Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Scaling an Information Technology Organization

If your company is in the enviable position of growing rapidly and needing to scale their IT organization, there are a number of ways to expedite the process while ensuring that you get the right people on board and integrated into the team as quickly as possible.

First, we will take a look at a couple examples of what not to do. These stories are based upon first-hand experience

Avoid Accuracy through volume
It might be a good practice if you are a machine gunner, but accuracy through volume in hiring is a difficult and often disruptive undertaking. I worked for a company years ago that would hire multiple dozens of new college graduates each year. On one hand, it led to a lot of variety of thought and fresh, eager colleagues who could sometimes be a breath of fresh air at an otherwise old school and slow-moving company. On the other hand, the very high turnover and constant on-boarding where disruptive to the larger team and led work to be completed more slowly and less efficiently than it could have been with a more streamlined and well-planned team. New college hires can be a tremendous addition to the team, but they need to be balanced by experienced colleagues who can help achieve the first "what to do" item below to give the best chance of a new hire quickly becoming a productive member of the team who then stays with the company and becomes one of the experienced colleagues to keep the cycle going.

Avoid unattainable job requirements
It is very important to carefully consider what you are looking for in a candidate whether you are hiring just one or many. However, this can lead you to put together a job description with requirements so specific that no candidate will fill the bill. I sometimes like to refer to this as IT folks making it more difficult for themselves and others in IT to find a job because the IT folks are the ones building the algorithms that process resumes. When the number of requirements put into those algorithms is too high, a lot of resumes for excellent candidates can be rejected simply because of a missing keyword. There is certainly a base level of technical skill necessary to fulfill any IT role. However, I prefer to look for candidates with certain types of experiences like taking something from inception to production and an ability to passionately tell the story of interesting things they have worked on. Even a college recruit should have something they are passionate about though it might not be something technical. In all my interviews, I always ask the candidate to tell me, with a significant level of detail, about something interesting they worked on. During their answer, I pay attention to both their passion and their level of detailed knowledge on the subject. Even if the work is different from that of the role for which they are applying, a candidate who was passionate and picked up and utilized detailed knowledge in the past can do the same again for your company.

With those two examples of what not to do, we will turn our attention to a number of "what to do" items that will help find the right candidates and get them integrated into the team as quickly as possible.

Nail down your corporate culture AND your IT culture
Most companies of any significant size have a culture that is frequently carefully cultivated by HR and corporate leadership. This is definitely a great start, but there is more to be done in this area. Every company also has a culture, hopefully aligned with the overall culture, within IT. This is a culture of both soft and technical skills that needs to be cultivated by IT leadership. A few examples of key items to figure out include technology stacks, release schedules, 24/7 support, team composition, cross-team collaboration (development, operations, infrastructure, QA, etc.), knowledge sharing, colleague recognition, celebrations / postmortems, and the role of IT around the ultimate deliverables of the company. Beyond that, IT colleagues need to understand how their personal work is contributing to the success of both IT and the company. The more rapidly the IT department needs to grow, the more closely the IT culture needs to be monitored, refined, and even documented. When a candidate is partaking in an interview, the colleagues performing the interview should be able to provide a very detailed and uniform view of the culture so that all parties can determine if the candidate is a good fit. When a new hire starts, they need to be quickly ingrained into the culture to become a contributing member of the team as soon as possible. I have spoken with many people about and experienced myself instances of still not feeling like a part of the team and the IT culture even after 6 months of employment. The overall company culture may be clear, but a colleague may still have difficulty with all the nuances within IT. In the best case, such a colleague is a less productive member of the team. It the worst case, they have a ton to offer but leave to find a new opportunity where they can feel more supported as an important part of the team.

Generally speaking, many IT teams rely too heavily on HR and corporate leadership to drive the culture and forget that it is equally as important to define and refine the culture within IT and the key items that make IT unique.

Decide the right team composition in advance
Team composition to ensure the right assortment of senior and junior experience, the ratio of management to individual contributors, and diversity of thought is very important. Any guidelines can be revisited, and you certainly do not want to eliminate a great candidate who may come along at any time, but these topics need to be carefully considered and documented as you begin to scale the team.

