Get Training Done Right

Training people on new concepts is difficult. This is not a new idea.

Employers could save significant sums of money, and also keep employee morale up if they did a better job of understanding and accounting for this.

Training should be relatable

When you train someone on a new concept, it is critical that they be able to relate what they’re learning to something that they already know something about. For example, when you teach someone to drive, it may be their first time behind the wheel, but it is rarely their first time in a car, or on the road. They already have a basic understanding of how a car works simply through observation of other people driving. You’re not starting from the basic question of — what is a road? Why do we have roads? What is the purpose of a car? Etc.

Too often, people are pushed into training sessions on topics that they can’t easily relate to. Consider a product that you want someone to learn about, it becomes much easier if you have some background on a) What the product is, b) What the product does. Ideally you would also be able to grant c) Some time with the product before training on it, so that you have some time to experiment for yourself and learn.

Training should be structured

Even loosely. When you’re educating someone on something, it becomes far easier if there is an achievement expectation that you’re working towards. By the end of this training session, my students should know A, B, C. You might not have slides. You might not have demonstrations. You might have a lot of tangential discussions. But by the end of the training, if your students understand and know A, B, C, you can be considered successful.

Everything else, the slides, the demos, the limiting of unrelated discussion, all of that is secondary, albeit potentially critical to the success of the program. In a large group, or in formal training, slides are almost a necessity to ensure good time management. They’re also great for learners who operate better when they can read things. Demonstrations can be critical to explaining an idea that isn’t easily explained with just words. But slides and demos are meaningless when the training that they are supporting feels like ramblings of an overly excited or unnecessarily jaded trainer.

Training should be interesting

A lot of the stuff we train or get trained on is boring. So do what you can to make it interesting, and hold as much of the audiences attention as possible. If you deal with groups, focus on the specific needs of a couple of people who are into the idea, or who would benefit most from a specific example. Not always possible, but it helps. If you need to use examples, try to tailor them to your audience whether it is specific or generic. Maybe you can make it specific to my company, or you might understand that most of the people you train are geeky or nerdy, and so you might use a Star Wars or Star Trek type reference.

I should want to pay attention, not just because I feel guilty for wasting my time and my company’s money, but because I want to learn what you’re teaching.

Training for as many as possible

When you’re training a group of people, or lots of people on the same topic/ideas, there is a simple truth that is often overlooked. There are multiple ways that people learn, and most of the human race only fits into a couple of those buckets. Some learn best by reading, and struggle to retain knowledge when it is spoken. Some learn best by hearing, and struggle to concentrate when expected to read large amounts of information. Some learn best by being given instructions and then being allowed to try it themselves. Others learn better by trying it first, and then being offered instruction and correction.

If you’re dealing with lots of people, it is in your, and their, best interest to put together a training program that covers as many of these as possible, be they slides that include text (long form or summary) of what you intend to say, be they demonstrations (on video or in person) that convey complex ideas, and interactive labs (where participants can try doing things themselves, with you or other SMEs on hand to confirm things are right, or offer guidance/correction as necessary).

Training should request feedback

How a training session went is a very subjective topic. Some students will walk away empowered, with new ideas and understandings. Some will walk away bewildered. Others will leave glass-eyed trying to understand what just happened.

If the situation is right, a good trainer should hand out surveys near the end of their class and solicit feedback for their own benefit. Accept the criticism and let it mould how you train the next class. Accept the praise and let it do the same. Take both with a grain of salt, but if you’re consistently seeing complaints about heavy focus in one area, or lack of clarity in another, it might be time to re-consider how you teach those. Not necessarily changing the content, but including explanations of why things are done the way they are. Or changing the content.

 

I’ve been through a number of training sessions, of different sizes, formats, topics. This is what I’ve learned. Your personal mileage may vary. At least think about it.

