Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Steve's new job

Monday, October 2, 2006, 10:30
Steve's (new) office

It all seems like such a waste of time.

I know, I have to know where the bathrooms are, as well as the lunch room, supply closet, and emergency exit. But I have a highly complex job to learn, and customers who signed contracts and are waiting patiently (or impatiently) to go live are now my responsibility. Any work time spent on voice mail configuration and benefit enrollments should be kept to a minimum.

Phil and Tom are going to work for me, installing the software after the customers buy it. Installation sounds easy, doesn't it? If you or I go to Staples and buy Quickbooks, we can pop in a CD, install it, and be balancing our checkbook within an hour. Corporate software has gotten out of hand, though. Especially ours.

Customers like it, but from time to time they demand modifications. In the interest of making them happy, and keeping their business, we comply. Our program now has more options than a Big 12 football game.

Every message the user sees can be edited. Every screen can be customized. Imagine buying a car and having to pick three pages' worth of colors and styles. "Honey, what do you think about this one for the gear shifter?"

There are so many possible configurations that no one can test them all, and so, occasionally, bugs are found. Our three-man development team knows the urgency of those, so they bounce crazily back and forth between fixing what's already been installed, and programming new features for the next release.

I take a good look around the office. Every white board is filled with reminders; stacks of papers and books litter every desk; phones ring as if we were hosting the Jerry Lewis telethon.

The installation team and the programmers have not had a supervisor for months. That means they have probably been careening from project to project, working for whichever customer screamed the loudest that day.

First, the office needs to be flawlessly clean--or at least a hell of a lot cleaner than it is now. If there's anything I hate, it's being unable to address a problem because someone can't figure out which pile the paperwork is in.

Next, we will have to define procedures to help us decide what project gets done when, and by whom. Changing gears mid-project wastes time, and leads to confusion. Breaking bad work habits is not a fun thing; these guys may hate me when this is over.

And of course, the employees are going to have to learn to trust me as a manager. They don't know about my previous job, and don't care. They need to know that I'm not going to run them all into the ground with work, and/or fire them.

"Can't make the 1:00," Phil says, trotting past me in the hallway. No way he's blowing off our first department meeting.

"Phil, we need you to be--"

He disappears into his office and closes the door.

"He always does that," says Bernadette, our administrative assistant. "Get used to it."

"Tell him to see me when he comes out of there."

"You don't wanna go there..." she says.

"Let me worry about that."



"You wanted to see me, Steve? I'm very busy--"

"Phil, the meeting today," I say. Not a direct question; I just want to see how he handles himself. Will he address the problem head on?

"Too much going on, Steve. Too many installations. Everybody wants a 1/1 go-live--"

"Too busy doing work to talk about how we're going to do the work?"

He sighs. "I know you want to help..."

"There's a kid, Eric, who lives down the street from me," I begin. "He's in college. The lady next door asked him to rake the leaves on her mother's lawn. She offered him $100 for it, too."

"Okay..." he says, leering at me with dark, inquisitive eyes. He has no idea where I'm going with this.

"The kid really needed the $100, so he took the job. He got the address from his neighbor, ran over immediately and started working. He wanted to get it all done in one day, so he was really busting his butt.

"His phone kept ringing, but he didn't answer it. He didn't even look at who was calling. He was extremely busy working, see? So whomever it was was going to have to wait until he was done."

"Uh-oh," says Phil.

"Turns out it was his neighbor calling. She had given Eric the wrong address. The kid was raking the wrong lawn!"

"Oh no!"

"By then four or five hours had passed. Poor kid did all that work for nothing."

"Wow," he says.

"We haven't had any leadership in this group for a long time," I say. "There are going to be some growing pains while we get out of the ruts that we're all in. But we will get out of them, I promise you."


"As much as it's going to hurt all of us, we're going to have to stop working and talk sometimes. Yes, that will put us farther behind. But in the long run, we'll work smarter and faster."

"So I guess I'll see you at 1:00," he says with a frown.

I'm here one day, and I've already got a problem employee.