Rusty Divine

Live, Love, Learn, Teach

Alpha blues soup

Part three of a series of storied experiences on a small project at a large consulting company in the Pacific Northwest.

To: Rusty/SEA
From: Robert/SEA
Sent: Fri Oct 21 08:35:20 2005
Subject: RE: Just when you thought it was safe to go out...

I will be in late this morning (about 9:30), and will drop by. Can Angela get started with training docs?


To: Robert/SEA
From: Rusty/SEA
Sent: Fri Oct 21 07:38:44 2005
Subject: RE: Just when you thought it was safe to go out...


Thanks for the update.

Jon’s already got things to work on, I’ll check in with him to see how he is progressing.

I called Janet up and she won’t be here until tue/wed since the Portland office is doing its move over the weekend. She also told me that Andre and Lara implied there were many fewer hours than I said there were to do; and she surmised that because her billing rate is high, the PM on the DTX project might not let her actually charge that many hours to the project.

When Ryan gets back, I’ll let him know that he’s cleared for overtime on the CPUD project, but I will not cajole, coerce, or request that he actually works more than 40. Just to be clear, I am steadfast against it because it is the quickest way to demoralize and burn out a great worker and I do not want to lose Ryan. To me, employees and their families come first, clients come second.

It's probably never a good career move to tell the project manager to unceremoniously stuff it when he or she starts hinting at the need for overtime in order to meet a tight project schedule, but it was Friday and I was wiped out from a stressful week of balancing priorities and realigning my goals between the two projects I was working on - DTX and CPUD.

The undertone of Robert's reply was clear enough to me - I was going to get a talking to about being a company man. "Great," I thought sarcastically to myself, "now I won't be able to concentrate on the DTX synchronization routine until I have this confrontation with Robert."

The CPUD project was going as smoothly as it could. We had just delivered the bare-bones functional and technical specifications documents (with a little help from Joel), we had already started programming a few of the modules, and had the user interface mockup ported to HTML and CSS. The project team room was working out beautifully; our development team had great productivity and communication.

The problem was my other project, DTX, had about 45 hours of work that needed to be done for final delivery, and I was the only developer who had worked on the 500 hour project. If I put all of my attention into finishing it, it would only take me a week, but if we brought in another developer to finish it, it might take twice that long.

The plan hatched between the PM's of the two projects was to bring in Janet, a thoroughly qualified developer from another office, to finish DTX while I concentrated on CPUD - sort of an "architect" role on both projects, directing the developers and pitching in. So, I went from being excited to be finally wrapping up DTX, a project I came to feel ownership of after putting in so much time, to having some ambiguous "architect" role where I wasn't explicitly responsible for any particular thing, and didn't really have ownership of anything. Blech.

Soon enough, Robert came down to the team room. I was there alone at the time and wishing I had a witness to the upcoming confrontation.

"Let me start off by saying that I agree with you that employees families come first," he started sincerely. "I am not a slave driver, and I don't intend to force anyone to stay at work for long hours. I understand that a lot of companies do just that, and I am glad that this company has not shown any signs of strong arming the employees into long work days since I have been here."

"I appreciate that," I said as I tried to release the tension from my muscles that were geared up for fight or flight. "I just wanted to make it clear that I am not going to be the one to ask the team to work late hours. I don't believe in doing that, it is a very slippery slope" my voice grew a little husky to my embarrassment, "and this is an emotional topic for me because I have been through this scenario myself of being overworked, and I have seen it happen to my coworkers, and it is never worth it," my explanation was starting to turn into a plea, so I cut it off there.

"At some point in your career, you are going to have to ask people to work overtime," Robert reasoned. "It doesn't have to be you telling people to work overtime, you just have to ask; they can say no if they want. I don't want you to be here being the lone horseman bringing this project in on schedule because you don't want to ask anyone to work overtime."

