Assembling the plane on the way down

Managing people is an ability that requires practice and learning, just as any other. As the German proverb goes, “No master ever just fell from the sky.”

Regardless of how much you’ve thought about the topic, how much you’ve read about it or even taken courses, it’s a fact that no amount of theory can compensate a lack of management practice. As Jason Fried says in “On being a bad manager”:

“Sure, you’ve listened to music for decades. But your first day on guitar sucks. Just like you may have watched people be managed — and you were likely managed yourself. That doesn’t prepare you to pick up the management instrument and strum a beautiful melody.”

People are messy. That’s why leading people is messy, too.

The problem with getting better at management is that there’s no --dry-run option. It’s like learning the guitar on stage. You’ll get better over time but it comes with screwing things up in public, getting critical (or even devastating) feedback, and leaving the place feeling ashamed for not meeting your own expectations.

Getting better as a manager is like assembling the plane after you’ve already jumped from the cliff. You might land as a master. Or crash spectacularly.

There are people that are willing and able to deal with this kind of challenge. They’re the right candidates for switching from being an individual contributor to a management position. For all the others (probably the majority), we’ll have to provide other avenues for growth.

I believe in working remotely, too.

We’ve now been living at our new house in Bray for almost two months now and we’re happily settling in. The move to Ireland has had almost no impact on my work because I’ve built freistil IT as a virtual company from the get-go. It really doesn’t matter where our team members do their work; it only matters that they do a great job.

Being able to freely move to another place is only one of the advantages we have as a distributed team. In his post on the Stack Exchange blog, David Fullerton lists several more reasons “Why We (Still) Believe in Working Remotely”:

  • It lets you hire good people who can’t move. Maybe they’ve just bought a house or they need to take care of a family member. Not being able to hire people who’ve made a commitment doesn’t make any sense to me.
  • You don’t lose people to silly things like their significant other going to medical school. Or like fulfilling their wish of moving to another country…
  • When done right, it makes people extremely productive. We’ve built freistilbox, our platform for Managed Drupal Hosting and Managed WordPress Hosting with a team of three doing everything from IT architecture to payment processing and accounting. The flexibility of our work environment helped us not getting burnt out despite many challenges.
  • It makes you focus on more than butts in chairs. Big companies like Yahoo! and HP recently called their remote workers back into offices with the explanation that this will make their teams more effective. I think that’s nonsense. “Going into office” doesn’t equal good work and “counting butts in chairs” doesn’t equal good management.

David goes on with giving some insight into their learnings and how they collaborate. I highly recommend reading the whole post.

Here are a few more reasons why we, too, think that the benefits of working remotely outweigh its disadvantages:

  • It makes expenses more effective. Instead of paying for more and more office space, we rather put money into the tools that make us more flexible and productive (powerful laptops, mobile internet access, collaboration software, coffee machines).
  • It makes teamwork multi-threaded. It’s like parallel processes in an operating system: Once you have the “inter-process communication”, i.e. collaboration tools and processes, in place, each team member can work independently without relying on everyone being readily available at the opposite desk.
  • It makes choosing the right things easier. My family is the most important thing in my life. Back when I was working in an office, I could not go home just to babysit for half an hour while my precious had a haircut. Today, a haircut can be an opportunity for both of us to take a break from our usual responsibilities.

I’m the first one to admit that running a distributed team has its challenges. And there are ways to master them. If you’d like to know more, please leave your question in the comments!

Want to make more awesome from whereever you’re the most happy? Join our team!

How to unsuck meetings

Nowadays, everyone seems to hate meetings. And, very much like a broken relationship, we keep having them all the same. Obviously, we can’t get rid of meetings, so I think it’s a good thing to see how we can make them worth the effort.

Kate Matsudeira hates meetings, too. As a leader, she spends a lot of time in meetings, and she wants that time to return as much value as possible.

“Thankfully wasteful meetings don’t have to be the course du jour. No matter what kind of meetings you’re involved in, you can do a lot to make that time more productive.  In fact as you can make everyone’s time more useful by simply being prepared.”

Kate finds that there are two main causes for bad meetings:

  • They lack structure or purpose
  • Leaders come to them with unrealistic expectations

Both causes have their roots in communication. And she offers really good advice that I know to work from my own experience. Recommended reading!

