The sad predicament of the unempowered manager


I just made up that term now because I needed a word to describe the situation where some manager is put in charge of a feature but is not given a staff to implement that feature. This happens more often than you might think, since there are many features that are "horizontal", i.e., features which affect all teams throughout the project. So-called taxes often fall into this category, such as power management, accessibility, and multiple monitors. (Larry Osterman calls them *bilities. I call them taxes.)

The unempowered manager is in a predicament, having been assigned a task without a staff to accomplish it. All the unempowered manager can do is nag other people, usually about bugs that fall into the manager's area.

Now, most of these unempowered managers understand that they are just one of many demands on the development teams, providing advice as necessary (since they have valuable specialized knowledge about the problem area) but basically trying to stay out of the way.

Others, on the other hand, take upon themselves a much more active role in "driving" their pet issues. This means that I will get mail like this:

You have an elephant† bug

The following elephant bug is assigned to you:

16384 Elephants not available in animal dropdown box (opened 2006/05/12)

What is the ETA for fixing this bug?

(signed)
Somebody you've never heard of

This is another case of "You're not my manager". My manager decides what tasks I should be working on and in what order. If you think this bug should be higher on my priority list, feel free to set up a little meeting with my manager to work this out. Until then, don't bug me. I have work to do.

"But elephant-compatibility is important."

Are you saying that all my other tasks are unimportant? What makes elephant-compatibility more important than my other tasks? Do you even know what my other tasks are?

At one point, this got so bad, with many managers nagging me about their favorite bugs on a nearly daily basis, that I created a SharePoint site‡ called "Raymond's task list for <date>". Whenever somebody sent me nag mail, I replied, "I have added your request to my SharePoint site and assigned it a default priority." And then I never heard from them again.

For those new to this web site (and a reminder to those with poor memory):

†I disguise the name because (1) it's not important to the story, and because (2) the goal is not to ridicule but rather to illustrate a point. Attempts to guess what "elephant" is will be deleted. Don't make me delete further stories in this series like I did with "Stories about Bob."

Nitpicker's corner

‡Or, if you're a trademark lawyer, "A Web site powered by Microsoft® SharePoint® services."

*Here's your stupid asterisk.

Comments (38)
  1. BA says:

    "*Here’s your stupid asterisk."

    Heh. Very touche Raymond, very touche indeed.

    But what about another predicament, not unempowered management, but unenlightened management?

    Or management that thinks they have a clue about what they are doing but really don’t. Totally well meaning people, but without a healthy knowledge of the industry they are trying to succeed in. Trying to educate them proves fruitless because they believe they know enough as it is and are totally misguided and spread that misguidance to new recruits.

  2. Kiriai says:

    I don’t know how your system is set up.  When you get a normal bug report from the QA department, do they assign it directly to you?

    What power does the QA department have with respect to bugs, shipping, and work-flow?

    Are these managers essentially just an extension of the QA department that focus on a specific type of product issues (and who also can serve as a valuable resource for what to do and how to do it)?

  3. B.G. Bossman says:

    Hello Raymond, I must apologize for my error in directing that email to you.  It was meant for another Raymond that I work with but, through my careless use of  Outlook’s autocomplete, it went to you by mistake. You see, I actually manage a group of product packaging engineers at Nabisco but I also code a little on the side (that’s why I had your email, I bug you now and then with a question).  

    This all began when we shipped 10,000 electromechanical display cases as part of our Nabisco® Animal Crackers promotional campaign.  These very expensive, and very cool, devices fill boxes with custom iced animal crackers then drop them down to eagerly awaiting children on the backs of their favorite animals.

    In our rush to fill and program the machines, we forgot to include support for icing and delivering the elephant shaped crackers.  Since elephant crackers are one of the children’s favorites, and this is a huge campaign, it’s imperative that we get the elephants into the dropdown boxes.  We don’t want to disappoint the children after all.

    Sorry for the confusion and thanks for posting this.  Had I not read it hear I would’ve though that my Raymond had gotten the email and, well, it would’ve been my rear that got bitten when the campaign faltered.

  4. CGomez says:

    I think regardless of the specifics, the unempowered manager is a problem in many organizations.  If you happen to be one, here’s why you should take it easy on the workers you are pestering… especially when they say "Can you prioritize this with my manager?"

