Posts Tagged‘management’

Planet Coaster: Right in the Nostalgia.

I have many fond memories of the hours I wasted in the Tycoon style games. Most of those hours were spent trying to build my business empire in Transport Tycoon but, every so often, I’d take a break for something more…cathartic. That’s when I (and I’m sure many other gamers) turned to Rollercoaster Tycoon, a game which could satisfy that sadistic need every child has to wreck mayhem on unsuspecting NPCs. In the years since though I hadn’t gone back to the various incarnations in that franchise, my attention drawn elsewhere by shiny AAA titles. However you’d be hard pressed to miss the fervor that has surrounded Planet Coaster the latest incarnation of Rollercoaster Tycoon to come out of Frontier Developments. It’s an impressive game however I think the good ship nostalgia has long since set sail on these types of games, at least for myself.

Planet Coaster is your typical business management game; putting you in charge of the day to day tasks of managing an amusement park. You’ll build attractions, rides and design your own rollercoasters to delight and terrify your park guests. There’s numerous variables to fine tune that ensure your park stays clean, enjoyable and above all profitable. Depending on the mode you select you can either pit yourself against a set of objectives, race the clock or simply set yourself free to do whatever you feel like. As someone who hasn’t played any of the intervening instalments in this franchise since 20 years ago Planet Coaster feels like the modern equivalent of that game I lost so many hours on.

The look and feel of Planet Coaster takes inspiration from The Sims franchise, favouring stylized models, a clean UI and a similarly styled sound track. The level of detail is impressive, especially when you see that all the models are constructued from different parts that are available for you to use. Occaisionally there are performance issues which seem to stem from menus not rendering properly but otherwise everything runs well, even at full speed. Considering Frontier Developments’ pedigree this level of polish should come as little surprise as they’ve been invovlved in Tycoon style games for some 13 years now, having developed expansion packs for RollerCoaster Tycoon 2.

There are 3 main game modes in Planet Coaster: campaign, challenge and sandbox. Campaign sets you against a pre-established park with a number of goals that you need to work with and serves as a decent introduction for Planet Coaster’s main mechanics. Challenge gives you a blank slate and a limited amount of funds in order to establish yourself as a self-sufficient park. Sandbox is, as you can probably guess, the creative mode that allows you to do whatever you wish. Depending on how you like to play these kinds of games one of the modes will likely suit you better than the rest. However I’m sure most people will just head straight for creative so they can start building the death-coaster of their dreams.

I started off playing in campaign mode figuring that it would be the best way to get introduced to the game’s mechanics. If you’ve played these kinds of games before you’ll be able to figure most things out and the pop ups on the left hand side will be able to fill in the blanks. However for new comers it’d probably take some getting used to as there’s no clear direction on how to go about the rudimentary tasks that the game assumes you know how to do. As things start to get a little more complicated, like when you’re trying to figure out your finances, this is where the tutorial system starts to break down and you’ll likely be off to the Steam forums searching for advice. This is not a bad thing per se, however it does show that Planet Coaster is still polishing up some of the rough edges left over from its Early Acess days.

I have to admit though that after playing the campaign for a couple hours I simply lost interest in playing. Back in my younger days I can remember having lots of fun building all sorts of wild and whacky coasters. Now though? The idea of building a coaster just didn’t have the same sense of joy it used to, echoing the feelings I had back when I played Contraption Maker (the spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine). I’ve been told that challenge mode is a far better way to play the game and I’ve been meaning to go back, really I have, but the drive to do so just hasn’t been there. It’s a shame really as Planet Coaster seems like an objectively good game, one that does its heritage justice, but it just didn’t tickle me in the right way.

Looking at the stats of Planet Coaster though I can definitely see that I’m in the minority, with the average play time hovering around 13 hours.

Planet Coaster brings with it all the things that captivated many of us in our younger days: the freedom to build the amusement park of our dreams, the thrill of designing the perfect roller coaster and, of course, unleashing untold destruction on your park’s denizens. For this old gamer though the magic just wasn’t there, the couple hours I spent with the game just not hitting the nostalgia buttons hard enough to make me come back. Planet Coaster is an extremely well built game however, one that is likely to provide many hours of entertainment for those who love games like this. Maybe one day I’ll find the drive to go back and change my mind but, for now, it’s going to be sitting on the shelf.

Rating: 7.0/10

Planet Coaster is available on PC right now for $44.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

Stellaris: All Paths Lead to Conflict.

4X style games aren’t the kinds of games you start to kill an hour or two, they’re the ones you start when you want to kill days. I can remember whole LANs that were lost to games like Alpha Centauri, whoever was “dragging the chain” on their turn ridiculed endlessly until they were done. Indeed when I first spun up Stellaris, the latest game from Paradox Interactive, I recieved a message from one of my friends saying I wouldn’t have time to finish it. As the unfolding hours showed he was 100% correct as even 9 hours with this game feel like you’re barely even scratching the surface. Still I can see the appeal but unfortunately Stellaris tends towards repetition very rapidly, making longer sessions more of a chore than anything else.

