You know, for dorks.

Wherein I visit a famous cathedral in Barcelona

The Nativity Facade

My first thought is that La Sagrada Familia looks like it’s melting. Along with other tourists, I pass through the gates to view the Nativity Facade before entering the cathedral. Bored teenagers stand alongside avid photographers and jostling tour groups, and I stand there too, looking up at the building, trying to make sense of the chaos adorning the exterior walls and wondering, why did I come again? All up and down the facade are groups of statues depicting biblical scenes, punctuated by rough patches of concrete and strange melty bits. It’s busy and messy, teeming with imagery. It’s a hoarder’s statuary.

One step inside, however, has me wondering if I’ve wandered off to a different building. Here, the lines are clean and focused and there is such beauty in the light. The pillars, made to resemble palm trees, are made of pale stone, the better to pick up the hues pouring through the stained glass windows. In the morning, gorgeous blues and greens flood the cathedral. The sun wraps around throughout the day to cast fiery reds and oranges at sunset. It’s breathtaking to watch light and space dance so well together.

I find myself stunned, uplifted. There’s a stone bench along the wall near where I entered, as though Gaudí knew his building would have this effect on people. I sit and gaze at the pillars bathed in blues and greens, at the ceiling which is supposed to remind one of the stars. It’s a marvel unto itself, and it certainly succeeds in making one contemplate the infinite. This is a place for larger-than-all-of-us concepts. This is eternity’s house.

Inside La Sagrada Familia

Incongruously, a Danish modern area for prayer has been set up smack in the middle of the cathedral. In this roped-off section, black folding chairs form rows and a stage with a lectern butts up against a stark wooden wall. A man in a security uniform stands at attention on one side of the stage. It’s all very makeshift, though all visitors know that Sagrada Familia is not yet complete, and won’t be for at least a decade longer.

Above and behind the wooden wall floats Jesus under what looks like the top of a carousel. He’s out of place, this dangling heavenly host on a cross, ribs protruding from an emaciated body. He’s surrounded by a ring of lights that look like candles in orange holders, as though he’s hosting the worst seance imaginable, and with some of the strangest results. The golden yellow carousel topper is decorated with words scrawled in red, but they are too far away to read.

The cathedral isn’t square, but in the places most resembling corners are curved staircases, also made of pale stone with iron railings. I have never before known that the sweep of a staircase could make my heart ache, that a shape so perfect could evoke a longing for… for what? For god? For life? I can’t settle it, but as I return my gaze to the beautiful blue and green light embracing the interior of the cathedral, I cease to worry.

I exit through through the Passion Facade. Whereas I entered through a scene of chaos, the other side of the building is yet another complete mismatch. It’s stark, war-like. The edges of statues are strong and crisp. The depictions of suffering are bold, unblinking. This is a celebration of pain, of Jesus’ crucifixion, and while I appreciate the clean lines and the six inclined pillars, the subject matter is too morose for my taste, too severe.

It’s all such a mixed bag, but what has stuck with me from my visit to La Sagrada Familia was the feeling I had inside the cathedral, the sense of wonder that so often seems lost in daily life, the appreciation of beauty that drove all other thoughts from my mind. Because it is breathtakingly, heart-achingly beautiful. I think of it as one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever eaten… on really crappy bread.

On complaining

In a previous post, I wrote that “Complaints about a person without actually talking to them is worse than pointless. It’s damaging.” Let's dig into that a little bit.

The short version is that it’s damaging to the person the complaints are about because they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing wrong or their impact on others. It’s damaging to the team because bad behavior is going unchecked and the result of it spills over onto them. It’s no good for the manager, either, because without addressing the situation, there’s not likely to be any change, and who wants to be in a constant state of frustration?

Caveat time
Now, before we take this too far, I’m not suggesting that anybody should bring up every small annoyance. I’m talking about the big stuff, the stuff that makes you worry about putting people on projects and might ultimately block their growth or hurt their careers if it’s not addressed.

How ‘bout an example?
Let’s make up an engineer. We’ll call her Theodora. She is incredibly talented and has a ton of potential.

In planning meetings, Theodora chews her pen and I can hear her teeth clicking against the hard plastic. It bugs me, but nobody else seems to notice. She also resists giving estimates and seems almost hostile at times when she is pressed to give one. It has gotten to the point where Product Managers and others have started coming to me with questions that they should take straight to Theodora.

First things first: I’m not going to talk to Theodora about chewing her pen. That’s not worth my time unless it’s disrupting the meeting and in this case it’s just my pet peeve. Regarding her hostility about estimates, however, I’m going to have to talk to her. If I don’t say anything,

  • I’m telling Theodora and the rest of the team that it’s either OK to be hostile, or there are special rules for Theodora.
  • I’m robbing Theodora of a chance to grow. It’s likely that she’ll be asked for estimates throughout her career, so she should understand why I’m asking for them. More importantly, she should figure out a better way to handle situations when she doesn’t want to do something or doesn’t agree with its value.
  • I’m allowing communication barriers to form around my team and ensuring that I become a bottleneck for anybody with a question they should take to Theodora.
  • I’ll lose respect as a manager for failing to take action on a problem. Some jerk will probably come along in several years and write a blog post about how I should have talked to Theodora.

