Managing large (9 ppl) software teams?
January 17, 2014 5:23 AM   Subscribe

My manager is overwhelmed. I'm unhappy. He's asking for feedback from team.

My manager is overwhelmed having eight reports and many, many projects. He doesn't know how to manage(?)/track(?) so many people and projects, and, of course, he's accountable to the managers and CEO above him.

What tends to happen is that a project will get broken down into two-week chunks, and then if a two-week chunk doesn't get completed on time he'll become sporadically very, very upset, as all the remaining chunks get pushed back a week.

He's agile-aware, as it were. He's open to different tools and different procedures. And I think, in theory, he's open to learning-as-you-go, updating requirements, unforeseen blockers, and so forth. But, he's so busy or overtaxed, there doesn't seem to be a way to verbally communicate or explore updated reality with him. All he sees are dates and things not getting done, and by the time he actually sits down to review with us what's done and not done, the possibility of reasoning with him seems long gone.

The A-game people plow ahead, put in the extra time, and just generally get stuff done. Or they seem to have a better sense of what needs to get done and what can slide. Of course, some of them are very good at what they do. But I'm not really willing to unceasingly kill myself for arbitrary deadlines that don't have basis in reality. Maybe this is a separate issue.

My manager seems to be honestly looking for suggestions. The team has rapidly grown in size. And we're sitting down in a few days to try to come up with new work tracking, policies, and procedures. Do we need a better way to visualize work? We have a high-level list of projects, a tracker for the two-week chunks, and one more tracker down to the granularity of about 4-48 hours. Everything's linked together. Do we need to come up with better estimates? Do we need something more than weekly meetings and daily check-ins?

I'd be grateful for some insight into what's going on here, what to do about it, and how to make my work-life better.
posted by zeek321 to Work & Money (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Someone needs to have a frank conversation with your manager's bosses about the fact that he's doing more than one person's job. It should probably be your manager himself, but I can understand why he'd be reluctant to do so.

But it seems from your description like your manager is being stretched just as far as he can go by the metrics they have him working on, and until he is able to share some of the decision-making authority with somebody else, he's not going to have the mental bandwidth to do more than operate in constant, ongoing crisis mode.

The good news is: it's a terrible economy so his bosses can probably get somebody for cheaper than they otherwise would. The bad news is: they're still going to have to pay another salary and they probably don't want to do that.
posted by gauche at 5:53 AM on January 17, 2014

Can one of the A-game people act as more of a project manager?
posted by magnetsphere at 6:24 AM on January 17, 2014

I am a little confused because it seems you have clear communication around processes and goals and deadlines but things are still falling apart. Is the problem that the two week deadlines are unrealistic - the amount of work assigned in that period exceeds the person hours assigned and has an inadequate buffer? Are you expected to be 100% efficient, with no time out of your day for meetings/checkins but also expected to be communicating with other people on their schedules? Who is deciding what the two week deadline comprises of, can you get input into that? Would it be possible to qualify how long specific tasks take, add up the tasks assigned and show how expectations are unrealistic?

You have a lot of tracking, which is great!, but who is doing the tracking? Just the Manager who has eight daily checkins, an additional 4 or so daily deadlines, weekly meetings with his team (probably takes all day) and weekly meetings with his managers? It sounds like his job has been tailored to everything working at 100%, 100% of the time, with no wiggle room at all. Is there a PM or admin assistant in the picture? It looks like a lot of tracking (down to a 4-48 hour deadline) but then follow-ups aren't happening for a week when the problem has compounded and affected other workflows.

It sounds like gauche is right that there is too much work for your boss but also too much work for the individual teams members too. You have new people too so there should be allowances for learning processes as well.
posted by saucysault at 6:32 AM on January 17, 2014

Response by poster: (Didn't want to give too many details. A couple people on the team did get new titles and each got some scope within which they define and track projects. The only person who is held accountable above team is manager, still, though, and manager still wants to grasp everything. Sort of understandable because the buck stops with him. Ok, won't thread-sit.)
posted by zeek321 at 6:34 AM on January 17, 2014

One person managing 9 engineers isn't really that large of a team. I don't know how many projects you are working on simultaneously however.

If you have tasks broken down into 4-8 hour chunks, your team should know well in advance of the 2 week deadline if things are going to slip. Also, you are having daily standups -- that should be enough notice to take action.

If there is more work than can be completed by these people in the allotted time, no amount of management skill is going to over come that. Is there a way to do a less elegant job on the lower priority tasks or projects?

