You know those parents who told their children that their art degrees were never going to get them a “real job”? There’s a part of me that wishes my parents had told me that my job as a project manager would not be a “real job” either.

Granted, if we’re simply defining a “real job” as a job that pays nicely, has a career ladder, and that we can talk to our friends about, then it’s fine. But if we define (or we believe society when it tells us we should) a “real job” as something that at the end of the day produces a tangible, physical result, maybe we’re setting ourselves up for Imposter Syndrome without even realizing it.

Imposter Syndrome is that now well-understood problem where “people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” Women suffer from this more than men, of course. But I think tech workers suffer from this disproportionately in other industries, because the actual physical evidence of “doing a good job” is no longer there.

It used to be that our jobs produced cars and food. Those jobs still exist, of course. But now we have jobs that don’t necessarily produce tangible results at the end of the day, or even the end of the year. Even software engineers, who arguably produce the most in tech, are ultimately just pushing bits around on a screen. The world we live in day-to-day has become removed from reality. Now we look at pictures of nature on our computer screens instead of taking hikes. We farm bits on our computer screens instead of growing apples.

Project managers’ jobs are about moving around data. Even the human component of it, which I talk so much about, is really about producing more bits. At the end of the day I don’t sit at the dinner table at home and show off the widget I made at work to my family. So this is why we have to find other ways to remind ourselves that our work is important. We also have to find ways to remind ourselves that we are meant to be doing it if we’re doing it. We are in these jobs because we’re competent and we should recognize that.

I remind myself that I’m in the right job and not an “imposter” in a few ways:

  1. There’s very little “chance” to getting jobs nowadays. Employers don’t typically just look at someone’s resume and say to themselves, “eh, might as well. He’s not qualified, but what the heck could happen?” If we’re in a job function, it’s probably because people believe that we are qualified and can do a good job at it. Granted, there’s a lot of false negatives. If we’re out of a job, it doesn’t necessarily mean the reverse, that we’re not qualified. That’s more of a numbers game.
  2. We all have to make stuff up as we go along. If we’re in roles that aren’t well-defined and we have to pave our own way, or even if we’re just in a role that requires some improvisation, that doesn’t mean that someone else in that position would have all the answers. Making stuff up as you go along is a sign of competence, not incompetence.
  3. The jobs of today are important and meaningful, but in a much different way than jobs from the rest of human history. We are paving a new path in our evolution that is creating new job markets in fields that have never existed before. That’s going to take some getting used to. Our society is slowly understanding that this is the new world we live in, but humans can sometimes be slow to adjust and adapt.

We got a facelift!

July 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

Just a quick status update to say: the website got a facelift! Isn’t it much prettier in here? I sure do think so. Take a look around. :-)

I’ve written on this blog before about how to work with others if you are a project manager, but here are some things to think about if you’re not. You may not realize it, but you are probably using project management in your day-to-day life right now. People use project management to manage their households, to take control of their email inbox, and to look after their finances.

Project management has two simple parts to it: a negotiation and a system of organization (sometimes not in that order). Ever heard of Inbox Zero? That’s project management. Ever read the article Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule? That’s project management. We don’t think of those things as project management, most likely, because they make inherent sense to us. Take a second to look at the different areas of your work and personal life and think about where you are acting like the project manager. Remember, all there has to be is some sort of system of organization and some negotiation.

We don’t like those project managers at work who look over our shoulders and tsk tsk when we haven’t delivered on time, and so we tend to assign the dirty words “project management” to the person or the things that interfere with us getting things done at work.

