There is this concept that has followed me around from team to team as long I’ve managed, coached, or otherwise led people. The description of the concept changes team-by-team—”shit umbrella”, “distraction barrier”, or (currently) “human meat shield” to name a few—but the core idea remains constant; a key attribute of my leadership style is that of preventing the enormity of the weight of the organization from ever falling on the heads of those I lead. Continue reading Managing Safe Spaces
Apparently, I’m now going to be going a LONG time between updates.
I’m in a pretty good place, which feels like it’s the right place to be when one is a middle-class desk worker with a job he/she loves, a loving family, great friends, a fridge full of food, and precious little of any legitimacy to complain about.
This and last week has been a mixed bag. My boss has been out, so I’ve been helping out in a more ‘leadership’ role…I forgot how much I love stepping in and helping guide the work flow, running interference for the team, and making sure things are prioritized correctly and getting done. I wish this was an actual job I could be paid to do; why isn’t there a job somewhere that would allow me to be hands-on in the code while giving me the opportunity to apply my project management experience to process development and work-flow management that doesn’t automatically come with the baggage of being client-facing and managerial.
I want to write code and manage projects, I don’t want to assuage clients and manage people.
So this week was awesome in that respect: I got to do a thing I do pretty well, in managing a formidable workload. Unfortunately, much of that workload management was because we were short several key players…it was the equivalent of being told that I can coach this world champion team, but several of the stars won’t be allowed to play.
Thankfully, this team is full of stars.
On a down note, I think I’m going to have to delay finishing grad school by a semester. I just don’t feel like I can do a good job of work, school, and family by cramming everything into this last month of school. Hell, I’m not convinced that I can do a passable job of even ONE of those if I try to do them all. It stings to admit it, but I can’t do it all.
It’s been so long since I’ve posted, I feel like I should post more…but I am flat out exhausted. A side effect of this week’s massive work load was that I finished my 3-day work-week with just over 50-hours…and that’s a long week to wedge into 3 days.
Until next time (which could be a crazy long time)
So I’m rapidly coming up on the end of my first quarter at the new job, and I’ve been planning to post my thoughts for nearly two months now. As it turns out, the past several years of being busy doing full-time school, teaching, consulting, convention planning, and raising a family was merely a warm-up for being really busy. Writing has, as usual, suffered.
So how am I liking the new gig? I am in love with this job. I was decidedly nervous at the prospect of making a return to so many things I hated in the past. I hate having a rigid work schedule—for me, programming is a creative activity, and I need to write code when I’m feeling creative. I hate writing code for other people—the last six or seven years have afforded me the ability to be selective about which clients and jobs I would take. I dislike working with project management teams—most project managers are not terribly good at the ‘managing projects’ part of the job. Finally, programming professionally is terribly time-invasive—employers have always demanded ridiculous hours and I’ve exhausted tremendous quantities of energy fighting on behalf of me and the teams I’ve lead for the right to sub-60-hour work-weeks and vacation time that involves actual vacation. While the interview process left me comforted, I was still pretty concerned about the possibility that I was walking back into the same situation again.
I needn’t have worried. In (almost) all respects, this couldn’t be more different.
In the first phone interview I took leadership roles off the table, choosing to focus on developer positions. While being “only” a developer meant a sizable cut to my salary, it still represented a comfortable paycheck; more importantly, managing a team of developers always came at the cost of being able to write code. (It turns out that the organization is flat enough that the leadership role probably wouldn’t have been bad either, but I still think that my decision was correct.)
The schedule is exactly what I need. Extremely flexible hours with a generous attitude toward working from not-at-my-desk. Provided I am reachable, make my meetings, and get my share of the work-pie done, the when and where aren’t all that important. For me, that means that I can go in very early and knock off a bit earlier as well. I can work and have time for family to boot! Madness!
