Management by pixel

More and more I’m getting involved in consulting management roles, and I’m really enjoying it. Management is hard enough as it is, but managing software engineers is famously difficult. While there are lots of interesting high-level reasons and discussions about this, what you never hear anyone talk about is something really small and practical.

software-engineers-meeting

Imagine this: you’re in a small conference room with a handful of developers. They all have their laptops open. You’re talking. They watch you — sometimes — but mostly they’re watching their computer as you talk. Sometimes they talk, but mostly they’re watching the computer when they do. Overall, it’s just hard to know if you’re being effective in this situation, a situation that’s repeating itself all over the world as you read this.

I’ve seen managers deal with this in different ways (I’ve used all of the following, and more, myself). Some managers just plow through their agenda assuming something is happening. Others go to the other extreme and make everyone close their laptop (happened to me once in a ten hour meeting). Others will call out people’s names to force them to focus. Others raise their voice or do something vocally to get everyone to pay attention. Obviously, the context of the meeting and what’s at stake require different techniques.

Since software developers are stereotypically bad at eye contact and shun face to face meetings, one thing to consider adding to the palette of techniques — for routine, low stakes kinds of meetings, anyway — is using a tool like Trello or whatever tool of choice that helps them do what they naturally want to do (push buttons, stare at screen) but yet still focus on the purpose of the meeting. Just a thought.

(Image from Mike Lee on Flickr)

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