    And I am still angry about missing that story about Bob.  Based on the great setup, I think we lost something valuable.  People are jerks.

  5. Rich says:

    Is using the word "staff" as a singular (and using it to refer to engineers) Microspeak? I’ve only ever encountered it as a plural before, except when referring to sticks of wood. The only singular form I’m used to is "a member of staff", which is … odd … for a countable noun.

    Unless you meant that the manager needs a long stick in order for his authority to be respected?

  6. Maurits says:

    > What is the ETA for fixing this bug?

    I’m missing something.  It sounds like you’re reading between the lines and interpreting this as “Hey, this bug is filed against you and it’s not fixed yet!  What’s wrong with you?”

    But there’s another possible interpretation… it may be that the manager is trying to figure out what the ETA for fixing the bug is, so they can plan out their timeline, figure out what the critical path is, etc.

    As you note, under your interpretation, the correct thing for them to do is to set up a meeting with your manager and ask your manager whether elephant bugs could be prioritized higher.

    But under the other possible interpretation, where they’re just seeking information, it is entirely reasonable for them to email you directly.  If they ask your manager “What’s Raymond’s ETA for the elephant bug?”, your manager is likely just going to have to turn around and ask you…

    I haven’t seen the email you’re talking about, obviously, so perhaps there is other evidence that makes your interpretation more likely.

    [In order to get an ETA, you have to set up the problem, reproduce it, debug it, determine the cause, develop a solution, and then you can make estimate as to how long that solution will take to implement and the bug to be fixed. Repeat for all the other bugs with higher priority, add numbers together, set up bug fix timeline, factor in estimated arrival rate of new bugs with higher priority, and only then do you have an ETA for fixing this bug. Establishing an ETA for a bug can take weeks if there are a lot of bugs with higher priority. -Raymond]
  7. GregM says:

    "Is using the word "staff" as a singular (and using it to refer to engineers) Microspeak?"

    No, staff is generally singular.

  8. GregM says:

    “[In order to get an ETA, you have to set up the problem, reproduce it, debug it, determine the cause, develop a solution, and then you can make estimate as to how long that solution will take.”

    In general I read “what is the ETA for fixing this bug” as “what is the ETA for starting to look at this issue” when I haven’t started it, and “what is the ETA for completing the fix of this issue” when I’ve already started on it.

    [An estimate for a start time isn’t an ETA. It’s an ETD. But even that requires me to have an ETA for all higher-priority bugs. -Raymond]
  9. UmeshU says:

    “‡Or, if you’re a trademark lawyer, “A Web site powered by Microsoft® SharePoint® services.” “

    Raymond – that should be Microsoft® Windows® SharePoint Services.

    How do I know? I had to nag everyone to fix these branding bugs in the last release :-)

    [Then you also need to nag the web site that tells people what the correct trademark is. It just says “SharePoint®” without “Microsoft® Windows®” in front, and it uses a lowercase “s” in “services”. -Raymond]
  10. mikeb says:

    @Rich:

    Staff is what’s known as a "collective noun" (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=collective%20noun).

    Quotes from the above link:

    =======================================

    In American English, a collective noun naming an organization regarded as a unit is usually treated as singular…  

    In British usage, however, collective nouns are more often treated as plurals…

    =======================================

  11. Good to see people sparking up a thread about a single gramatical construct in the first sentence and completely ignoring everything else.

    Have you thought of only publishing the first sentence of your articles in future? Those of us who appreciate the great content you provide would miss out, but surely that doesn’t matter if somebody can learn all about collective nouns.

  12. "grammatical", dammit… now there’ll be a bunch of comments sneering at my typo…

  13. Hamilton Lovecraft says:

    <i>In order to get an ETA, you have to set up the problem, reproduce it, debug it, determine the cause, develop a solution, and then you can make estimate as to how long that solution will take."</i>

    That seems to mean that it’s impossible to schedule anything on any project beyond your first bug fix.

  14. Wolf Logan says:

    "That seems to mean that it’s impossible to schedule anything on any project beyond your first bug fix."

    …which is why some methodologies concentrate on keeping the bug list short (with frequent releases, test-first, etc). Bugs are usually schedule risks, so the more of them you’ve got in front of you, the fuzzier all your time estimates are. That’s a big reason schedules slip.

  15. Sneering Sneerer says:

    Nick Fitzsimons: I sneer at your typo.

