I want to explain a little about how things worked in a team I used to work for. I’ve been lucky enought to work with a few really great groups of people in my short career, so I think I’ve picked up a couple of hints.
When I first started work in my job, I was straight out of university. The bank had sent me and forty or so others on a long training course to get us up to speed with how things worked in the office: mostly proprietary technology and advanced Java. We had a fantastic time! I probably learned more in those few weeks than in three years at university, and drank enough beer to match, too.
After that, I ended up in an infrastructure group building and maintaining .NET libraries for application development groups. It was a fairly hardcore scene, and I had to learn really fast. The firm’s infrastructure team are amongst the best developers in the world, so I had lots of great people to learn from. Amongst the ranks are rocket scientists we poached from NASA, and two (count ’em!) chess Grand Masters.
But after 18 months I was well on my feet, and was confident in my knowledge. People asked me questions, I taught classes, and meanwhile I wrote a lot of code. For a time, when my project leader was in New York, I ran the project in London. I presented at internal technical forums, represented the firm at universities across the country, and even appeared on the recruitment pages of the firm’s website!
Looking back, some of people that had been on the training course with me, back when we started, hadn’t been as lucky as me. Many of them were better, technically, than I was. I’ve spent some time thinking about what outside factor had given me so many opportunities to do well, and I think I’ve cracked it.
It’s the team, stupid
My team was fantastic. Being around really smart developers drives you to excel. My boss called it the Symphony Orchestra effect – if you’re at college learning the violin, and practise hard, you’ll do well. If you’re stuck playing in the middle of a symphony orchestra you’re going to excel. You’re going to be the best young violinist you know.
We were doing some really cool things, too. For a geek, it was absolutely the best place to work. We wrote compilers, took things apart, broke Garbage Collection, and fed code into the Microsoft Machine. My boss had this talent for encouraging you to get stuff done without being heavy-handed. I’ve called it “low impact management”.
It means not caring about presenteeism – if you’ve not got any clean shirts, work from home. If you need to pop out and run an errand, do it. As long as the work gets done. And it did (and then some!), because we enjoyed all the cool things we were doing.
We ate and drank together. We went for lunch mostly every day, with our wider team. And we’d talk whilst we ate – it’s terrible for digestion, but you get a really good feel for what’s going on around you. That makes you more knowledgable, and more valuable. On Fridays, we’d all troop down to the pub for lunch.
Quite regularly we’d head out drinking in the evening, too, because we enjoyed each others’ company. Your nearest management consultant would disagree with me, but I maintain that the single best icebreaker is to get a team into a pub with £100 behind the bar!
We didn’t really go in for agile development, but we did have a Stand-Up Meeting, and it worked wonders. Instead of being separate groups of people divided by oceans, we became a team. Instead of complaining about Sally not checking in her changelist, or David not releasing his patch on time, we’d call those guys and have a chat.
Low impact management caused all that. Our boss rarely mandated anything – he led by example, and by influence. It didn’t hurt that, in his time, he’d been a hot developer himself and could still give most of us a run for our money at times.
He never played political games with people that worked for him. Senior management are fair game, but he knew better than to lose the trust and respect of his staff.
It’s difficult to do – once you’re in a position of power, to give it up. It must seem like things are going to fall apart if you don’t keep tight hold of what people are doing, but it’s rarely the case. If you’ve spent a while hiring the best people for your group, the least you can do is trust them to work hard and do the right thing!