Interview with a Tech Manager: VM Brasseur
We first heard VM Brasseur speak in 2013 at Open Source Bridge, where she gave an dynamic and motivating talk about people, processes, and management to a rapt crowd. Since then, VM has given that talk, called “A Crash Course in Tech Management,” at OSCON EU and Portland in 2014 and 2015, respectively. A notable public speaker, manager, developer, and Open Source advocate, VM is one of our favorite thinkers on managing people and processes, and we were very excited that she agreed to interview with us!
A Safari member, VM also charmed us with one of our favorite tweets ever.
What is the best advice you’ve received as a manager? Where did you receive this advice? How would you recommend that managers seek advice and training?
Years ago, soon after I first became a manager, a colleague told me, “Just pick up the damn phone.” It was in reference to providing good customer service, but it stuck with me. Digital tools like email and IRC are all amazing, but often the best thing we can do to help foster better relationships and understanding is just to pick up the phone and listen.
I’ve found that the best sources for advice can come from my own teams, but it’s not easy to get to the point where people feel comfortable providing that advice (or managers feel comfortable asking for it).
Communication of that sort requires trust, and trust is only effective if it goes both ways. If either side harbors or fosters distrust, dishonesty, or suspicions then trust isn’t possible. However, once trust starts to build, asking for advice and feedback, listening to it, and then taking actions is not only a great way to develop as a manager but also to reinforce and increase that level of trust on both sides.
How do you go from being a “good” manager to a “great” manager?
You go from being a “good” manager to a “great” manager when you stop being a manager at all and start being a leader.
It’s a like a video game: There are quests you need to learn about and fulfill. The quests can include setting up the right processes and policies (for the right reasons), determining staffing needs then interviewing and hiring the right people, onboarding new team members, coaching so your team members can continue to grow, communicating and setting expectations, balancing the needs of the company, team, and individuals, and gaining the trust of your team and learning to trust them in return.
If you can do these things then you’ll find you’re no longer managing. You don’t have to. Your team doesn’t really need oversight anymore. You’ve leveled up: You’re a leader.
The majority of your time is no longer spent keeping an eye on things. Instead, now you’re able to work more strategically and light the way for your team and your company.
What tools and frameworks do you use as a manager that you find particularly useful?
I try very hard not to dictate or proscribe tools. Every company, team, project has different needs and no tool is good for all of them.
Rather than suggest tools, I prefer to suggest methods for selecting tools. Take the time to determine the needs of your team now and to think ahead to the probable needs of your team in the next year or two. Write down a set of criteria, requirements, and use cases. This is the sort of stuff you’re doing when you start working on a new feature or product (or at least I hope you do). That’s really all tool selection is: another project, and a very important one at that.
Changing tools takes an immense amount of work and selecting the wrong one can be disastrous for productivity and morale. So I urge you to give tool selection the time and attention it deserves rather than jumping to grab the shiniest, newest, most trendy thing available.
What is the tipping point for tech adoption? When and how do you decide to adopt a new stack? How do you communicate that to the people who work with you?
They communicate it to me. While I keep up to date on the latest developments in the tech world and focus my attention on news related to our stack, I can no longer call myself a technologist as such.
Therefore, I usually rely upon my developers/ops folks to come to me when there’s a need to add, change, or upgrade our technology. They’re closer to the problem and much more familiar with what needs to be done.
Whatever the problem is, changing technologies is like changing any other tool: Difficult, expensive, and not to be undertaken either lightly or by the faint of heart.
Before I approve any technology upgrade, addition, or change I would prefer to see a well-considered discussion on the following questions:
- What are the business needs for this change? They should go beyond “Ooh, shiny.” We can use the shiny things on the prototypes and proof-of-concepts. For production, our tools need to meet a different set of criteria.
- What is the support/lifecycle for the project? Is it well-maintained? Is it well-tested? Is the community active and engaged?
- What are the steps necessary for adopting this technology? What, in detail, is required for each and every step? What’s our up-front human cost for this adoption?
- What will this adoption gain us? Not anecdata, but actual data about what we will gain from this new technology. Give me charts. Give me graphs. Sell me on it.
- How will this new technology affect others in the team/organization/company? For instance, enabling experimental language features in your code may work in your setup, but it may break your coworkers’ dev environments and the CI/CD system. Think this through and communicate with everyone before pulling the trigger.
- What is the long-term maintenance required for this technology? Think of it like a puppy. Who’s going to clean up after it and make sure it has its shots? How are you even going to know that those shots are needed?
The process doesn’t have to be formal, and the level of detail required when answering will, of course, vary by the relative importance of the technology to the project. What looks like a small technology change can have big impact that is amplified if you don’t have a process for thinking through it before jumping into the deep end of the adoption pool.
What books, blogs, or videos would you recommend for managers?
Anything that Bob Sutton posts is good, and you can usually find a lot of interesting stuff in Harvard Business Review (ed. note: It’s all on Safari!). Beyond that, I don’t really follow any specific blogs. Most of my managerial blog article reading ends up being one-offs which I find by way of Twitter and then save to my Evernote.
For books, there are three which I recommend to everyone, manager or not:
- Hiring Geeks That Fit by Johanna Rothman. This is the only good book on hiring and interviewing I’ve ever found. It’s not just good, it’s great. Rothman does a marvelous job of breaking down the ordeal of interviewing and hiring. She shows not only how important it is to do these things well but also provides actionable frameworks for fixing your hiring process. Great stuff.
- No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton. This was a philosophy I subscribed to before the book came out, but Sutton not only gave that philosophy a name, he backed it up with actual research. Data show that it is, in fact, much more expensive to project/team productivity to keep that asshole on your team rather than cutting him loose. Just fire him. You (and your team) will be glad you did.
- Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra. Sierra hasn’t written a book about product design. She’s written a book about how to think about people and their needs and how to craft your work in order to meet those needs (thereby making people awesome). If that isn’t the goal of management, then I’m doing it wrong. This is a fantastic book and I’m very grateful to Sierra for bringing it to us.
There’s one podcast I recommend: Manager Tools. The presenters approach things from a more corporate big-enterprise sort of way, but their advice can typically be applied to a lot of teams and companies. I’ve been managing for a long time now, and I still find plenty to think about each time I listen to an episode. Find the topics and advice which match your needs and give those episodes a listen.
I’m also excited about some of the topics I’m working on for talks this year. The first one with be a three hour technical conference speaking tutorial which Josh Berkus and I are co-presenting at SCALE14x. We’ve made all of the mistakes and, thanks to this tutorial, you won’t have to. Even if you don’t want to see this presentation, you should definitely check out SCALE14x. It’s definitely a front-runner for best community-run FLOSS conference.
How do you cultivate your leadership skills?
You have to practice, and to practice in the right way. It’s not simply a matter of, “Lead, lead, lead, lead, lead, leadership mastered!”
For example, if you were trying to learn calligraphy and all you ever did was write without stopping to see what you’d done properly and what needed work, you’d never become a calligrapher. So you need to lead, stop, think, analyze, correct, adjust, repeat. It’s an iterative process.
There are countless opportunities to practice your leadership outside of the office as well. For instance, have you ever gotten into the, “Where do you want to eat tonight?” discussion with your partner or friends? It goes back and forth undecided until it’s too late to do anything at all. Instead, you can practice your leadership skills by taking the lead. “Would you like to go to dinner tonight? Here are three places which I think could be fun…” You’d be surprised how much these seemingly mundane little leadership exercises can help you learn and improve.
Check out more of VM’s work at her website. Interview condensed and edited for clarity by the Safari editors.