Friday, October 1, 2010

How A Great Web Team Fired Their Utterly Useless Manager

Once upon a time in the land of free coffee every morning and free sushi on deployment night, between the suburban drear of Mountain View and the lush affluence of Palo Alto's University Ave., there was a fun little company with a fantastic little problem on its hands - growing too fast, and making too much money (while everybody was else was growing too fast and taking on too much investment).

like this, but a whole table full

At this company, I worked for one of the best managers I'd ever had. We'll call him the Great One. The Great One created a wonderful sense of cameraderie in his group, making us play theater games and give each other presentations at lunchtime, every Friday. A big part of managing is creating a cohesive sense of community in your direct reports, where everybody wants to do great work because they feel everybody else is depending on them. This manager was great at that, but he was great at a lot of other elements of managing, and soon his higher-ups took him away from us for mysterious new projects.

As his replacement we got a manager I'll refer to as the Fucking Monkey.

The Fucking Monkey lacked the Great One's greatness. Where we had slaved long hard hours for the Great One, barely even noticing the added load, we now began to begrudge the Fucking Monkey any work at all, even between the hours of 9 and 5. The Fucking Monkey was fanatical about a half-implemented, broken version of the Rational Rose management system, designed for pre-Web software development models and hopelessly inadequate for our purposes. As far as I could tell, he never listened to any of us, on any topic. He made us work harder for less results, and with less rewards. He said sexist things to the female members of our team. And one day, he made Little Kamana cry.

Little Kamana (not her real name) was an Indian contractor, five foot tall at the absolute maximum, who dressed (with zero irony) like a Catholic school girl, failed to understand a wide variety of offensive jokes, and seemed to almost embody innocence. She was like our mascot.

Innocent Eyes pic by mashroor on flickr. Little Kamana was older than this, obviously, but it's about the right feel.

By the time the Fucking Monkey made Little Kamana cry, almost the entire team had already seen an interesting pair of documents. One document was the resumé that the Fucking Monkey had used to get his job managing us. The other document was his earlier resumé, which one of us had discovered on GeoCities or somewhere equally tacky. The two resumés contradicted each other on numerous points, but contained just barely enough overlap in content to make it clear they referred to the same guy.

I was not the compulsive researcher I am today, and it was not I who found this resumé. My temper was even worse in those days, however, and I was already demanding in private that we get the guy fired. But when the Fucking Monkey made Little Kamana cry, angry mutterings at random lunches turned into a giant team meeting at a local restaurant with every member of the team present - except for the Fucking Monkey, our alleged leader. My position at the meeting was that we either fire the guy, or kill him.

I was mad like Knuckle Bear

Cooler heads than mine prevailed. The dominant opinions were: fire him right away, fire him later, or hide and hope he goes away. We opted for a middle course: fire him slowly. Then we started to look into how we could do that. The answer turned out to be easy: we went over his head.

Two members of our team had worked closely with the VP of Marketing on a ground-breaking new interactive project. There were lots of those in those days, but I was lucky enough to work with some really smart people, and they'd done good work. Consequently, these two guys were in a position to initiate a private conversation with this VP, and to expect him to listen. This is what they did - and they brought the unmatching pair of resumés into the ensuing conversation. They said things like, "listen, we need to talk to you about something," and rather than my foaming-at-the-mouth rage, brought an attitude of quiet concern - and serious evidence that the Fucking Monkey was, indeed, a fucking monkey.

Soon thereafter, the Fucking Monkey hit the road.

We wouldn't have been able to do it if the guy hadn't shot off sexist comments left and right, made one of us cry, and faked his resumé to get the job - but if it weren't for stuff like that, he might not have been so awful, and we might not have even needed to take such harsh measures in the first place. When things are that bad, all you really need is some evidence and a sympathetic ear higher up the org chart. But the real lesson to learn here is about building a team. The Great One did such a good job putting the team together that I don't think any of us even considered quitting - not even Little Kamana - and there's an art form to that.

Coming up soon: how I solved a corporate politics problem with software, by building a Web app, and a video on how to avoid corporate politics where possible, and win at them when you have to.