'What The Heck Is He Doing Here?'

For the last few weeks, I've been spending one day a week sitting in the shared workspace that several members of the Microsoft.com Commuinities team uses.  We have about nine people sharing one large office in Building 6 that was once home to Bill Gates and then Steve Ballmer.  "So what?", you may say.  Well, I'm a manager (and in fact the manager of their managers) and therefore don't do any of the "real" work.  In fact, I have my nice solo office where I can play my music, have private phone calls, and handle drop-ins from anyone on the team.  Why on earth would I skip that for an admittedly cramped office that is bursting at the seams with little to no privacy?  That easy:  Spying.  OK seriously, when someone e-mailed and asked me why I do it, I itemized some reasons and after I wrote it, I thought it would make a good blog post.  It connects a little be with trying to be the best manager I can be for a team trying to do agile development and some other ideas about what I think effective leadership and management is about. 

I am doing it for several reasons:

  • Empathy: I know it’s cramped in there and I am trying to empathize a little bit.  I've grown to be a big believer of the shared workspace as a means of fostering (forcing?) communication between team members.  Microsoft is an e-mail culture and e-mail leaves no room for nuance of diction or truly constructive dialog. But Microsoft facilities also weren't designed to support the shared workspaces and we've had to improvise.  As a result, some of the conditions are tight.  As I explained to the teams, I have a solo office because I need it for meetings, but I don’t like the “exec washroom” exclusivity it fosters, so this is my way of at least showing that I get it.
  • Communication:  In the same manner that the shared workspace is about opening the lines of communication between teammates, the days I sit in the office are partly meant as an open forum for anyone to ask me questions at any time.  I've tried to do lunches with each of the teams, but that comes off as a more contrived environment.  Meanwhile, with the shared workspaces, it’s harder to do the “management walk-by” when people are sharing offices, so this opens the lines of communication.  I'm just there working away, so if you have anything to say, go for it.  I think I've gotten some pretty thoughtful questions and feedback as a result, including the fairest question of all:  what do I do on a typical day?  (Answer:  there is no typical day)
  • First-Hand Knowledge:   Get a little more in touch with the development teams.  It's my effort to “trust but verify” the info from the leads that report to me.  I also like the idea of being closer to the trenches whenever possible.  I was reading the Wired article on Ray Ozzie and how he likes to sit with developers and practically work with them because (a) he understands the code and related issues better and (b) he draws a lot out of the conversations that are happening at the time.  I don't know if I'll be pair programming with any of these guys any time soon, but I do think being "on the ground" helps my appreciation of the situation and associated challenges. 
  • Feedback: Opportunity for the teams to show me their work, if they so choose.  We are having monthly demo days , but if they want interim feedback, here I am.  Also, to the point about Ray Ozzie, I also like hearing the conversations and issues that arise in the daily work that goes on.  It's hard to give feedback on the spot (which is essentially what I ask people to do in one on ones or at the team lunches), but in the course of the day, many things will pop up.
  • Fear: Scare the living bejeesus out of them to keep working and not slack (that’s just a fringe benefit) ;-).  OK, that's not true at all and that's part of why I picked Fridays--I want to pick a day that is a little more mellow, perhaps.  Hopefully, the moods are a little better, people are looking forward to the weekend, and they can be a little more informal. 

I don't think I would have done this nine months ago.  I think there is a comfort zone that I think I feel with most of the team that allows me to do this.  I’d do it for some of the other Microsoft.com Communities teams (there are two other teams as well as the CodePlex team), but those teams are either smaller where my presence might be a little more imposing or, in the case of CodePlex, they'd intimidate me :).  In all seriousness, I do worry about the work equivalent of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (the position of an object can't be determined because it is affected merely by being observed).  I don't intend to scare them and hope that isn't the end result.  I only do it one day a week because it's all my schedule really allows and I don't want it to reach a point where it does feel like Big Brother.  

{Dave Matthews - Some Devil}