Perhaps each of the A-teamers could take on tracking/managing the 2 week chunk for each project. And, if one project is slipping, then the manager needs to decide which project is more important.
posted by elmay at 6:35 AM on January 17, 2014

Best answer: My manager seems to be honestly looking for suggestions

"You're a good manager, you've got a bunch of good people on these teams, but the workload is still overwhelming and everyone -- even you, remember [very brief anecdotal reference to his worst day ever]? -- is getting stressed out. We're already breaking work down into two-week sprints so that we can focus on a small chunk of work at a time, but that doesn't seem to be enough. The way I can figure it, we have three high-level options: find a way to increase headcount -- not likely right now -- lower expectations for how much work we can get done -- possible, but it'll hurt -- or look for and get rid of anything that's making the work harder than it is. That last one is something we can start by asking everyone collectively to identify one thing that's getting in their way. What do you think?"

Basically a good-faith effort to show you're considering management as a partner rather than an adversary, that you're all in the same fight against the mountain of work you have to do, and that you're not asking management to wave a magic wand to dismiss the problem. Turning a manager into an ally -- especially if they end up trusting your judgment -- is a good thing.

Also, everything elmay says should be considered. Of course, having a fake-Agile boss who thinks "hey, two week chunks of work means we're Agile and I can keep right on managing the same way I did before" can be a disaster. The whole point of Agile is to help high-performing teams optimize their workflow, and if you've got a micromanaging boss (or any of a huge number of other impediments) then Agile isn't going to help.

In a nutshell, you need:

1. A stable, co-located team that works well together, development-wise;
2. A clear understanding of the work that needs to be done by a near-term deadline (hence the two-week cycle);
3. A Product Owner who's available for ongoing consultation;
4. A Manager who trusts the team to execute the work, so leaves them mostly hands-off unless asked to engage;
5. A culture on the team to raise issues to the Manager as soon as they can be identified.

If you have 1-4 but not 5, then I can see why your Manager is getting stressed out. It's awful spending two weeks at a time believing everything is on track, only to find out at the end that things have slipped and nobody said anything, over and over again. When I'm serving as ScrumMaster on a new team, I spend more time on encouraging the share-early-share-often culture than on any other aspect of team ramp-up, because failure to do so encourages more micro-management.

Hit me up in MeMail if you have specific questions I can try to help with.
posted by davejay at 8:04 AM on January 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

The team has rapidly grown in size.

In the long run that may be a good thing, but in the short run it's bad because of, y'know, the Mythical Man Month. Existing team members are spending some of their time previously spent working on bringing new people up to speed.

How many is "many, many" projects? A single project manager for ~10 people is by no means outrageous, but how many different projects are those people actually working on. These things don't just scale up automatically... if 4 people can get project A done in a month, that doesn't necessarily mean 10 people can do 2 1/2 times as much in the same time; you need to account for overhead.

I agree that it sounds like your manager is stuck in a permanent crisis mode. Constantly pushing everything back just a little bit isn't enough to stave it off, it sounds like a more drastic reckoning regarding what's realistic is needed to break this cycle.
posted by axiom at 10:18 AM on January 17, 2014

The estimates of what can be done in those two-week chunks need to be more realistic. It's easy to overestimate what can be done in a certain amount of time, arbitrarily plan for that much to be done, and then base other plans on that poor underpinning, so that the whole thing easily and inevitably collapses. (See also: I'm likely going to be working my second federal holiday in a row on Monday.) There's no point in getting upset about it, but that's a personal thing your manager needs to figure out. As for what can be done: Output expectations need to be scaled back, or your team needs more members or better delegation or both.
posted by limeonaire at 10:28 AM on January 17, 2014

Isn't it a law that software development always takes multiple times longer to complete than originally estimated? Maybe the expectations are the problem.
posted by Dansaman at 5:24 PM on January 17, 2014

Best answer: So... Any sense for WHY things are slipping? Because you can use all the fancy tools to track work, but you need a better handle on why.

Unless people are just not performing period, my guess would be to focus on your estimates and resource allocations. If you have a two week time box but are trying to jam in three weeks worth of work, things will slip consistently and with weekly check ins, he won't know until half the time has elapsed so then you are trying to jam 2.5 weeks worth of work into the last remaining week.

Also, how realistic are your resource allocations? We use 5 days per week, 6 hours per day (not 8! People get coffee, and go to the bathroom, and get caught up talking about the weekend or walking to meetings, or sitting on the phone with the help desk, or responding to emails.) and then 80% of that for new work and 20% for buffer for "oh shit, we thought this was a grape sized piece of work and it's an orange" or defect management. So assuming a 5 day work week, that is 24 working hours in one calendar week. Take out any time needed for standing meetings the teams might have, say 3 hours per week. That is 21 working hours for new scope in what people call a 40 hour work week. It seems crazy but honestly, I have found this is true. You either estimate capacity well or your team will be doing overtime or miss deadlines.
posted by polkadot at 6:46 PM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

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