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Candidate for Worst Manager Of the Year. . .ME!

December 4, 2013

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Hey guys?


Where’s the duty phone forwarding to?

I think Jacob has it.

Isn’t he at Disneyland with his family?


Try calling it.

I was managing a team that included four Microsoft Exchange engineers for a large non profit organization. Our team owned both the engineering and the operation functions. This is a common configuration and one that is fraught with problems. At first glance it makes perfect sense. The engineers are going to design a solution. Who better to maintain it?

That first impression hides some tendencies that we all have, but engineers and technical people especially struggle with. We make shortcuts in our thinking. If I were describing to you how to start a car I might give you the following list.

1. insert key

What key? Insert it where?

1. Insert ignition key into ignition.

Really? I’m still in the house. How do I reach it?

1. While standing outside your car, open the door and get in.

Okay, now I’m sitting in the back seat. How does this help?

Do you see how if I’m going to write instructions for someone else, I have to be very clear and unambiguous? If I were writing a list for myself, it might say:

1. Insert key
2. Check mirrors
3. Start car

There’s a lot missing from that list. I just sort of fill in the blanks because I know how to start a car. The same thing happens when an engineer designs a system and then needs to maintain it as part of an operations team. They make a very short list and rely on what’s called “tribal knowledge,” or information that is known by the team, but not written down, to keep the system up and running.


The problem with tribal knowledge is what happens if one of the members of your tribe leaves? You’re stuck. By dividing the Engineering and Operations teams into separate teams, you force your engineering team to understand the system well enough to teach it. You also force your operations guys to approach a new rollout like a customer would, seeing it for the first time. On our team, Jacob had kind of gravitated to the operations role. He was really good at it. The problem was getting him to let go of it.

Exchange Duty Phone, this is Jacob.

Yeah, I’ve got a problem I hope you can help me with.

Okay. what is it?

My operations engineer took the duty phone to Disneyland! What were you thinking? Do you realize how bad this makes me look as your manager? They think I MADE your take it. Not that it’s about me. You are on VACATION. You should be on vacation when you are on vacation. I’m having Mark transfer the number to his phone right now. Enjoy your trip and focus on your family.


And Jacob?


Relax! Enjoy yourself! You’re on vacation!

I really wasn’t worried about how it would reflect on me, but with a team of four, I needed every team member. I couldn’t afford someone getting burned out. That is the purpose of vacations; to get away from work and decompress.

Microsoft used to evaluate managers on how much vacation time their employees took. If the employees didn’t take enough the manager got a ding on his review. Let your people get out of the office on a regular basis. They will be better employees when they are at work if they have some down time away from work.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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