  16. ChrisMcB says:

    Based on the evidence you prodived us, it seems you are jumping the gun.

    You want the other manager to speak to your manager to prioritize your issue. Well the other manager is trying to find out if he even needs to do that. If you plan on having said bug fixed by the end of the week, then there is no need for the other manager to speak to your manager. But if on the other hand it will take weeks just to arrive at an ETA, then maybe its time for the other manager to talk your manager. Cut him some slack(he doesn’t have any staff) he is only looking for some information on how long it will take for you to take care of something. You can answer with "soon", or "I don’t know maybe weeks." He isn’t trying to manage you, only get some information.

    Granted you probably get a ton of these requests. But would you rather a quick email, or the other manager to set up a meeting with your manager to discuss an issue you will have solved before their meeting is over?

    Those elephants sure are unruly over there. I’d be careful if I was you.

  17. Marc K says:

    Nick, you may want to switch to a web browser that spell checks within text input boxes.  That will save you from future "sneerings".  :)

  18. microbe says:
    : Establishing an ETA for a bug can take weeks if

    there are a lot of bugs with higher priority.

    I think there is a chance that you are just overreacting.

    Sometimes the problem is known but it just needs some time to come up with a solution. In that case, you do have an idea about how much work it will take.

    What’s wrong with replying "I don’t know yet"? You are an employee and interactions with other groups (including managers) are part of the job.

  19. microbe says:

    : [An estimate for a start time isn’t an ETA. It’s an ETD. But even that requires me to have an ETA for all higher-priority bugs. -Raymond]

    Oh my god.

    I wonder how anyone even dare to email you other than your manager?

    There are tons of possibilities that you may have already known the ETA. Maybe you already fixed the bug bug forgot to add the comment?

    Maybe you do not have other higher priority bugs and are already working on it?

    But they cannot assume any of this. They have to talk to your manager whenever they want to get a little information from you.

    I am sorry, Raymond, this doesn’t sound like teamwork for me.

    [If I already fixed the bug, then the record is marked as fixed. If I have an ETA for the fix (rare), I put it in the “ETA for fix” field. That’s the workflow. Most managers understand that and don’t send nag mail. -Raymond]
  20. nksingh says:

    It seems like Raymond is a pretty visible resource within Microsoft and people are using him like one, rather than treating him as just another human being who happens to be an extremely good engineer.  Remember the blog-posting about people who were trying to volunteer him to work on their products, or the fact that he always gets CC’ed in on random email threads?  

    I gather from reading this blog for 4 years that Raymond can be a bit short with people who aren’t yet at his level ("Is he going to yell at us?"), but I think those who don’t even want to try to learn do deserve some ire.  

    Raymond, I don’t know how direct you’re willing to be, but will it work to include a notice on your mail signatures that you are not to be contacted directly unless the request is definitely your business?  

    I guess this would be downright rude, but you could create an email rule to filter all messages from people you don’t know into a low-priority mailbox and send them a bounce-back informing them of how to get properly whitelisted (e.g. talk to your manager to get their task properly prioritized).  Maybe this wouldn’t work if you have some managerial roles yourself.  

    I’m really sorry that people are starting to tick you off.  There is a saying in politics (and as a large organization, Microsoft is no doubt political): "No good deed ever goes unpunished."  

  21. Jules says:

    Nick: It isn’t as if Raymond doesn’t regularly post content about linguistics.  Having done this a lot in the past, he’s attracted a lot of readers who find the linguistic posts interesting.  And you’re now concerned that they’re talking about linguistics in non-linguistic posts?

  22. njkayaker says:

    I do think people are reading way too much in the post.

    “Somebody you’ve never heard of” -> is big hint as to the point of the post.

    I suspect that Raymond’s big complaint is the kind-of-rude co-opting of his time by some random out-of-the-blue request. It’s the odd assumption that “whatever is important to me is important to you”. These people seem to think that their “pet” project is the only one in existance.

    [Indeed, it’s the “out of the blue” nature that makes it annoying. Usually, after a round of messages like this, the topic of lunchtime conversation is “Did you get that elephant email? Do you know who that person is? I just deleted it.” -Raymond]
  23. njkayaker says:

    "…However, you still seem to be a little confused as the order is wrong…"

    Perfect!

    Raymond: didn’t your mother tell you that playing with knives was dangerous?