I do not avail myself much of the opportunity to work remotely, though, because I genuinely enjoy the culture at work. I am used to seeing work cliques: the managers are upstairs, the project managers in that section, the creative folks all over there, front-end folks on one side of the office, back-end on the other…minimal interaction. It was like several companies working in the same building throwing work at each other.
It’s going to sound a bit cheesey, but here we really are just a single, big team. I really love the producers (which I still keep calling PMs) in my division. They are, by and large, the best group of them I’ve worked with. Working closely with the front-end folks has really boosted the quality of the work I put out, and the work that we generate as a team.
Even amongst the software engineers, the culture is more to my liking. I despise being on teams where everyone is working super hard to make sure that nobody thinks that there is something that they don’t know. It is needlessly stressful and makes for worse code. This is…whatever the opposite of that back-biting, paranoid place is…that’s what this is. Everyone is quick to answer questions; and they’re quick to ask questions too. As a developer, that sort of environment—the sort where a group of programmers will get together and all try to figure out some pesky quirk or weird behavior—is precisely the sort that I thrive in.
The best example I can think of to describe the culture here: early in my second month, my supervisor was on vacation for a week. We all put in some significant hours that week. Early one morning the VP of my group was walking by and just stopped and asked how I was holding up. He had seen that I had a posted some pretty big numbers to client work that week, and just wanted to make sure I was holding up okay.
Just like that…”Hey, how’re you holding up?“
And that’s the rule, not the exception. My whole supervisory chain is amazing. They communicate, they listen, they go out of their way to ensure that everyone knows that their contributions are appreciated. They are all genuinely concerned with people as well as product.
Frankly, I really enjoy the work. I hate working on a single project *FOREVER*. It gets SO BORING. Here, I have around 10 projects on my plate at a time in various stages of completion requiring different amounts of attention; and they’re all different beasts. Right this second I have a few projects preparing to launch, a few more that have launched in the last week or so, a few that are just beginning to gear up, two that I’m doing recurring maintenance on, and a smattering of small things that are currently in other hands and I’m working support on.
I am constantly engaged in programming that makes me think, in problem solving that keeps me interested, and in writing code that is honing an edge back on to some rusty Perl skills. The work was the part that I was most certain I would just be tolerating…I couldn’t be happier to be wrong.
That said, the one downside at the moment is that there is a LOT of work. I mean, a lot. Like, given my history of busy-ness, believe me when I say that this is the most busy that I’ve been in many years. We are short staffed, and while we’re trying to hire, they are pretty strict about making sure that those they hire are going to be a good fit for us. In the interim, it has made for some long, long weeks. It should be an indicator of how happy I am here, though, that I’m throwing out some 70+ hour weeks (while going to school) and still in love with this place. I end each week exhausted, but happy.
And there’s light at the end of the tunnel…help is on the way, and hopefully more help beyond that too.
Wow, I just skimmed what I wrote so far…could I be giving this place more of a hand-job? I’m going to stop now, so I can get back to work. I’ll try to get something less stream-of-conciousness posted at some point. Just know that I’m very happy with my choice. I feel useful, engaged, and appreciated.
And tired…lots of tired too. :)
“It’s hard to take responsibility for your own transition…”
—Tina Fey in a Nerdist podcast interview
Today I left a job that I really love—a safe, comfortable job teaching at a local community college—to embark on a risky journey as a software engineer at a local firm. I am truly ridiculously excited about the new gig; the culture is comfortable, the people I met are bright and engaging, and the work sounds like a fun challenge that is right in line with my interests and strengths. It’s scary…the last time I did ‘corporate’ development, I was miserable for a host of reasons (most no longer applicable) …but I am really geeked about this.
It is bittersweet though. I love the school, teaching, and my colleagues, and today when I left, I was actually a bit emotional. I have worked there in various capacities for 6 years; I have never worked anywhere uninterrupted for so long. The choice to leave was a hard one to make, because there is momentum in sitting still where you are happy and comfortable. In the end, two things made the decision for me: first, everything great in my life has been the result of risks, so it would be foolish not to take chances now. Second, I will continue teaching my evening course in the winter semester.