Setting up New Employees to Fail

Some readers of my rambling are IT managers, some are lower level IT staff, some stumble upon them from Google or elsewhere. Just about all of you have, or will, at some point, be involved in the hiring and onboarding of a new employee whether it is as their manager, their colleague, or their underling. This also applies outside IT to an extent.

There are several things that are critical to the success of any new employee that must be communicated or handled early in the onboarding process. Sometimes these are handled all by one or two people, sometimes they are handled by multiple people, across multiple teams. Some of them are obvious, some of them are less so.

  1. “HR Junk” – All of the necessary HR items. Your tax forms. Your non-disclosures. Your direct deposits. Your benefits enrollments. The associated education of how employees submit time off requests (and broadly what that process looks like), how they file benefits claims if needed, how they see open positions and submit resumes (their own or their friends/family) for consideration. How to report abuses, and who to ask questions about organizational concerns.
  2. Job basics. If an employee needs to be getting themselves set up, they need to know what the hardware and software requirements are. Do they need to request a phone and extension? Do they need to request licensing for a piece of software? Ideally this is all handled behind the scenes before day one, but I’ve worked at small (30 people) companies and medium (300 people) companies where this wasn’t always the case.
  3. Management. If an employee has questions, who do they ask for help? If there are multiple people, who do they ask for what, or in what order?
  4. Getting work. Even if an employee is supposed to be self-driven, they still need to get that work assigned or picked up somehow. The employee needs to know how that process works, and how they’re expected to do it.

Far too often, one or more of these items is either not handled at all, or is handled poorly. I firmly believe that there is a point where there is too much formalization of training, and not enough space given for ad-hoc Q&A “I don’t understand” type discussion. But there is also the other extreme, where the onboarding process is not nearly formal enough, where everything is handled by the employee asking questions or the manager thinking about something and realizing they need to educate on it. The worst part of this is that many new employees are in a situation where they don’t know what they don’t know, so they don’t think to ask questions because they didn’t consider it to be a problem. Even experienced employees may not consider that they need access to organization-specific things if they weren’t aware of them. I need a ticket system, a documentation resource, a code repository, and an HR portal. Oh, there are two repositories? There are two ticketing systems? When do I use them, and what do I use each one for? Do I have access to both?

Another risk is the situation where onboarding processes are done by multiple people. This risk is managed by the managers having a defined process, or at least some intercommunication. When they are all very hands-off in their approach, you have a recipe for disaster. Recently I reached out to my two managers and asked what was going on, because I was very much in the dark about my situation. Both of them responded in surprise – they thought I was slammed in one way or another. Then it became a cluster of rushed direction changes in order to make this resource productive.

This lends back to the idea that everything should either be a process, or have a process. It doesn’t need to be complex, it does need to be flexible. Checklists are usually fine, with a couple of well-educated resources who can answer any questions. If you’re hiring for a new position, check over the checklists and make sure everything is listed that needs to be touched during the first couple of weeks. Even if you’re hiring for existing positions, it’s worth a moment to check that nothing significant has changed since your last person was brought into that position.

And as with just about everything else, the key to solving anything is communication. If you’re a new employee and you’re confused about something, ask. If you’re not sure who to ask, ask the person who sits next to you, or at least ask them who you should ask. If you’re a manager, talk to your employees — not just the new ones, but set aside extra time for them. Talk with them and learn where they’re at, what they need, figure out what they haven’t learned because they didn’t realize they needed to know it. If there are going to be issues or delays, let them know. If there is a training schedule, outline it for them. Set (realistic) expectations and then meet them as best you can.

Logitech Modifier Keys for Mac

I started a new job last month, and they issued me a MacBook Pro — the other choice was a smaller Windows laptop, and since I prefer the *nix environment I chose the Mac. I could make plenty of arguments or even just observations, since it’s been close to ten years since I last used a Mac on any kind of regular basis, but I won’t.

Instead I’ll offer a quick tip for those of you who happen to use a Mac, who happen to like Chrome, and who also happen to use a Logitech Keyboard-and-Mouse combo, like I do. I know, there aren’t many of us.

