May meeting summary: The golden rule of management

Our May meeting was devoted to a panel discussion of management issues in tech fields and companies. Sharon Kennedy of Oracle joined our Board President Eileen Krepkovich of Barron Associates and our Board Sponsorship Chair Elaine Cheng of CFA Institute.

The discussion focused on the themes of philosophy, structure, and experience. Here are some highlights.

Management Philosophies

Tech has produced a lot of management movements, and one hears the buzzwords all around. What’s all that buzz about?

Elaine has done it all—waterfall, Agile, scrum, you name it. All these movements, she said, came from changes that the tech industry needed to undergo as circumstances shifted. While there still may exist use cases for which a Waterfall model makes sense, today’s consumer/customer-driven development environment demands more flexibility. Agile came out of that need to emphasize results, to prioritize the function of the evolving product over the form the development process takes.

Sharon shared some cautionary tales about giant scrums of 150 people. Apparently, size matters. It comes down to common sense, Sharon said, in terms of what is going to work and what isn’t. She has drawn on her personal experience as someone being managed, asking herself how she would like to be treated, and attempting to act as a manager guided by the golden rule.

As someone just beginning to assume management functions, Eileen said that she found getting to know the people whom she was supposed to manage became a key to her own success. You cannot always rely on everyone to be self-motivated, but you can usually convince someone you care about something they care about (usually the company you both work for).

Management (Un)structure

What about start-ups? How do they manage without management?

“Management may not be necessary, but leadership is,” Elaine told us. Leaders understand the goals, strategy, and vision of the company; many start-ups can self-manage if there is at least one person who possesses this knowledge. Naturally, it gets harder as your company grows.

As Eileen put it, even without handing out management titles, the tasks of management are still necessary: someone must be organizing, and someone must be communicating. Indeed, it is very often the people who demonstrate that they willing to take on these roles—and who do such tasks well—that eventually find themselves in formal management roles.

Management Experience

How do you get into management? What works (and doesn’t) when you get there?

Often managing shifts some or all of one’s focus off of individual contributions and onto the responsibilities of leading a group. Sharon discussed how she resisted abandoning her database programming; even after stints as a manager, she did what she had to do to return to a position where she could still code. Elaine, on the other hand, loves the opportunities that management provides to work with people, to shape them and help them on their careers.

The secret—if it is one—to getting into management is finding something that needs to be done and doing it well. For Eileen, this was superior communication skills, especially grant writing. Reliable, competent employees quickly become indispensable. The best managers are themselves indispensable: Elaine sees her role as that of someone who removes roadblocks for the members of her team. She loves it, but not because she feels she’s mastered it; she still strives to learn more, to improve.

She does know, however, what never, never works. “It never works to be inauthentic. You have to tell the honest truth so your team understands you are trustworthy.”

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