In all, it’s an exciting time for me, and Monday starts an adventure that will surely be even more so…
In my experience both inside of and in front of classrooms, students can be broken into three general categories. Those that are simply filling a seat is the smallest group by far, and I’ve never entirely understood why those students are there. This group is not really the focus of my post, though. The last two groups are those that I wish to discuss: the Knowers and the Learners.
Knowers want to know facts…they want to be in possession of knowledge. I envision them as the intellectual version of hoarders. They collect information in a way that is astounding to me. My brain simply doesn’t work in a way that would allow me to amass trivia in that way. This shortcoming has been the bane of my existence throughout most of my education. I struggled my way through history, English, and mathematics courses for a long time because of this. Memorizing streams of date-event combinations, completely inane grammatical dictums, or seemingly arbitrary mathematical rules seemed so boring, pointless, and useless.
It is fairly simple to find the Knowers in a classroom. Knowers are the ones that have their heads down as they frantically scribble every word that the lecturer says onto a piece of paper. They are the students whose hands shoot up into the air to waste the valuable time that follows an instructor’s request for questions with the pointless “Will this be on the exam?” They are the students who will argue with an professor over some obscure piece of minutia or semantic quibble on an evaluation rather than acknowledge that there is a fundamental lack of understanding in play. They revel in multiple choice and in concepts being made black and white.
Sometimes, you will find the Knower in front of a classroom, although they are harder to spot.1 These are characterized by educators issuing a barrage of vocabulary and trivia on students. The Knower-Educator will teach ‘to the test’ oftener than not. Closed-book, closed-note, multiple-choice exams are often their mode of evaluation. It is possible to pass one of their courses—to excel, even—and still not understand any of the material at all. In many cases, it is laughably easy to do so, and I certainly made it a habit through much of my K-12 schooling.
Conversely, Learners want to know why the facts are…well…the facts. They want to be able to figure out the facts on their own. They are rarely satisfied with concepts in the form of “A is true, B is false” when there is a chance to learn in the form of “A is true because of X and Y, B is false because of Y and Z” or better still “We know X, and we know Y, what does this tell us? Yes, A!” This is the group I identify with the most. I learn because I want to know more than mere facts. Facts are largely boring things of no consequence in my life. What good is a pile of facts? In what way is my life going to be bettered by knowing the year that the Magna Carta happened2 or the formula for the quadratic equation? I want to be given the reasons for those facts. Given sufficient reasons, I can almost always backtrack and find the fact itself. Malcolm Gladwell has an example in Outliers: The Story of Success wherein a young lady is re-learning how to obtain the slope of a line and runs into a concept that derails many a math student: the slope of a vertical line. By working through the concept of slope, rather than just memorizing the formula, she was able to grasp and understand why such a line would be considered to have no slope3.
Learners are a little bit harder to distinguish, but there are some indicators. Learners will often sit back and watch a lecturer speak. They take infrequent, short notes. They interrupt the class to ask questions. They veer off topic as they make mental connections. They will argue an infrequently seen boundary case endlessly until they grasp why that case doesn’t jibe with the rest. The fact that many of these traits are often found in the group of students who just don’t care makes it hard to pick Learners out. One point of differentiation, though, is questions that begin with “Why” or “How come.” It is no coincidence that the period of our lives during which we are learning the most (and capable of verbalizing) is characterized by repetitions of these two questions, “Why” is the sound that learning makes.
A Learner-Teacher tends to teach in metaphors and examples. They will sometimes deliver new material as a narrative, as if they were sharing a story rather than a concept. Sometimes they will work from theory to practice, other times from practice to theory, but they always find a way to put the theory in there. They often fail entirely to answer a specific question directly, but answer in a series of leading questions; it is my understanding that this can be maddening to Knowers in exactly the same way that rote memorization is maddening to Learners.
