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Kimberly Blessing

Managing, Mentoring, and Hiring: Why is it so damn hard?

4 min read

Think sticker

The super-cool Think Brownstone stickers I gave away at BarCamp!

I had the privilege of leading a problem solving discussion at BarCamp Philly this past Saturday. The session was proposed at the last moment (while the first sessions were going on) in response to a few conversations I had over morning coffee -- I was amazed to end up in a packed room full of very vocal people! It's clear our community has a lot to discuss on the topics of management, mentoring, and hiring. Thanks to everyone for participating and making this such an engaging session!

Here are photos of the blackboard notes/mind-map -- they're a bit blurry, but you still make out most of the text and the lines connecting ideas.

  1. Define the Problem "Screen Shots": 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  2. Mentoring focus "Screen Shots": 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

A transcription of all the blackboard notes follows -- but I think the big takeaway of the session were the mentoring action steps we identified:

  1. Define mentoring: what are you trying to achieve?
  2. Carve out the time: make it important, protect it, make it part of everyone's job
  3. Ask: not for mentoring but for information, for input, "how can I help?"
  4. Do things together and make it visible
  5. Express thanks

Before you go through the full notes: I'm serious about getting together again to continue the conversation! Please leave a comment on this blog post, email me, or @/DM me on Twitter so I can be sure you get an invite to the meetup!


Define the problem

    • No mentoring at many places
    • Hard to mentor if you're not being mentored
      • No managerial/organizational support
        • Do you set aside time for mentoring activities?
    • No one gives a shit when trying to mentor
    • Bidirectional mentoring: [other party] not always interested
    • Finding people / the right people
      • People with potential
      • Headhunters [=] Noise
      • [Many] unqualified candidates
      • Depends on company: hiring for culture, skills, experience?
        • Do we even know what we're hiring for?
          • Speedy growth
          • Same job title (not description) means different things at different companies
            • Different responsibilities, different expectations (on both sides)
          • As person being hired:
            • Why am I being hired?
            • What am I doing?
            • Is it OK to ask questions?
      • Dilution of credentials
        • PhD [in CS] but can't code
        • As jobseeker, educationally over-qualified, less job experience
          • Resume format hasn't changed, how do you present yourself?
            • Cover letter still important!
          • For developers, where is the code portfolio?
      • What is the qualification to get through?
        • Puzzles
        • Quizzes
        • Essays
      • Can someone meet our expectations?
        • [Example: job posting asking for] 10 years of jQuery experience
    • Hiring
      • Tools are shitty and inhibit process
        • Broad job posting not effective
      • Expensive! Job portal posting and lots of asshats apply
      • [Managing/researching applicants]
        • Resumator + LinkedIn
        • Stack Overflow
        • Ranking candidates
          • Bullet Analytics
      • Where to post jobs locally?
        • Technically Philly job board - will have job fair in 2014
        • Local network and community
          • Be an active participant in community so people want to work with/for you
          • Most groups are for senior/advanced people
          • How to go from email to action?
        • How to find junior talent?
          • Campus Philly
          • Drexel Co-Ops (people love them)
    • At this point, we were 15 minutes into our time, so we voted on one area to focus on; the group chose mentoring.

Focus on Mentoring

  • This is a skill in and of itself!
  • Big difference between mentoring and training
    • What is the hidden curriculum in your organization?
  • Finding time
    • Carve it out
  • Care more!
    • How to make those NOT in this room care more?
      • How do we encourage more soft mentors?
        • Make it a requirement
  • Coaching
    • Helping people express themselves makes them better at what they do
  • Apprenticeship
    • Formal programs
  • Context/structure
    • "Soft" mentoring instead of formal
      • Team collaboration and valuing others' opinions?
      • Recognition is important
      • How to find a mentor as a junior person?
        • Look for someone who is passionate about what they do
        • Look for someone who is open
        • Show them what you're working on
        • Ask
          • We aren't taught to ask good questions
            • Are we hiring people who won't ask by looking for purple squirrels (super ninja rockstars are self confident)
            • [Nor are we taught] to recognize others, e.g. acknowledge someone in code comments
          • Conversation starters:
            • What's wrong with this?
            • What am I missing?
            • What have you tried?
    • Some organizations separate mentoring from management
      • [Why?] This introduces BIAS in management process
  • Why is this a corporate expectation? Why don't kids go out and find [their] own mentors?
  • Manager != Leader, Leader != Manager
    • Being a mentor is a differentiator

Mentoring Action Steps

  1. Define mentoring: what are you trying to achieve?
  2. Carve out the time: make it important, protect it, make it part of everyone's job
  3. Ask: not for mentoring but for information, for input, "how can I help?"
  4. Do things together and make it visible
  5. Express thanks

Kimberly Blessing

Working On Weaknesses

4 min read

Say NO to kryptonite t-shirt Even Superman has a weakness. (One of mine is wanting to own lots of cool t-shirts, like this one.)