For the last few weeks I’ve been frustrated at the lack of back/forward functionality in Chrome. I use it all the time on my Windows laptop at home, and it’s annoying that it didn’t work here. Finally I did some searching, and a few suggestions were to change the action in the Logitech Control center from “Back/Forward” to “Keystroke.” Simple enough, I thought, change the “key” to a ‘[‘ or ‘]’ (back and forward in Chrome, respectively), and the ‘Command’ modifier — piece of cake.

Except it didn’t work. It didn’t work at all. It took a few minutes, but I realized I had made changes when I installed my keyboard. Because it’s a Windows keyboard on a Mac, the “Alt” key is in the wrong position. I’ve been through this before using external keyboards on my old personal Mac, and I found it handy to re-map the keys so that they are the same whether I’m using the laptop as a desktop (with extra keyboard) or as a laptop, with the built-in one. So I remap alt/option as command, and command as alt/option.

Some of you reading this word-for-word will be a step ahead. By remapping the keyboard functions, the keyboard keys that the mouse was ‘virtually’ pressing were now wrong. By configuring the “keystroke” to be Option+[ and Option+] the mouse now works correctly.

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

“Changing was necessary. Change was right. He was all in favour of change. What he was dead against was things not staying the same.” — Masklin (Terry Pratchett, Diggers)

Today marks the end of a moment. The end of an era. The end of my employment with an organization that has seen much change itself in recent years.

I came to this company nearly five years ago, almost as an act of desperation. Where I was previously was clearly failing, and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) offer me what I was looking for as the next step on my career path — a move out of SDQA and into IT/Systems. In hindsight, it turned out to be the right choice. My old team was laid off within six months, and only a subset of the people I worked with are still with the company.

I came to this company with a 100 mile, each way, commute. For the first six months of my employment I would wake up, spend two hours on the road, work for eight hours, spend another two hours on the road and then sleep until it was time to do it again. But it was worth it — I enjoyed the work I was doing, I liked the people I was doing the work for, and I enjoyed the company of the people I was doing the work with.

This job saw me purchase four cars, move house once, and expand the family by one baby. This job saw my salary increase to more than twice what I started at. This job saw multiple levels of promotion, far beyond what I had hoped when the journey began.

Today marks the end of this moment. The end of this era.

I’ve backed up my critical data, I’ve cleaned my laptop and my desktop, I’ve given away the projects that needed to be transitioned and also the personal items that I’ve chosen not to take with me.

I’ve shared my secrets, I’ve said my goodbyes, I’ve wiped away a couple of tears, and walked out the door with my access badges on my empty desk.

I’ve marked the end of the moment, the end of the era. The sun will soon set beyond the horizon, and I’ll be celebrating with my family at a nearby restaurant.

Soon, Monday will come. The sun will rise, and I’ll drive to a new location. I’ll quell the butterflies as best I can, and I’ll meet a new team of co-workers. I’ll struggle (but eventually succeed) in learning their names.

I will have a brand new set of challenges, and I will rise to meet them.

It will mark the beginning of a new moment. The beginning of a new, and hopefully just as long-lasting era.

I’ll try to keep you all in the loop.

Re-Architecting from the Ground Up

Well, nearly the ground.

I think one of the most enjoyable experiences in my line of work is when I get to design and build an environment from almost nothing, with a handful of requirements and design constraints. We do it with some regularity for customers as part of our support agreements, and I’ve now had the joy of doing this twice for my employer – once as the result of an audit/upgrade process, and once as the result of a merger and associated consolidation effort.

The thing is, there are so many roles involved in operating and maintaining today’s corporate environments, and each one needs to have a decision made, either directly or by association, about what tool or policy will fill that role.

