Managing remote employees successfully

Why do most companies cringe when an employee asks to work from home?

In spite of the benefits to the environment, productivity and reducing corporate costs, only one in five Americans work from home. (Forbes Article) That number does include self-employed folks, so while numbers are rising we still have a long way to go before companies actually cash in on this trend. I think you and I know why.

Your experience with employees working from home

If you have ever worked from home or tried to manage people working remotely you have experienced the challenges first hand:

  • Inability to reach an employee or boss when you need them
  • Unable to track productivity or get someone to give you assignments
  • Employees missing meetings or deadlines or both or bosses forgetting to include employees on key meetings
  • Without seeing the employee in a seat at an office, how do you know they are there at all? If you cannot walk into your bosses office to get his/her attention how can you get your assignments?

I would challenge you that this is due to poor management and not unproductive or irresponsible employees.

Loving that bottom in a seat?

It doesn’t matter if you see an employee in their seat. Visibility does not justify a salary. Seeing Bob at the water cooler does not mean Bob deserves the money you pay him. When you prepare to give Bob his evaluation, how do you quantify his performance?

If you are like most bosses, you are not making notes all year about what Bob does. You just have a “sixth sense” for what Bob did this year, don’t you? Wrong. I’ve managed people for over 20 years and early on that is exactly what I thought. I mean, I knew who was productive and who wasn’t – right?

The hardest part about managing people is actually managing them. We get so consumed with meetings, conference calls and discussing our plans we forget to actually help an employee reach the objectives we have assigned them. We toss work into the cubicle arena and expect it to be regurgitated in perfect form on time and within budget, but we are comfortable doing so because we see people working (or so we believe)? How unfair is that?

What does it mean to really, truly manage someone?

Your sixth sense can be very valuable, but do not rely on it when you are evaluating Bob’s performance.

Really managing someone involves a lot of work. Tons more work than most managers want to do (I know, I am guilty of not managing correctly myself.)

Let me give you three specific ways I have learned to better manage an employee:

  • Make notes on things Bob does well and Bob needs to work on – every week. Try to find Bob doing things well!
  • Meet with Bob once a week or once a month at the longest to talk about his plans and your expectations
  • Set clear and measurable objectives for Bob daily (yes, I said daily) and follow up

I know – that is asking a lot of a manager. That is why few people do it well. It is a lot of work!

How to translate these action items to work with remote employees

Take a look at these specific action items (above). Does Bob have to be in cubicle farm now for you to be confident he is working?

Absolutely not!

Now you have clear and measurable ways to ensure Bob is earning his salary and you are giving constructive feedback (thereby improving Bob’s performance and, frankly, his happiness).

Confess

Where do you start today? Start with a confession. Tell Bob you have failed him. It is true and you know it. You have not measured up to your own salary if you have not been doing these things with Bob.

Once you have confessed, explain to Bob you want to be a better boss and give him the list of things you are going to do:

  • You will make notes of all the great things Bob accomplishes
  • You will meet with Bob once a week (or if necessary once a month) to talk about his plans and how you can help him meet those goals
  • You will give Bob clear directions for daily responsibilities so he is not lost in a mire of trying to determine what in the world you want

Do you think Bob will appreciate this? Do you think Bob will be happier in his work? Do you think Bob will be more productive?

The big question is: Do you think you can trust Bob to work from home with these action items in place?

I think you and I both know the answer to that question, don’t we?

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Why do companies choose to outsource software development projects?

We believe it is a combination of two things:

  • Many companies have realized that the burden of direct physical control of software personnel is overwhelming and wholly time-consuming
  • Many companies have experienced great success when working with external software development firms

There are some excellent custom software development firms who have mastered the ability to understand business requirements and deliver fabulous custom software packages to their clients.

How do you, the CTO/CIO or CMO or division manager, decide whether to send your project into the rank and file of your IT department or if you should outsource to a development firm?

First, let us start with your internal IT department. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your internal IT group deliver projects on time and within budget – every time?
  • How confident are you, based on past experience, that your internal IT group will deliver your project on time and within budget?

If you can quickly and without reservation state positively that you have absolute confidence in your internal IT group delivering exactly what you want on time and within budget, then stop there. You have your answer.

If you are like most of our clients, though, you can honestly say your internal IT department is already overburdened with responsibilities and cannot keep up with the demands of their day-to-day tasks.