In my last post, Understand and Leverage Your Strengths, I wrote about focusing on your strengths to make yourself (and your team) happier and more successful.

But a former direct report of mine wrote to remind me that, even when one understands and leverages his or her strengths, it's still possible to have a weakness or skill deficit that makes true success difficult to attain. What does one do in this type of situation? If this is something that's weighing greatly on you, here's my advice.

First, get specific about the weakness. Don't just summarize it as, for example, "I'm not a good communicator." What is it that you're not good at or comfortable with? Is it that your written communications lack structure or suffer due to poor spelling and grammar? Are you terrified of speaking before a crowd and thus get tongue-tied whenever you must do so? You want have a focused statement that spells out what you're addressing; for a bit of positive reinforcement, you might even specify what related skill you have that you're good at. Using the earlier example, you might be able to make the following statement: "While I am able to clearly summarize and deliver my thoughts verbally to one person or a few people in a regular team meeting, I get very nervous about speaking before larger groups or people I don't know well, to the point where my delivery of prepared statements can be very awkward."

Next, determine how much you need to grow to be successful -- and this means getting specific about what success means to you. Let's say that you're a web designer and you want to start doing some consulting work where you deliver design and front-end code for clients. You are already a decent HTML and CSS coder, so you have that covered, but you don't know any JavaScript and anticipate having to write some every so often. Rather than give up on your consulting business idea because you think it will be too hard to learn JavaScript, you may want to think about finding someone you could outsource that work to. Or you can work with some developer friends to create a small suite of scripts that you rely on. Or maybe you really should buckle down and try to learn JavaScript before you assume that you can't!

Once you've figured out the above you can create a development plan. Take out a sheet of paper. On the left, write down where you are today; on the right, write down where you want to be. Then identify the steps you need to take to get from one to the other and write those out in between. Assign some dates to each step, et voilĂ , you've got yourself a plan!

Does that sound too easy? It might, especially if the idea of addressing this weakness fills you with dread or fear. To that end, I strongly suggest that you seek feedback throughout this entire process. You may be surprised to learn that others don't view your weakness the same way you do -- this can be a really great perspective to consider. By talking about your weakness, you may come to terms with it. Or, you may be able to identify someone who could mentor you as you work through your development plan.

So, what's your weakness? Leave a comment and you just might find someone who can help you as you help yourself!

Kimberly Blessing

Understand and Leverage Your Strengths

4 min read

I like to know things about myself. Don't you? I've taken personality tests and behavioral assessments to be more self-aware, to learn what I should focus on in my personal development efforts, and to better understand how I related to and communicate with other people. OK, and for fun. You've probably done the same, right?

Me with my StrengthsFinder book My strengths are: Command, Deliberative, Significance, Strategic, and Learner.

My favorite self-assessment is one that many people don't know about: StrengthsFinder 2.0. StrengthsFinder is both a book and a test: the book includes an introduction to StrengthsFinder, a code for accessing an online assessment tool, and an explanation of the 34 strengths (or "themes"). The assessment results in a customized report which will help you understand your strengths and how you can use them to be more effective in both your work and your personal life.

Personally, StrengthsFinder has really helped me embrace my strengths. For example, I used to think of myself as "bossy" (because that's how people described me) and I looked for ways of toning down this "weakness". But learning that my number one strength was Command made me feel different -- it helped me understand that being the boss is a natural position for me and that people look to me to lead them. It made me realize that having formal management and leadership responsibilities would make me a happier, more productive person, rather than a cranky and bossy individual contributor.

You may already see why, as a manager, I love StrengthsFinder. We can't all verbalize what we're good at or what kind of work we love to do. For a while, I've asked everyone on my teams to take the test and share their results with me. Once I know what strengths a person has, I can better leverage their skills to make them -- and the team -- more successful.

For example, in the software development community, most programmers have one of the rational temperaments (ENTJ, INTJ, ENTP, or INTP). But if you manage a team of programmers, you can't just look at them as a a bunch of INTJs (a very common type for programmers, though a very small percentage of the overall population) -- you need to see them as individuals. INTJs are introverts and can be brutally honest, but that doesn't mean that they can't be persuasive communicators to large groups. StrengthsFinder gives me far more specific information about a person than a behavior or personality test can tell me.

StrengthsFinder Team Top 5 Grid

Once a group of people complete their StrengthsFinder assessments, you can chart their results to determine overall group themes. I've done this with three teams of employees at different companies and the results are always enlightening. For example, about half of my present team has the "Adaptability" strength -- this is perfect for our team because our product strategy has shifted around quite a bit in recent months, so we have people who can roll with those changes. We also have about 50% "Input" and "Learner": both are crucial to the way we operate. Where we have only one or two people exhibiting a certain strength, I see how I can use those individuals to encourage the overall team, to ask important questions, or to sustain us when the sh*t hits the fan (a necessary evil).