I have never understood collecting things. I have trouble throwing things away that I think there’s even an the remotest possibility that I might use, but collecting for the sake of collecting baffles me. I have an extensive collection of books, but I have read (or intend to read) every single one of them. Among those that I have read, I have read most more than once, and intend to read them again. If I don’t expect to read a book (or to revisit it), then I don’t keep it. If I decide at some future time to read something, I can always obtain it through borrowing, a library, or a purchase. I don’t understand owning something for the sake of owning it.
I feel the same about knowing things. I cannot fathom knowing something for the sake of knowing it. I want to know why and how, because with the why and the how, I can open up a vast, boundless expanses of knowledge. I don’t have to memorize the formula for the slope of a line, I can figure it out because I understand how it was derived. If I don’t need the knowledge, I don’t bother with it; I can always look it up later. Anything that is more trouble than it is worth to look up or calculate I will take the time to memorize, but that is a last resort not a manner of learning.
I write about this today because I am frustrated by what I see as a shift in percentage between Knowers and Learners. It seems as though there is an increased focus on knowing fact in classrooms, and it comes at the expense of learning concepts. Every semester, it seems that I sit alongside more and more memorizers and less and less people inclined to work things out. Each class I stand in front of seems comprised less of people asking “why is that true” and more of people asking “will we be graded on this?” Students seem genuinely angry when they aren’t taught ‘to the test’ or when they aren’t presented a list of bullet-pointed facts to memorize and regurgitate like intellectual bulimia. In a time when acting out in classrooms or demanding better grades has become depressingly commonplace, I have seen the toll being taken on fellow instructors by Knowers wielding a sense of entitlement and misplaced senses of righteous indignation.
I don’t really know how to teach to a Knower…well…technically, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I do know how to teach to a Knower, what I don’t know how to do is to teach to both Knowers and Learners at the same time, and I am entirely unwilling to teach to the Knowers at the Expense of the Learners. This is something new that I am learning about myself. The first practical result of this new knowledge is going to be some changes to my future syllabi; the first of which is an addition to my FAQ:
Is this going to be on the exam? The short answer to this is “Yes, if I took the time to put it on a slide or talk about it, it is potential exam fodder.” The more complete answer is this: I do not require you to know many facts, but I do require you to understand concepts. When I am evaluating your understanding of the material, whether that be through assignments or exams, I will be evaluating your ability to use that conceptual understanding in some practical way. For example, I will not ask a C class to list the data types, I will ask which data type should be used for a given piece of data. As a result, yes, everything we discuss is likely to be on the exam, because when you put all of this stuff together, it dovetails beautifully to form a complete understanding of the thing you are learning about. You should probably just stick to the short answer.
I’m sure as I put together a more comprehensive set of thoughts on the subject, there will be many, many more changes.
1 It can be difficult to spot a Knower as an educator because many of the earmarks of a Knower are also found in bad teachers regardless of the sort of learner they are. Learner-Educators often teach like Knowers because they don’t have a better way at their disposal.
2 1215. I can still recite this off the top of my head. I could not, however, tell you what it is, why it happened, or anything practical about it…but even after 20 years, I can tell you when it happened. That, my friends, is being taught by a Knower.
3 No slope, not zero slope. You could also say the slope is ‘infinite’ or ‘undefined’ with equivalent impenetrability to those who do not understand the underlying concepts.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, I ran the IT Department for a modestly sized marketing firm in southeast MI. When I say that I ran the IT Department, a more honest assessment would be that I was the most senior IT person in a modestly sized department. As such, I was responsible for all of the technical issues that would come up on a daily basis, in addition to all of the behind the scenes work that goes into making the servers run and the email arrive.
Being a small company, everyone knew everyone else; and everyone had an opinion of everyone else. It was easy to pick out which employees got along, and which did not. For nearly every employee, you could find a nemesis; a polar opposite. Almost everyone had their arch-rival; mine was Don1.
