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Yeah, But You Guys are Screw-ups

April 3, 2013

“I’m worried what might happen if someone makes a change to the F5 load balancer during the change over.”

“Nothing’s gonna happen. We’ve done this a hundred times.”

“Yeah, but you guys are screw-ups.”

The conference room erupted in laughter. It was a funny line. Then the laughter was cut short as my new team realized what I had just said.

Awkward silence.

No one thought I was ACTUALLY insulting our new Principal Engineer and his team. But, we were both new enough to the team that they weren’t entirely sure.

I had inherited a project that required me to work with a large virtual team. I didn’t “own” any of the resources, but I needed them all to commit to helping me. Not only that, but the team had a reputation for lacking “engineering discipline.” They had a tendency to sometimes act rashly, without thinking through all the possible repercussions of their changes. They were all brilliant enough that this normally didn’t cause problems. . .normally.

Josh, the engineer that I had just called a screw-up was a classic example. He was brilliant, but had a tendency to create more of a “roadmap” for his work and deal with the details as they came up. My job was to try to get us to the point where we mapped out all the details before we started.

In the conference room, after the initial shock wore off, there were some smiles at Josh’s expense and we went on with the meeting. Afterward, I pulled Josh aside.

“Hey, that didn’t quite come out the way it sounded in my head.”

“No worries, Rodney.”

Hmm? We’ll see.

Humor is a risky thing in the work place. It’s especially dangerous if you attempt to use humor to cover an awkward situation. However, it can also be a very unifying Tool. It can help to bring a team together by making each member feel comfortable both being teased and teasing others. It remained to be seen what fruits my attempt would bring.

I did one other thing to try to emotionally enlist Josh in the mission and vision of the team.

Black liquorice. (That’s the Australian spelling of licorice.)

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During our once a month all night maintenance windows, we provided food for our engineers. Josh and I were talking before our first all-nighter.

“I appreciate you being part of this, Josh.”

“Yeah, well, just make sure you bring black liquorice and I’m good.”

“Okay. . . ”

“And it’s gotta be that Australian style.”

I’d never heard of Australian style. If you’ve never had Australian Style black liquorice, you’ve never really had black licorice. However, he could have asked for fried pork rinds and I’d have provided it.

When I walked into the data center that first night I could see the questioning in his eyes. Was he going to bring it? I placed two bags next to his computer.

“Enjoy.”

We worked together for months. I realized that my efforts to get the engineers to do better planning were starting to pay off about six months later. Another team wanted to add something to our maintenance window just a few days before it was scheduled to start. It was Josh who objected the loudest.

“No way. We’ve spent months trying to build up a reputation of competence around these. There’s no way they’ll have time to test this enough before Friday. We’re not gonna let them come in and screw up our window because they don’t have a well tested change.”

Yeah, I’ll take a screw-up like that anytime!

From → Team Building

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