Stellaris Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You’re the leader of a young civilisation that’s just discovered the miracle of space flight. Like all good civilisations your first task is to set about exploring the universe in the hopes of finding other planets and solar systems ripe for exploitation. Along the way you’ll likely encounter other lifeforms (some more or less advanced than you), relics of civilisations of the past and all sorts of celestial phenomena. The tools you’ll have at your disposal will vary widely each time you attempt this and will greatly impact the way in which you expand into the universe. Whether your civilisation thrives or perishes is up to you and the decisions you make in your journey across the great black.

Like most games in the 4X genre Stellaris errs on the side of simple graphics without too much flair. Since you’ll be spending most of your time zoomed all the way out this doesn’t come up too often, although the lack of detail becomes glaringly obvious for things like the ship designer. Of course these low-fi graphics are a deliberate choice as most of your rig’s horsepower will be focused on churning through the simulations required. For the most part this works well however there are some rather glaring issues with the simulation system which can make your experience far more frustrating than it needs to be (more on that later).

Stellaris Review Screenshot Wallpaper Humble Beginnings

The core game of Stellaris is your typical 4X affair, centred around finding new planets, colonising them if you can and repeating that process ad infinitum. Stellaris shakes things up a little bit by taking a different approach to the upgrade/technology tree system, dividing all upgrades into 3 categories. Each of these categories can be researched by a scientist but what they can research is random. This means that you could, potentially, go the entire game without getting the technology required to build colony ships. Armies, rather than being pre-defined types, are all fully customisable. This means that there’s another element of randomness when it comes to combat as you can never be quite sure how well your army composition stacks up against another. Finally since your aim in Stellaris is to be a true galactic empire there’s a system to add planets to “sectors” which are then controlled by an AI for you. There’s still more to Stellaris however even summarising them all would take longer than I have to write and you to read, I’d wager.

Starting off Stellaris is a daunting prospect as there’s just so much thrown at you that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The tutorial system does a pretty good job of walking you through everything however it’ll probably take a couple retries before you get the hang of the basics. Once you get past that point however the early game can be quite interesting as you try to pick out the best upgrades, figure out where to best place your outposts/colonies and how you deal with the hostiles getting in your way. Indeed I think my favourite part of Stellaris is the early to mid game as it feels quite varied, progress is consistent and there are no major issues getting in your way. It’s once the game starts to creep past the 2 to 3 hour mark that things start to turn south, usually for a variety of different reasons.

Stellaris Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ship Designer

Typically you’ll spend the first part of your game defining your borders and trying to cordon off sectors that you can exploit later. Past a certain point though all your territory will be exploited and your borders brushing up against numerous potential foes. It’s at this point you have a tough decision to make: either start preparing for total war with someone (although you should probably do that anyway as it’ll likely come for your eventually) or start attempting diplomatic relations. The latter is, honestly, a total crap shoot as it seems most alien races aren’t willing to do anything unless you lavish them with resources. The former is the option you will be forced into at one point or another as there’s simply no way to expand your territory otherwise. Worse still if you do want to play pacifist there’s every chance that another race will simply not take a liking to you and completely decimate you, something that happened to me on several occasions.

The sector system, whilst a good idea, does little to reduce the burden of ensuring that your system is running as well as it can be. Sure you can set goals and whatnot but issues like a mixed species population, developing factions, etc. will all keep drawing your attention. As your empire grows these problems become more and more frequent making it incredibly draining to run an empire that spans more than a few sectors. Indeed I abandoned a couple games simply because they became too tiresome to continue with, instead wanting to try my hand at starting again to see if there was a better way to set myself up. In the end I didn’t find anything which is probably why I didn’t play as much as your average Paradox Interactive fan does (around 30+ hours, according to the data I have available).

Stellaris Review Screenshot Wallpaper Territory

There are also some niggling issues which need to be addressed. The fact that achievements can only be acquired in Ironman Mode is something the game doesn’t make obvious to you and is honestly a pain to get working. It took me more than 5 hours of game play to realise I hadn’t gotten a signle achievement and then another 30 minutes of getting the cloud save feature working so I could actually start a game with achievements on. Worse still the Ironman Mode saves every month, something that freezes your game session every minute or so if you’re playing on fastest. Honestly it’s more frustrating than its worth which is why I think most simply don’t bother. This isn’t to mention some quality of life improvements that are required, like being able to filter planets you’ve scanned by say habitable status, or your colonies by the type of shipyard you have and so on. Essentially a lot of it relies on your memory or simple brute forcing, something which takes much of the joy out of the experience. Indeed I’m not alone in thinking this either as many of the threads I read whilst trying to find these things led me to other players looking for the same features.