Get the company name out there
If a company wants to attract top talent, they need to get their name out and associated with positive connotations. This can be tricky when it comes to IT if the company's primary product is not IT services. So, the company overall should ensure that it makes a positive name for itself, but leadership and key contributors from IT need to also help on the technical front. A highly technical candidate will generally prefer a company they see as a) meeting and exceeding their level of technical acumen and b) valuing technology as a significant contributor to corporate success.  The key is to give a face (more likely multiple faces) to the company at meetups and other more formal technical events. Attending and participating are fine, but sponsoring, presenting at, and even hosting will go a lot further towards cultivating the company's external, technical image. Certainly, a company needs to exercise caution to ensure that the right message is getting across to consistently highlight the best attributes. This goes back to an earlier bullet about cultural alignment above. If a company does not put themselves out there to build a reputation as an appealing place for a technologist to work, though, it will be very difficult to attract the best talent available.

Partner closely with recruiting
Assuming that your company has a recruiting department, partnering very closely with these colleagues is very important, They need to be brought into the fold of not just the corporate culture but the IT culture and the other bullet points noted in this article. I have seen many instances where IT simply creates a job description, passes it along to recruiting, and then complains that they are not getting the right candidates. Typically, a recruiter is responsible for many areas of the business or, if the company is large enough, even many areas just within IT. Working with the recruiter as a trusted partner and aligning very closely is necessary to find the right talent quickly. Beyond the job description, you need to define the personality, experiences, and other less-tangible traits for which you are looking. As candidates pass through, you need to be very thoughtful and thorough with the feedback provided to the recruiter whether the candidate was hired, offered and declined, or passed. There are many things to learn from each scenario, and it is important to share that knowledge both ways between IT and recruiting.

Work with organizations who place military veterans
This item is fairly obvious but often overlooked. Studies show that military veterans, at a higher than average rate, make for very productive and dedicated students, employees, and leaders based upon their experiences in the military. I have personally worked with a good number of veterans over the years and would not hesitate to hire more in the future.

Recruit from within
Recruiting from within comes in two flavors. One is fairly obvious and involves looking at existing employees to fill open roles. This can mean a promotion, a lateral move from one technology stack to another, or even a move from outside of IT. One of the best colleagues who ever worked for me came from outside of IT and rapidly worked his way to Director of Enterprise Architecture within fairly large IT organization. I hired him away from our original company and would be more than happy to hire him again in the future. Keep an open mind when looking within. It is a great way to keep colleagues happy through variety and challenge and to help a high performer spread their positive influence to other areas of the company.

The second flavor of recruiting from within is to mine the networks of your existing colleagues. If you are doing a good job of getting you colleagues ingrained into the culture and being happy and productive, then they should already be reaching out to friends and former co-workers to bring them into the fold. Extra incentives can but put into place to aid in this process, but I tend to disagree with significant, monetary rewards except for difficult to fill, critical roles. You do not want colleagues just using the opportunity to make a little extra money. Instead, recognition and non-monetary rewards can be used to influence participation.

Consider contract-to-hire
Sometimes companies forget about this option. Although it can be inconvenient to have new colleagues who may leave after a 6-month contract, it provides a good option for both sides to "try before they buy". If your company does not quite have the other items mentioned in this article in place, you may find really solid candidates willing to give it a try via a contract without signing up for a long term commitment. The key with these colleagues is that you should treat them just like any other member of the team because your goal is to bring them on full-time. If you isolate them from the full-time colleagues or otherwise treat them differently, the likelihood they will make the transition is greatly reduced.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

7 Positive Traits of A Great Leader

In this post, I will share my thoughts on 7 positive personality and professional traits that make a great leader in no particular order. The reason I have not specified an order or numbered them is because every leader should strive for all 7. Convincing the reader to adopt some subset of the 7 is not the purpose of this article. Along the way, I will also throw in a few personal stories to highlight my points. Please note that these stories are not intended to be a statement about how "awesome" my leadership abilities are. I am simply pointing out instances where I have tried my best to embody these traits and be the best leader that I could in different circumstances. Perhaps I will write another post covering the mistakes I have also made along the way because I, being human, am certainly not perfect.

A great leader...