Strengths Finder 2.0

What are you waiting for? Learn more or buy StrengthsFinder 2.0 now and take the test. Learn about yourself. Share the results with your family and team. Encourage others to take it and share their results. At the very least, it should confirm what you already know about yourself -- but I'll bet you'll learn something new, too.

Have you already taken StrengthsFinder? What are your Top 5? What have you learned about yourself or others?

Kimberly Blessing

Epic Management Fails

6 min read

"who's able here to honestly say 'I have a great boss'?" two hands raised... 320 persons in the room... Via Daniel Glazman on Twitter

Although I always identify myself as a technologist, I've been managing people for a while and that is the primary focus of my full-time work. Managing people is an art, not a science. It's very hard work, and I didn't completely understand this before becoming a manager. Honestly, I don't think most people -- even managers -- understand how hard of a job this can be.

I think that I've become a pretty good manager -- with time and experience, with feedback and mentoring. There were times when I wasn't so great, though. In an attempt at radical honesty (hat tip to Erica O'Grady), here is a list of my epic management fails and what I've learned from them.

  • I tried to keep my hands in the code. Somewhere I once heard that coders who become managers and still try to write code only do so because they're arrogant and they end up sucking at both. While I don't agree 100% with that statement, I can agree that diverting focus from management responsibilities can have a negative impact on people and projects. As a manager I've gotten so deep into code that I've trampled on the responsibilities and goals of my direct reports. I've also made commitments to deliver production-ready code but then been so distracted by management responsibilities that I caused project deadlines to be missed. While attempting to code for production work isn't a good idea for managers, I think that coding for practice -- to keep one's skills in shape or to have experience with what the team is working on -- is definitely a good thing. A technical manager who can coach a team on both a personal and a technical level is a huge asset.
  • I didn't prepare for one-on-one meetings. One of the top priorities of a manager is meeting with direct reports on a regular basis to review expectations, set and track progress of goals, provide feedback, and coach for achievement. If you ignore this responsibility as a manager, you're not doing your job, period.* Over time, I've realized that some managers avoid these meetings because they're not prepared. I've certainly made the mistake of meeting with an individual without having an agenda, or without having deliverables ready. Ever had an awkward review with your boss? Chances are, it was awkward because they weren't prepared. I find that I have to practice difficult conversations before I walk in to a meeting, and I even like to rehearse giving feedback. When I'm nervous about a meeting, I know I'm not prepared. When I realize this, I'll try to reschedule the meeting or, worst case scenario, I'll admit to being unprepared and beg forgiveness.

    However, even if you conduct regular one-on-ones, you can do it very poorly. For example, I've had managers who've spent most of my one-on-one time talking to or emailing other people, just talking the entire time without listening, and even zoning out (staring at the ceiling, a piece of furniture). Other faux-pas include glaring at the person (or eye-rolling, laughing at inappropriate times), only giving negative feedback, never offering assistance, and never asking for feedback.

  • I wanted more (or less or something different) for someone. I'm an overachiever and I've always had a vision for what I could and should be doing in any job. I know that not everyone is this way, yet somehow this fact escaped me early in my management career. Some of my earliest supervisees were just doing a job, with no vision for themselves in the future, so I adopted a style of pushing my own vision for a person's career. I could pat myself on the back for the times in which this worked out, but there were times where this approach certainly backfired -- such as the strong generalist who I thought should specialize in an area they didn't care for, or the developer who I saw moving up the tech ladder when they wanted to move into management. Having a dialog not just about about an individual's current role and goals but also about their future is crucial. I like to do this at least twice a year, now, to ensure that my direct reports and I are on the same page.
  • I hired someone despite having concerns about their ability to do the job. This is a tough one to address in generalities, but I'll try. Any hiring decision should be backed up with evidence gathered through a rigorous interview process. Every new hire presents some level of risk, but you want to have primarily positive feelings about a hiring decision, not concerns. I have, on occasion, made hiring decisions based less on evidence and more on what I thought could be possible, given training, coaching, and mentoring. Sometimes it has worked out wonderfully. Other times it's been a painful experience for both the individual who was hired and for me. I do believe in giving people a chance, though, so I can't totally knock taking these risks. These days I try to be open about expectations prior to hiring and I reinforce those expectations once the individual walks in the door in regular one-on-ones. I don't usually out-and-out express my concerns, though -- this can kill a person's confidence! But if I must, I'll also express my support for the person and assume responsibility for making sure the right things are in place for the person to be successful.
  • I let my own issues get in the way of my responsibilities. Anyone who's followed me on Twitter for the past year has seen this one first hand. I started a new job last January and spent almost the entire year unhappy with my role, the work, and number of other things. I focused on the frustration, vented publicly, and let public response further fuel my discontent. All of this distraction consumed me; meanwhile my team languished. I began planning an exit strategy and engaged an awesome career coach who ended up reminding me of my strengths and reignited my passion for creating positive change. I set to work on creating a plan to address not only what was making me unhappy but also what I felt was missing from making our organization a powerhouse. I'm now executing on that plan and seeing small successes, which I hope to grow into larger successes this year.

