Sunday, 31 December 2006

2006 Year End Thoughts

Can't believe another year has come and gone. It seems like only yesterday that I wrote the 2005 Year End Thoughts, and only a few days ago that I came back to China and started my career in Exoweb. Time really does fly when you are having fun, and I certainly have been having a great deal of fun in the last few years. Sometimes stressful and sleepless fun, but fun all the same :)

General summary of thoughts:

Things that I am happy about:

  • Exoweb
    • Teams improving, growing
    • Culture
  • Personal
    • Facing the different challenges over the last year
    • Learning to delegate

Things that need to be improved:

  • Exoweb
    • Giving back to FOSS
    • Creating a continuous learning culture

  • Personal
    • Working with people

Goals for 2007:

  • Make self (almost) redundant
  • Teach, not do
Things that I am happy about - Exoweb

Teams improving and growing - This last year has really seen a dramatic growth in the quality of the people within Exoweb. While continuously improving our HR process has helped us get some really good people, the major change has been the steady improvement of people already within Exoweb. There are various reasons for this but ultimately, I believe it is because we have finally passed a critical mass of smart people and everyone is now learning from each other. Processes/practices such as code reviews, ExoForums and blogging have helped encourage the sharing of information and it appears to be self-perpetuating. People are demanding high standards from each other and everyone brings in their own knowledge and skills. My primary concern is no longer raising standards but knowing when to step aside and let people more knowledgable than me figure things out.

Culture - building a good company culture isn't easy and I'll be one of the first to admit that I haven't really got the faintest clue how to go about it. Culture building is all about people and people skills aren't my greatest strength. Perhaps it is because I'm so clueless about culture building that I'm amazed that Exoweb has somehow produced (possibly by accident) a relaxed, open culture that many people find really attractive and unique. It's not perfect by a long shot and there's still so much more we can improve. Yet it is quite gratifying to hear people tell me that they find the culture of Exoweb one of the key selling points of the company and that they have never worked in a better place. Not everyone feels that way of course, but enough do. Personally, I've never worked with a better bunch of people, in a more comfortable environment. I am naturally biased though.

Things that I am happy about - Personal

Facing and Surviving the Challenges of the 2006 - 2004 and 2005 had different, lower level challenges for me. I joined Exoweb in 2004 as a senior team lead, so my main concern then was ensuring the success of a project with a small (5 devs total) team. The challenges then were a lot simpler! 2005 brought the challenge of maintaining quality in a team that was growing too large for me to personally review all code. 2006 was quite different - Exoweb continued to grow and the challenges that came up daily kept changing. The early part of 2006 was a battle to figure out how to scale technically. Or rather, how to ensure that the things I used to do still were being done when it was becoming obvious that one person could not possibly do it all.

The technical aspect of that problem was solved in early to mid 2006, among other things by the growing abilities of the team and instituting a more scalable version of code reviews (we created a cool trac plugin for this). This had the most fortuitous side effect of promoting learning even more from each other. With a great team that is continuously learning, most of my earlier technical challenges faded away.

Late 2006 was more an issue of scaling Project and Human Resources (HR) management responsibilities. The funny part was that as my team got better (and larger), the seniors within the team came to the conclusion that they did not want to do either PM or HR work, pushing all that to me. As a result, the workload in this aspect grew a lot faster than the team did in 2006. Surviving the PM aspect was done by the fine art of delegation (more about that later) while the HR aspect is still a serious work in progress.

Ultimately, I'm happy that I survived all the challenges of 2006. Ken in 2005, looking at these challenges, would have been quite intimidated. It was a good idea that I went into 2006 blind to the challenges ahead :). Looking back, I can certainly see many areas I could have done things far better but at least I can say that I haven't made an absolute mess of things.