Happily, it’s ok if you don’t want to call what you’re doing in your everyday life “project management.” You can optimize a lot of the project management in your life simply by following a few basic tenets:

  1. Use common sense. If you’re trying to get someone to do something for you, if you’re trying to figure out why something’s not getting done, if you’re working with someone who’s already stressed, use common sense when you’re approaching the relationship. If you’re emailing them and they’re not answering, don’t just keep sending emails. If things aren’t getting delivered on time, don’t just keep asking why it hasn’t been delivered, try to get a bigger view of the problem and figure out other solutions.
  2. Be a poop umbrella, not a poop funnel. This concept isn’t actually mine, but I love it so much I use it all the time. A good project manager is someone who protects the people she’s working with from outside “poop” and makes sure they all have what they need to get their jobs done.
  3. Get to know the people you work with and understand what motivates them. I had a colleague who used to put tiaras on the heads of a couple of the engineers she worked with whenever they did a great job on something. She didn’t do that with everyone, though: she knew the engineers so well she had a way to motivate each of them individually. Some of them she bought beer for and some of them she simply sent a kind “thank you” email to. Figure out what makes your colleagues tick and use that to motivate them.
  4. Reduce waste and stress. It really doesn’t matter what the subject or area is, if you are working as a project manager, your job is to reduce waste and stress however you can. Even if all we’re talking about is getting your inbox to zero, examining the mailing lists and people that send you email will help you reduce waste. If you are at work, consider what’s stressing your colleagues out and if there are ways to help them out of those situations.
  5. Learn some negotiation skills. This might be the most “difficult” idea I will suggest to you on this blog. But I have to say, it is also the most important. I cannot emphasize enough how much you will improve your day-to-day life if you work on your ability to negotiate effectively with others.

In some ways, I have it easy. I went into managing an open source community that was already set up and functioning before I arrived. All I had to do once I got there was not screw it up.And in some ways, I still have to struggle along just like everyone else with a vision for their open source project and the network of support and love they want it to have.

Everyday I answer questions on mailing lists comprised of thousands of subscribers. In truth, I often answer the same questions over and over again even though the answers to those questions are clearly spelled out in our multiple pieces of documentation about the program. I get private emails all the time from our members saying things like, “Wow, Carol, I don’t know how you keep your patience with these people! I would have gotten angry at them a long time ago!”

What I want to say to those private emails (and never do) is something I’ll say here now: managing a community is hard. It’s hard and it’s a really careful balancing act. As a community manager, it’s my job to do the balancing act everyday, with every IRC message I type into our channel and with every email I send. I have to tow a line between making a welcoming space for people and and also letting them be self-directed and figure things out on their own. I have to carefully show people how to get the answers they’re looking for without actually giving them the answers. I have to negotiate with people who don’t have the community’s best interests at heart, and I have to do it all while running a program with dates and deadlines and outside contributors to manage.

I empathize with the people who are managing communities of all different sorts of contributors right now. If there’s one thing the Community Leadership Summit has taught me, it’s that people manage communities of every different kind of person you can think of. They all have different goals and objectives, and they all have to do that same balancing act that I do all the time.

I recently got a new puppy. She was just 4 months old when we got her, and so we’ve had to teach her everything we want her to know about the world. We are teaching her tricks and manners and even simple things like where and when we want her to do her business.

I can’t help but feel some parallels to my own work ethic. Not only do I teach my dog the behaviors I want (which, in most cases, mirrors the expression of a project plan or an idea to a colleague), but I also have to set up my expectations clearly and consistently. I can’t change my mind (or change the direction from the boss) and go a completely different direction unexpectedly. I have to remind my dog of the direction we’re going and the things I want regularly. Although my dog doesn’t understand project plans, I am really beginning to see the parallels to weekly meetings when I start a 15-minute training exercise to remind her of good behaviors.

Most of all, though, I’m deeply reminded of the compassion I feel at work and with my dog. My dog is doing her absolute best. When she fails, it’s not because she wasn’t trying as hard as she could to do what I want, it’s because I didn’t communicate it clearly enough to her in a way she could understand. So it is all the time at work: when my colleagues don’t deliver what I wanted, it’s not because they came in to work and decided to do a bad job. It’s because I didn’t communicate clearly enough in a way they could understand what I wanted.

