My Expectations For Everyone Working For Me

Brilliant notes on company culture from 1989

This is a memo (originally an actual memo, on paper), written by Norm Meyrowitz, probably the best engineering manager I’ve ever worked with or seen, setting out guidelines for behavior/approaches for his team.

It’s a terrific distillation of an clear, energetic, productive, enjoyable way of working (and captures some of what was great about building Macromedia back in the day). I hope it’s helpful to you.


To: All

From: nkm

Date: April 10, 1989

Re: Expectations and Objectives

As usual, the review process has been informative, not only in my evaluating you, but in you evaluating me (both by what you have said and what you have left unsaid).

The most vivid impression of this year’s process is the realization that while I have in my mind a set of expectations and objectives that I think everyone (including me) should strive to fulfill, I have not been particularly good at making those expectations and objectives known so that other people can try to meet them, nor have I always met my own expectations.

Thus, in this memo, I try to set out some overall philosophies that we all might follow to continue to make IRIS fun, rewarding, and profitable. The suggestions are not meant to single out any individual (except me) for something they have done wrong over the past year, but rather to try to set out some overall guidelines in a coherent manner. (Ed. note: the following tips should not be confused with the new book Management Secrets of Attila the Hun which has just been published [seriously!]).

Be proactive. Anticipate. Take it upon yourself to do something without being asked. Find out about something that may be of use in the· future. Try to think several steps ahead .

Be prepared. Do your homework. Have your ducks lined up. Be able to defend your opinions. Know what other people have done previously about this topic. Ignorance is not a particularly good defense.

Ask. If something confuses you, ask. If something is unclear, ask. If it is still unclear, ask again. If someone seems to be mad at you, ask why. If you don’t ask, you don’t get the real info. Most misconceptions arise from forming false impressions instead of finding out from the horse’s mouth.

At the same time take risks. Don’t be so conservative. Don’t wait to be told. every last thing to do. Don’t worry about screwing up. No one will get in real trouble for trying something out and failing. Well, you may hear about it, but the failure will soon be forgotten, and the fact that you attempted something will be looked upon more positively than the fact that you did only what you were directly told.

Sign up. Volunteer for things that you think you could do and that you think would be particularly helpful. And volunteer for things that you’re not comfortable with doing but would like to learn to do. The only way of learning to do things is to do them. And the best way to get more responsibility is to ask for it.

Observe. People’s expressions and manner often give off signals as to what their real feelings are. Try to take these into account. Similarly, often things are being done or activities are underway that will tend to make certain behaviors or situations understandable. Try to observe things that are happening, and if you observe things that you don’t understand or can’t figure out, ask.

Critique. And be critiqued. A document that comes back with a lot of red pen on it is not necessarily a bad document, but a document that has enough value, content, and importance to have warranted someone’s effort in marking it up. Similarly, when someone gives you something to read, don’t just circle three typos. Try to see if it is organized in the best way. Try to see if the points it is trying to make are clear. Try to make sure the topic sentences are strong. Try to make sure the transitions between paragraphs and sections make sense.

Be curious. Be inquisitive. Don’t just sit there and absorb. Ask questions. Poke. Try to find the holes in things. At the same time, try to find the substance in things. What are the two or three salient points from a presentation?

Keep people informed. In general, people are not particularly proactive in finding out what is going on, and therefore, they feel out of touch. To prevent this, it is up to you to communicate to others the status of what you are doing on a regular basis. Even though it would be nice if people came and asked you (see the next point below), be proactive yourself and go to them.

Wander. Move about the building and see how and what people are doing. Find out how someone else’s project is going. Find out how they are implementing it. Offer to help debug someone else’s code, even though you know nothing about it. It is not a waste of time to go and spend time explaining to people not directly related to your project what you are doing, and likewise, having them explain what you are doing. Often, such unscheduled and unplanned exchanges spark some synergistic idea.

Communicate. Articulate. Educate. Research and education go hand-in-hand. We’re here not only to forge new ideas and develop new concepts, but to convey them to ourselves and others. That isn’t an easy process. We’re not just researchers, but educators, who must use spoken and written word to communicate our ideas. Take the time to articulate clearly your major points. And then your detail. Use examples. Draw analogies. Describe your ideas in terms of the other well-founded ones. Be able to describe things in more than one way (sometimes people have a different frame of reference, and don’t understand a concept until you describe it from another viewpoint).

Write. Get comfortable writing things down. Keep writing things down. Don’t think of writing as a chore, but as “film” for your ideas. If your ideas are unfocused, your writing will be too. If your ideas are sharp, the writing will be easier. But don’t let the unfocused writing at the beginning discourage you. The whole process of trying to write things down will help hone your ideas. Use tools, such as outliners and — gasp! — Intermedia to help re-sort your thoughts until they come out right. Once you start seeing writing as a sharpening steel and not a rod of punishment, you will begin to write and vocalize your ideas more crisply and confidently.

Try to elucidate other’s ideas. Rather than giving up in disgust, try to reiterate an idea that someone has floated in your own words. Then, if you get it wrong, they can criticize you, rather than you having to criticize them for not articulating it well. This is an iterative process. If you here yourself commenting “So what you’re trying to say is … “ then you are doing it right.

