Management Myth 22: If You’re Not Typing, You’re Not Working

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Summary:

Some managers who have not been technical in a while have forgotten—or may never have known—that software product development is about learning. They may have spent all of their learning time at a keyboard. Especially if they learned alone rather than in teams, they would not know how to assess a team member’s need for alone time after intense team time.

“James, I need to talk to you about Bill.” Susanne shut the door and sat down in the visitor chair.

“OK, what’s up?” James stopped typing at his computer. He walked to his visitor table and sat down.

“I just walked by Bill’s office. He’s leaning back in his chair. I could swear he’s snoring!” Susanne yanked at her sleeves, her brow furrowed. “He’s not working. If he’s not typing, how could he be working?”

“Susanne, what did you do before you were the CIO?” James decided to lead her to the answer instead of answering directly.

“What do you mean? I was a manager of technology.”

“OK, and before that?”

“I was a project manager. And a darn good one.”

“I bet you were. How long has it been since you did technical work? Fifteen years? Twenty years? I’m not asking your age. I know, never ask a lady her age. I wouldn’t ask if you were a gentleman, either. I’m making a point about different personalities and technical work.

“Some people need to think about their work. Sometimes, they take a walk. Sometimes, they lean back in their chairs and they close their eyes. Sometimes, when Bill does that, he actually does nap. It’s OK; it won’t be for more than fifteen minutes. When he wakes up and opens his eyes, he’s going to have a terrific idea—or, more likely, three terrific ideas—that he will share with the team.

“Some people need to discuss their work to generate ideas. If Bill were having a meeting with people, would you object?”

“No, of course not!”

“Right. And if Bill had decided to make himself a cup of coffee, that would have been fine. Or if he’d gone to work out in the gym, that would have been OK. But because you happened to see him lean back in the chair with his eyes closed, it wasn’t OK.

“Bill thinks best by himself, but he also pairs really well with other people. He just came off several days of constant pairing. He told everyone he needed an hour off to regenerate.

“Trish is different. She needs to take a long walk to regroup. She takes a walk around the campus to think. Danny is different also. He wants to discuss things with people. Loudly. You know when Danny’s thinking. Everyone knows when Danny’s thinking.

“The point is this: You and I can’t tell when people are thinking. We have to trust that they are working, even when they’re not typing. Because I’m their manager, you need to trust me. I trust them to work. Do you trust me?”

Susanne leaned back in the chair. “Yes, I trust you. How do you know all this about your people?”

“Well, I observe them. I talk to them. Remember when you asked me to take on managing all those other people directly, and I told you I couldn’t? I told you my max number of people was about two agile teams? That I had to be able to have one-on-ones with every person every other week?”

Suzanne nodded.

“This is why. I get to know people in our one-on-ones. I walk around and listen. I’m available for facilitating problem-solving. I don’t insinuate myself into the teams, but I’m there if they need me. I help people with meta-coaching and meta-feedback. I didn’t learn all of this the first day I was their manager. I learned it over time, bit by bit.

“I don’t always get it right. But I don’t impose on the team. I get it right more often than I get it wrong. When you came in here worried about Bill, I knew what was going on. I wasn’t worried.”

“So it’s all about knowing your team and trusting them to do their jobs,” Susanne said. “Well, I trust you. And I guess, by extension, I trust them.”

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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