My body went a little more rigid at his attempted persuasion to get me to do something I was obviously unwilling to do. As I gripped the armrests of my chair, I lost my cool somewhat when I retorted, "Let me be perfectly clear here; I am not going to be the lone horseman. I don't care if this project goes down in flames; if I take the wrap for that and get fired, then fine. I'm smart. The market is very good right now." I considered telling him about the two other open offers I had that I could always turn to, but decided not to show all my cards. "I can always find another job." I stared him down; a bit crazed still, like a horse backed into a corner.

And then the thing happened that in retrospect, however petty, made the whole confrontation worth it. Robert reached into his pocket, and without breaking eye contact, pulled out a blister packet of Nicorette gum, peeled back the foil, and popped it in his mouth.

Continued next week....

Team Friction

Part two of a series of storied experiences on a small project at a large consulting company in the Pacific Northwest. (Part One).

Robert held his key card to the electronic light of the entry door to the third floor office space. The light greened, and he opened the door while gentlemanly holding it for the team to pass through.

We were working on a project to develop a web application that managed documentation related to contracts and communications for a regional power utility district. The team consisted of Robert, Project Manager; Ryan, Developer; Angela, Graphics/Usability; and myself, Lead Developer. The client had requested a six-week final delivery schedule to coincide with opening their next big project using the web application. A break-neck project to be sure; six weeks to gather requirements, develop an interface, code, and document; forget about time for testing. Registering my complaint about the over-ambitious schedule at our internal kick-off meeting fell on deaf ears, but at least it was on record.

As we crowded into a short hall, Robert squeezed passed us to show us into our team room. "There are three keys;" he explained, "I'll keep one in my desk. Rusty, you take this one, and I'll give the other key to Angela. We need to make sure not to lock ourselves out of this room or we'll be in trouble!"

The team room was impressive. One entire wall was windows looking out on the courtyard. The mahogany conference table comfortably sat 6, and occupied the main space. There was a large white board on one wall, and several individual desks against the interior wall. "Don't tell anyone down here this is only a $70,000 project, now," warned Robert, putting his reputation before the team.

As we sat down at the table, I took a seat at one end while others sat on the sides; a habit I had noticed of myself in the past, and one my modesty is not proud of. As we sat looking at each other, it quickly became apparent that it was unclear who should be leading the meeting, a problem that was already recurrent.

The problem first became apparent the previous week when Robert, Ryan, and I paid a visit to the client for what was supposed to be a week of meetings and requirements gathering to jump start the project. The first day was chaotic; the six-member client team was reduced to debating insignificant details amongst themselves, but at least had shown a lot of interest and willingness to participate. At dinner that night, the three of us mulled over the plan for the next day.

"Today we got some good ideas about how they want their unique document numbering system to work, but I haven't gathered the information I need to actually write a functional specification," I said between mouthfuls of BBQ chicken. "Tomorrow, Ryan and I need to corner two or three team members at a time and get them to walk through how the system will be actually used. How are projects added, archived, and managed." I was reminding them of the agenda I had forwarded to Robert at his request for this week's meetings, and which he had passed on to the client.

"I'd really like all of us to meet with them again in the morning and go over all the questions we have from today's meeting. I think Brett (Client Project Manager) had a few more things he wanted to talk about," Robert replied. "I really want to go in there tomorrow with a clear list of things to do, questions to ask, so that we don't get off track. How about, after dinner, we meet to get everything laid out and typed up for tomorrow," he stated, rather than asked.

And we did just that; we came up with a list of questions to ask the next day, but I was still sore that I wouldn't get my agenda complete. I worried that I wouldn't have the information I needed to figure out how the site was supposed to work.

The next morning when we reconvened, things went from bad to worse for me as the precedent of unclear leadership was set. As we sat at the table for the meeting, Robert handed me the list of questions and started telling me how to lead the meeting. He imposed the responsibility of leading the meeting, without any ownership over the agenda, and it made me feel a little uneasy. Nothing to get too upset about, but a flag was raised in my mind that something didn't feel right about this.