Next how do you decide WHICH firm to outsource to? That’s the more complicated question and one I will answer in my next post is how to choose a firm you can truly trust. Needless to say, I am a little biased and believe you have to select one with stellar references who can deliver on time and within budget every single time.

Software Project Management: How to eat an elephant

If you’ve ever been through the entire development cycle of a software project (and actually seen the project to fruition in production) you know the madness that can ensue at the very end of a project.  I would suggest that it doesn’t have to be painful at the end like that.  When you have the stress of all eyes on you (which happens when you have an actual single deliverable with an actual deadline and budget), the best way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time. 

The elephant is the complete and utter satisfaction of your customer.

How do you give the customer complete and utter satisfaction during the journey to fruition and once the product is delivered?

***** Information *****

I know.  Scary isn’t it?  Keeping your customer thoroughly informed along the way leads to lots of meetings and wasted time, right?  It doesn’t have to.

The big question is how to disseminate that information to the customer.  I have four high-level suggestions listed here:

1.)  Every project I’ve ever been on has some collaborative software program (these days SaaS) that lets the client see what he/she is given access to during the progress of the project.

Some project managers open the floodgates to all the information in the project (even that sacred communication between developers).  In my opinion, this is disastrous.  Not because you should have anything to hide, but because if your client wanted to manage this project he wouldn’t have hired you in the first place.

I’ve found one of the ideal ways to set up this collaborative space is much like you set up your project management software (whether it is MS Project or any other application).  Define timelines for each task and keep those timelines updated.  Only give your client access to the highest level of those tasks (he really doesn’t care that Bob needs to change a transformation in his ETL process for the database transfer).  Clients want to see those bars moving.  Yes, they might have questions, but I will touch on how to handle those questions below.

2.)  Engage your development team every single week – without exception – from the start.  Require written updates input into the project/task management system with details from each team member on: where they are at on that task, what roadblocks they have to completing a taks, and how long it will be before the task is done. Yes, it’s a pain for developers and team members to do (I’ve been a software developer for almost 20 years now – trust me I know).  However, this rolls up into what is visible for your customer so they remain engaged in seeing those bars move toward completion.

3.)  FOLLOW UP.  Your job as a project manager is to MANAGE.  Don’t slack.  Thinking that taking one week off from following each members progress is deadly.  Ask questions when you don’t understand something and make sure you really understand the answer you are given.  Post follow-up comments your customer can see so they know you are actively managing the team (and subsequently the client’s money and time)

4.)  The final point I would make is to be honest with your clients.  When you are going to miss a deadline or go outside a budget, tell the client up front.  Withholding that information is deadly to your relationship with that client.  Come prepared with an explanation and your plans to resolve the issue.  Anticipate your client will be frustrated, but likely will be comforted by your clear plans.

Most projects can be completed on time and within budget with the right planning and experience.  You will make numerous mistakes along the way, but mistakes lead to wisdom.  Wisdom makes for a great project manager and projects completed to a customer’s satisfaction.

~Amy

What happens to old software engineers?

“For of All Sad Words of Tongue and Pen, the Saddest are These, It Might Have Been…..” John Greenleaf Whittier

I worship my father.  Well, I worship a Holy Father, but I adore my earthly father.  He’s incredible.  he is 73 years old and one of the smartest and most successful men I know.  Plus, he’s my daddy and I love him with all my heart.

So yesterday we got in a discussion because he’s thinking about retiring from practicing law and it really got the wheels turning in my own head.

I am 48 years old.  If I were a doctor or lawyer or priest or librarian I would be viewed as “in my prime” – wise, knowledgeable, experienced and highly prized for my years in the industry.  On the other hand, what do we think of people over 45 who are “still programming”?

The assumption, of course, is that as you age you should climb the ladder and get away from hands-on development.  I mean, how sharp can you stay after 45?  Let’s face it – it’s hard enough to stay on top of the latest technologies when you are young.

There’s one thing missing though: a clear definition of “young” in 2014.  You see, when I was growing up old people included anyone over 40.  In 1984 when I graduated high school I can remember looking at one of my favorite teachers who, at the time, would have been about 60 and thinking “Holy cow, he won’t be here next year.”  He taught high level math courses – how could he possibly keep up?

25 years later, that teacher retired.

So back to what happens to “old” software engineers?  There’s only one way to keep yourself “young” in this industry: education.  NEVER stop learning.  The way I see it, I can start climbing the ladder of management (again – I’ve done it several times) and get further and further away from the hands-on software development so it won’t matter how sharp I am.  However, I would not be happy.