The emergent stories of Stellaris can be quite engaging though, both from the perspective of how you grew your empire to the various little pre-generated story titbits that are strewn throughout the universe. One of my empires tried, with varying levels of success, to infiltrate a less developed race to prep them for our arrival. Another alien race found out about this though and accused me of enslaving them. Whilst that was partially the point on my end (it was a strategic planet) the fact that they reacted in such a way was a surprise to me. This did mean the end of my civilisation however as the other alien race was far better equipped for war than I was.

Stellaris Review Screenshot Wallpaper Battle

Stellaris is an adequately competent 4X game with a bevy of unique features that keep the experience fresh and interesting, at least in the early to mid game. The random technology trees, procedurally generated galaxies and random alien races means every play through will be unique. However the game rapidly becomes a burden the longer you play it, even with the AI systems that are designed to make your life a little easier. The niggling issues that are still present even a month after release only exacerbate this problem, especially if you’re someone who wants to hunt down all the achievements. Overall I think Stellaris is worth the price of admission, especially for fans of Paradox or the 4X genre, but falls short of my “must play” list.

Rating: 7.5/10

Stellaris is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total game time was approximately 9 hours with 26% of the achievements unlocked.

On Valve’s Corporate Structure (Or Lack Thereof).

I was a big believer in the typical corporate structure for a very long time, mostly because I wanted to be the one at the top of it. There’s something attractive about being the one at the top and for quite a long time I tried to position my career in such a way that I could become an executive in some nameless company at an undetermined point in the future. I didn’t realize how bad I was at the whole management thing after I killed my university project, no it took me another 2 years to figure out that being at the top of a corporate structure wasn’t for me. I needed to be the one building things.

That’s not to say I can’t succeed in such structures myself, far from it. Being in Australia’s capital city, a town that is basically a giant shrine to bureaucracy, I’ve come to learn how to operate within traditional management structures in a such a way so that I have an incredible amount of freedom whilst also staying within the confines of my designated role. Sure I might not be able to simply up and change my job whenever I feel like it but I’ve rarely felt my creative freedom restrained when it comes to solving the various problems that get thrown my way. Still I’ve always been fascinated with non-traditional management structures and yesterday I came across an incredibly novel one.

It was that of the game development company Valve.

Yesterday one of my long time friends linked me to Valve’s new starter guide book, a typical document you’d expect from pretty much any organisation. It made for some incredibly fascinating reading mostly because it’s unlike any other that I’ve read before. Where there’s usually pictures of organisational charts, links to company policies and reams of out dated information there was instead a comprehensive guide to how Valve functions as a company and how all the employees fit into it. Astonishingly the biggest revelation in there, for me at least,  was that there is in essence no organisational structure at all.

For someone who cut his teeth in a world ruled by bureaucracy such an idea seems incredibly foreign, so much so I initially struggled to figure out how it would work. I mean how does anyone get any work done if there isn’t someone controlling the whole process from the top? As it turns out the process mimics what I envision happens when a lot of talented people get together: ideas start circulating and once they reach a critical mass of supporters they form a cohesive group in order to achieve that vision. Valve in that sense is a kind of idea incubator that enables their employees to chase their passions and should those passions resonate with others it will find its way into reality.

That to me feels like an inspired way of creating a company. The guide admits that whilst this idea works for Valve they’re not sure it would work for everyone as rogue agents operating in such an environment can do incredible amounts of damage. However when you note that Valve makes more profit per employee than Apple or Google  then you have to figure that their process has some merit to it. Being fully privately owned also helps them quite a bit as I’m sure that share holders would be uncomfortable with a company that seems to be in a constant flux.

Would I start a company with a mantra like Valves? I definitely believe in some of the core principles (like hiring people smarter than you) and I do tend to favor less management than more so I could see some form of it working for a company that I’d like to start. Maybe it’s just the residual “I need to be at the top” mentality inside me that’s having trouble letting go of the idea but Valve’s way of doing business seems a lot better than the way I’ve been thinking about it.

How I Killed My University Project.

It’s the beginning of 2006 and the end is in sight for my university career. It’s been a crazy 3 years up until this point having experienced both the dizzying highs of excelling in a subject and the punishing lows of failing to understand even the basic concepts of some units properly. Still I haven’t failed a single subject (despite some near misses) and really the only thing standing between me and that piece of paper I’ve been chasing is my final year, most of which will be dedicated to working on an engineering project. I had been looking forward to this for a while as I felt it would be a chance to test my meddle as a project manager and hopefully create something valuable in the process.

The year started off well as I found myself in a project team of 4 including 2 long time friends and a new acquaintance who was exceptionally skilled. After brainstorming ideas we eventually settled on creating a media PC with a custom interface based off the open source MythTV project which would handle most of the back end work for us. After getting a space to work in we covered the whiteboard in dozens of innovative ideas ranging from TiVO like recording features to remoteless operation based on tracking a user’s movement. Looking at the list we were convinced that even that list of features wouldn’t be enough to fill a year worth of development effort but thought it was best to settle on these first before trying to make more work for ourselves. With the features in mind I set about creating a schedule and we set about our work.

