Friday, May 20, 2011

Tips for coaching engineers (3/3)

Boy, coaching is hard but coaching engineers gets more interesting.   Engineers are extremely logical and they sometimes view the world black and white, right and wrong; engineers can be so coin-driven at times yet they don’t mind spending nights and weekends to contribute to open source projects with free labor.

I have had the luxury to mange some of the best software engineers and some tough ones over the years, and the biggest lesson I learned is actually engineers are no different beasts -- they are as human as anyone else.

Engineers need to feel they master some critical skillset, they need to feel they are improving the skillset constantly, and they need to feel whatever they are working on is connected with the world (internal employees, external partners, or customers), and they need acknowledgement for all of the above -- no different from any other professional people with cognitive skillset requirements for their jobs.

That being said, there are a couple of emotional intelligence (EI) traits that have resonated with me during my engineering management career: 


Engineers sometimes look down on “business fluffy stuff”.   However I think managers should not giving up leveraging and communicating the “business connection” effectively.   At least, I always want my engineers to know they are working on a product that is unique, disruptive, and having massive real user impact.

I once had an engineer telling me that he didn’t want to go to the all-hands because he could not get connected with the CEO’s intangible PowerPoint slides.   After spending some time explaining the company direction, the impact we are making to our customers, he is connected with the CEO’s message again and even better he is excited about it.  I believe his conviction of the company’s future is a big reason why he is so motivated every day even to this date.   This is an example of inspiration in the works.

Often time, engineers resign due to “an offer hard to resist”, say with a huge pay raise or an extremely interesting project.   The funny thing is when they started looking for a job, they would have no idea about the huge pay raise or interesting aspects of the new project, and frankly all they knew was they were not connected enough with the existing project.     

So for all practical purposes, really inspired engineers are a lot less “vulnerable” for retention purpose.  Don’t be afraid of communicating the corporate direction, again and again, and again and again.  If the message gets boring, examine the content and delivery of the message, but NOT whether to deliver it!

          Conflict Management
My observation is “typical engineers” are often not good at conflict management.

The unfortunate part is conflict management requires a different skillset that engineers are often not trained.  Engineers do not realize conflict management has a formula and a framework just like there is one for solving a math problem.

The fortunate part is engineers are smart enough to deal the problem once they understand and appreciate the framework.   Engineers make a lot of tough tradeoff during the architecture and design work every day, and conflict management is no different except the target is the human being.

Coaching framework (2/3)

As the “Leadership is an Art” author Max Depree puts it: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say ‘thank you’.  In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.  That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”   

I have 3 stages in my coaching framework:
          First thing first, knowing the reality
As Intel's ex-CEO Andy Grove puts it, “If you don't measure it, you can't manage it.”   Allow me to add “If you don’t know the reality, you cannot measure it.”   

It does not sound intuitive but the truth is “reality” isn’t always obvious to leaders, and reality is dynamic too.   

I believe in the importance of both private "one-on-ones" and “managing by walking around”. 
One-on-one is important because employees know for certain that there is a private and pre-determined setting where issues can be thought out ahead of time and brought forth in a relatively safe and predictable environment.

“Managing by walking around” was first articulated as an “HP Way”.   It allows senior managers to bypass the middle management and understand the pulse of the rank and files.  It is not such a big deal when my team is of the size of 10 people but clearly disconnect would have easily been there had I not set aside enough time for “walking around” after I grew my team size along with our company’s hyper growth.

Knowing reality is so fundamental to coaching -- whether/what/when/how to coach.   The truth is employees do not always volunteer everything during a formal or informal meeting, but a combination of the two will greatly enhance the chance for a leader to understand and thus define the reality.
          Secondly, coaching by listening but not teaching

More than a decade ago, I interviewed at a place where the manager offered me a job on the spot and said “my philosophy is to hire people smarter than myself”.    I considered him a top notch and accomplished guy in the networking industry, and I felt somewhat uneasy on his compliment as how in the world I would get to learn things from him?  

It turned out my “concerns” were unnecessary. :) As a manager, coaching is less about teaching or advising specific technical details, coaching is really about “getting connected” with the non-technical aspect of people’s innermost and driving the best performance out of a person.  I have seen time after time that less experienced engineers being more productive because they are highly motivated and they get to maximize their potential faster.