Do you recognize any of these epic fails, either personally or in a manager you've worked with? Does your organization have a strong culture of coaching and mentoring managers to prevent against these and other fails? Share your story below for others to learn from. I'll share my epic wins later!

Kimberly Blessing

How To Get Your Conference or Training Request Approved

5 min read

I'm a strong believer in continual learning and keeping abreast of one's field, not only because I like learning so much, but also because I know that a lack of learning leads to stagnation, boredom, and poor quality work. Most of the developers I know are also passionate about learning, and so they, like me, are always seeking to learn and discuss and debate and code. Even though we primarily function in the online space, there's nothing like doing all of that learning and engaging face to face -- so we love to attend conferences and off-site training.

Web Forms Panel at SXSW by Ari Stiles

But conferences and training often mean travel and registration fees, and sometimes managers and executives can't see spending money on these things -- maybe they don't quite understand the importance of investing in their people, or maybe skill development doesn't seem necessary to support the business. In any case, it's up to you, the individual, to do some convincing. If you're in this situation, what can you?

Build a Strong Case

Research the event(s) you're interested in, gathering dates and locations, presenter bios, and comments from previous attendees. Craft a proposal which summarizes this research and presents a strong business case for you to attend. Will you learn skills relevant to an upcoming project? Will you build skills which could have made a recent project go more smoothly, and will also help in the future? Will you be exposed to industry or domain knowledge which will better serve your organization in some way? Link the event directly to your work. Summarize the costs, including registration, travel, and meals, and if you can, estimate the ROI.

Request Funding

I think this is the part that scares people -- asking for money. But let me share a true story: In the first few years of my career, I never asked my bosses for training or conference money. I went to the classes they offered to me, and otherwise I requested time off to attend conferences on my own dime. Then my boss discovered that I was doing this. While he was thrilled that I was taking the initiative, he was concerned. (Was I planning on leaving? Did I think that I wasn't worthy of the investment?) At that moment he made me realize that just because I get a paycheck from my employer doesn't mean that their obligation to me ends there. He made sure I got my vacation days comp'd and reimbursed the training expenses, and from then on, I went to my bosses (and in grad school, my department chair/dean) with my conference and training requests.

It's great if you happen to know how much budget your company/department/team has allocated for training, travel and events. But even if you don't, always start by asking for full funding of your training/conference registration and travel. If you're the only person going to the event, or if the event is somehow more associated with your role than someone else's, you probably have a stronger case for full funding. Be sure to ask early to ensure the maximum budget is available to you.

But what do you do if your request is denied?

Negotiate!

If you really want to attend that event, don't give up! There are a variety of ways to get there, if you're willing to work for it.

  • Try before you buy. If your organization is considering sending a group to an event or doing some on-site training, ask the boss to send you to assess the event or trainer before sending a whole team or bringing a trainer on-site. As a manager, I've made many a training and conference decision on the feedback of a few key individuals who were sent out to do reconnaissance. As a trainer, I've met many folks at conferences where we've discussed the needs of the organization and how I can help, which I think made it easier for the folks in charge to decide on hiring me later.
  • Strength in numbers. Contact the event organizers and find out how many people you'd need in order to get a group discount. Then rally a group of coworkers around the idea of attending, and convince the boss to send a group. Yes, more people makes it more expensive, but more people asking places greater emphasis on the need for someone to attend and bring the knowledge back to share.
  • Volunteer. If you're trying to go to a conference where volunteers are needed, you can usually get free admission if you volunteer. Or, if you have a large blog or Twitter following, ask the event organizers if they will give you credit for referring others to register for the event; that credit may cover part or all of your registration fee.
  • Ask for partial funding. If you can come up with part of the funding (like travel costs) then ask your boss to support you by paying the rest (like registration). Again, if you have a large following on your blog or Twitter, you may be able to solicit donations to help cover costs. In either case, share in the goodwill by promising to share what you learn afterwards.
  • Finally, if you must: send yourself. If you can afford to pay your own way, sell your boss on letting you go -- without having to use vacation time. At this point I'd say that you're going for your own personal development and you needn't commit to sharing what you learn when you return. However I'd also caution you to not be stingy -- if do share what you learn, you're making a better case to be funded in the future.

What other approaches have you used to get funding to attend conferences or training? Have you tried these techniques only to still be rejected? Please share in the comments so we can all learn.