It has taken a lot of patience and consistently to teach my new puppy how to behave in her new life, and I am continuing to learn new things about myself every day in the process.

A Fun Update

February 11, 2011 — Leave a comment

I was recently in Australia (Brisbane, actually, and wow, they have recovered spectacularly from the floods) speaking at LCA. I did a talk on “The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Project Managers” whose content was derived entirely from this blog. They recently posted the video of the talk. Thanks very much to them for recording this, it was a pretty well-attended talk and I had a lot of fun doing it. The questions from the audience at the end (around the 20 minute mark) were also awesome.

After some bumps in the road, we got Google Code-in launched last week. It was a long time coming, let me tell you. We started pushing around the idea of doing the contest in March or April of this year and I’ve been working in some capacity on getting it up and running since June.

I put a lot of work into Google Code-in and I’m happy for that. I even got sick at the Grace Hopper conference earlier this year after spending all my time and energy trying to announce the program. It just seemed like it was one thing after another fighting against me. But after it all, I am so glad I did.

This contest, to me, is maybe more important than Google Summer of Code™ (insert standard disclaimer about these are not the words of my employer here). I think young developers – the kids we are specifically targeting with this contest – are the future. We need to get them interested and involved in open source software, in technology, and in working and thinking with a global community now. We need to give these kids their first “ah hah” moments while they’re still wondering what they want from life, the universe and everything.

My “ah hah” moment came when I was 16. I had been futzing around on my web browser at home and realized I could view the source of the webpage. Not only that, but I could replicate said webpage and modify it to be my own. I could create a presence on the internet just like that. And so I did. I spent hours writing, modifying, editing, and publishing HTML webpages. I became a Geocities community leader and spent some time in web rings. I found an entire online community and an entire world I hadn’t known existed. That experience was the first step in a train of events that put me in the job I have today.

I’m hoping there’s a Google Code-in student out there somewhere right now having a similar experience. Maybe we’ll hear from him or her in 10 years when he or she is creating the world’s next Google or the world’s next Linux.

Please keep in mind this is not a comprehensive list and I am by no means an authority on the matter. However, these are some things I’ve discovered over the years that get me good/better results with engineers than not trying to incorporate them. Maybe they will help you too.

1. Assume you have 2 hours per week in which to schedule meetings with any given engineer. Any more than that and you’ve lost her productivity, her time, and probably a little bit of her respect for you. If she thinks you can’t get the information you need from her in 2 hours every week she will probably start to also think of you as ineffective. Honestly, if its taking you 5 hours per week to get information on a project from a person, maybe you are ineffective. Or at least not empowered to do your job correctly.

2. Most people don’t go to work in the morning with the intention of doing a bad job. Assume competence on an engineer’s behalf unless you get explicit actions to the contrary. He is probably working on that thing you asked him for as fast as he can, even if he’s not checking in with you as much as would make you happy. He’s also probably trying to do a quality job on it and take pride in his work instead of just being a code monkey churning out shoddy tools on a regular basis. Don’t pester him about it. Trust him to work hard on something and give him space.

3. Don’t keep checklists. I mean checklists in a literal and also slightly metaphorical context here. Don’t just assume you can write down everything an engineer is doing for you and then send constant pings on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to get it done faster and checked off your list. This also extends to things you don’t have context on – if you don’t know what’s required or involved in any particular task, you should assume you don’t have the space to keep asking the engineer about it. I’m not saying you need to have the same technical savvy as her, but you do need to be able to have an informed discussion about it when she comes back to you saying, “I couldn’t get this done today because of X reason and I need some ideas on how to change it.”

4.Protect the engineers from your management. I’m sure most of you have read the article on the maker’s schedule vs. the manager’s schedule (if you haven’t, its a greatarticle). I’d like to take it one step further and say that as a project’s manager it is your job to protect the engineers on your project from managers constantly pushing for deadlines, making everything important, and generally meddling. You talk to management and let the engineer do his job. Everyone will be happier for it.

