving with a hazy bandana in front of your eyes. So if you think about it making that curve is quite a feat. When done smoothly and professionally you have a very effective manager. I hope I will get there someday.

Management: A Blessing and a Curse

For 47 years I’ve avoided management. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it undoubtedly came from emulating my Dad. He was an electrical engineer and stayed an electrical engineer for his nearly forty-year career. Occasionally he was nudged toward the management track but he always said “no thanks”. Maybe he was a geek at heart. Maybe he just wasn’t a people person. Maybe he had enough stress at home with eight of us rugrats running around and didn’t need the ulcers of management too. I think he wasn’t all that ambitious about advancing his career. He was satisfied with a modest life and didn’t think it would be improved with a fancier house and twice the income. But mainly I think he knew his own weaknesses and limitations. Motivating groups of coworkers simply wasn’t something he believed he could do well. He was true to himself.

As an employee I’ve been watching managers for a long time. It didn’t take long for me to agree with my father’s observations. Having someone else responsible for deadlines was pretty comforting, but mainly management didn’t look like much fun. I’ve run across very few managers who were actually good at managing. To me an effective manager has to be proactive. But managers I knew were continually reacting. Their boss above them was forever giving them grief. So they spent their days running around hassling their employees. Often it was to meet an arbitrary deadline or vindicate some higher up’s biases. The results were usually not very pretty. Employees sensed it was all BS and as a result were rarely motivated. Rather these continual events turned them into cynics.

It’s a shame there are so few good managers in the world. But because demand for managers seems to continually exceed the supply, the management ranks seem to be populated by the ineffectual. Often those who become managers don’t become one because they want to manager. Rather they want the extra money, or the prestige, or they want to be able to pay for the kid’s braces.

Until two weeks ago I avoided the dread title of “supervisor”. But for years I’ve been a project manager. Ironically I was not hired in my last job to be a project manager. I was hired as a technical expert for an organization that needed someone who really understood information technology. It seemed a good fit. But after a year or so I realized I had been hoodwinked. We are all project managers. We spent our days trying to get others (mostly contractors) to do our bidding. It would have been well and good except, of course, our contractors too were multitasked. Some other project manager’s tasks often trounced your particular needs for someone’s talents. As you might expect the results were schedules that often slipped. After a while I stopped feeling guilty about it. After a much longer time I also realized I didn’t care too much whether my projects got done or not. After all if my supervisors couldn’t care enough about my projects to give them the priority I thought was necessary, why should I?

But it seemed better to be a project manager than to be a supervisor or one of our quasi-supervisors called “team leaders”. The poor things were constantly being hassled. Their days seemed to be spent shuffling from one pointless meeting to another. It seemed like a kind of creeping death to spend one’s professional life moving in a suit from one conference room to another. Give me my desk. At least I could surf the web if I could not get motivated.

After six years of project management though I realized that there was a serious problem with project management in my organization. I had responsibility but I had no real authority. I was cruising through life instead of grasping it by the shoulders and shaking it.

I did though have one project early in the tenure of my last job that was different. I had a team of about half a dozen people. They were all mine. I could direct their work and things would move because we had deadlines to meet. It also helped that in addition to being the project manager I was also the system engineer for the project. I did a fair amount of the programming too. That project was such a kick. Unfortunately after a year it was gone. And I was back to managing lots of little projects with cross-matrixed employees.

At my new job I am a real supervisor. I delegate work, approve leave, assess performance and try to meet fairly well defined goals. But I am still worried about whether this is something I will be able to handle in the long term. I work in information technology. Perhaps you remember what Bill Gates said about programmers: “Managing programmers is like herding cats.” Truer words were never spoken. Just two weeks into the new job I can see that I’ve got a lot of cats working for me. I have crusty UNIX curmudgeons. I have people who love to write Perl programming hacks, but one guy who just can’t get Perl and will only write in Python. I have others who are transfixed with the Java programming language and want to start creating SOAP-oriented web services. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to know what this means.)