Don was everything that was wrong with white collar society. He was a smarmy, over-educated but under-intelligent, sycophantic bastard, and I detested him. When he quit to follow his wife to another state for her job, I (somewhat) silently cheered. When I heard months later that he divorced his wife because she was cheating on him, I did a small Irish jig in the main conference room. When he came back to work for us again, it was all I could do not to leap from my ninth-story window. He would take every available opportunity to make my life miserable, and I would do the same to him. Then, one day the ultimate revenge fell into my lap…
On a fine, sunny day in late September, a few months after his return to the company, the anti-Jer wandered into my office carrying his computer in his hands. Already, I was enraged. What is he doing with this computer in his hands? He’s not allowed to disconnect his computer. He’s not allowed to carry it around the building. As he dumps it unceremoniously onto the corner of my desk, he says brusquely, “It’s running slowly, I need it back by tomorrow”, and walks quickly from my office.
This is exactly why I keep my office door locked.
Knowing that he won this round, I opted not to fight the inevitable, and I booted up his system. Just as I thought, tons of installed software and extra crap is being loaded on startup, slowing everything down. In a gesture of defiance, I decide to baseload his system and load user rights management on it. In preparation, I started copying his user directory to the server. While waiting for the copy to complete, I called a friend and spoke to him briefly about plans that evening. It was during this conversation that sweet, sweet revenge came a-knocking.
“You have to come down here right now and look at this!” I exclaimed.
“What is it?” Gary asked.
“Just come look…”, I said, before disconnecting the conversation.
Moments later, I was showing Gary what has passed before my eyes just a few minutes before. A directory named “Personals” with subdirectories for “Adult Friend Finder”, “Yahoo Personals”, “eHarmony”, and several other dating sites. Inside of each directory was a series of pictures of Don, a Word document containing his advertisement blurb, and, most importantly, his log of conversations with people from each site. It was a veritable goldmine of usable information…but what to do with it?
We called our friend Ron, the only other smoker, and invited him out for a cigarette, where we related to him what we had found. It was Ron who put to bed our ideas of turning Don in or blackmailing him in favor of something much more fun. Starting a relationship with him. We agreed to go out for drinks that night to formulate a plan of attack.
The next day, I returned Don’s computer to him, and I couldn’t even find it in myself to respond to his barbs because I was too excited about what the day had in store. I hustled back to my office and got right to work.
First, I searched the web for images of a woman. Specifically, I needed to find a very pretty brunette (Don’s preference) with photos that did not look professional, and more importantly, I had to be able to get several clothed pictures of her and at least one revealing photo. I found what I was looking for on some young woman’s vanity site.
I then created an account on one of his less popular free dating sites. I created a profile that matched his “ideals” nearly precisely, gave an address that was in a neighborhood near-but-not-too-near to his, uploaded one of my pictures, and entered “Elizabeth’s” ad.
Gary, Ron, and I had spent most of the evening trying to figure out what to say, and had ultimately come up with a masterpiece that extolled the virtues of shorter men, the love of movies, the lack of desire to travel, and an adoration of hockey. The adoration of hockey nearly ruined us several times, as there was not a hockey fan among our number. Later, once things got going, we recruited Allen as our hockey expert.
Our plan was to wait a few days, then message Don as if we had just run across his ad, but things were hastened when he replied to our ad that same day. During work hours no less! I quickly printed off his message, grabbed Gary and Ron, and we left to go smoke. Over our smoke break, we read his message several times and formulated a response. When I got back to my office, I sent it off, and thus began our beautiful relationship.
It was apparent, right off, that Don was as full of himself as we had always believed. It was hard to ignore or, worse, applaud some of his ridiculously self-aggrandizing statements. When he talked about how much he wasn’t “hard on the eyes” or how important it was that he keep his body “rock hard”, it would stump us. How would an actual woman respond to such stupidity? More to the point, how stupid must we make “Elizabeth” sound that she wouldn’t laugh at such idiocy? Nevertheless, we plugged on; it would be worth it.