Email is not dead

After trying collaboration tools like Yammer for a while, email had a renaissance at freistil IT. Our decision of giving the dreaded mailbox another chance was triggered by a post about how the team at Stripe practices email transparency. We’ve adopted their system and it works well; we still need to get more used to it, though.

This is how it works: Every team and project by default has three or four mailing lists (like Stripe, we’re using Google Groups for Business):

  • A conversation mailing list (“marketing”) for the communication within the team. Everyone in the team (and maybe beyond) subscribes to this list.
  • A low-traffic announcement mailing list (“marketing-announce”) that reaches many or even all coworkers.
  • A “bacn” mailing list (“marketing-bots”) that receives automatically generated emails, for example from social networks and external services. Everyone that manages or uses such a service subscribes to this list.
  • An archive mailing list (“marketing-archive”) that is mainly used to preserve emails that don’t concern anyone at the moment. Very few people will subscribe to this list, but it makes it easy to share emails instead of hiding them in personal mailboxes.

The effect of this approach is not only easy written communication but, just as important, transparency:

“As we’ve grown, the experiment has become about both efficiency and philosophy. We don’t just want Stripe to be a successful product and company. We also want to try to optimize the experience of working here. As as we’ve grown, we’ve come to realize that open email can help.”

By sorting the daily email influx into many mailing lists (Stripe has more than 100) to which only these people subscribe that have the need, the amount of email anyone has to deal with stays on a managable level.

At freistil IT, we still need to get better at adhering to the addressing rules described in Greg’s post. Too much email still only reaches personal mailboxes without being shared in a group visible to the team. I think I’ll start by copying the rules into our Company Runbook and from there get them into people’s heads (mine included).

But apart from that, it’s an interesting experience. As I wrote in a previous post, email can be very disruptive to my daily work. At the same time, being able to at any time tap into exactly these email streams that I’m interested in is engaging and efficient.

Working hours vs. living hours

Following up on my recent post on Tactics against burnout, I’d like to shed some light on the aspect of working hours. In the tech space, it seems popular to boast with insane work durations. “Mine is longer than yours”, anyone?

Rob Ashton disagrees with this behaviour, as do I. What he describes in his article “A note on working hours and working at home” is basically an example of what is called “ROWE”, a Results-Only Work Environment. (You can read all about ROWE in the book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution“.) In short, work should always be about the results you generate, not about the time you are (seemingly) busy. If you can finish your tasks within 5 hours, there’s no sense in doing 8 more just to impress someone (whom anyway?).

I can’t see any contradiction in his approach to the Github article with which he “passionately disagrees”, though. The article is even titled “Hours are bullshit” and in it, Zach Holman explains:

“When you’re in the right mindset, your best day of coding can trump weeks of frustrated keyboard-tapping.

Again, it’s not about how long you’re busy but how effective you are. Both guys also have similar conclusions:

Zach: “By allowing for a more flexible work schedule, you create an atmosphere where employees can be excited about their work.”

Rob: “When I decide what I’m doing with regards to work (when summer hits), I find it hard to believe I’ll be working at any company who is enforcing 9-5, or have some rigidly described “flexi-time” as part of their contract in an effort to seem cool.”

Okay, one sentence in Zach’s post might be easily misunderstood:

“Ultimately it should lead to more hours of work, with those hours being even more productive.”

In my experience, having the freedom to decide when to work often actually leads to more time spent working than in a normal 9-to-5 frame. Nobody is productive all the time, right? When I start to feel tired at 15:30, I don’t have to spend the remaining time mindlessly staring at my screen or scrolling through Google Plus for another 90 minutes, just to leave as soon as the clock strikes 5. In the long run, this just makes people hate their job. Instead, I take a break, go for a walk or maybe even spend some time at home with my family. Rob obviously handles this similarly.

Now, if I don’t have other important things, I’ll continue where I left off later. I might now work for another 90 minutes, but maybe also for 120 or 180. Because I’m working at a time that’s right for me and because my efforts have a visible effect. Which lets me keep loving my work.

Yes, this blurs the line between work and the other important things in my life. Because my work is actually one of them. And I think that’s what Zach meant with “Working weekends blur into working nights into working weekdays, since none of the work feels like work.” Work isn’t something evil that keeps me from enjoying life, it’s an integral part of it.

Or as Markus Cerenak puts it in “Warum das Konzept “Work-Life Balance” ein Irrtum ist.” — “Why the concept of work/life balance is a falsity”:

“When you follow your passion, you don’t have a need for balancing.”