Lessons Learned in Configuration Management Consulting


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.

CM is about process, but is also about the people who do the day-to-day work. This article by Leslie Sachs shows the lessons she learned from the demanding world of configuration management consulting.

As the COO of a configuration management consulting practice, I have learned a few things about what makes CM gurus successful, as well as the common mistakes that all too frequently undermine success. While build and release engineering are very technical functions, configuration management is more about people and process. There are excellent reasons why some processes are repeatable, traceable, and nearly perfect, and there are also good reasons why technology professionals make mistakes that can lead to serious failures. CM is about process, but is also about the people who do the day-to-day work. This article focuses on some of our own lessons learned from the demanding world of configuration management consulting.

CM Best Practices Consulting
My consulting practice is focused on providing the services described in the book Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World [1] that I co-authored with Bob Aiello. We have assignments that range from a rapid assessment of CM best practices to long-term, hands-on implementation efforts where our resources are fully engaged. We partner with other consulting practices and independent consultants, although much of our work comes from development managers who read our book and then call us for help. There are more than a few valuable lessons learned from these experiences.

Workplaces Have Cultures and Personalities
Each environment has its own unique blend of challenges. You need to be able to size up the personalities involved and consider how your behaviors fit in and interact with the mix. This is often about communication, but sometimes it is even more complicated than just getting your message across. We have all worked on teams where one or more members just rubbed us the wrong way. It can sometimes be very difficult to succeed when the chemistry is less than perfect. Technology professionals often decide to look for another opportunity rather than try to deal with a difficult situation. Having the right skills in sizing up difficult personalities can help you to succeed where others may fail.

Group Processes
Groups often have their own cultural norms and expectations. You may find some groups are easier to join than others. I suggest that when you are uncomfortable with either your involvement with a group or interactions with a difficult person, it is essential to consider why you are experiencing a particular reaction. It may be something as silly as that the person reminds you of someone else with whom you had a bad experience. Alternatively, you may be correctly diagnosing that someone is just going to be a pill to work with. Some groups should be avoided (remember what mom said about that rowdy bunch of kids in high school) as they may be just too difficult for anything positive to result. Still, your own professional success ultimately depends upon your ability to get along and succeed with whomever you find yourself required to work with. Reflecting upon what works and what doesn’t is a surefire way to improve and refine your own people skills over time.

Reflections and Resolutions
Each time you interact with others is an opportunity to sharpen your skills. The most effective learning occurs when you can honestly reflect upon your own successes and failures. Try to examine the interpersonal situations that have presented you with the greatest challenges. Remember always that mistakes are not bad; in fact, it is the finding of solutions to their failures that propels most people to higher achievements. Understanding how someone else impacts you in terms of your own feelings can be essential to uncovering an effective way to interact with a particular individual or within a specific group. Unfortunately, many people who have trouble coping in certain situations are also uncomfortable acknowledging their difficulty and resist seeking assistance.
Challenges We Have Seen
At times, consultants may find themselves intimidated and less than completely effective as a result of the environment and interactions they encounter on a given assignment. For example, I recall one placement recently where the client was constantly changing the requirements. In addition, our consultant was being asked to complete tasks which were clearly not within the job description for which she was hired. Under pressure to meet deadlines and yet being kept out-of-the-loop with regard to important details, this very knowledgeable and competent IT professional began to feel anxious and her productivity suffered. Realizing that she didn’t have the personality to challenge authority forcefully, I stepped in with the following approach: I validated her frustration at being constantly pressured to produce results without having been given the requisite tools and information; I let the client know that his expectations were not realistic; and I suggested steps to rectify the situation so that she could work more efficiently and deliver the product he wanted.

New Employment Challenges
Employees may be particularly vulnerable when facing new and uncertain work environments if they have recently returned to the workforce. Being unemployed for even a brief period of time can be extremely disconcerting, and it can erode the self-confidence of even the most successful individuals. Very often, people in these situations may find themselves second-guessing their initial reactions while needing more confirmation than before  that they are on track.

Other Critical Factors
It is helpful to remember that we all wear many hats and that sometimes what a person is dealing with in another part of her life may affect her in the office, as well. No work setting will function well if employees are emoting excessively all the time about personal matters, but it can also be unproductive to ignore it when there is obviously an elephant in the room. If a colleague mentions that he is going through a rough patch, statements of understanding and support from co-workers can go a long way.

At this time of year, many people take stock of themselves and some make specific resolutions of things they would like to change in the coming year. Becoming more aware of oneself and assessing one’s current status is always the first step to growth. Take some time this holiday season to reflect upon your personality, especially with regard to interpersonal strengths and weaknesses. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, there are probably a few scenarios you wish you could replay. Now is the time to think about how you can get yourself on the path that takes you to that better outcome.

[1] Aiello, Robert and Leslie Sachs. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley, 2010.

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