Good books or tips on managing agile enterprise software teams?
June 12, 2015 12:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to start a new job managing multiple software teams working on a high-profile commercial web app. What can I read to get into the right head space to succeed?

I have management experience and agile process experience, but for the last few years have taken a detour into managing a very small team where I also had time to code and didn't have to focus on leadership and process as much. I am a big believer in work-life balance and don't plan to micromanage people's hours or other habits.

Before I start, I'd like to do some reading on how to successfully manage teams that are already fairly self-organized. I've read stuff like Succeeding With Agile and Coaching Agile Teams, and don't need more about Scrum/Agile process. Things I want to know more about:

- general people skills and navigating various factions and interests in a large organization
- how to get better at listening first, then acting
- thoughts about tech personality types and dealing with them
- walking the line of staying technically sharp "enough" without getting into the weeds and neglecting the big picture

More about the specific group:

- has had a lot of recent growth, so there's a clique of old-timers and a bunch of newer people
- low turnover among tech people I think
- has had several managers come and go and is currently being managed from higher up (director level)
- I think earning their trust is the key first objective
- I'll manage 15+ people (2 teams), but in total there are 30+ people on the 4-5 teams all working on one product.
- Another manager will get hired to manage the others. I know the relationship between that person and me will be key.

Assume I haven't read many general management books. I have a relaxed style and good communication skills but I want to get off on the right foot.

Blogs or other articles (podcasts maybe?) are welcome, as are your general thoughts or experiences in this area.
posted by freecellwizard to Technology (8 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I forgot to mention this other AskMe about high performing software teams which is somewhat related and has a comment from me.
posted by freecellwizard at 12:18 PM on June 12, 2015

Best answer: I like Managing Humans (and Rands in Repose, the blog from which much of the content was drawn).
posted by primethyme at 12:37 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: +1 read Rands. Just go back through the archives and read everything. One of my favorites is Bits, Features, and Truth.

Also, it is so great that you are used to actually shipping a product from the content-creation or development side. Some of the worst behavior I've seen among product and project managers has been from people who have little actual experience creating something, or who lack insight into the difficulties their teams face in their day-to-day work—those for whom creation is a black box. The worst managers I've worked with in general are those who treat people like sets of inputs or buttons to push for status, or who punish or withhold help from people when they're overwhelmed or have issues come up in their lives. Be compassionate.

Being conscientious enough to ask about this here is awesome—as a project manager, I'll also be reading this thread with interest. The best product and project managers I know are the ones who first and foremost shield and support their teams, and actively work to build and maintain relationships with their teams and stakeholders. The product or project manager role varies from place to place, so I don't know your exact setup, but at least in my shop, project management is more of a peer role than a boss role. You're there to help your team—no throwing them under the bus. Even if you are in a more boss-like role, you should be taking bullets for the team, not the other way around. Trust will come with time, as your team gets to know you and vice versa, but it becomes strongest when you're there in the trenches with them through tough times, especially during those crucial first six months when you're all getting comfortable.

Ask as many questions as you can upfront, while you're still new. Work to build your knowledge of the product and set up the access you need to project assets, so when someone has a question about specs or requirements, you either know the answer or know where to find it. But don't keep everything in your head—get systems in place for maintaining to-do lists, knowledge, and project status, so you can search in Slack or Gmail or Google Docs or Redmine or whatever other systems you use to find what you need immediately. Take extensive notes in meetings—digitally, so they're searchable. Also, if you don't know the answer to something in a meeting, don't be afraid to tell stakeholders you will get back to them after the meeting with more information or a better estimate. Don't hang your team out to dry by letting them make unrealistic promises on the spot. And if something seems unrealistic or unreasonable, make sure it's clarified, not just left to wither on the vine of uncertainty. If your teams have been managed from the director level for a while, they're really going to appreciate someone who's willing to dig into the details with them.

Read about sick systems, and don't set one up. Also read about the four horsemen of the apocalypse in relationships, a concept that's applicable to any relationship, not just marriages. Set a good example for your team in terms of work-life balance—but not to the extent that when they're staying late, you're walking out the door to uphold the principle. Encourage them to take the time they need, whenever possible, to solve problems at work and to address issues or take time in their lives outside the office as well. There will always be business requirements, but remember, deadlines are often negotiable if you start talking early, and they definitely aren't something that gives you or anyone else an excuse to flog your team. Underpromise and overdeliver, and don't let anyone bully your team.
posted by limeonaire at 2:58 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would recommend the following general management books. None of them contain anything earth-shattering, but I've found them all useful either as reminders or as models.

Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton. The system is more meaningful than the book, but I've probably used the lessons here more than any other business book. It isn't just about negotiating contracts, but about how to carry out sensible and effective negotiations in any relationship.

Financial Intelligence: A Manager's Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean, Karen Berman. I often give this book as a gift to newer managers under me. One of the most important things a manager needs to do is understand the company budgets and financial priorities (and this is an important part of gaining the trust of the team as well, being able to protect their tasks in the face of both of the above), and most training is aimed at accountants, and not managers. This book is readable and has simple explanation of what different parts of a balance sheet should mean to managers at different levels.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, Charles Burck. Again, not rocket science, but a good look at the key processes for good leaders. I especially think the chapters on people processes are worth reading.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni. I hesitate to recommend this book because I don't find it well written-- even a little bit annoying. However, I have found the model of dysfunctions and how they contribute to poor performance to be useful. YMMV.

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays On Software Engineering, Fred Brooks. Truly great and entertaining book about project management for IT projects. I'm not responsible for IT anymore, but I still love this book.
posted by frumiousb at 4:40 PM on June 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Check out the Manager Tools podcasts. They have a basics series, as well as the larger set that deals with various issues. I've found it fairly useful.
posted by pyro979 at 7:55 PM on June 12, 2015

The Lean Startup
posted by matildaben at 7:12 AM on June 13, 2015

I do this for a living, and have more than once moved teams to agile. At a minimum you coach your teams to...

1. Meet every day for 20 minutes and answer the three questions (scrum). This is a window of opportunity every day to catch things that are stopped or going the wrong way.

2. Commit to work at the beginning of a regular period and show it off at the end. Show it to everyone who could ever care so everyone on the organization knows and has confidence in what your team does.

3. Be kind.

Happy to talk more about this. It's rough for the first month EVERY time.
posted by jander03 at 7:24 PM on June 13, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the great advice. I've ordered 3 books to read during the next few weeks:

1) Managing Humans (Rands)
2) Peopleware by Tom DeMarco
3) The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks

I've had a lot of real-world experiences with software and teams over the last 18 years (not always successful!) and I'm hoping to view those through the lenses provided by these authors. #2 and #3 are considered classics and have a lot of "still amazingly relevant" reviews on Amazon, so I figure I'll start there.

Thanks again!
posted by freecellwizard at 7:06 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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