I can remember talking to my husband (also a software engineer) when we were in our early 30’s about how obsolete “old developers” were and how out of touch they were with technology developments: stuck in time – old time.

Fortunately, God blessed me with a fabulous mind.  It’s no different than most folks – maybe one or two standard deviations above average, but all-in-all a good, solid working mind.  He also blessed me with a passion for programming and learning (albeit in very unorthodox learning methods – usually outside a classroom).

The logic, math, statistical reasoning – it all captivates me.  I’m a business intelligence specialist / architect / developer / designer.  Who knows what it’s called these days.  Now we have official terms for everything that once was just “mystery technical voodoo” we performed magically behind a curtain (or in my case, often tucked away in a server closet working out of sight of the rest of the human race).

So now we have two questions to answer:

  1. What’s “old” in the programming industry?
  2. What happens to “old” software engineers?

Well, to the first question I have to answer there is no such thing as “old” software engineers just because of their chronological age.  There are wise and experienced software engineers, but they aren’t old until they stop learning new technology.  Then they are “old” by choice.

To the second question, I propose we remain software engineers.  I propose we nestle in for the long haul and run like madmen to keep up with the ever-changing world of programming languages and concepts  (I’m told exercise is good and coffee is bad – ok, pots of coffee consumed throughout the night in pursuit of the solution to that last final “bug” fix is bad).

Frankly, those of us who are “wise” programmers kind of  have a huge advantage over young whipper-snappers: we know REAL programming.  We know things like “assembly language”, “DOS programming”, etc.  Ask a newly graduated CS major to build something in assembly and unless he/she attended one of the top universities you are liable to get a very blank stare.

I find that tragic.

I can bounce from Unix/Linux programming to DOS shell scripting to .NET C# to MS BIDS to Java to proprietary BI suites and more!  I believe that’s because I know what’s truly happening under the covers of today’s IDE’s.  The logic remains the same – no matter what we call it this decade.

So what makes me think I can keep this up for a long, long time?  Here are a few examples that life doesn’t even begin until after 45:

Roget Invented the Thesaurus at Age 73

Grandma Moses  Anna Mary Robertson Moses is one of the biggest names in American folk art, and she didn’t even pick up a brush until she was well into her eighth decade.

Grandma Moses was originally a big fan of embroidery, but once her arthritis grew too painful for her to hold a needle, she decided to give painting a try in the mid-1930s.

She was 76 when she cranked out her first canvas, and she lived another 25 years as a painter — long enough to see the canvases she had sold for $3 fetch prices north of $10,000.

Benjamin Franklin At age 70 in 1776 Franklin played an instrumental role in draftingand signing the Declaration of Independence.  At age 81, Franklin signed the Constitution of the United States of America. ·

Winston Churchill FIRST became Prime Minister at 65 ·

Laura Ingalls Wilder STARTED writing the “Little House on the Prairie” series at 65

Edmond Hoyle Whether or not you know it, you probably owe Hoyle a tip of the cap each time you reach for a deck of cards. The Englishman is considered to be the world’s first technical writer on the rules of card games, and he didn’t put pen to paper as a young card sharp. Hoyle was around 70 years old when he first began recording the rules of various card games in 1741; over the last 27 years of his life, his smash hit A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist went through over a dozen editions.

Jack Weil, Age 107 d. Aug 2008 Jack A. Weil passed away on August 13, 2008 at the age of 107. The fact he lived to the ripe old age of 107 is impressive. The fact that he was still the chief executive of the company he founded and working 40+ hours a week until his final days is plain old amazing.

In 1946, he formed Rockmount, a western high fashion clothing retailer that continues to manufacturer it’s shirts in the US after many competitors moved offshore. Achieving historical fame, various accounts state Mr. Weil either invented the modern bolo tie or named it.

His secret to heath, wealth and happiness? “He loved his work.”

Poppy Bridger, Age 84 After working as a PhD chemist for 45 years, Poppy Bridger, retired at the age of 69 to care for her ailing mother. But her 72nd birthday gift was an opportunity to buy and operate the lab she had worked at. With about $250K in savings, back to work she went!

On any given day, you will find Bridger testing the authenticity of a precious heirloom or analyzing the properties of metal fatigue. To help with the growing work load at the lab, she has subsequently hired her son and daughter to work with her.