We began to run into an issue when he wanted to meet with Liz. We had made her an ER nurse at a hospital that was local enough to seem reasonable while being far enough to dissuade him from trying to surprise her at work. The ER concept was a godsend, allowing us to schedule dates with Don then cancel the day before or the day of due to work several times. Between the crazy ER nurse hours and her long drive to work, it was easy to paint a picture of her as someone that was just very busy at the moment and unable to make schedules work out. Fortunately, she had a promotion coming soon that would reduce her hours dramatically. Until then, Don had to make due with an increasingly sexual text-based relationship.
Why text based? On three or four separate occasions, we communicated with him by phone using my friend’s girlfriend, Lisa, as our proxy. This proved to be unnerving to all of us, because Lisa laughed when she was nervous, and she was not good at extemporaneous speaking. She would just freeze while we fed her something to say. Fortunately, Don was not the sharpest pencil in the box, and chalked up her lack of ability to communicate to general nervousness. The upside to Lisa, however, was that she had a sexy phone voice. When he started talking a little dirty to her, she took off on her own and, in no time, was getting phone-sex-operator nasty with the dwarven geek. We had to keep voice conversation minimal, because even a chud like Don would notice her inability to do anything but phone sex with any degree of normalcy sooner or later.
By the end of October, Don was getting restless. We had put him off as long as we could, but his interest seemed to be waning due to the lack of physical or even vocal contact. Things had gone as far as they could go; or so we thought.
In retrospect, a few less beers consumed by each of us would have probably made our thought process a bit more clear. Had Allen not bought several rounds of shots (he was a regular in our group now), we would have probably rethought our brilliant finale. As it turned out, we got just drunk enough that our brilliance knew no bounds. We decided to meet him for lunch on Halloween. It began as a simple enough plan; plan to meet him at the Mongolian barbecue, show up before he does, take a picture of him getting stood up, and drop off a printout of all of the emails and the picture on his desk later on. It was fantastic.
Then it got better.
I made a joke about showing up and saying “Hi” to him. That turned into me showing up in a wig, which ultimately transformed into me showing up in full drag and introducing myself to him as Liz. That, ultimately, was the downfall of the experiment.
On that fateful day, I called in sick to work so that Don wouldn’t see me in my pretty blue dress. We had set lunch for noon, so Gary, Ron, and Allen had all arrived at 11:30 so they could get seats overlooking the fun. At 12:15 I entered the restaurant.
To say that Don had a puzzled look on his face when he saw me walk through the door would have been an understatement. I must have looked quite a sight, and I relished in his demeanor change as his glance moved down from my long black hair haphazardly stuffed under a platinum Marilyn Monroe wig (the only we had available), past my goatee covered face, along my tattooed and hairy arms, below my wide hips, and across my hairy legs, coming to a rest upon my work boots. His confusion slowly dissolved into amusement, then was quickly replaced by shock as I approached his table. Horror overtook his features as I stopped across from him and said “Don? I’m Liz!” in my rather masculine voice.
There were many ways to react to this. Really level people would realize what had happened, see the humor, and laugh it off. Most people would get very angry and storm off, plotting revenge. There is a third option; extreme aggression. This is not an option that we had taken into account. When Don leapt to his feet, my assumption was that it was to rush from the building. When he cocked his fist and swung at me, I was taken completely off guard. I ducked and punched him. He lost his balance and fell to the ground.
It was madness. Rather than get arrested in full drag, I chose to sprint for the door before Don could regain his feet. I would live to fight another day.
The epilogue to this epic battle is that, for the next two months, work was a very uncomfortable place. At no point was our little joke ever brought up…and his dating foibles became similarly off limits. In December, I quit to pursue a better option, but I would like to think that Don still thinks twice before he dates on the Internet from work. And the moral that you can take with you from this story? Maybe, just maybe, you should be nice to your IT people.
1 All names changed, because some of these people might want to work in this town again.