Take User Authentication as an example. There are choices to make, which partly depend on whether your logins are on Windows, Linux, Mac, or something else again. Perhaps the three most common choices for filling this role are 1) Active Directory, 2) LDAP, 3) Local Authentication. For tiny organizations, #3 is quite acceptable. If the organization wants central authentication, then the existing skillset and projected direction of the company will typically dictate whether #1 or #2 is chosen, each having their relative merits for any given situation.

When I first started with my current company, the “corporate standard” (and I use the term loosely) was CentOS 5 (latest available at time of install), with centralized LDAP for authentication and authorization to backend SSH logins as well as several HTTP Basic Auth sites that we use(d). No configuration management whatsoever, and all patching was undertaken manually. There was manually configured Nagios monitoring, There wasn’t even a complete list of systems that the group managed. All of the switches and routers were managed by a separate networking team who configured everything with local authentication, individual user accounts on each device. They at least had a more accurate list of network devices that they managed.

The second iteration that I saw, and later became a part of the continued development for, was an improvement over the previous. We were using CentOS 6 (latest available), at the beginning it was still centralized LDAP without any patch management, but we were using Puppet to distribute and manage configurations. Once I was involved we took three drastic measures (not all my choice, in fairness): First, we implemented Spacewalk (2.3, from memory) to handle system patch management. Second, we automated the systems monitoring by integrating Nagios with Puppet. And third, we implemented FreeIPA as a replacement for LDAP. Patching systems became a breeze instead of a nightmare. Monitoring was as simple as adding a system to Puppet and running the agent — we were operating Puppet on 30 minute checkins, so service checks appearing in Nagios should take no more than an hour. Adding services to be checked by Nagios also meant only a few lines of code for the Puppet manifests, and once pushed into the Production server it would be updated into Nagios within the hour. FreeIPA made our centralized auth environment simpler, and while our implementation had issues and was far from perfect it made administration of users and groups much easier overall.

Now, we’re in the middle of doing it all again. The new environment is approximately thus:

  • User authentication is handled by Active Directory. Old FreeIPA and LDAP environments will be deprecated and decommissioned. (We considered keeping FreeIPA and creating a trust, and decided that at our size it was more complexity than was warranted. Most of the FreeIPA tasks that can’t be handled easily by Active Directory will be handed back to Puppet).
  • System standard is for CentOS 7. (We like CentOS around here, OK?)
  • Configuration management is still Puppet, though now being handled by The Foreman (vs. manually, as it was before). We really like puppet — it works well for us.
  • Patch management is handled by the Katello plugin for The Foreman. (Spacewalk has been deprecated, and there are a few things about it that we just didn’t like or use so there was little-to-no point in keeping it around aside from its ability to patch things. Katello and The Foreman replace many of the functions that Spacewalk did or could have done, and do it ten times better as well).

Like I said in my last post, everything good must end. I remember when I built my first environment backend management system (something like Puppet + Spacewalk) and naively thinking I’d never have to build another design again, we’d just keep updating the one we’d chosen. No dice. Every opportunity one has to rebuild the environment should be taken — approach it carefully, take into account what was learned in the last round, understand what was done wrong and what was done right, what can be improved upon with changes in technology and products available.

I, for one, enjoy the challenge.

Everything Good Must End

At one point it was scribed…

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

It’s true. Everything that begins must one day end, it is necessary for all progress.

It’s not always big things, though this is true. Lives end, marriages end (either by divorce or death), jobs end (either by retirement, resignation, firing, incapacitation…). Smaller things end also — processes for minor tasks are adjusted over time, and in a way the old process ends while the new process begins in its place.

I’m constantly reminded, and also constantly reminding others, especially when it comes to technology and its relationship with our business, nothing is forever. Decisions that were made even a year ago are eligible for review and adjustment – decisions that were made based on facts that were true five years ago are almost certainly not true today. Things we build now may, through no fault of our own, no longer be useful in a few short years time. If we are doing our jobs right, if we hold the right mindset, this won’t be a problem.

