Part 3 in a series on managing programmers

The third installment in this series is about something I learned well before I got into management. In fact, it’s probably the reason why I got into management at all:

Get up out of your chair.

As geeks we’d rather just sit there. Sit in our chairs and send yet another email and hope enough folks read it. We spend a whole hour crafting a brilliant treatise on an Important Topic and assume that our written words alone are motivating enough to get people to do what we need them to do. And we hope (in vain) that people will read our words carefully, reflect deeply, and return the favor by drafting a well-written response of their own.

But when it comes to managing people email simply doesn’t work as well as we wish it did. It’s often the wrong tool entirely. You know this as well as I do. People simply don’t read your emails carefully. Or they miss it entirely. Or the message gets to them too late. Or too soon. And even when they do read your email, people can almost always manage to misinterpret the tone of your message and you end up spending even more time clarifying and apologizing and re-iterating. Et cetera.

MBWA stands for “management by walking around”

In my experience, the only thing that does work is to do something that is entirely unnatural for most in the world of high tech: Get up out of your chair and practice some “MBWA“. It means you go and walk over to somebody and actually engage in conversation. Talk to them. Talk first about the weather or their kids or whatever they’re working on at the moment. Then transition the conversation to what you need to talk about, or just drop in your request casually at the end. And sometimes, just like magic, you learn things without even having to prod. It goes like this:

Tammy sitting reading email. Manager enters, stage right.

Manager: “Hey, Tammy. What’s new?”
Tammy: “Just reading the latest missive from the client. They’re being a little less insane than usual today.”
Manager: “Nice! Always good when sanity prevails, eh?”
Tammy: “Yeah, absolutely. We can use a little bit of a break after yesterday’s server issues.”
Manager: “Wow, really? I must have missed that somehow. We had server issues yesterday?”
Tammy: “Yeah. It turns out the new audit trail feature caused our logs to fill up and we ran out of disk space.”
Manager: “Ouch! But yeah, that makes sense. You’ve got it fixed now though, right?”
Tammy: “Yep. We’re purging logs every 30 days now.”
Manager: “Good deal. Client seems happy?”
Tammy: “Sure. They seemed to like that we responded so quickly.”
Manager: “Excellent. Thanks for jumping in there!”

Manager exits, stage left. Elapsed time: 45 seconds.

3 reasons why MBWA can make you more effective

  1. It’s faster. Yes, it is. You might think you don’t have time to get up from your desk and actually go through the hassle of walking over, interrupting the person in the middle of their Facebooking, and actually talking about what needs to get done. But in the same 5 minutes it would have taken you to write an email you’re able to not only make the request but respond to questions immediately.

  2. It builds relationships. Being face-to-face with someone puts you in a position to tailor your message to the individual and respond immediately to questions in a way that is most effective for that person. Moreover, engaging people one-on-one helps build the relationship — you learn more about each other. This learning is the foundation of trust, and having trust means your conversations will end up getting faster and more effective over time, especially during a crisis or when speed is of the essence. And having more face-to-face conversations also ends up making it easier for the other person to interpret your “tone” when you only send email or IMs.

  3. It helps you learn and know more. As a manager you deal in information, and you’re missing out on at least 50% of the data feed if you’re not there in person. As I’ve already said, actually getting up and talking to other human beings seems counter-intuitive and at least somewhat stressful to most of us in technology. And here’s the thing: Most of our team naturally tends to avoid the face-to-face conversation as well. Yet the example above shows that it’s through the quick face-to-face interactions that we’re able to learn much, much more about what’s actually going on in our organization. Your team member may be too busy fighting a fire to send a detailed email, and maybe he’s not the type to swing by and chat either. But being there allows you to sense and prod and follow hunches, all of which end up providing you with more information, making you more effective.

So don’t just sit there in your corner office typing on the computer. As a manager your job is all about making everybody more effective by getting the right information to and from the right people at the right time. You just can’t do that with email alone. As my good friend and colleague Derek Olson likes to say: “The weeds are waist high. Sometimes you just need to stand up to see over them.”