Initially everything was going great, we were making quite a lot of progress and the project was shaping up to be one of the best of the year. The hardware design and implementation was looking phenomenal, so much so that I made the brash move of saying there was a potential market for a mass produced version of the device. Our lecturers showed a keen interest in it and we even managed to come in second place for a presentation competition amongst all the project students, narrowly losing out to an autonomous robot that could map out and navigate its surroundings. We were definitely onto a winner with this idea.

However my desire to project manage 3 other people started to take its toll on the project. Realistically in a team of 4 everyone needs to pitch in to make sure stuff gets done, there’s really no room for designated roles. I however kept myself at arms length from any solid development work, instead trying to control the process and demanding vast reams of documentation from those doing the work. Additionally I failed to realize that the majority of the coding work was be done by a single team member which meant that only they understood it, making collaboration on it next to impossible. Seeing the beginnings of a sinking ship I called everyone together to try and figure things out, and that’s when things really started to turn sour.

The primary coder expressed their concerns that no one else was doing any work and I, still not realizing that I didn’t need to be a project manager, instructed them to take a week off so the others could get up to speed. This didn’t work as well as I planned as they continued to do all the work themselves, effectively locking anyone else out from being able to contribute to the effort. I did manage to get the star developer to collaborate with the others but by this point it was already too late as they’d usually have to rewrite any code that wasn’t their own.

In order to save some face in this whole project I elected to do the project report entirely on my own, realistically a task that needed to be done by all of us (just like the project). I spent countless hours cobbling everything together, piecing random bits of documentation and notes together into something resembling a professional report. It wasn’t amazing but it was enough to get the approval of everyone else in the team and our project co-ordinator so a week before the final demonstration I handed it in, wanting to be done with this project once and for all.

The final demonstration was no picnic either with everyone in the team (bar me) staying at university until midnight before the presentation. We managed to demonstrate a much cut down version of our initial vision to the class with only a few minor hiccups and the 2 honors side projects went along quite well. Afterwards we hurriedly bundled the project away into one of the members car (he provided all the hardware on the proviso he got to keep it) happy to be done with it once and for all.

For 2 years afterwards I struggled to figure out why the project that started off so well tanked so badly. It wasn’t until I was officially employed as a project manager that I figured out that the most toxic element in the whole ordeal was me, the power hungry idiot who contributed the least whilst ensuring that anyone trying to get things done was hampered by my interference. I failed to get everyone to collaborate effectively and hamstrung them with rediculous requirements for documentation. In essence I was acting like a project manager on a big project when really I was anything but. The end result was a far cry from what it could have been and one member of that project team still refuses to speak to me, and I don’t blame them for doing so.

I suppose the best thing that came out of this is that I finally realized my weaknesses and actively worked to overcome them. Sure it might have been too late for the university project that was but I’m glad to say I didn’t inflict any such torment on a project whilst I was being paid to do it, instead taking on board those lessons learned to make sure those projects were delivered as required. I still hold out hope that one day I’ll look back on those days with my former project members and laugh but those project management war wounds will stick with me forever, reminding me that I’m not as infallible as I once thought I was.

The Startup Life: My Unplanned Future.

If I were to rewind back a couple years and ask my past self where I would be at today the answer would probably be something like “living overseas and applying for various MBA programs”. It seemed ever since part way through university I had my eye on being in some form of upper management role in a large company, reveling in the idea of a high rise office building and being able to make a positive impact. It seemed every year I was doomed to delay those plans for another year because of other things that would crop up, with me finally admitting that anyone with a 10 year plan is deluding themselves.

Despite that my aspirations have not changed. I still lust after that high flying lifestyle that I attributed to the ranks of C-level executives and still yern to travel overseas as so many have done before me. However I’ve grown disillusioned with the idea of attaining such goals in the annals of an established company. My illustrious career, spanning a mere 6 years, has shown me that there’s little joy climbing the ranks in such environments with games of politics and tit-for-tat deals the accepted norm. The engineer in me was languishing under the idea of being suppressed for years whilst I played these games on my way to the top where I could finally unleash it with the power to make a difference. At the end of last year it finally broke through and gave me the dreadful clarity I needed to finally change my way of thinking.

I needed to make it on my own.

It was around this time that I’d started to get an interest for the curious world of technology start ups. You see here in Canberra where everyone is employed by the government or doing work for the government there’s no place for technological innovators, the captive market here just isn’t interested. Thus the idea of lashing out on my own in the only field I knew was always put aside as a untenable notion; the environment to support it just isn’t here. Still the idea gnawed away at the edge of my mind for quite a while and my feed reader started gathering information on all aspects of starting out on your own and how others had done it before me.

At the same time I had begun working on Geon, primarily as a eating my own dog food exercise but also as something to give back to my readers who’d been loyal over the fledgling months of this blog. The idea had legs though and I continued to work on it off and on for many months afterwards with many iterations making their way onto this site. After a while the notion of building my own business and my hobby of building something to satisfy a niche that was going unserviced began to merge and the dream I had once become disillusioned came back with a thundering vengeance.