She goes to work every day, and at the age of 84 is bringing into the business about $350K annually.

 Colonel Harland Sanders, Age 90 d. Dec 1980 The world famous Colonel Sanders launched his business at the age of 65, using his first Social Security check as start up funds. A master of personal branding, Sanders leveraged his honorary “Colonel” title and constantly wore the stereotypical “southern gentleman” white-suit and black tie. The rocket like growth of KFC is now legendary, and prior to his death Colonel Sanders’ restaurant chain had achieved over 6,000 locations with sales of more than $2 billion.

During his entrepreneurial tenure Sanders met with the U.S. Congressional Committee of Aging and spoke against mandatory retirement, highlighting the love for work and the value of wisdom in the work place.

Not a bad run, old chap! Not bad at all.

 Barbara Miller, Age 74
Being an entrepreneur was never really a consideration in Barbara Miller’s life. After quitting her job in the paper industry after 30 years of service, she assumed she was done. But as she packed her stuff, her former colleagues begged her to start a new business… so she did.

In January of 1995, Miller opened the doors to Miller Paper Company and started with $300K in savings and 15 employees. Today the business is generating over $7M in annual revenue and has been on D&B’s list of the nation’s fastest growing companies.

Business has not been a walk in the park, to say the least. Miller started her company and was immediately sued by her former employer. A few months later she struggled with ovarian cancer.

 Sylvia Lieberman, Age 91 Sylvia Lieberman became an entrepreneur in fall 2007 when she was 90. This is when she realized her dream of having her first children’s book published. So why not start a company to author and promote the book?

Archibald”s Swiss Cheese Mountain is an award-winning book about a little mouse with a big heart who teaches children how to reach their big dreams. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but a philanthropic one! A portion of the proceeds goes to two children’s charities.

Despite her age, Sylvia works tirelessly promoting her book at book-signings and readings, TV appearances, radio and print interviews, and even appeared on a float in a parade. And all these efforts increase the amount she donates to charities.

Do you want to be the first person he ever manages?

Ok, so everyone starts somewhere.  However, do you remember the first time you managed a staff (even if just one person?)  I don’t know about you – I was a HORRIBLE manager!  I had no clue what I was doing.  It’s like parenting. One day you are sailing along by yourself just working like crazy on what you love to do and the next day you have this human being dependent on you for his/her sustenance.  No instruction manuals.  No “do overs” when you screw up.

Well, ask yourself this:  If you are offered a job at a company where you’d be the first person ever to work for the hiring manager, would you take it?

Most people don’t think about it before they take a job.  Most people just assume the person hiring them knows how to manage, right?  Have you ever interviewed for a job and asked the hiring person if he/she has ever manage anyone before?

I bring all this up because of a recent experience I’ve had with my own manager being a virgin to that position.  Wow.  What a roller coaster.  I think the situation was exacerbated by his short temper, but it was definitely a volatile environment.  I think I should have earned hazard pay.

The one takeaway I have from this whole experience is to really, really understand how much experience a manager has before you accept a new position.  It’ll definitely make my short list of questions I ask in interviews going forward.

~ Amy

 

Do you really want to rule the world? Sure, why not.

If you ask any technical manager what his objective is for the day, he will usually have a reasonably normal response.  If you ask my husband he invariably responds with, “The same thing we do every day.  Take over the world, Pinky.”

Now, that’s not to say my husband has aspirations to take over the world.  Ok, maybe he does (he is a programmer, after all), but that’s not my point.  Most people get out of bed every day and think, “I’ll do what I do every day today once again.”  It’s easy.  It’s comfortable.  It’s what has become normal to them.

What if today is the day?  Today you are going to do something so radical everyone is shocked.

I’m not talking radical like Walter White Breaking Bad crystal meth radical.  

I’m talking about changing your whole view on the day the moment you crawl out of bed today.

Stop and ask yourself one thing:  what could I do today that would make one of my employees feel fantastic about themselves and in turn make them thoroughly enjoy working today?

Sound insane?  Really? Then maybe you should rethink your career choice in management.

Yes, it’s easy to find employees doing things “wrong” but why don’t you take today – just one day – and really look for someone doing something super right?

“Word up” (slang for listen) for the day – and in a really good way.  Tonight someone on your team will go home and brag to their spouse about the great day they had and you’ll come home and brag to yours about how productive the team seemed today.

~Amy