Note that it’s up to Theodora to correct her behavior; I can’t do that for her. It’s my job to point out that her actions have an impact she might not be aware of, and to make sure she knows the short- and long-term consequences. This gives her the opportunity to change her behavior and stop negatively impacting her team, her manager, and her own career.

Has Anybody Told Walter?

Walter, a fellow programmer at work, was failing. It was evident to me because people complained about Walter when he wasn’t around. They complained about his work, his attitude, and generally vented some pent up frustration.

Walter's co-workers complain about his work.

The first time I heard this, I was a little surprised at how upset they were.

“Has anybody told Walter?” I asked.

Nope. Nobody was talking to Walter about Walter. This was before I became a manager, but the lesson has stuck with me. Complaint without action is pointless. Complaints about a person without actually talking to them is worse than pointless. It’s damaging.

When I think about it, this is one of my most deeply held beliefs about management. I’ve managed software teams for nearly a decade now, starting with ownership of the schedule and parts of projects, then the people, then just about everything (up to and including IKEA furniture assembly). Now that I’m a middle manager occupying the fuzzy space between a VP and Engineering Managers, I’ve begun to reflect on lessons learned.

In those reflections, a single question represents the first and most important lesson I learned: “Has anybody told Walter?”

Virtually every manager you come across will tell you how important it is to communicate well. Clear communication with our direct reports is, I believe, the most important type. When it comes to a situation like Walter’s, communication about an individual’s performance (and perception of that performance) is vital for success.

I don’t know what was really going on with Walter because I wasn’t his manager and I didn’t ask him, but in retrospect it could have been many things. Maybe he felt like he was doing a crappy job and was just happy that nobody noticed. Maybe he came in every day thinking he was going to be fired. Maybe he didn’t know what was expected of him and figured that since nobody complained, he was doing a pretty good job. Whatever the case, Walter’s manager should have checked in with him.

Boil it down
If I was Walter’s manager and I could go back in time, I would take all those complaints and boil them down to a single piece of feedback. It’s important to limit critical feedback because people can’t change everything at once. But, just like in developing software, people can work through one thing at a time and achieve steady progress.

In Walter’s case, all the complaints essentially boiled down to, “We don’t know what you’re doing.” So I’d tell Walter, “Hey, you and I need to figure out a way to show constant, steady progress on your projects.”

Back it up
I firmly believe that third-hand complaints should only be used as the basis for change if it’s unavoidable, so I would back up my first statement to Walter with observations I have personally made. Something like:

“I’ve noticed that you tend to assign yourself 15 stories at a time and then disappear for weeks. During that time, you don’t tell anybody what you’re working on. In standup meetings, you sort of wave your hands and say that you’re still working on the same thing as yesterday. This doesn’t tell me or anybody else where you’re at with the project. I’m unable to communicate to other people what you’re doing and frankly, I worry that you’re not making progress.”

Based on Walter’s response, I might need to use stronger language and explain more about the impact on the team or the company, but I’d use I statements rather than passing along third-hand complaints wherever possible.

Come up with a plan together
Before coming up with a plan, it’s important to make sure that Walter believes there’s a problem to solve. If I haven’t convinced Walter, he’s not going to be motivated to change. But let’s say Walter is convinced. At that point, it’s likely that Walter will have some ideas of his own. Either way, I’d sit down with him to figure out how he can demonstrate steady progress. It might be as simple as setting a work-in-progress limit and/or asking for better reports at standup, or it might require a more creative solution.

Be prepared to repeat yourself
I may think Walter understands the problem. Walter may in fact understand the problem. But anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks later, there’s a strong chance that he will slip back into old habits. Hopefully, I’ve got a strong rapport with Walter and can gently remind him to do better. Either way, it's best not to get frustrated and be willing to repeat myself or add new information to the conversation as I track his progress.

Summing it all up
The single biggest lesson I learned early on, even before I began managing people, is that you have to actually talk to people and set clear expectations if you want them to change. I am most comfortable giving critical feedback when I can boil it down to a single area, give the feedback from myself, and then partner with the person in finding a new pattern. I’m always prepared to repeat myself because we are all humans and change, after all, is hard.

#1 resume mistake

The most common mistake I've seen on resumes in the last several weeks is the use of "lead" as the past tense of the verb "to lead". I especially see this on manager resumes because managers have usually led teams and projects.

I don't hold it against anybody because it's an easy mistake to make, but it does make me think of heavy pipes and Miss Scarlet in the Conservatory. Every time.

Clue cards:  Ms. Scarlet in the Conservatory with the lead pipe