There’s always going to be that part of me that nags at the corner of my mind telling me that any plan I make is doomed to failure, and I’ve learnt to come to terms with that. When I can talk about my idea with someone for hours on end and walk away with countless ideas about where I can take my project in the future I know the work I’m doing is good. That voice at the back of my head keeps me honest with myself, ensuring that I apply critical thinking to all the problems that I encounter. In that respect my fledgling inner skeptic makes sure I don’t bullshit myself into a corner and for that I’m eternally thankful.

I guess it all comes down to not knowing where you’ll end up in life. 6 years ago I had my whole life planned out until I was 30 (and a bet with an old friend of mine I haven’t forgotten) and today I’ll happily tell you that I’ve got no idea where I’ll be at 30. That idea would be frightening for many people but for someone like me who thrives on making the most out of his time it’s extremely liberating. No longer am I locked into any preconcieved notion of what I need to do to get where I want to be. All I need to do is work in the moment to achieve the best I can, and that’s exactly why I believe I’ll succeed.

/egostroke 😉

Did I Miss Short Sighted Management 101?

I know I don’t have much real world experience when it comes to managing people with the majority of my experience being focused in 3 short stints of project management. Still when I coupled that with my 2 years of formal management training I feel I’ve got a good idea about how to organise a team of people to achieve a certain goal. Additionally I’ve had a fair bit of experience working under many different kinds of people all with their own distinct management styles so I know what works practically and what doesn’t. So when I say that one of the most common problems in management (apart from not knowing your own weaknesses) is a clear lack of strategic direction and planning¹. Whilst I’d love to say that this is distinctly a public sector problem, thanks wholly to our 3 year parliamentary terms, it is also rife in the private industry.

At its heart the issue stems from immediate needs of the organisation being given a much higher priority than long term goals. Logically this is understandable as the immediate issues generally have real impacts that can be measured and the benefits can be realised in short time frames. However this also means that, unless you’re extremely lucky, you’ll be sacrificing your long term sustainability for those short term gains. For the public sector this kind of behaviour is almost ingrained as goals that stretch beyond the current incumbents term don’t usually get a whole lot of traction. For the private sector however it’s usually comes down to maximising their quarterly/annual figures which usually makes the decisions even worse than those in the public sector.

A brilliant example of this fell in lap my lap yesterday when the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) decided that it no longer required the services of 17% of its contractor workforce and promptly told them that they didn’t have a job anymore:

The federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations ended the contracts of 51 of its 300 IT contractors, some of whom had worked at its head office for years.

Staff in other workplaces across Canberra are anticipating similar news this month as the bureaucracy seeks to cut its technology budget by $400 million this financial year.

Stunned Education Department contractors told The Canberra Times that several staff were still unaware they had no job to return to today.

Now I haven’t been able to source any of the reasoning behind the decision² despite having 2 family members working in the department but even without that I can tell you that the decision was made with no regards to the strategic direction of the department (although I’ll also tell you how they’d argue the opposite). It all comes down to a game of numbers that went horribly wrong coupled with a distinct disconnect in the communication lines between the direct managers of the contractors and those who made the decision to let them go.

Taking a long term view of this situation would have you plan this kind of move out for at least a couple months before hand. The argument could be made that they didn’t have the work for them anymore however my people on the inside tell me that’s not the case as they’re still understaffed for the workload they have. The flip side of this could be traced back to the Gershon Report which advocated slashing contractor numbers and replacing them with permanent staff members. That move however would have required them advertising those positions months ahead of pulling such a stunt which, if you checked the agency’s job listings, you’d know hasn’t happened. The only remaining reasons are either a huge management stuff up or an attempt to slim down their budget.

Both trains of thought completely disregard the long term goals that the department has. Dropping that many staff with such little notice means that the work that they were currently responsible for is no longer being taken care of. Additionally the short notice of termination means that there could not have been a handover to other staff leaving quite a lot of work in a state of limbo, either having to be redone completely or shoe horned in to meet their milestones. The quick termination would not endear the organisation to those contractors it gave the shaft to either and DEEWR already had a somewhat shaky reputation when it came to its contracted staff.

As it turns out though it was probably a massive management stuff up, since they’ve publicly apoligised for what they did and appear to be working to get them all back on board.

What is there to be learnt from all this? Well the over arching point is that major decisions should be made with a vision that stretches beyond any immediate time frames. In my example a misinterpreted directive was applied without regards to both its short and long term consequences. Had they stuck to their guns though the decision would have long lasting effects on the department’s ability to meet their goals. As it stands they’ve already managed to make 51 contractors uncomfortable with their working situation there and the buzz has already had others question their positions there. Realistically no contractor that’s aware of this news will look at DEEWR seriously from now on.

