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The Insiders

The list of reasons folks want to become a manager is varied. I think it looks like this:

  • I want to have more influence over product development.
  • I wanted to try something new and I get along with people.
  • I’m never going to be a great programmer, but I sure know what programmers are talking about so why not manage them?
  • I have no idea what happened. I was suddenly a manager. WTF.

However it happened, you’re here now. You’re responsible for people rather than code and people ask questions. All the time with the questions and it’s now your job to answer those questions as best you can. Here’s the rub. In any organization of 50 or more people, there’s far too much happening for you, a single manager, to digest. Don’t try… or, better yet, go ahead and try and see how everything else on your plate gets ignored.

Your first line of defense against the onslaught of organizational information include the obvious ones. Your manager, your peers, and those who work for you. Being a decent human being to these folks will go a long way to keeping you informed, but even with those folks trusting you, there is still more to find out. You need to figure out how to build an information network which not only scales to your company, but it’s also got the filter out the crap that you don’t care about.

Good news: I’m going to tell you who these people are after I tell you this story.

Borland. 1990 something. I’m the new engineer in the group having recently been promoted from the QA group. This means I’ve got the worst office and I’m responsible for the product builds and application installer. It sounds like like a crap gig except for the fact that my QA cohorts are green with jealousy. Hah!

The crap office is directly next to the Administrative Assistant named Grace. I’m still being professionally hazed by the senior engineers so she’s really the only person who will freely talk to me, so I talk. A lot. Check-in every morning with a “Howyadoing?” Combined with the occasional coffee walk to the cafeteria, we turn out to be good friends. Even when the engineers start talking to me, Grace and I continue to hang.

One morning, I dart by her office with a brief “Howdy”. She follows me into my office, empty coffee mug in hand. “Hey Rands, Kevin (the big boss) ended up with a few extra Dells and said I should distribute to the team. Want one?”

Remember, I’m the rookie engineer which means I’ve got the crap office and crap hardware. Probably some 20Mhz Compaq beige atrocity covered with coffee stains. Grace is offering up a Dell 486 DX pizza box which, at the time, was a sweet piece of hardware hardly seen anywhere in my engineering group. How did I earn this piece of hardware? Was it brilliance? Experience? No, I was nice to the right person.

The benefits of hanging with Grace continued. Borland was staring at two years of repeated layoffs and my morning check-ins with Grace were chock full of information my manager didn’t have. She told me two weeks before my manager that layoffs were coming. The morning of the layoffs, she gave me a comforting nod that confirmed I wasn’t going to be a looking for a job. Whew.

Information wants to be free. It’s wandering your hallway right now and there are two questions: How much of it do you want? Who is going to help you find it?

DISCLAIMER: One way to read this article is that I’m describing which people are going to tell you secrets. Now there are very good reasons to keep a piece of information secret, varying from “We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings” to “It’s against the law and you’ll go to jail”. Nothing in this article suggests that you should violate the intent of a secret — that’s a bad career move and a bad karma move. Don’t do it.

The Administrative Assistant

This is your Grace. This person is usually the right-hand person of your boss and privy all sorts of organizational shenanigans. In addition to having the inside track on the state of the organization, they’re also well qualified to penetrate bureaucracy. Wondering how to order that new chair to fix your back? The Admin is your friend because they know where the forms are, how to fill them out, and where they go.

Like any job, there are a lot of boneheads out there. If your Admin is changing every three months, it’s ok. Happens a lot. You probably don’t have a legitimate asset until they’ve survived six months in the trenches.

The Program Manager

Their role as owner of the Program forces them to muck around in other’s business. They’re responsible for talking to every person outside of the group that your team is dependent upon so, their perspective is nice and cross-pollinated.

I’ve had less information success with Program Managers because of the varying views of Program Managers in companies. If they’re just scheduled enforcers who don’t have a lot of skin in the game, they’re not tapped in… they’re just those annoying folks who ask, “Are you done yet? Are you done yet?” Program Managers who work at integrating teams with different schedules and agendas can’t help but be informed.

The gems you’re looking for in the Program Manager are varied. They have insight as to the various Players and Pawns in the organization. This can be handy when you need code or functionality from another group because your Program Manager can tell you what these other folks care about. Understanding a team’s motivation is job number one when you need something from them because you need to construct your request in a language that will grab their attention.