So how do we coach after all?  Listening and asking questions is more effective than teaching or preaching! Ideally managers want to have the answer from the mouth of the employee instead!  Here are a few important steps to make this happen:

a) Listening and figuring out the motivation of the employee.
It is easy to assume the motivation of the employees, but everyone is different.  Active listening skill and attitude is extremely important.

b) Establishing the common ground between employee’s motivation and organization needs.  
Sometime employees need some prodding as they don’t necessarily think about their own motivation every day.  By asking direct questions, challenging assumptions, and laying out “possibilities”, employees may crystallize their own motives and feel the “hope” in a more tangible way. 

c) Letting employees own the action plan
 As John Steinhart, a Stanford teacher, put it, "managers need to explain the priorities, let employees develop an implementation plan, invite them to come up with the metrics by which the manger should evaluate the results".
So true but the unintuitive methodology is that managers should guide through the “whether” part but employees should own the “how” part.    Manager’s job is not to teach the “how” during the coaching and frankly I don’t know how many people can be taught “how” if they cannot figure this out after enough prodding and hinting.

d) Keeping tracking of the progress, and celebrating each of the milestones.
This is an obvious step for coaching, however we often overlook the celebration piece along the way.  

          Last but not least, say “thank-you”
A universal motivation that all employees have is that they want to be recognized in the end.   They are motivated to improve and be coached exactly because they want to feel the result in the end, otherwise there is no desire to be coached next time. 

But “thank-you” may need more than a simple praise or award.  Managers need to resonate with people when they say “thank-you”, why they say thank-you, what details they observed along the way, and whether they are looking after their employee's interests along the way, etc etc.

If you have not noticed it yet, saying “thank-you” effectively is hard.   This is yet another unintuitive truth. When you resonate with your employees on a good note, you are bonding with them.   Otherwise that “thank-you” may appear to be a lip service longer run.

That said, sometimes a literal and simple “thank-you” can carry a long way too.  Earlier in my management tenure, I had an employee who I cared a lot and respected a lot in my heart but fell short of keeping “thank-you” on the lips, and he left the team.   He was slightly shocked by how much appreciation I had on his work in the end, and obviously I was shocked by his shock.

Never underestimate the power of saying “thank-you” and all the magic associated with saying “thank-you” effectively.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Secrets" about Coaching (1/3)

I ran the entire networking product strategy and execution at VMware for many years.  My team accomplished a lot in fulfilling the server virtualization needs and furthermore initiated a journey to disrupt the networking and network security industry.  It has been an absolutely amazing experience for me and recently I took some time to reflect upon what I learned.

Among other things, “coaching” stands out as something I feel extremely proud of and also what I have learned tremendously too.   In a series of three articles, I plan to discuss some unintuitive truth about:
  1.             Why is coaching so critical
  2.             Coaching framework
  3.             Tips for coaching engineers

Why is coaching so critical?

 CFO: "What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?"
 CEO: “What happens if we don't, and they stay?”  :)

Joking aside, it is important to note that developing people is only a part of the coaching exercise and retention is only one of many reasons leaders want to do coaching.

We live in a world that “status quo” is not an option and “steady state” won’t get us anywhere, so an important trait of the leader is to make the people in the organization better day in and day out.  Otherwise, the organization and people will be falling behind and obviously people will vote with their feet if the organization is not making them better and competitive.

It is a critical job of leaders to coach their people and make them and organization better.

    Monday, May 9, 2011

    Innovator's Dilemma

    Cisco CEO had an interesting article out today and he wrote: "Security, quality-of-service, ease of management, media-awareness, energy efficiency, mobility and the ability to provision next-generation business models are not incidental applications of the network."   John is quite insightful on where the next wave of the innovation will be keen on.

    John went on with "Some believe that networking will become an incidental technology; a utility for connectivity; that a ‘quite good’ network will be ‘good enough’." and challenged big time networking technology cannot be just "good enough".

    I personally set a very high standard to make sure I don't build a "good enough" product however all of us including John need be careful and do not fall into "innovator's dilemma".    Great technology always starts with covering limited use cases (hence not "good enough" for mainstream use cases of the time) and will catch up and become "great enough" for the mainstream (hence sooner or later the legacy technology will become an "overkill" from both pricing and functionality perspective).

    We saw this in the compute industry: the mainframe to PC transformation, and now the PC to Cloud transformation, and in the networking industry we will see the same disruption.

    Anyhow, the bottom line is that a "great" product might not be good for all use cases, and don't call it "good enough" only because it is serving limited use cases.

    I respect tremendously what Cisco has done to the networking industry in the past few decades.  Cisco's dilemma is a typical "innovator's dilemma" and will be interesting to see how the battle unfolds.  Interesting time for Cisco and interesting time for the entire network industry.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011

    Say no to "crazy busy"

    I ran into two excellent books "Crazy Busy" and "Never Check E-Mail in the Morning". Frankly I cannot agree with the authors more -- many of us became the slaves of the E-Mail and Smart Devices, rather than the other way around. Sad but true.

    There are so many things I always wanted to do everyday, yet I was never able to do most of them because my schedule was too email interrupt driven. I thought the type of "crazy busy" life style was a must in the contemporary society but after running into these two fantastic books and a lecture Carolyn Foster gave, I completely changed my perspective.

    After throttling down context switch frequency for my work and minimizing multi-tasking, I do have I have "more time" a day now. :)

    I'm still busy just not crazy ... :)