Now overall it appears to be a great team. They’ve been running a real time mission critical government web site for years now. Despite being geographically separated between four time zones they have shown a high degree of organization and innovation. Since most of my team is geographically located hundreds or thousands of miles away, we do biweekly telephone conference calls. Minutes get updated in real time by refreshing a web page. I sometimes wonder why they need a supervisor at all.

But because I am their supervisor I hold power over them. Some seem to lay out their all cards. Others keep them close to their chest. Ah, the people problem. I have to figure out a system more complex than the hundreds of thousands of lines of code they maintain. I have to figure out the social network, the eccentricities of each of my employees, their turn-ons, their turn-offs, figure out if they are being productive or just slacking off.

My supervision is complicated by the fact that we are renting more than half of my team. For these folks I am not really their supervisor, but we do buy their time. And I can’t look over their shoulder when they are thousands of miles and many time zones away. It’s hard to measure productivity. Lines of code are not a good metric when most of their work is user support and chasing obscure bugs. Many of them are civil servants and thus impossible to fire unless they engage in incredibly egregious behavior. How does one manage effectively in such an environment? Or is it in the end really an exercise in futility?

Keep reading my blog to find out. Right now I am not making any significant decisions but using a lot of my time learning and observing. I spend my time sniffing around the edges of people. Those I can meet with personally I sit down with. I watch what they do. I ask their opinions about things. I don’t want to stomp on anyone if I can avoid it, but I don’t want to be perceived as weak or wishy-washy either. I think I want to lead by consensus but that takes time and I like to do bold endeavors when I can.

Nor am I completely confident that I am cut out for the management track. But for now at least I’d rather feel empowered. In the process I might be perceived as yet another pointy haired boss. I would prefer to be thought of with some regard and respect. But I know the fact that I wield power is bound to cause a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety.

One irony of all this is that I am taking on all this extra responsibility for no increase in salary. I retain the same grade I had in my last agency. This new job was not just about shrinking a 25-mile commute to a 3-mile commute. It is also about me being excited about my work again. And if that means I have to supervise others then so be it. Meanwhile I will count my blessings. I appear to have a well-motivated staff and a boss who wants to empower me then let me go. If I am going to do this management gig the conditions could hardly be more favorable.

Thrown into the deep end of the job pool

Monday I began my new job at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. It’s been a very fast first week for me. I moved from a lackluster GS-14 job with the Administration for Children and Families, which is headquartered near L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. ACF is an agency where even “casual Friday” meant dressing up like the rest of the week (but it was okay to leave off the tie). I always wore dress pants, dress shoes, a nice shirt and tie working at ACF. I kept a sport coat in my cube for those times when I needed it. One of our contractors required their women to wear dresses and hose. We called their men the “Men in Black” from their dreary utterly black business suits, white shirts and dark ties.

In retrospect ACF was a very dressy government place. At USGS though every day is business casual. My boss, a GS-15, shows up in cords, sandals and an earth mother shirt. Everyone knew I was new because for the first couple days I wore a shirt, tie, my best dress pants, patent leather shoes and my sport coat. In other words I was a fish out of water. It wasn’t until yesterday that my boss told me I could dress down. This will be a big change. I might need a whole new wardrobe –I don’t have enough business casual clothes to get through a workweek!

In this respect the USGS seems a much more relaxed sort of place. But the underlying tensions seem to be pretty much the same as I’ve encountered elsewhere in Club Fed. My new job is three miles from home but my pay is the same. However my responsibilities are much greater than those I had at ACF. I don’t know whether if at ACF we suffered from civil service grade inflation or whether USGS suffers from grade deflation. Being a GS-14 at ACF was no big thing. It’s a big thing at USGS. For one thing, I get an office. But not just an office: an office with a view. And a door that locks. My boss says I can have my office repainted if I want. The furniture in it is rather 70ish and was not meant for personal computers, so she is encouraging me to purchase some computer furniture. This is quite a contrast from ACF where we lived lives of cubicle gypsies. In my last two years I had relocated three times. Sometimes at ACF your cubicle was near a window, and while it was almost always larger than those given to contractors it was nothing special. I feel a bit spoiled at USGS.