Like Admins, Program Managers surf bureaucracy which means their handy when the sky is falling. They’re a great source of information regarding how to convince the Execs there is no way in hell your shipping in two months. They’ve likely got slides sitting on their desktop right now which address that very problem.

Human Resources Representative

Let me first say that my prior start-up was populated with some of the best HR folks in the world. You’ve probably had a disappointing experience with HR in the past and it’s because your HR person was promoted out of some role which had nothing to do with HR. They were just a good “people person”. Ick. HR is a profession, not an escape route.

Unless they’re an idiot, your HR rep is the single most informed person in the company when it comes to the people and the people are the company. They know who’s hot and who’s not. They know what everyone is making and they’re the first people consulted when just about anything bad is going down.

Now, a good HR person is aware of their wealth of information as well their responsibility to distribute this information to only the appropriate folks. They don’t tend to be rumor mongers or loose lipped, but you should still keep this person nearby. Just because they can’t tell you the layoff is happening doesn’t mean they can’t put in a good word for you elsewhere in the company when it hits the fan.

If you don’t already have a regularly schedule 1:1 with your HR person, you should. If HR people are few and far between in the organization then you can make it quarterly. The last thing you want is to be introducing yourself to your HR person only because someone on your team is threatening to sue the company.

The Other VP

This is sketchy. The Other VP represents, well, your other boss. Doesn’t need to be a VP, just someone further up the food-chain. Think of it like this; if your group vanished today, who would you want to go work for? That’s the Other VP.

There’s a lot of reasons to have this person around. First, yes, your group might vanish at some point and it’s good to have an extended network of people if the sky falls. Second, everyone needs a mentor. Maybe your boss is your mentor. Great, well, you two mentors.

The Other VP is a person who takes the time to manage you in their spare time. They do this by having a cup of coffee with you every few months where they check-in. Maybe you talk about sports. Maybe you talk about strategic direction of the company. In any case, there’s a lightweight management relationship where information is exchanged. Why do they do this? Simple. They were you at some point.

Finding the Other VP is a slippery proposition. Try talking with all of your Insiders. Who do they like? Why do they like them? No consensus? Keep listening because a name will show up. When that name does land, it’s your move. This VP is never going to randomly set-up a coffee event. That’s your job. Remember, they were you and they remember that fact.

In Case of Layoff. Break this Glass.

Information wants to be free because people are constantly chewing on it. Right now, one of your employees is driving to work thinking about an off-the-cuff comment you made yesterday. It was an innocent comment about nothing in particular, but you made THE EXACT SAME COMMENT two years ago right before a layoff. Yes, you’ve leaked the layoff and you don’t even know it.

This is how rumors start and the more virulent the rumor, the faster is travels in your organization. Each step it takes, it’s vetted, mutated with a combination of new data and opinion, and then handed off to the next victim. The infection continues until it runs into cold hard facts. Yes, there is a layoff.

Rumors are fun because they are designed to provoke emotion. WHAT? WE’RE LAYING OFF PHIL? I LOVE PHIL.

Facts are more fun because they represent the truth and you can actually build stuff on the truth. Your network on Insiders exist to provide you as much truth as possible so you can get your job done.

5 Responses

  1. I always find your posts interesting but this is especially useful and timely. I’m transitioning from a very small startup to a rather large corporation. I’ll keep these tips in mind as I start to meet people in my new digs.

  2. clark 18 years ago

    This is the best yet of your organizational musings. Especially useful for nerds, who are usually capable of getting along with just about anyone but unlikely to see any reason to do so — “Oh, Grace? Yeah she’s cool, but I never well hell yes I’ll go get her some coffee, why not!”

  3. George Talbot 18 years ago

    I can add another reason that people might want to be a manager: Career advancement (i.e. more money)

    There’s a ceiling on how much an engineer may make that isn’t present in management at most companies.

  4. arenbe 18 years ago

    NOT PHIL!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Paulo Köch 18 years ago

    Another thing I tend to see as useful is to know random people of the opposite pole of your company. Generally there’s some stuff thats super secret but, since it regards only the distant folks (ie. you) it’s somewhat known.

    Relating to people on the other side generally happens in non-formal events (ie. company’s football games).