Snap decisions should never be made when there’s the potential to have consequences that will stretch beyond the immediate time frame. The most common types of managers, those who rose from the ranks of their fellow employees, are unfortunately the most prone to lacking strategic vision for their team. There is unfortunately little that us underlings can do to steer our managers clear of these kinds of mistakes however you can minimize their impact by providing sound, timely advice to influence their decisions in the right way. Hopefully if you’re in a position to make such decisions you’ve either already identified this problem or taken my advice on board, but I’m happy to discuss your points here should you disagree with me 😉

¹Strategic in this sense relates to long term ideas, on the order of 3~5 years. Ask your current boss to see if they have a strategic plan for your area/section/division, you might be surprised at what they give you back.

²As it turns out they pointedto the Gershon Report as the source for firing the contractors. Considering that the report specifically mentioned replacing contractors with permanent staff not firing them. So as it turns out the real reason was a little from both my trains of thought: a huge management stuff up done with the hopes of slashing their budget. Words fail me to describe how idiotic this is.

Basic Management: Identify Your Weaknesses.

A good manager is a fungible commodity. You should be able to transplant them between different companies and, aside from minor operational changes, they will be able to adapt quite quickly to their new environment. I do appreciate that teams can benefit from having a leader that has direct experience in the field of work that their team is conducting but for the most part the role of ensuring that a team has an environment that is conducive to getting their work done is a skill that transcends any field. Unfortunately for most of us however the managers we labor under do not fall into my classification of good and whilst there are many causes for that it’s primarily one thing: they fail to identify their own weaknesses and manage them accordingly.

It appears to be a commonly held belief that if your boss doesn’t understand what you’re doing then you’re doomed to either struggle to get work done or never receive the recognition you deserve. I’m unfortunately going to have to echo this point as the majority of managers seem to arise primarily from one category I previously mentioned: those who rose from the ranks. Now inherently they are no worse than the other kind however the real world tendency is for us to promote those amongst us as a preference to bringing in someone from outside to lead. Whilst this does mean you have a leader with a good understanding of the issues at hand it also means that they usually lack the skills that make good managers fungible. Additionally they tend to be too involved in smaller issues that they perceive as critical, rather than forming strategic plans to address underlying issues.

There’s a saying that I can’t find a source for that states “Good managers are those who surround themselves with people smarter than them. Bad managers hire those who agree with everything they say”. Part of being a manager of a group of people is understanding that you don’t know everything and ensuring that the people under you have all the skills required in order to accomplish the task at hand. This is where many managers fall down as rising through the ranks to become the leader of a group of people can have the unfortunate effect of putting that person on the expert pedestal. Once their authority is officially cemented any notion that they weren’t the best at something quickly evaporates and you now have someone with power and a false sense of expertise. They will then tend to hire those that agree with their new found expertise rather than those that disagree with them. Whilst I’m sure none of the real life situations are this melodramatic the core principals have rung true in practically all of the workplaces I’ve graced over the years.

Ultimately this comes down to a problem of them failing to identify their own weaknesses and delegating to their employees who are stronger in those areas. Taking this to its logical end point you can see why a manager with a core set of skills is fungible between almost any field of work in the world as they should be able to quickly identify the expertise required and where their own experience falls down. Over time they will be able to learn the nuances of the work that their employees undertake and should be able to approach the same level of understanding that a manager who rose from the ranks had. Still for much of the working world is probably the less common of the two types of managers to encounter, simply because we’re still basing our entire management ideals on a model from the industrial revolution era.

The principals I’ve talked about in here can easily be applied to those of us who aren’t working in the world of management, especially if you have your eye on making a career there someday. You’d probably find that if you get a reputation for identify weaknesses, creating solutions and managing resources that your colleagues will be recommending you to be the next top dog. Whilst there are still many more things to making a good manager the core principal of knowing your limitations and remedying them is probably the most frequent idea that managers get wrong, much to the dismay of the people they’re managing.

I think I’ve written enough on management to get to the put up or shut up stage now, time for me to hire some underlings… 😉

Management Theater.

I’ve only ever been in a managerial type position 3 times in my whole life, and 2 of those were at university. The first was for the most part a success due in most part to a solid team of people with one star member who was able to complete work in minutes that took the rest of us days. The second was overall a success but my role as a manager was completely and utterly useless and the project would have done much better if I had just not bothered trying to manage my 3 team members at all. Whilst you’d think an experience like that might have turned me off management entirely I still held aspirations of being a project manager some day, only to get into said position and leave it 6 months later. So whilst I may not have been anyone’s boss for an extended period of time I’ve had a taste of the managerial world, so I know when people are, how does the Internet put it, doing it wrong.