The nature of technology is constantly changing. While the core principles may remain for years at a time – e-mail comes to mind, it’s a technology that hasn’t significantly changed in the last thirty years – the surrounding architecture is constantly moving and developing. We added authentication, encryption, validation, scanning, HTML, and an array of other features. Websites have developed from simple text and hyperlinks to including images, animations, all kinds of client-side dynamic content. We’ve been through eras of Shockwave and Flash, through Java and Javascript, and finally moving into HTML 5.

It’s hard to let go when the time comes to move on, but letting go is what must be done. Very often we are able to take lessons from what’s been done before when building the next iteration, but that doesn’t always make the transition easier. CentOS 7 has changed significantly from CentOS 6, and it’s forcing habits to be broken. Systemd is a bit of a learning curve, though it’s one I embrace. Likewise, Windows Server 2012 was a change from Server 2008, and I expect the next iteration to do the same. 90% may be the same, but it’s always that 10% that throws you through a loop.

It’s Always DNS..

Also, Rule 39 — there’s no such thing as a coincidence (there is, but shush!)

A few weeks ago we had a power outage in one of our larger colocation facilities hosting customer racks. Because (legacy, cost) we have a number of servers providing some core services that don’t have redundant power supplies, and so a couple of these went down with everything else. Ever since, we’d been having serious performance issues with one of those nodes.

Some quick background: At every facility we provide service in, we have at least a couple of servers which exist as hypervisors. Back in the day we were using OpenVZ to operate separate containers, then we were using KVM-based VMs, and now we’re in the process of moving over to VMWare. In each iteration, the principal is the same: Provide services within the datacenter that are either not ideal, or not recommended, to traverse the public internet.

For example, we host a speed test server so that we can have our clients test their connectivity within the datacenter, to the next closest facility, or across the country. We have a syslog proxy server which takes plaintext input and sends it back to a central logging server via an encrypted link. We have a couple of DNS servers which we offer to our clients for local DNS resolvers. We have a monitoring system that reaches out to local devices via SNMP (often unencrypted) and reports back to the cloud-based monitoring tool.

Ever since the power outage, we noticed that the monitoring server was a lot more sluggish than usual, and reporting itself as down multiple times per day. I did some digging, noticed a failure on one of the drives, had it replaced — that didn’t go well. Ended up taking the entire hypervisor down and rebuilding it and its VMs (these hosts don’t have any kind of centralized storage). No big, I thought. This won’t take long, I thought.

The process was going a lot slower than usual, and I didn’t put nearly enough thought into why that might be the case. I left the hypervisor building overnight and came back in with a fresh head. I was just settling in when I noticed a flood of alerts arriving from hosts that they weren’t able to reach Puppet. Odd, I thought, the box is fine! Memory is good, CPU is good, I/O Wait time (which is notoriously poor on this hardware) was fine. I set about monitoring — puppet runs were taking forever. Our puppet master typically compiles the manifest in 3-4 seconds, tops. It was taking 20-30s per host — that’s not sustainable with nearly 200 servers checking in.

What’s embarrassing for me is that it wasn’t until I had a customer ticket come in that they were getting slow DNS lookups that I realized exactly what was happening — the hypervisor I was rebuilding, the one I had consciously deleted configs for “dns1” on, was the culprit.

A quick modification to Puppet Master’s resolv.conf, and also a temporary update to the Puppet-configured resolv.conf that we push out, reversing those internal nameservers, and everything started to clear out. Puppet runs dropped back down to single digits, customers reported everything was fine.

Of course it was DNS. It’s always DNS.

Web of Trust

They say that the internet is just a series of tubes. They’re not entirely wrong, but that’s not all it’s made up of.

It’s also made of a complex series of trust relationships. It is when these trust relationships fall apart for one reason or another that we run into problems.

BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) is a tool used by every internet provider on the planet. Its primary purpose is to allow a router to peer with its neighbors and advertise to them what addresses can be reached through it. Say I’m an internet router for Comcast, I might have peering connections to routers owned by Verizon and by Cox, and I would advertise to those routers that I own Comcast’s IP addresses, and they advertise to me that they own Verizon’s and Cox’s IP addresses, respectively. Now, I might also have a transit agreement in place with Weird Kiwi (we don’t, just using ourselves as an example) that means Comcast will also advertise Weird Kiwi IP addresses (we don’t own any, for what it’s worth). That would mean that Verizon knows that by passing traffic to Comcast, it will reach Weird Kiwi.

There are two types of BGP peering that you should be aware of. They’re often referred to as “Peering” and “Transit.” Transit is the big one, it’s where you advertise your own routes and the provider advertises back most/all of the internet. Peering is much smaller, and only advertises local IP space for the organization you’re peering with and possibly their customers.

Through this protocol, everyone knows how to reach everyone else. How it works in detail isn’t important, but what is important to know is that there is very little in the way of safeguarding built in. Many responsible ISPs will protect their BGP sessions with customers in order to limit what advertisements they will accept. They require LOAs (Letters of Authorization) and utilize router policies to prevent their customers or peers from advertising too many routes, or from advertising routes to IP addresses that they are not authorized to route. Not all ISPs are this responsible. Some ISPs can, have, and will continue to allow anyone to advertise anything, which results in interesting network issues from time to time. Like when Telekom Malaysia advertised a significant portion of the internet to Level 3, who accepted and propagated it. Or when Indosat in Indonesia did much the same thing. Usually these issues are much smaller, like when someone accidentally advertises IP space they don’t own — it just gets tricky when it’s IP space owned by Amazon.

The point is, BGP is one of the very base layers of the internet, and it is entirely based on mutual trust between internet service providers to properly advertise themselves and to properly vet and limit their customers.

This isn’t unique. Just about the entire internet is based on trust — trust that when you send some message you will get a response, and trust that the response you receive is appropriately accurate. Think of e-mail. When you send a message to a mail server, you expect it to send back appropriate codes. The most important is “250 OK” — this indicates that the mail server has validated that it can deliver to the recipient, that it has vetted your server is not malicious by most standard tests (PTR, DNSBL, IP- or Domain-based reputation tests), and that the message is not malicious or containing spam. This is all possible to test prior to sending back the “250 OK” message, so it is trusted on the sending side that if “250 OK” is returned, that the message was accepted and will be properly delivered. Some mail providers however, choose not to do this. They prefer, for some reason, to accept the message as normal and then classify Spam or Junk mail later. It’s entirely possible for mail to be “properly accepted” at the gateway, and then silently dropped at some point before it would reach the end user’s inbox.

Being a user of the internet involves bestowing, and being bestowed with, a significant amount of trust in the remainder of the internet. Trust that you won’t advertise via BGP any IP addresses you don’t own. Trust that you keep your devices and networks appropriately secured. Trust that you won’t attempt to violate the security of other people’s devices or networks. Trust that you won’t, knowingly or unknowingly, participate in a Denial of Service attack of any kind. But what happens when you do? It’s still a web of trust. Another one of the standing conventions of the internet is that ISPs will make public their preferred method for receiving complaints of abuse from their networks. Typically this is an email address, and even more commonly that email address is something like abuse@(domain). Trust comes to play when sending an abuse complaint that the receiving party will receive it, review it, and respond to it. Either respond by taking some kind of action (notifying their customer, suspending their service, fixing their own security problems) or by responding to the complainant requesting clarification or additional detail.

There is no obligation on the part of the receiving party to actually do anything, you just trust that they will do the Right Thing.

Qualities of an Employee

Since we just did a post on qualities of a good manager, it only seems appropriate to look at that relationship the other way around and consider the qualities of a good employee.

They’re remarkably similar to the manager. I think my top three are: Communication, Transparency, and Self-motivating.

Communication

If you can’t tell by now, I personally believe that good communication is the key to just about everything positive. Very rarely does something good come from a failure to effectively communicate, and when it does it’s usually a lucky mistake.

