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.

Motivation increases uptime

We IT operations people love our disaster porn and exchanging war stories is always a great reason to have some drinks together. Recent hurricane Sandy certainly let the book of Ops Tales grow quite a bit. This morning, I came upon the story of how the folks at Squarespace, Fog Creek and Peer1 carried generator fuel up 17 stories to keep things running. I think that’s awesome from a lot of perspectives:

  • Customer care: They could have just said “Don’t blame us, blame the elements.”, publish a status page and be done with it until the water was gone. Instead, they did everything they could come up with to keep their services running.
  • Team spirit: Their people could just have said “There’s nothing in my contract about hauling buckets of fuel around in the dark”. Instead, they pulled up their sleeves and went at it.
  • Leadership: Getting people to volunteer for this work is already a great leadership achievement. Keeping this up without people dropping out left and right even more.
  • Communication: They kept customers in the loop, didn’t sugarcoat impending outages and finally delivered much more than they promised. That’s perfect PR.

Guys, I bow before you in respect.