For the most part I’ve seen 2 types of managers in my time: those who rose from the ranks of their former colleagues to become the managers they are today and those who were somehow born into management positions, either from an outside company or via qualifications. The first tend to have a good grounding in what it is like for their underlings and are usually pretty attentive to their wants and needs. However they also usually lack any formal managerial skills and tend to be too involved in day to day matters to make them decent managers. The latter are usually better at being managers in the general sense (shielding their underlings from the workplace politics) but will have more trouble interfacing with those they are supposed to lead. It then follows that these kinds of managers aren’t as liked as their rise from the ranks counterparts (and forms the basis of the Pointy Haired Boss character in Dilbert). Overall neither one is inherently worse than the other, they’re just different faces of the same coin.

Despite how they came into their position of power managers at all levels engage in what I like to call management theater. Much like its cousin of security theater, which details security measures undertaken to give the feeling of security without actually increasing security, management theater is the practice in which a manager appears to be managing a group of people but realistically they’re not. The management function that they provide is in some way usurped from either below (I.E. underlings managing their own workloads and fighting their own political battles) or up above (another manager doing the managers job for them). Whilst most won’t engage holistically in this behaviour many will in some way engage in acts that appear to be managerial when in fact that are nothing but.

Take for instance a recent event at where I work. The process was designed to give all the underlings, from the lowest ranks to the just under executive management, a voice with which to communicate their concerns to the entire section. In essence it was a good idea but as always the implementation was extremely lacking. The whole event smacked of management theater as the managers spruiked the fact that the goals set out then would be implemented by management, giving the illusion that the underlings had some power over their current work situation. Here we are over 4 months later and I’ve yet to see one of the ideas actually gain any ground or any reports from management about how all the wonderful ideas gained from the junket are changing the way we do our day to day work. The whole exercise was a pointless waste of everyone’s time that was done as a management theater exercise to make it look like they wanted to do something about everyone’s grievances, when in fact they never had any intention of following through.

I wish I could say that this kind of malarky was limited just to government agencies but it was rampant in the private sector to. A great example of this was back in my days at Unisys we were canvased for an opportunity to become CITRIX administrators with the juicy part being that we’d get sent on week long training for it. Seeing how much of a benefit this would be to both my current position and future career I put my hand up, along with 3 other people. The training was good and I was all geared up to take on some more work as a CITRIX admin but instead they hired 2 specialists to fill the role, neatly negating the need for the training I had just went through.

The management theater performed in this case was then to do with the managers wanting to look good for our client, saying that when the new system was installed they’d have 4 able bodied people ready, willing and able to take control of it. However with the project budget big enough to cover off 2 specialists when the system was in use by less than a few hundred people having a team of 6 dedicated to it was woefully inefficient and thus we were never called on to do any CITRIX administration duties. As time went on our skills in the area began to fade to the point of irrelevancy and my manager scolded me for leaving after they had sunk so much cash into me, oblivious to the fact that I hadn’t used one bit of the training since I received it.

All these reasons have culminated in the realization that I probably won’t be happy until I’m working for the one person I can’t disagree with, myself. The last 6 months have seen me attempting to build an empire out of my own skills and for the most part I’m being successful. Time will tell if I can leave the work a day world completely but when I can easily lose a day working on my own projects I know I’m doing the right thing. I just hope it will be enough to keep the bills paid 😉

Bigger is not Always Better.

I used to have a lot of pride in the idea of big corporations. After spending much of my life working for the public service (and indeed I still am although in a different capacity) and lamenting at the inefficiencies the private sector looked like the greenest pastures I’d ever thought of. It was then interesting to note that when it came time for me to make the jump into the private sector my initial impressions were pretty much as I had expected. After a while though it all started to morph into the same story I had experienced for the past few years.

Take any large organisation and the one thing you’ll notice is the increase in bureaucracy and this is not necessarily a bad thing. As organisations grow larger they will require more people to lead and facilitate communication between disparate sections. However what I traditionally saw in the public service was that restructures often caused redundant positions to retained instead of removed. This often lead to the too many chiefs problem where you get a lot of people who are in charge of something or someone which tips the management to underling ratio unfavourably. This is not to say I didn’t see the same thing happen in the private sector, it was just less common as when you’re trying to turn a profit from your business it becomes much easier to remove those people who aren’t really adding value to the business.

More recently I’ve encountered this in my own personal financial matters. A couple years ago my fiancée and I took the plunge and bought our first house here in Canberra. The process was actually pretty easy for us and we managed to find our beautiful home in the first week, although we held off making an offer for a while to make sure it was the one we wanted. After a couple quick signatures and a couple of phone calls to our broker the process was over and done with in a matter of weeks. Needless to say we were pretty impressed with everyone involved.

Naively believing that it would be the same deal the second time around we took the plunge yet again to buy an investment property. Now I know most people would be telling us we’re crazy for trying this (I did the figures, and believe me it still surprises me how good an idea this was) but we went ahead anyway. We found a beautiful place that would rent fantastically which unfortunately fell through. We since then found another house which was in good shape for its age and was in a great location. So we went ahead and decided to purchase.

