The book and website that I write about this time deal with the many details of doing a good job. People faced with learning all those details for themselves have written roadmaps for those who follow. In the book, a first line manager writes down the advice he wishes someone had given him when he started. On the website, the site's designer gives a complete step-by-step account of how she went from unemployed technical writer and web design novice to competent practitioner.
Dr Peeling's Principles of Management -- Practical Advice for the Front-Line Manager by Nic Peeling (Dorset House, New York NY, 2003, 288pp, ISBN 0-932633-54-4, www.dorsethouse.com, $29.95)
The law of supply and demand works in funny ways. Over and over, I see some hot area that everyone is interested in. Many thick books about that area suddenly appear on bookstore shelves. They tend to be quite similar to one another, and none of them tell you what you really need to know.
Management, especially first line management, is such an area. When Nic Peeling was promoted from software researcher to manager, he made a bee line for the local bookstore, only to find too many books and too little useful information. Now, more than ten years later, Peeling has learned many lessons -- through his own experience and from watching others make the transition from technical wizard to management novice.
Peeling feels that most new managers fail to understand the basic principles of managing people. I'm sure that this is true, especially in the technical fields. Many of us spend years happily shutting out other people while we master ways of making computers and electronics bend to our will. Then we find ourselves in positions where the only way to advance our careers is to work through other people. Very little of our experience in object oriented programming or VLSI design is immediately applicable to this new situation.
As Peeling says, "throughout the world, the standard for managing people is pretty dismal. Most people remain motivated to do their work in spite of their managers' efforts, not because of them." One reason for this is that while many managers ultimately learn how to do the job, few ever figure out how to teach others to do the job. Each new manager starts from scratch. The lucky ones find mentors who help them through specific situations, but those mentors can rarely give them general principles to apply to the next situation. The few managers who could write such books -- Jack Welch or Andy Grove, for example -- tend to write for high level executives and those who aspire to become executives.
Peeling tries to establish general principles to guide new managers. He doesn't completely succeed, but it's a big step in the right direction. Except for an excellent chapter at the very end of the book, his text stays somewhat abstract. In place of concrete examples, he presents delightful cartoons of a manager with a huge grin, closed eyes, and a can-do attitude flaunting Peeling's principles. Thus, Peeling finds a happy medium between stating abstract principles and solving specific situational problems.
I find parts of the book depressing, because I find parts of management depressing. Over and over, I find myself believing that Peeling is right about some point that I wish he were wrong about. For example, as a manager, you must keep yourself a little apart from those you manage. I think this goes against most people's instincts. Many new managers wish they could still be one of the team most of the time. It's only through hard experience that learn that they must give up that goal.
Another example is that sometimes you can't be completely open. In a way, it's like being a parent. You'd like to tell your children everything, but sometimes you need to make a decision quietly and hope that they are looking the other way.
Despite these Machiavellian examples, Peeling puts forth some principles that everybody can feel good about. On the first page, he says that you must set high expectations, establish clear boundaries, give good feedback, and behave in a way that wins respect.
I don't agree with everything Peeling says. His chapter on working with different types of staff is helpful in many ways, but I believe that he perpetuates many stereotypes. For example, he says:
Why sales people seem neurotically eager to blame problems on others can only be determined through years of psychoanalysis -- either for them or for the front-line manager -- but from what I have observed, blaming others is a very marked behavioral trait in salespeople.
Similarly, Peeling says that consultants have strong but unusual ethics. He likens their attitude to that of a burglar who considers himself ethical because he never carries a weapon and never vandalizes the homes from which he steals.
On the other hand, Peeling says some things that I agree completely with, and in the aftermath of the corporate scandals of the last year or so, I hope more leaders will take to heart:
Consistent behavior by the leader sets the tone for the culture.
And the Golden Rule of management:
You will be judged by your actions, not by your words, and your actions shall set the example for your team to follow.
Don't treat the material in this book as gospel, but take it with a grain of salt. In fact Peeling gives a "literal-reading warning" in the preface. Nonetheless, if you're a first line manager or in danger of becoming one, you can learn a lot from this book. You should buy it and read it.
Haiku.ws (A website by Kristine Hahn)
About a week ago I attended a meeting of the Society for Technical Communication at which technical writer Kristine Hahn told how she had built her website, www.Haiku.ws. I was impressed by the way she had learned from the ground up how to build an interactive website backed by a server-side database. I was even more impressed when I saw the document she had written to describe what she had done.
If you go to www.Haiku.ws, you can download a 78-page manual in PDF format called Creating the Haiku Web Site. The manual describes how to set up several different combinations of editing machine, test machine, and web server. Hahn describes configurations using Windows, Linux, and Macintosh OSX. She shows you how to obtain, install, and configure the key software components: Apache or IIS, PHP, and MySQL -- all of which are essentially free. The only real expenses you encounter setting up a website according to Hahn's instructions are the monthly charge for an internet service provider that supports PHP and MySQL, and the price of the web authoring tool.
Hahn uses Macromedia's Dreamweaver MX to build her site. While there are less expensive authoring tools, Dreamweaver is widely acknowledged to be worth the cost. Or, you can download a free trial version from www.macromedia.com. In any event, if you don't use Dreamweaver, you can't follow Hahn's procedures.
A little over two years ago Macromedia graciously supplied me with a review copy of Dreamweaver 4. Unfortunately, I never had time to review it, but I installed it the other day to follow along while I read Hahn's document. The older version doesn't match the newer software exactly, but I can see why so many people swear by it. Dreamweaver hides many tedious details behind a well designed user interface.
Many of us have excellent technical backgrounds and skills, but we face a nasty problem in today's tight job market. There are so many different tools and skill sets that we find ourselves rejected out of hand by recruiters for jobs that we know we could quickly learn to do. Hahn, who found herself unemployed after many years as a successful technical writer, talked herself into a web designer job that required a large set of knowledge and skills that she didn't have. Over the course of a few weeks, she demonstrated that hard work and determination can quickly overcome such gaps. She is an inspiration to all of us.
Designing websites with server-side functionality is not difficult, but many people find it mysterious. Hahn knew nothing about it when she started, but a few weeks later she was able to start teaching others how to follow in her footsteps. Rather than generalizing from the work she had done for her client, she acquired the Haiku.ws domain name and built a site from scratch to illustrate all of the techniques she had learned. It is not a polished website, and her document is not a polished technical manual, but they are both instructive.
If this is an area that you want to know more about, Haiku.ws provides a good way to do it. And you can't beat the price.