Happy Work, Happy Mike!

I've learned where I thrive and find the good struggles

There are problems to solve. People are struggling. There is gray area in the parts that are well understood and a variety of unknowable aspects. This creates a culture of learned helplessness.

These things take time to fix, requires vision and leaders who can enact change and control budgets. It’s the reason Brownfield.dev posts focus on first increments and baby steps.

Mike feels the pain

Organizations that have a long history, are very large, or are very constrained are objectively painful.

More than a decade has been spent supporting or employed by these organizations and it’s demoralizing. The speed at which they turn idealistic people into cogs is unsettling. The cogs are all well-meaning and each one wants to do the best they can. The upper limit to their performance is within a few percent of their absolute minimum. The least friction path is the chosen path.

The sky is the limit

One thing these organizations do is find a path that works consistently and then force everything into that path. It doesn’t have to be optimal. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be consistent and then people will keep doing it that way forever.

If there’s an option to shoehorn a beautiful user experience into these organizations, it can make a world of difference. The ability to use comfortable tools and experience delight at work isn’t out of reach.

Not a [department] leader!?

I don’t think I’ll be in a budget authority position at any point in the near or distant future. It takes a certain steady approach, slowly accumulating more and more responsibility over decades. These sorts of people have all sorts of desirable traits like stability, reliability, and team tending.

It’s not that people are annoying and I’d prefer to avoid dealing with them when things aren’t great… but it’s kinda that.

Very much a leader

My favorites are leading by example and informal mentoring interactions.

  • Providing helpful and timely feedback
  • Delivering high quality output
  • Working openly and sharing drafts for instant reactions
  • Building on other work to avoid reinventing

Through these and a variety of other intrinsically motivated and reinforced behaviors, I demonstrate effectiveness and inspire folks who want to put out effective vibes.

As a manager of people

Reflecting on my history of managing teams and how I derive the most joy from my job, it’s probably not a good fit. Interacting with deterministic systems that create the outputs that I ask for are enjoyable. If it doesn’t do what I’d hoped, it was about how I asked. If there are errors, they’re mine to own and resolve.

When responsible for output that is delegated to a team of people, things get murky. I’ve worked with great managers to thrive in the murk and take real pride from team building and shared success. I enjoy participating in those team efforts and succeeding together. The management deficiency I have is that I tend to default to creative activity so if someone is failing, it’s easier to pick up the dropped balls than it is to have a Dawson's Creek hard topics discussion so I’ll just do the work. And I’m not even bad at the DCHTDs when they’re needed, but they’re draining so I’ll procrastinate on them for too long.

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The hat collection

It’s said that someone who does a variety of jobs “wears a lot of hats” and my hat collection is massive.

  1. Father [gotta put that first]
  2. Husband [close second]
  3. System administrator
  4. Developer
  5. Manager
  6. Writer
  7. Designer (unqualified and poor output but I love it)
  8. Application and network security stuff
  9. Salesman
  10. Trainer

And some of these hats are actually a category. The System administrator hat is also DevOps/Platform tools, Kubernetes/orchestrators, cloud engineering, and vendor engineering.

The disposition

To be able to gracefully switch hats while experiencing empathy-induced pain and reassuring people that it can get better, one needs to bring a steady and hopeful disposition. Over the years, through interactions with broken computers, pets, and other humans, I formed a persistent yet flexible disposition.

  1. Optimism and solution orientation
  2. Steady accumulation of coherent and canonical information
  3. Analytical, quickly identifying recurring themes and patterns
  4. Always in draft mode, sharing progress as it’s made
  5. No ego, point out my own misunderstandings as soon as it’s known

People seem to like this. People with the problems and at least a feeling that they shouldn’t have to suffer are quick to hop on the bandwagon.

Different audiences require a different demeanor

This disposition works well for individuals lower in the organization since they know the pain. It works for introduction calls, workshops, friendly banter at the cookout, etc. Some audiences don’t appreciate it as much. For example, my 5 and 6 year old kids just want answers.

Along similar lines, executives are often looking for “just answers”. They are typically busy coordinating a huge amount of stuff yet are unaware of or have accepted things as they are. The draft-mode optimism sounds like unhinged lunacy to them. In executive discussions, it’s more about the audience and meeting them where they are. Listen first to find out which subset of the thousands of systemic problems their org is experiencing are on their radar. Once that’s understood, tying the initiatives to those things will get them greenlit. But then it’s time to deliver.

The perspective

I show up as an outsider, get a sense for the problems. Attach the patterns to my wide range of expertise and industry experience. The problems are always complex and systemic failures are never easy to fix. Start with a search for the best leverage point or easiest win, then strategize how to enact the first increment of change.

The perspective shift required to link massive organizational dysfunction to CI/CD test coverage pipeline job is where I deliver untold value. That unit of work getting done with the right tools, used the right way, opens the doors to the next series of steps.

Executives see and can show off a test case coverage chart that is incrementally improving. Cash can flow in the organization where it’s needed to improve automation. Automation pays back the cash exponentially.

That sounds like consulting with more steps

Consulting is interesting because a company brings in people to tell them the things they already know in ways that are defensible to a committee. There may be some overlap in a process improvement consulting recommendation and a Mike output.

It’s not that I think I’m cleverer than consulting firms, but I’d be less bound by data and historical performance. Few companies acknowledge the creativity that goes into programming. Fewer still protect their creative’s time since the real value-add activity isn’t predictable.

Having done the work of a programmer on a Navy contract and on a Silicon Valley startup, I can point to where these things diverge and why one creates such a superior output to the other. It’s not all within the control of the organization, but a lot more of it could be.

Mike is happiest when

  1. A variety of problems are there to be tackled
  2. Visionary leaders want to address the problems
  3. Too much gray area for obvious next steps
  4. Smaller organization units that can move freely enough to try new things
  5. Patience and resilience are rewarded similarly to output

Thanks for coming with me on my self-discovery adventure. This post will serve as a long-winded personal README. Just like any other README, feedback and suggestions are welcome.

me  culture