Queue the last 2 months of my life spent dealing with the bureaucracy that is one of the big 4 banks of Australia. Our first loan was from a smaller bank that was from outside of our state and was a painless process. Our new bank had so many different sections that communications between myself, my broker and the bank would usually hit at least 3~4 different sections, all of which were responsible for different things. Not only was settlement delayed over a month because of a simple question I asked they also lost several critical loan documents twice over, something I’d never experienced before from a professional institution (let alone a bank). I was left pining for the smaller banks, at least then there would only be one central location that dealt with everything.

And so marked the end of the idea that a bigger corporation could do something better. It seems that there’s a sort of bell curve phenomenon going on here. When you’re too small you can’t do all the things that the big guys do. Once you’re at the peak you’re doing just as well as the big guys without the inefficiencies. After that it’s all down hill and whilst your company might be more successful you’ve traded in your efficiency to achieve that. It does keep the stock holders happy however.

I guess now its time for me to put my money where my mouth is and start my own company and do better then them. I’ll take the easy route out and blame the global financial crisis for it instead 🙂

Managers, Metrics and Misanthropy.

When I was a young and naive lad I had firmly set my sights on becoming a project manager. It seemed like a great place to aim towards, the money appeared to be good and you’re not bound to one industry so there’s no end of jobs and new opportunities. I even managed to convince two groups of university students to make me their project manager, with one of them garnering a mild success with the other failing horribly (which I will admit was pretty much all my fault). Still this didn’t deter me and I continued to pursue a career as a project manager, working my way up from low level IT work in the hopes I could make the jump into projects sometime in the future.

Roll forward a couple years and I found myself working for Unisys as part of the outsourcing arrangement with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship here in Canberra. It was a good work environment and I quickly improved my skills over the first 6 months or so. I even thought I had the skills to take a shot at one of the specialist positions, something that I hoped would lead me onto more project work. Talking to the current specialists I was led to believe it was a very client facing position, and I marketed myself as someone who was capable of managing client relationships well and proving to be a valuable project resources. I didn’t get the position however they did offer me a role as a technical lead in the new projects section they were creating, something which sounded pretty cool at the time. Eventually it turned out that this position was really a junior project manager role, and for the first time in a long while I was put in charge of projects. I was in for an awakening of sorts, since the corporate world was nothing like the academic.

My first few months in the position started off well. Our section consisted of 2 other people who were in positions just like me. Our focus was small projects that wouldn’t require the involvement of the solutions architect and could be resourced internally. Most of these were IT projects that weren’t covered in the out-sourcing contract, something which I’ve blogged about previously. We were basically a pure profit centre since all of us were hired as system administrators (fully paid for by DIAC) and were moved to the projects team due to them being able meet SLAs without us. I got to work on some pretty cool projects there with my favourite being the deployment of digital fingerprint scanners and cameras to the detention centres in Australia. The house of cards started to come tumbling down when the higher ups needed a “clearer view” of what we were doing and of course bungled the whole thing.

Since we had come from the administrators team we still used the majority of their systems for all of our daily activities. Requests for new projects would come through the same incident management system and this was the first place management decided to look for to derive some metrics. The problem here was that a typical project can’t be judged under the same SLA as an incident, since one of them is a problem that needs to be resolved ASAP and the other could stretch out over many months depending on the scope. We copped a fair beating over the way the tickets were being handled, so we fought back saying the system was inadequate for accurately tracking our progress. This led to a lengthy battle between us and the Projects Management Office (which at the time was technically the Asset Management area) as they had promised us as system that would allow them to get the metrics they desired. We eventually got our way by not going through the “proper channels” (we called a meeting with them directly without involving our managers) and got a system in place. This happened a few weeks before I left Unisys, and was still suffering from teething problems when I left.

My short time as a project manager taught me many things. The first was that I never wanted to be a project manager ever again. Most of my time was spent either chasing clients for money or asking them whether or not they actually wanted the project they asked for. Also project managers should never be taken from a group of people they will be managing as they need to be at least 1 step removed to avoid any contention issues. There’s nothing more awkward than trying to force your friends or former colleagues to do some work, something I encountered a few times.

The second, and probable one of the most valuable lessons, was that you have to be careful in how you define and apply metrics to anything as improper use of them will skew your vision of what is really happening. One of the often use metrics that I despise is the time taken to close a call when on a help desk. The poor operators were pressured into closing their calls quickly which usually meant that if the problem wasn’t solved there would be a severe lack of information, transferring the load from the call centre to the more costly second level support teams. Closing calls quickly is great and all, but what they what they were really doing is costing the company more to get the same outcome.

It was all summed up pretty succinctly for me in this one quote I came across on Slashdot:

Management gets the behaviour that it rewards, not necessarily the behaviour that it pretends to ask for.

Metrics are supposed to encourage people to achieve goals that align with the company’s vision. However they more often than not reward people for doing something completely different and that’s where the problem lies. I guess it all comes from that culture of wanting to boil everything down to a nice chart for the higher ups, but that’s a story for another day.