Learning to Delegate - Every book about management talks about how one needs to delegate. Yet they tend to gloss over how to delegate. One thing I quickly learned long ago was that if you just pass a task to someone and hope that they will do it right, 90% of the time things turn out badly. It took some experimentation and trial and error, but in the end, my great lesson in 2006 was realizing that it all boiled down to figuring out who I could delegate what to. Everyone is different, with different strengths and weaknesses. The challenge was to find someone (or combination of people) that had the right strengths to do the task on hand. Not a skill I am strong at (more later about this), so it was harder than it should have been. But as I write this today, I have a good team that functions very well together, with most of the critical tasks covered and working well together.

Yes, I realize this may seem blindingly obvious to some people but it wasn't that obvious to me.

Things that need to be improved - Exoweb

Giving back to FOSS - Despite being strong believers and users of Free/Open Source Software, we don't contribute back nearly enough. Sure, some of us personally have done some work in FOSS advocacy or have code contributions here and there. However, as a company, I am still quite dissatisfied with what we have contributed back. Besides contributing server space (, Beijing LUG, etc), software usage, bug reports and a few patches here and there, we have given very little back to the ecosystem that makes our business model possible. Despite having people who profess to genuinely believe in FOSS, despite having a contribute back policy and allocating a percentage of developers time to such activities, too little is contributed back. This is something that we will have to focus more on in 2007.

Creating a continuous learning culture - Possibly because most of the seniors of Exoweb possess either the Learner or Input talents (see First Break All The Rules), we tend to expect that everyone will be like us - given the opportunity, will always try to learn and improve themselves. Unfortunately, that is not really the case. Some really talented software developers don't seek out knowledge for the sake of learning but are satisfied with learning only what is required to complete their task. Or despite the best intentions, they need a little external pressure. So despite having a 10% time self-improvement/contribute back policy in Exoweb, too many people do not take advantage of this. Yet continuous learning is a vital aspect of continuously improving the abilities of the organization.

Things that need to be improved - Personal

Working with People - I've touched on this previously, but I'm basically much better at computers and hardware than people. To me, computers seem so predictable - given a fixed input, they typically produce a fixed output. Humans are so much more variable, with too many factors to consider. Yet management is about people, not about computers. According to the Peter Principle, I'm quickly rising to my level of incompetence :)

However, the level of understanding of people I'm looking for might be a bit higher than most. The ability to figure out a person's strengths and weaknesses and combine them with other people/processes that complement their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses is a very rare talent. If you look at most management practices today, they are built to solve this talent shortage. Most large organizations have processes that cater to the lowest common denominator - they allow the organization to survive mistakes made by less competent people, but they get in the way of the truly talented hitting their full potential. We sometimes call that bureaucracy.

Most managers are either poor at or unwilling to manage individuals. It is hard to manage individuals - you have to really understand your team and know how to combine them to achieve maximum results. Most prefer to assume that every human being is interchangeable, that one person can be swapped for another without problems. This only works if you are using people at the lowest of their abilities, so that the job can be done by almost anyone. It does not work when you are trying to make the most out of everyone's unique combination of strengths and talents.

This will probably be my primary challenge in 2007 - to become competent at managing individuals.

Goals for 2007

Make myself (almost) redundant - I have delegated a large amount of my work to others already. I hope to finish this in 2007. Might be a while before I can delegate all the HR management aspects, but all the technical and project management aspects should be possible within 2007. I certainly hope to organize things so that I can go on a month long vacation and no one would notice :)

Teach, not do - One thing that is really hard for me - delegating tasks to someone else instead of just rolling up my sleeves and getting it done in a couple of hours. Only problem is that there are only so few hours in a day and so many problems that need to get resolved. Making myself redundant requires that I restrain myself from digging into problems and instead focus on teaching/guiding others to take over from me. Teaching is a large investment of time - it is always faster to do it yourself than to teach. But without this investment, the organization will never scale.

2007 looks like it will be bringing quite some challenges, many in areas where my strengths do not lie. Still, I wouldn't have it any other way. Life isn't fun without challenges and I can't think of a better team of people to face the unknown with than the crew of Exoweb. Happy New Year everyone!

No comments:

Post a Comment