We discussed it in the managerial post, but communication is a two-way street. Sometimes as a manager I can’t be everywhere at once, so I rely on my employees to reach out when they need something. I need to know what is going on, and especially need to know what’s going on that will impact your ability to do work. Can I help? Maybe, maybe not. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to know. I can’t help, or try to help, if I don’t know. Even if the limit of my helping is to offload some work and make life a little easier for a few days.

Transparency

It relates heavily to communication, but if I’m going to be an effective leader, I need to know what you’re working on. I don’t need deep dark details, or heavy technical intel, just enough to get a feeling of what your workload looks like. I can’t fix problems that I don’t know are there, so if other people are giving you work it should be documented in a way that I can see it and re-assign to balance the team.

Self-Motivating

Good employees are capable of walking the fine line between asking for guidance, or being told what to do, and being able to self-motivate and self-initiate new tasks and projects. This also lends back to transparency — I need to know what you’re working on.

I expect my employees to know their role and their responsibilities. I expect my employees to do the work they find hard or they don’t like, in addition to the work they enjoy or find easy. I also expect this to be done without constant prodding or reminding.

If you’ve come up with a new project or idea to develop, that’s fine. It needs to be in your scheduled tasks list, and it needs to be worked on as a priority behind other work I, as your manager, have deemed higher priority — most likely work that has a customer- or management-imposed deadline. I also expect that you will respect a managerial decision to shelve that project.

I will also put in here, a good employee is aware of his surroundings, and of his impact on them. A good employee will recognize when he is assisting others in getting their work done, or when he is detrimental to their productivity. He will also take steps to correct his own behavior as much as possible on that basis.

Review

A good employee understands and respects the goals set by upper and middle management for the direction of the company, of the team, and of the employee. The good employee will work their best towards meeting those goals.

A good employee will take steps to ensure their manager and co-workers are aware of what they are working on, and the progress that is being made. They will reach out for help or guidance when needed, and they will listen to input from their manager and their peers.

A good employee will also reach out to management to discuss personal issues, and keep them “in the loop” as much as possible and as much as relevant to their work life.

Most of all, a good employee will recognize the efforts of a good manager or employer, and respond in kind. They’ll recognize a poor employer, and still take effort to show respect and, if the relationship cannot be turned around, they will move on and find a new location that will give them greater respect.

Qualities of a Manager

The trend on the Sysadmin Subreddit this week has been talking about the struggles of management, what the lowly team members might not realize their team lead or manager is having to deal with, and resenting them accordingly.

Coming off this, combined with some recent personal experiences, I was thinking about what I value the most in a manager or a lead, of “Management” in general. And I came up with three things: Communication, Decisiveness, and Respect.

Communication

Communication is the key to just about everything. If you want to clap, you need co-ordination between the left hand, the right hand, and when appropriate, the rhythm section of the brain. If you want to onboard an employee, you need to be able to notify the appropriate people of the critical details. When are they starting? What are they going to be doing? Where will they be working? Do they need a laptop or workstation set up? Software? An Email address? And it’s not just questions for the IT department, do they need a desk? Is there one there, or do we need to order/build one? Do they need a parking permit? Does HR have someone available to do their basic onboarding class?

A good manager needs to be able to communicate in multiple directions. Passing messages from upper management down to the employees. Passing messages from the employees to upper management. Sending and receiving messages from other teams. Putting team members in contact with the right people in other departments in order to streamline processes.

A manager with good communication skills will have employees who feel that their voices are heard, and feel like they’re up to speed on team goals and company goals. A manager with poor communication skills will have employees who feel they don’t know what is going on, feel they don’t know who to talk to or who to ask for help, and who will ultimately find other places to be.