As the meeting started, I asked Brett if he had anything to discuss leftover from yesterday's meeting, and he looked at me blankly and shook his head. "Ungh," I thought, "I should have questioned Robert's assertion last night when I wondered what he was talking about."

"Why don't you group your questions concerning each web page, and we can walk through them that way," Brett suggested.

"Crap, we didn't organize them like that, now I have to scan this two page list and try to ask them in an organized manner." I thought. "OK, let me just scan this list for the first set," I replied lamely.

At that point, Robert interrupted and took over with his own line of questions, and we fell back into the previous day's arguments over the unique document numbering system.

After two hours of debating, my face was showing my disgust, which Robert interpreted as impatience with himself, but which actually was the feeling of powerlessness over getting the information I actually needed.

"I don't think we have time to get into that subject," I tersely replied to Robert, somewhat under my breath, as he suggested opening Pandora's box 10 minutes before the client team had said they needed to break for other meetings. He opened it anyway.

Fifteen minutes later, we had successfully closed the box, and he was ready to go open another one. "No, I don't think we should talk about that now; it's already past 10, and Brett needs to get to his other meeting," having lost my patience, I clearly stated this while glaring at him. "We will adjourn now, and while you go and read the contract with Sam, Ryan and I will interview Renae about how the site will actually work."

After the room cleared out, Robert apologized a few times for taking over the meeting, and I felt silly for losing my cool. Besides, I was happy that I finally caught a break and would get a chance to talk to a client about functionality.

Our interview went spectacularly! We learned so much basic information about who would administer what, how security roles worked, what Renae expected each page to do, and how the work flow would proceed, including email notifications on certain events.

"That was what we needed to do that whole time!" Ryan cheered gleefully after the interview.

"Man, I know! That was great." I agreed, feeling vindicated.

The afternoon went well as Robert was still absent, so I was clearly the leader of the meeting. Even with the whole group back, we stayed on track and got through a lot of information.

That night, Ryan returned to the home office 150 miles away, as did Robert. I was staying at the client site to write a draft functional spec the next day, and then planned to reconvene the following day when Laura was scheduled to visit for usability interviews. I got an email reading that Laura had a change of plans due to personal reasons that required her to be replaced on the project by Angela; neither would be coming out. I decided to keep working anyway, and to present the draft spec in a couple of days. Then, my laptop HD crashed. Shoot. I didn't loose any work thanks to backups, but I decided to pack it in and go back to the home office; it seemed fated.

It turned out to be two days of meetings instead of five after all; funny how things work out sometimes.

Continued next week...

Our Team Palace

"You're not going to believe it," the project manager quipped in his cagey style as he lead my development team from our cubicles to our first meeting in the team room reserved for our latest project.

After a brief pause where I attempted to evaluate whether I should expect to be pleasantly surprised or morosely let down, I guessed the former, "I bet it's like the Taj Mahal." After which Robert's only reply was a chuckle, preferring to keep his game going instead of acquiescing to my correct assertion.

The four of us boarded the elevator on the fifth floor and went down to the third floor. Our company occupies all of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors (the top floor of the building), which are all well connected by stairs. The third floor, of which we occupy only half, can only be reached by the elevator. People on the third floor complain they feel cut off from the rest of the company; I don't think they even have a fridge or a microwave down there. Not a great sign to start off this project.

I work at a consulting company, and yes, Joel, we make millions selling consultingware, although it is largely due to our very well established name brand - I wouldn't recommend it for a start up that wasn't well connected already.

The previous week, I met with my Group Leader about some new cubicles that were slated for a currently unused space on the other side of a wall behind my cubicle. "I have a break-neck project starting next week. We have six weeks to finish the website, and there will be no time to design it upfront. We're going to need to be in constant communication, and even though Ryan (another developer) sits next to me, we won't be able to cooperate well with the cubicle wall separating us. What do you think about setting up three desks in this area without putting up any partitions so that we can use this space for the project?"

