Sunday, April 8, 2012

being in charge

I've been trying to work on some Buddhism-related posts, so of course they're sitting there in my Drafts folder for months, because even if I can't get them perfect, I need them to be clear and to say what I mean to say. This is not helped by my lack of sitting, or my general tiredness.

But! Work is interesting, as always. At the Engineering offsite on Tuesday, we ran a multi-hour simulation where people were assigned to simulated versions of our real teams, usually outside their normal areas: I was on Analytics instead of Transcoding, for example. The Team Leads for the simulation were generally the youngest engineers. One of my team's two youngest engineers was acting as team lead for the simulation, where we had a backlog of work to do, every half hour counted as a month, and teams had to made trade-offs among recruiting and Operations resources, vs. how much work they had to do and how much technical debt they incurred.

I wandered over to the simulated Transcoding team periodically, usually to find people looking at me a little wide-eyed and saying something like, "Wow, this is...really hard."

Yes. Yes, it is.

The best was probably the simulation team lead, who on Monday got a little cranky and told me I need to start handling more "on-call" stuff (basically interrupt-driven production problems and stakeholder requests) because I hadn't yet and it's grinding on the people who are doing it. I've tried, in the past, but any time I've arranged to try, there's been a production meltdown or someone forgot they were going to work with me. Supposedly the solution is to just take on the full responsibility for a week; given that from last Friday-Friday I had about 9 working hours overall, we'll see how that goes.

His comment on the simulation was, "It's really stressful."

Yes. Yes, it is. It's difficult to explain why, exactly, or what takes up so much time. Some of it, sometimes a lot, is meetings, but mostly it's the constant interruptions of people needing small decisions or opinions or bits of direction. It completely chops up the day, so there's no stretches of time to be settled and concentrate enough to produce something.

One of the goals of the simulation was to give everyone visibility into the kinds of resource and technical trade-offs that the company is constantly making, but which are typically hidden from the people who do what I call "real work." This is by design: if you involve everyone in the decision-making, you'll accomplish neither the decision-making (too many deciders) nor the engineering work you're trying to decide on (everyone shares the team lead's fate of constant interruption). It's been gratifying to have people understand better what I'm doing and why it's hard. It's always good to feel more heard.

But! The more awesome thing is the work my team has been doing. We're winding down Phase One of the giant re-architecture project, appears to work exactly like I thought it would. It's a huge step for me as a senior engineer, and for my team as a group of people buried under a Gordian knot of crappy software they inherited. Even better, as they see what the system is now capable of, they're better understanding the plans for the next 3 months and 3 months after that, and a general trajectory of making things go from "suck" to "not suck" to "genuinely awesome." I get judged on what my team accomplishes, and they are, so far as I can tell, kicking ass. They themselves are amazing people, but particularly given the disorder and uncertainty when I took over, this past quarter says promising things about my leadership ability.

I have a reputation at work now, though I'm not entirely sure what it is. I think it has to do with speaking very directly and with little patience for wasting time. My friend Matt (who now works with me) might say that I smile while I very politely tell people to fuck off; someone else sees me as "that crotchety guy who will always tell you exactly what he thinks." A friend who's on my team can't picture me as "crotchety." I'm not sure what anybody else thinks.

I like to think that while my diplomatic language is not consistent, that I do make sure that people's concerns are heard and acknowledged, and if I don't turn their requests down immediately, that it either gets scheduled, or added to our backlog with a promise that it gets done someday sooner than "never." I tell people why I'm responding the way I am, what the team's concerns are that might be more important (and most likely how they benefit from our prioritizing other things first), and what other work we want to do that their request can piggyback on. I suppose I tell them all the things that I would want to hear in their position: a response from my own sensitivities to not being told things I should know.

I'm not always sold on the job. It's really incredibly difficult, in ways that are stressful yet hard to articulate. But it's pretty gratifying to carefully make a big plan and then watch it happen, even if I don't get to do much of the actual work.

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