Decisiveness

The worst thing you can do to me is constantly change your mind, back and forth, without reason. I say that because I fully understand that sometimes changes must be made, decisions are found to be wrong, data is found to be erroneous, etc. But to constantly back-and-forth forever on who we should choose to replace our broken phone system is ridiculous, time-consuming, frustrating, demoralizing. and expensive. It’s difficult to quantify that cost, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

My job is generally not to make decisions, not when it comes to spending money. It is to provide valid data and opinion, your job as manager is to either make the choice yourself or pass it up the chain. I reasonably expect that process to consume some time, but when you come back with a decision, I expect we should be able to stick with that decision unless new data comes to light.

This isn’t just imagined, either. It may be a little misperception (see the last post), but it isn’t imagined. The company I work for has been trying to replace its poorly implemented Asterisk PBX solution. So far it has taken about 9 months. We trialed five companies, recommended a decision to management who sat on it for three months, then told us the company was merging, we should try this other vendor that the other company uses. No problem, trial, recommend, move on. The decision sits around for another six months while the merger completes, we learn more information about their preferred vendor, decide it won’t fit. Start reaching out to other vendors, oh, wait, they will fit, never mind. All the while we were instructed to spend as little time as absolutely necessary to maintain or resolve issues with the existing system, so the number of bugs and issues keeps rising.

I’m fairly certain this also drives other departments to believe that we’re just sitting on our hands.

A good manager will take the data at hand, and make an informed decision as quickly as possible. Progress will be made, and poor choices will have opportunity for correction. A poor manager will sit on a difficult choice for hours, days, weeks or even months or years. Issues will languish and decay. The biggest risk of procrastination is that when decisions finally are made, the data that backed them has changed and what would have been a good choice yesterday is now a terrible one. And of course, when you take so long to make decsisions in the first place, the time it takes to correct your poor choices is lengthened as well.

Respect

This seems to be the hardest to come by, at least, if social media is to be believed. “They don’t care about you, they care about your ability to make them profitable.” It may be true at a corporate level, but a good manager recognizes the talent of his employees and treats them appropriately. For one, firing staff and hiring new people is time consuming, expensive, and results in the rest of the team being unproductive while they pick up the slack and help in training the new person.

What is often struggled with is that you must show respect not just to the employee, but also to their family and loved ones. Most specifically for me, I have a wife and young daughter. This fact is not new to any of my recent managers, and it doesn’t impact my day-to-day. It does, however, impact my ability to travel. My wife has a job with slightly odd hours, and my daughter attends a daycare. With our regular schedules we have no issues dropping off and picking up, and providing adequate care. But I also can’t just decide I’m going on a business trip for three days next week — that needs to be coordinated and planned at least a couple of weeks in advance. And then I can’t just stay an extra day because you felt like it. Two years ago that would be showing disrespect to me, and I would suck it up and deal with it. Today, that’s showing disrespect to me and to my family, and holds the potential to impact our overall livelihood if my wife gets fired as a result of it.

A good manager will know and understand his employee’s talents and utilize them to the best of his ability. He will recognize that employees have home lives, and work to serve the needs of the business as the primary goal, while working around the unique personal needs of his staff. We may realize it’s not always possible, but we should at least be able to see that you tried. A bad manager will consider employees as a commodity, to be hired and fired as needed, and to be manipulated in order to avoid said firing. A bad manager will leave employees entirely out of the loop on changes to their schedules until the minute they’re implemented, and will point to contractual terms and company policies when questioned about it.

Review

A good manager will listen to his staff, make decisions as quickly as possible, and communicate those decisions back out to the team as required. A good manager will have respect for employees and their families, at least up until the employee gives reason to negate that respect.

A poor manager will consistently fail to communicate, will take forever to make decisions or flip-flop on those choices. A poor manager will show contempt or otherwise disrespect his staff or their families.

Ultimately bad managers find the door one way or another. But even then, a good manager of managers will recognize the good and the bad beneath them. After all, good managers tend to hold on to employees much longer, and get much better reviews when surveyed. Bad managers drive people away quickly.