Heck I feel catered to. I arrived in my new office to find my name already on the door and the help desk configuring my computer. My speakerphone arrived shortly thereafter. Next was the lady to help me configure my voice mail. Everyone is pleasant and low key. When I looked out my fifth floor window with a southwest exposure it seemed if I could extend my hands far enough out the windows they would touch the Shenandoah Mountains.

But make no mistake: this job demands a lot more responsibility. I am now officially a supervisor and what a strange team I lead. I have two employees who work locally, but also one in Montana, one in Alaska and a number of half time employees working for me in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oregon. Since Alaska is 4 time zones away we have biweekly conference calls starting at 2 PM. This helps a lot, but a couple times a year the team must get together face-to-face, and that means agreeing on a city to meet. And as boss I guess I can pick the city. My boss said I could basically travel anywhere I need to pretty much anytime I wanted. I am sure our travel budget is not unlimited but it’s a weird and empowering feeling.

It’s also a strange feeling being a supervisor. There is a deference that comes from your employees by default when you hold power over them. It’s hard to tell sometimes when they are being sincere and when they are sucking up. And yet my boss doesn’t seem the least bit like my supervisor. She makes working there feel more like a social club and gossip hall. And if there is no time during work hours to gossip there is lunch hour club (in which I am already a charter member). I won’t be reading the paper much during lunch anymore; it has become that part of my job that seems to involve necessary social networking.

My commuting almost doesn’t exist. My 60-75 minutes commutes in each direction now are 10-15 minutes in rush hour. I haven’t parked at work in more than a dozen years. I’ve forgotten how cold it can be to walk into the office at 7 AM from a distant parking lot. But this is about the only part of my new job that is a detraction. The USGS campus is gorgeous, still looks modern (for being 30 years old) and is surrounded by woods. It is arguably the prettiest federal campus in the nation. Perhaps I am in federal worker paradise. The National Science Foundation has prettier workspace but their space is leased. At USGS in Reston we inhabit real federal office buildings.

Starting any job is at first a little like being thrown into the deep end of a very cold pool. You wonder if you will sink or swim. If you start swimming you wonder how long you can keep going. And it’s been that sort of week. It felt overwhelming at times because the data dump came fast and furious. It was difficult for me to associate names with faces and roles. At the same time I had to learn a new information system and come up on all the jargon and acronyms that were tossed around so freely. But by the end of the week I was not just swimming, I was doing a great backstroke. Thanks in part to my boss who gave me the things I needed to read in the order I needed to read them, and who made herself freely available to answer questions I feel, if not up to speed, at least a good part of the way there.

My job is to be the chief of the National Internet Data Systems Unit. Basically we are the folks that provide the real time water information for the USGS web site. If you have a hankering to know the number of thousands of cubic feet of water moving across a local stream per second we likely have the latest real time data and can serve it up to you in a variety of formats from the convenience of your web browser. (Surprisingly this is a lot of people; you should see our web site statistics!) I am blessed with a talented staff, half programmers, half hydrologists who can aggregate and format vast volumes of real time satellite fed data into something for public consumption. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that inspires something like awe in me. It’s an honor and a bit humbling to be selected as the person who has responsibility for this system.

It is a challenge but one I needed. This job also feels very much like a gift. It feels like the gods decided to smile on me and fulfill my heart’s desire. I hope I continue to feel this way. I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed and scared, but mostly I feel energized and excited by the job. I hope I can continue to feel this way when the inevitable plain of disillusionment sets in. I hope I have the wisdom to make sound choices. I hope I can demonstrate people skills I sometimes have lacked in the past. I hope I live up to the trust that others have placed in me. I believe I will.