Managers As Cheerleaders, or Why Charts Matter
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Whether or not we'd like to admit it, we think we are pretty darn smart. We also think others should appreciate how smart we are, especially those who control our raises and bonuses. Many of us refuse to explain what we do to our managers. We think they should come to us and figure out what we do. I remember one developer who told me "If he wants to manage my work, he can come down here and learn what I do. If he wants to communicate with developers, he needs to learn to write code."
That couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that our managers are rarely responsible for a single team. They're usually responsible for multiple teams with multiple people on them. They have to manage tasks ranging from budgets to deadlines to performance appraisals. They're desperately trying to keep up with what we do, but many developers can't be bothered to help them out. And those same developers are always puzzled why the "clueless managers" don't give them with the raises they so richly deserve.
Many years ago I saw a sign that said "If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught." If you're trying to teach your manager what you do, and they don't get it, stop blaming the manager. It's your fault. The responsibility is on us to find a way to communicate our work and our progress in a way the non-technical can understand.
Out of this understanding came the idea known as Big Visible Charts. The idea was that any information that needs to be communicated needs to be put into a chart, and then made big and visible. (I'll bet you got most of that from the name.)
What sorts of things are good candidates for these simple charts?
- features done vs. features not done over time (burn down charts )
- total tests versus broken tests (this better be 100%)
- percentage of your code exercised by your automated tests (code coverage, like Cobertura )
- bugs reported internally vs. by customers
The list can go on as far as your imagination can take it. What do you do every day? Or more importantly, what work do you do every day that you want credit for doing? Don't think that when you’re quiet and everything is running smoothly, that your manager assumes you're doing great work. Fair or not, it’s human nature to assume that quiet means that nothing good is happening. Think about children. When they're quiet, too quiet, parent's ears perk up and they go looking for them. Managers are the same way. They're not treating you like children, but they're having a natural reaction to the silence, or most correctly, the lack of information.
There are a few key principles to keep in mind, and they're summed up nicely in Alistair Cockburn's idea of Information Radiators
- Large and easily read by a casual observer
- Easy to understand
- Changes (so the new content draws people back)
- Easy to update
In a nutshell, no six point fonts. It needs to be visible from across the room. People need to be able to come into the room, glance at the chart, and see if the team is on track, or if test coverage is climbing or falling. If they have to interpret it, you've already lost the battle.
What does this have to do with your manager being a cheerleader? Other than a very disturbing image I've placed in many of your minds (ewwwww!), your manager has the same problem communicating your progress to his or her managers. They want to make you look good because it makes them look good. If your team is short on resources and you can illustrate, they'll try to help you.
But if you want them to back you, and help you, you've got to provide them with those pretty charts we've all mocked at one time or another. They don't like graphs and reports because they're pretty or have colors, but because they're something that an overworked manager, director, or CTO can absorb quickly. They don't have the time to read a 10 page report, or a large spreadsheet. But they have time to look at a big visible chart, even if it's copied into your manager's weekly report.
As an aside, my employer, Pillar Technology, makes a wide variety of webinars available for free. Matt Van Vleet just completed one on Big Visible Charts. You can download it, and many others, on this page. Scroll down for the completed webinars. No registration needed.