Friday, April 24, 2009

Taking the pulse

I will always remember my first work experience.

I worked in a factory that built industrial power transformers. On my first day, my team leader presented me the staff, and our unit leader.

I was pretty shocked when behind his back, he said something like “This bonehead is fired. He thinks he knows everything like any engineer but he doesn’t know nothing, only gets what he deserves.

This old timer of the company talked of most young engineer like they were garbage, and especially of the young leaders. Since I was going to be an engineer, I knew I was on a slippery ground, and wondered what I could do in order to be a part of the team as anybody else instead of the “would be engineer that in 2 years is going to make our life miserable because he thinks he’s so superior to us when he doesn’t know anything”, which can be shortened as “the brat”.

Some engineers were not in that category though, and had the respect of my co-workers. One day I had the chance to chat with one of them about this.

It’s true that you don’t know anything, he said. And it’s going to stay that way unless you earn the respect of these guys. When you come here, listen to them. Watch how they work and how the whole plant work. Figure out the rules of the game, the written ones, and the unspoken ones. Open your ears, open your eyes.

Turns out it was one of the best advice I ever got.

I especially had problems with an old timer that had been working in the plant for a long time. I almost never worked with somebody as closed as this guy in my career.
He would hardly talk to me, not saying hello or anything, which is problematic because we were working side by side for eight hours a day. It’s a long time when you feel the person next to you hates you.

And one day I figured it out. When I came to the factory, I said hello to the people I encountered on the production line, but not to the guys that were technically in my team but at the other end of the building. In my opinion, I was being polite, saying hello to everybody, but kept concentrated on my work and did not waste time to say hello to guys I would hardly ever see during the week.

That was the mistake.

By not saying Hi to everybody I was conveying unwillingly that I felt I was better than those guys, which was insulting to them.

As soon as I learned the unspoken codes of the team, I blended in effortlessly. My grumpy co-worker brightened up, and prove himself to be actually quite funny. He also taught me the job at an amazing speed, increasing my productivity tenfold in a few days. My status went from “the brat” to “young padawan” which makes a BIG difference.

Okay so now, you are a young developer, and you rise to a managing position. Kudos for that, you probably deserve it.

Now you need to do something you never had to do: take the pulse of the company. Here are some sample questions you need to answer (in no particular order of importance).
  • Where there other persons in line for your position?
  • Who do they work for? For you? Whoops, I don’t want to be in your shoes (I know, I have ,-) ).
  • Whose opinion matters? Sometimes you’d be surprised… There is the written hierarchy and the real one that depends on the influence of some individuals.
  • Who was in favor of building your team?
  • Who was against? Why?
  • What is the plan of the company? Not the one they advertise on, I mean the real agenda? How can you fit in this agenda?
  • Who does what in your team? In the company?
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t change anything, you now have to take charge and define a new direction for the team. But it’s going to be very hard if you think the team is a blank paper. It’s not, and it’s your job to learn it’s hidden story.

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