5.Only use the emergency button when it really, really is an emergency. The less you tell an engineer that it’s absolutely crucial this feature ships today the more you’ll build respect. It will be slow-earned, but once she understands that when you say you need something today you really mean it (and you’re not going to say the exact same thing tomorrow about some other feature) she will be a lot more likely to work through lunch time for you to get it done.

6. Build respect and karma with the engineers. Everyone has their own way of doing it – I bake cookies. Maybe you bring him chocolate he likes or send him emails thanking him for the work he’s doing on your project. Whatever it is, do it regularly and do it without expecting any return. He will be thankful and much more likely to give you the extra little things it is in his power to give when the time comes for you to need it.

7.Add two weeks to any date you get from a engineer. This is not because I don’t trust engineers. In fact, its because I trust engineers too much to try to give me the right answer instead of the realistic answer. Two weeks, of course, can be modified for your purposes – if it’s a task she’s saying will take a day, maybe you add two days to that number. I think it is human nature to want to say that you can do something well in a short amount of time. No one ever wants to hear from a peer, “What? It’s going to take you thatlong?” People want to hear, “Wow! You delivered that so fast!” Underpromise to your management and then overdeliver when it comes in a week early.

I may amend this entry at some point, but that’s the list for now. Your comments and experiences welcome.

To bring you this amazing news:The awesome people at Wolfire Games decided to do something a little different: offer 5 quality games for download and ask people to pay whatever they thought was appropriate for the bundle. They’ve made over $1 million on the venture so far! I’ve seen recording artists do this before, but I’m not aware of a game company that’s done something like this before. Do any of you know of such a phenomenon in the game industry before this?

In even better news, they have also donated a portion of the money they’ve made to theElectronic Frontier Foundation, and in even more awesome news than that, they’ve now decided to open source the software! One of the games in the bundle has already had the code opened.

This made my morning.

Libre Planet 2010

March 30, 2010 — Leave a comment

I took a redeye out of SFO and landed in BOS at 7:30am EST. I got into a cab with a driver who kept bugging me about paying cash even though I insisted I wanted to pay with my credit card. I arrived at 1 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA. at 8:15am for Libre Planet 2010. Needless to say, I was a bit tired already.

Leslie arrived later in the morning and we spent some time catching up. I reviewed the agenda for the weekend, saw the introduction, and stuck around for the Intro to the Command Line class. Having just announced accepted orgs for Google Summer of Code™ 2010, I was still responding to emails and trying to fix problems where we found them.

I met Selena very early in the day. We spent some time standing outside Hall D and charging our laptops, making presentations, and gabbing. Unfortunately my brain was slowly shutting down from lack of sleep and a bit of stress from the previous days. I decided to stay for a few more hours and then left after lunch. I checked into my hotel and got some sleep. I left the hotel feeling significantly more human than when I went into it.

Dinner with the Women of Free Software was great. I met some amazing women who are really doing some great things for free software and the community as a whole right now. I’m really looking forward to seeing them again and working with them on all manner of topics. I went to bed on Friday night thoroughly excited about the opportunities now presenting themselves for me.

Saturday was full of some great topics. Discussions throughout the weekend ranged from “should you pro-actively justify your use of proprietary software or hardware if you have an arm of your business that advertises its use of free software” to “what is the best way to get yourself recognized for your contributions to the community without the use of a patent?”

I think the best topics came on Sunday, though. Deb had arranged an entire track of topics on Sunday related to Women in Free Software and I found it incredibly useful. Selena did a talk on “50 Ways to Love Your Project” and I am now tempted to ask her if I can crib some of the presentation because it was so wonderful. I think encouraging people to give back to FOSS in more ways than just coding is really important if we want to continue to build the community.

Most important of all, though, I spent some time really thinking about how I feel about all these issues of privacy, freedom, and open now that I am apart of the community. It was a great learning experience for me and I hope to get to go back next year.