See things through different eyes. Similarly, put yourself in other people’s places. Why aren’t they understanding something? What is their background? What don’t they know about that I should convey to them?

Finish things. Anyone can get anything to the 90% complete level. It is the work in doing that last 10% that really shows who has it and who doesn’t. Don’t let a lot of almost done projects accumulate. Get things out the door. Sometimes this takes compromises with yourself; there is really no such thing as perfection or done, so as they say in the newspaper business, when deadline rolls around, you gotta put the issue to bed.

Be concerned with form as well as content. Even though you were told not to judge a book by its cover, it is nonetheless a reality that people do make a primary judgement of the quality of the content based upon the quality of the presentation. Even though form should not overshadow content, spend time making sure that your documents have a professional appearance, so that their content is not overlooked. It is easier for good content to get lost in bad form than vice versa, so don’t let it happen. Make sure that even your draft documents look crisp and organized — chances are cleaning up the form will help with the organization of your content.

Ask for what you need. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure something out or getting something done if you don’t have what you need. If you need software, ask for it. If you need hardware, ask for it. And if you need help, ask for it, too. Don’t spend more than half an hour trying to fix something or get something done that you have a hunch someone else can help you with.

Learn to sell your ideas. Launching new ideas isn’t easy, primarily because new ideas typically don’t fit into the conceptual framework that people already have. So, like it or not, part of your job is to sell your ideas to others. Selling really means explaining your ideas in many different ways, explaining the benefits up front, and trying. to convince not just others, but yourself as well, that what you have to say merits further attention. Often, ideas that have been around for a long time are not bought into until someone sells them with the appropriate “spin.” As long as you not hawking snake oil, selling your ideas should not be seen as venal.

Speak in the third person, not the first person. Stop saying “I think we should do a, b, and c.” Rather, say “Perhaps we should consider a, b, and c.” Using “we” rather than “I” puts people at ease and makes them feel that they are in a collaborative situation where they have a part in the decision, rather than a competitive situation, where someone has to emerge the winner.

Problems are fun. Somehow, most humans have formed the impression that problems are horrible, terrible things. They’re not. Like pimples, they’re an unavoidable force of nature. And if you look at it from a certain perspective, that’s what we’re all here for — to solve research problems, to solve technical problems, and to, on occasion, solve more pressing interpersonal or other problems. If we didn’t have problems, we wouldn’t have anything to try to solve and overcome, and things would get pretty dull pretty quick. Your job here is addressing problems of all different dimensions, and you should see that as a challenge. This brings us to a corollary point.

Don’t just point out problems. Offer solutions. Identifying problems (preferably in their germinal stages) is important and everyone is encouraged to point them out. But you should look at problems as opportunities to display and hone your fix-it skills and to subsequently feel good about what you have done. So when you notice a problem, see if you can come up with alternatives that may solve it. Weigh those alternatives, and then try out the one that feels right.

Think on your feet. Don’t ponder small decisions all day. If something has to be decided, learn to ask the right questions to the right people, poke at a couple of alternatives, and decide. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know soon enough. And if it does work, bask in all the time you saved if you had otherwise deliberated.

Don’t let things fester. Don’t get angry. Or even. Bring things out in the open. Even though you should be on the lookout for things left unsaid in others, assume that no one is as vigilant as you, and therefore, you must explicitly say what is bothering you. And try to say it to the person who is bothering you, not to everyone but that person. Often, misunderstandings can be cleared up by direct communication before the situation becomes a confrontation or worse, an undercurrent of intrigue, rumor, and innuendo.

Don’t be so serious. As you may have noticed, we are not performing delicate brain surgery. Lighten up. Don’t see evil motives where none exist. Don’t take criticism as lifetime damnation. Don’t interpret statements in the worst light possible. Quit the political intrigue.

Give praise. And encouragement. Bad news travels fast. Good news takes the slow boat. Try to find nice things to say about people’s work. Usually it isn’t that hard. People need encouragement to get over their own insecurities and doubts.

Get the big picture. Do not be satisfied with knowing about your own “thing.” How does what you do fit in the larger context of things? Your major job here is not only to do your thing, but to find the connections of how your “thing” fits with someone else’s “thing,” with what has been done in the past, with what is currently being done in industry and the research community and what will be done in the future.

Lead, don’t manage. We are all here to lead. Leading isn’t about having people report to you or having a title. Leading is about championing an idea, rallying people around you to shape and form that idea, and guiding everyone through· the process of bringing that idea to fruition. The ultimate satisfaction is seeing that you, in conjunction with others, have helped steer something to completion

These are tips and suggestions, not criticisms of anyone in particular. They are analogous to things you learned in driver’s ed years ago. By now you’ve subconsciously absorbed all those endless rules and suggestions and do the correct thing automatically. So it should be with these suggestions. Initially they may seem overwhelming, stilted, and impossible to juggle. But soon, as you start to feel more comfortable, things will start to come naturally — as a matter of reflex. You will be surprised at how easily it is to be a race car driver at IRIS.

(Included in this week’s issue of the Tech People Leadership newsletter)