Practices radical transparency and honesty
You can read up on the concept of Radical Transparency on any number of websites. For the purposes of this article, I am primarily referring to the fact that a leader's job is to shield his or her team from chaos, politics, priority changes, budget snafus, etc. It is not to shield them from information. Everybody involved in a work relationship is an adult and deserves to be treated as such. No matter the information, sharing and discussing it in a controlled way is far superior to the alternative because the team is always going to find out regardless of any attempts to prevent it. Certainly there are times when a leader is simply unable to share information, and this is where the honesty also kicks in. When the team inevitably asks the leader what they know of a given situation, it might be easier to respond that they know nothing. Honesty, though, calls for the leader to let it be known that they have knowledge they are currently unable to share. He or she should explain why and then work to get to the point when they can share more as soon as possible.

A leader should both practice transparency and honesty and expect them from his or her colleagues. They must be willing to accept honest thoughts and opinions even if they differ from their own or provide constructive criticism. It is important to build a culture where such interactions are openly accepted and encouraged while also striving to be tactful in the approach (i.e. do not just call out somebody in the middle of a meeting).

I have experienced a few occasions in the past where my level of transparency and honesty have been questioned for being possibly being too "extreme". This typically comes from old-school leaders who do not believe in the same philosophy, but I can honestly say that, over 20+ years of working, I have never had an individual whose attitude, quality of work, happiness, etc. has ever been negatively impacted because I was transparent and honest with them. I have also never had another leader tell me that they wish I would provide less detail of the work my team is doing, the status of our platform, and the successes and roadblocks we have experienced because they do not want to know.

Leads from the front
A leader should never ask his or her team to do something they would be unwilling to do themselves. I am not talking about specific tasks as the leader is often not capable of executing tasks in which a member of their team specializes. I am talking about less tangible things. If a leader expects their team to work overtime, the leader should also be willing to put in the extra effort. If a leader expects their team to give up vacation time, the leader should also be willing to make the same sacrifice. If the leader expects the team to "sell" an initiative to other leaders, he or she should be right next to their team selling it and putting their own neck on the line if the initiative falters. A leader must be out ahead of his or her team doing their best push aside all the roadblocks, taking the same risks, and putting in the same effort. They cannot sit back and critique and second guess from behind.

When I worked for a large consulting company several years ago, I was in a technical and people leadership role that could have allowed me to sit back and tell people what to do while working a 9-to-5 schedule. Instead, I decided to take a very pro-active approach to the technical side by working ahead to figure out things that the team would need the next week or the next month so that I could provide guidance when we got to that point in the effort. I also helped the team execute upon all of the promises each agile sprint to ensure that everything was completed when it was an option to simply sit back and point out how specific team members had not completed their assigned tasks. This allowed me to get to know each team member, develop very solid relationships built on respect and trust, keep the clients happy, and, in the end, help to make everybody more efficient while improving work/life balance through better sprint planning. Leading from the front is definitely not the easy path, but it is the right path to take.

Is emotionally consistent
Every leader has a style, and colleagues can become accustomed to just about anything if that style is applied consistently every day. So, a leader must pick their style and stick to it versus setting up a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation where colleagues never know which leader is going to show up to a given meeting or interaction (in-person, phone, email). This is not to say that a leader can never make a change, and this goes back to transparency and honesty. If a leader sees an opportunity for self-improvement, he or she should be open with their team and bring them along on that journey.

More years back than I care to acknowledge, I played high school football. I still vividly remember two of the coaches in particular. All of the kids were essentially terrified of one coach because he could shift from being friendly and supportive to being a raving, cursing lunatic in a matter of moments. We never knew who was going to show up for each practice. On the other hand, there was a coach that everybody liked who was 3/4 of the way to raving lunacy at all times. We all just acclimated to his style and knew exactly what to expect and how to keep him happy. I am certainly not advocating raving lunacy as a leadership style, but the key is that people can deal with consistent behavior even if they sometimes disagree with it. At the very least, it gives the leader the ability to consciously analyze themselves and how their style impacts their team in order to execute changes for the better over time in collaboration with their team.

Exercises reasonable empathy
This is the one point (the "reasonable" qualifier) that I believe may evoke some negative feedback in this article because empathy in leadership is a very hot topic right now. Empathy is, indeed, critically important both for work and personal life, but a leader needs to draw the line so that colleagues are not taking advantage by seeing just how much they can get away with. This is not for the benefit of the leader but for the benefit of the rest of the team who are not trying to take advantage. If they see a colleague getting away with things that they should not, it negatively impacts the rest of the team. This, however, is a very delicate situation and must be approached thoughtfully and cautiously to ensure that the leader is finding the right balance.

