Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Artist Engineer and the Bottom Line [Courtney Behm]

I once worked for a software company where the developers were a tight, creative team so dedicated to the success of the product that many of them had been with the company for 8, 9, even 10 years…an unusual statistic in this era of 2 years here, 2 years there. Like many companies, it hit some tough times and there was a management change at the higher levels. This new group of managers believed that software developers were interchangeable -- that one was just as good as another; that they could be moved around from product area to product area, or replaced by offshore engineers; that this kind of movement would have no real impact on productivity or morale.

It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out what happened…the core group of engineers that developed the product were broken up, a few went to other product areas, most were laid off, and all future development was moved offshore at a vastly reduced cost. Bottom line, 1. Employees, 0.

I would like to say, as a great object lesson, that the company didn’t survive as a result, but it is still very much with us. What did happen, in the words of the remaining employees, was that the heart of the company went out of it. The extraordinary culture that inspired people to work long hours, to make themselves available at all times of the day and night, to collaborate and cooperate, and, most importantly, to trust their organization, evaporated. People put in only as much work as needed to meet minimum requirements. A culture that had been voted among the best places in Silicon Valley to work became a place where people punched a figurative clock, while they waited out the recession until they could find a more hospitable home. Pretty sad, I say.

To maintain the growth and vitality of our software industry, we need committed and talented software engineers. To retain their commitment and talent, we need to be aware that they are a special breed, with a quirky way of looking at the world, and an idiosyncratic strategy for solving the problems they are given and enabling the future most of us can’t imagine. They are artists of the mind, able to make magic happen with electronics, and they have profoundly changed our expectations of what is possible. They are not, as the company I highlighted believed, interchangeable, any more than you could walk into the Sistine Chapel one day and tell Michelangelo that you were replacing him with an art student. Failure to respect this unique contribution of innovative employees might not take a company down the first time, but eventually the air will leak out of the balloon, and you will have just another formerly great company with a “For Lease” sign on the corporate headquarters. I’ve been there more than once, and I expect you have too.

But there’s a dark side to allowing talent retention to drive business decisions. It’s possible to lean over too far to protect local talent. Pandering to the tyrannical demands of a software Nureyev can paint management into a corner, and make them dependent on one or two key employees to keep the company running. An organization needs balance to survive, and sometimes fresh air and tough love are necessary to free it from the cage into which it has locked itself in a vain attempt to keep key engineers from leaving and taking all that source code expertise with them.

Artists are not the easiest people to manage, and managing artist engineers asks a lot of us Engineering leaders. We need to acknowledge and value the uniqueness of their contribution without giving up our management discretion. We need to document and share the knowledge they have given us so that we are not held hostage to their expertise. We need to respect the necessity to turn a profit without throwing the wrong people out of the boat to achieve it. We need to remember the importance of culture as a motivator, and honor it as much as the situation allows. It won’t get easier, I’m sorry to say, so over time we will be challenged again and again, caught in the exquisite tension between profit and creativity. But we are learning organisms, so perhaps we will in our turn become, at least in small part, artist leaders, more and more flexible as we enable a future that only our artist engineers can make real.

Courtney Behm holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Performing Arts and Communication, and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Business. In her corporate career, she has worked for wildly successful companies, and those struggling to stay afloat in the ocean of change. Through her consulting company, Viewpoint Solutions (, she has helped a diverse client base, including Sun Microsystems, Adobe Systems, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, find creative solutions to classic business problems. An accomplished speaker, Courtney uses a combination of language, humor, insight and front-line experience to offer a fresh perspective on life in the fast lane. In 2006, she returned to the corporate world, and is currently Senior Project Manager at i365, A Seagate Company. She is writing a book on how to lead effectively in a time of constant change, and collaborating on a book on Personal Career Management.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Investing in People [David Skyberg]

Here’s an old saw that I bet you recognize: “Our people are our most important asset.” Or how about this one: “Investing in our people is just good business.” Truer words…

Yet while we all chant the same hymn, do we actually perform as if these are closely held beliefs? I will challenge you to consider how you make these axioms actionable. I’ll wager that most of us measure up woefully short.

Here’s an easy tell that might give away your position: is your training budget actually used? Or do you plan big at budgeting time with the best intentions, but consistently lament at the end of the cycle, “We just didn’t have the time to send folks to training this year.” Kimberly ought to have a flag for that (if you didn’t get that reference, you really need to come to the EL SIG more often)!

What does investing in our people actually look like? I will submit that it doesn’t look all that different than any other business objective. We ought to be able to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-oriented) and be held accountable for our performance against them, just like any other goal.

Now it starts to get interesting. If we are going to have real, actionable goals, how do we establish a vision to drive our goal setting? From my perspective, if you are looking internally for this vision, you may be a bit off target right from the start! If our people are the focus, then it is their vision that really needs to be paramount in the plan. But wait! What if their vision doesn’t sync up nicely with our needs? For instance, what if Janice, your ace tester, wants to become a developer? What if Johnny’s vision is to leave development altogether and become a product manager? What if Jane’s vision is to leave your enterprise app company and get into smart grid development?

The bottom line is that if you are really invested in your people, then it doesn’t matter what their career goals are. It only matters that you uphold them and honor the individual in the process. If you do this, then for the time that they are on your team, they will be better performers, and you will be creating an alluring culture.

So here’s my quick recipe for acting on the goal of truly cherishing your people, and raising them to be all that they can be.

·Routinely set aside 1 on 1 time with each direct report to focus specifically and ONLY on career planning (I target once a month). Be disciplined about this. Don’t allow this time to digress into project status meetings. Don’t let it be a feel good, “so how’s your life going” time. Drive toward the achievement of the next bullet.

·Take as a personal goal that every one of your direct reports has established a 5 year plan for which they are passionate. Commit to this goal with your manager. Be as committed to this as you are to achieving budget/revenue goals. Act on the belief that it is just as important.

·Ensure that each of your direct reports sets near term, actionable goals that advance their 5 year plan. Ensure there is commitment to these. Hold these up as being as important as any other commitment they make. Make them part of your standard review process, and hold them accountable for achievement.

·Participate in your direct reports’ growth by setting actionable goals for yourself that help them advance their 5 year plans. Commit to these and prove to your employees that you mean it when you say you are invested in their growth.

As high flying, star performer in your own right, you will be amazed at how creative you will become in helping your people achieve their dreams. You will be astounded at how good you feel about yourself as they check off their career milestones. And you will be dazzled at the positive impact this is having on your work culture and team morale. Hey, it’s just good business!

David Skyberg is a software team builder with over 10 years experience building and leading teams for some of the biggest names in software, such as Microsoft and RSA Security.