Our Group Leader considered the pros and cons, "I'm not sure what we can do since the cubicles are already ordered. I'll have to speak with Laurie," she decided, in typical corporate fashion, to say no by passing the buck to some possibly imaginary administrative broker.

Never one to give up easily, I visited the project manager to plead my case. Robert was fairly new to the company so I hoped he wasn't aware that giving developers their own space had never been done here, and he was older so I thought he should have some more seniority to leverage. To his credit, he took my request seriously; he did have a large stake in the project, too, after all, and the next thing I knew he was leading the team down to our project team room that he got reserved for the next three weeks. (OK, it wasn't for all six weeks, but it was a start; how's that for getting things done for a grunt?)

Continued next week...

Learn to Deal with Stage Fright

The class in college that I can point to as the single class that prepared me the most for my career was a technical speaking and writing course I took as a senior.

The professor is a renowned curmudgeon in the department, but her heart is in the right place - she really cares about her charges and is somewhat ruthless in her criticism.

Every week we each had to give a speech. The first speech was just a quick 1 minute introduction; our final speech was a 15 minute lecture. Each speech was structured around a presentation; as most scientific talks are, and we were critiqued by our peers in the audience. Since our professor giddily pointed out our little foibles, especially uttering the filler words um, like, and and, our peers weren't shy about being starkly honest in their criticisms either.

Going to that class every week was an exercise in will power for me. Standing on stage in front of an audience of my peers - who may know more about my material than I - trying to appear intelligent, or at least coherent; I dreaded every moment of it until I was finished, at which point I would enjoy a brief sense of elation prior to starting to dread next week's speech.

The absolute worst part was waiting through the speeches before mine. My anxiety level was directly related to how many speeches I had to sit through before I could finally get mine over with!

The next worst experience was seeing other people stumble on stage as their physiology took over and their flight response screamed from within to get the heck outta Dodge. My empathy would mirror their emotion and make my stomach turn sour.

By the finish of the semester, our group had advanced remarkably. I was still anxious about speaking, but I could manage it much better. I credit our increased proficiency to our professor who honestly critiqued us and forced us to face the unpleasantness of learning to speak well.

The one lesson that I remember to this day from her was when she told us that prior to teaching each of her classes, she still gets butterflies - and she'd been teaching for over 20 years. That made me realize that the goal of overcoming anxiety when speaking isn't the true goal, the true goal is to learn to manage your emotions and project an air of confidence despite any quivering from your mid-section.

Fast-forward 10 years to present day when my wife suggested we join a local Toastmasters club. After joining, I soon learned that my confidence had waned in the years since practicing speaking in front of an audience. Well, what better place than Toastmasters to re-hone my abilities? The group is incredibly friendly and supportive - in fact, at first I was a little let down that they weren't as ruthless as my old college professor, but what they lack in brass they make up with in style.

A typical meeting starts with a joke or a speaking tip, followed by three 5-7 minute speeches. Each speech is then evaluated by a designated evaluator (which is a great skill in and of itself, combining public speaking, quick thinking, and polite critiquing). Afterwords, there is a Table Topics session where someone throws out a topic like, "What's your favorite camping story" and everyone takes turns telling their story in a 1 minute speech. Sometimes someone will instead start a fictional story, and then everyone takes turns adding to it. Finally, everyone votes for the best speech, evaluation, and table topic culminating in a nice little award to the winners.

There is a well defined structure that includes work books and speech topics that will take you from beginner to Toastmaster in 10 speeches. After you earn your Competent Toastmaster's certificate, you can choose a more specific path of speaking style, such as story telling.

The bottom line is, if you want to feel more comfortable speaking in front of your peers at business meetings, sales calls, or technical presentations, the only way you will improve is through practice. And remember, almost everyone feels acute anxiety when speaking in front of people, and even the most seasoned speakers don't loose that edge completely - they just learn to use its adrenalin boost to their advantage.

For some more information, check out my club's website.