At a previous leadership role, I was given the unenviable task of writing a review for an under-performing colleague even though I had minimal experience with that colleague at the time. I was flat out told to write a negative review so that the colleague could be put on a plan and set up for subsequent termination. Exercising a reasonable amount of empathy called for me to interview other team members with whom the colleague had worked and particularly the colleague himself to understand the situation before blindly following instructions. During this process, I learned that the colleague had been asked to execute work that he was physically incapable of executing - not out of laziness or lack of caring but a literal inability to see the computer screen the same way the average person does. He was afraid, though, to admit this and risk negative repercussions, and the rest of the team was not really aware of the situation. After learning of this, I wrote up a much more reasonable review pointing out the issue and then spent the next few months mentoring him on the back-end development that did not require the same visual abilities as front-end development. This also meant re-organizing the team to account for the change in workload, and the team was willing to exercise reasonable empathy when they understood the situation. Through the hard work this colleague was willing to put in, the understanding and trust of the team, and some assistance from me, the colleague became a much more successful developer and contributor to the team.

Decisively builds consensus
Sometimes leaders describe themselves as "consensus builders" because they see themselves as open-minded, but they often forget an important piece to the puzzle. A leader certainly needs to be open to ideas and collaborative with colleagues of all levels, but they also need to then assimilate all of that information and form a decisive action plan to move forward. This latter part is often overlooked. Just being open and collaborative does not move the needle. A leader must get all parties on the same page and moving forward together. He or she cannot expect that the colleagues with varying opinions will somehow find a cohesive direction among themselves without the leader's further involvement. A leader must dictate the direction of execution without being a dictator. The action plan may not satisfy all parties, but integrating the top ideas into a cohesive plan based upon the current situation and knowledge is the best any leader can do.

Puts the team's needs first
For a leader, putting their team's needs in front of their own can take many shapes. Perhaps it is the leader putting himself or herself into an uncomfortable situation that goes against the grain because they know it is the right thing for the team. It can also be the leader openly celebrating the accomplishments of his or her team, inviting team members to leadership meetings to present those accomplishments, and generally acknowledging the team instead of taking the successes as their own. The same can be said for failures where the leader should acknowledge their own role while helping to rectify the situation versus throwing a team member under the bus. This is a huge topic with a lot of applicable scenarios, but the key is to adopt the "we" mentality and even the word itself when discussing the team's efforts. A leader cannot always do what is best for the team, but the team should always be a top consideration in every decision.

When a start-up for which I was the VP of Engineering was acquired, an issue arose when the acquiring company sent very low offers to all of the existing employees - myself included. Because the executives of the start-up had left as part of the acquisition, that meant I was the most senior leader remaining. After discussing with the team, we came up with a plan that each person would share with me what they desired to make. I, in turn, would craft a write-up for each colleague with my honest assessment of their skills, what they contributed to the team, and what their salary should be. My portion was done privately with the trust of the team that I would be fair and honest. I then flew to the headquarters of the acquiring company and negotiated the salaries and bonuses of all my colleagues. While they did not all get exactly what they desired, each received a salary that was at least 35% higher than the initial offers with appropriate, annual bonus potentials as well. Only at that point did I negotiate my own salary. From a humanity and leadership perspective, this just seemed like the right thing to do. I worked closely with and liked all of these colleagues and wanted to see them treated fairly so that we could continue our collaboration. From a personal perspective, it also did not make sense for me to negotiate my position while the rest of the team got frustrated and possibly left for other opportunities. A leader without a team is not really a leader.

Accepts that failure is always an option
Business and technology are changing rapidly and dramatically. It is not possible to create a perfect plan and then execute flawlessly on that plan. Accepting that failures will happen and iterating upon the best ideas formed using the most up-to-date knowledge at the time are key. A leader must be willing to both accept and admit mistakes within and outside of his or her team. The key when something goes wrong is to understand where things stand and to take decisive action to improve the situation while being honest and transparent along the way. Certainly, there are more considerations if a colleague is being intentionally malicious. Typically, though, what we might call a "mistake" in business is actually a decision that was made with the best intentions that seemed right at the time but turned out, in hindsight, to be incorrect. Everyone should learn from mistakes but what is the benefit in lingering on something that, say six months ago, seemed like the best decision? Even worse, what is the benefit of trying to assign blame six months later? Simply use whatever new knowledge has come to light since that time, build a consensus for the best approach to move forward, and take action under a new plan.