  24. eikonos says:

    I like the basic story about the elephant feature, but all the footnotes add that extra something to make it really funny.

  25. ::Wendy:: says:

    Whta appears to be happening in raymonds story a lack of recognition by the Manager of her true source of power and complete inability to use that source effectively, pressumably due to lack of recognition of said source.

    Presuumably the company has invested in elephant for a reason.  Pressumably lack of achieving elephant will have some cost.  

    Surelay any bug should include a cost-benefit statement in the description that helps the team that ‘owns’ (by virtue of reporting structure – traditional view on power) bug triage it effectively.  If Raymond recieved a bug on Elephant that included realistic data that if elephant was not achieved in this bug then Company X would cut its contract that benefitted Microsoft by XXXX Billions of dollars per minute,  then Raymond would fix the elephant bug and manager with no ‘reousreces’ to fix it herself has demonstrated power through having the right evidence to demonstrate value.

    I’ll take 2 elephants with a side-order of chips and spell-checker please.

  26. Adolph says:

    "Did you get that elephant email? Do you know who that person is? I just deleted it."

    I thought it was:

    "Did you get that elephant email? Yes, it guessed was the elephant was. I just deleted it."

    "web browser that spell checks within text input boxes"

    I thought it was:

    "You stupid computer.  OF COURSE I’m the one who misspelled that word.  You can take your UAC and

  27. Good Point says:

    ‘‡Or, if you’re a trademark lawyer, "A Web site powered by Microsoft® SharePoint® services."

    *Here’s your stupid asterisk.’

    At least Raymond is taking all the nitpicking with a sense of humor?

    I admire you above all for your purity of spirit and your appreciation of the arts.

  28. Jim Lyon says:

    All of the animal features can be neatly split into two categories:

    1. The feature doesn’t work at all unless every system component supports it, or
    2. It works today, but will work better and better the more system components support it.

    Sadly, if a manager you’ve never heard of is bothering you about elephant bugs, it’s highly likely that elephant is in the first category. In this case, it’ll be a cold day in hades before it ships, and the manager can be ignored.

    If it’s in the second camp, elephant will work whether you fix its bug or not, and you can reasonably prioritorize the bug with all of your others.

    As I’m fond of telling people, "the nice thing about having everything be priority one is that you get to work on what you want."

  29. Amy says:

    Nice try on the asterisk and daggers. However, you still seem to be a little confused as the order is wrong. The asterisk should come *first* and the daggers should *follow*.

    I found this page when searching for examples of using asterisks and daggers for an English class. No offense intended, but the professor said that yours is not a good example to follow.

    [I’m surprised anybody even considered following examples of formal writing taken from blogs. You may also want to ask your professor about this writing concept called “tone”. -Raymond]
  30. Stephen Jones says:

    ‘Staff’ is  a remarkably neat word actually.

    It is normally an uncountable collective noun, like ‘police’ and unlike ‘team’ or ‘committee’ which are countable.

    One the other hand it can also be countable as in "There was a meeting for the staffs of the respective insitutions", which suggests a greater degree of autonomy then "a meeting for the staff of the prospective departments."

  31. Rick C says:

    "Have you thought of only publishing the first sentence of your articles in future? Those of us who appreciate the great content you provide would miss out, but surely that doesn’t matter if somebody can learn all about collective nouns."

    Or a separate blog that’s a honeypot for nitpickers.

    "…However, you still seem to be a little confused as the order is wrong…"

    and is missing a comma as well, after "confused."  Unless "a little confused as to the order of footnote symbols" was the intended  meaning of the sentence, which is unlikely to be the case.

    There’s a deliberate error in this post.

  32. Mikkin says:

    Some would call "staff" a mass noun, holding that "uncountable collective noun" is oxymoronic, but this is disputed even among prominent authorities. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_noun#Confounding_of_collective_noun_and_mass_noun ) Part of the difficulty is that mass nouns are sometimes made plural (e.g. "the waters of Babylon") notwithstanding their essential singularity.

    On the other hand, "staffs" is an Americanism.  In the rest of the world, the plural of "staff"† is "staves."

    † I jest.  This homonym is not the same word at all.

  33. Dewi Morgan says:

    "[Then you also need to nag the web site that tells people what the correct trademark is. It just says "SharePoint®" without "Microsoft® Windows®" in front, and it uses a lowercase "s" in "services". -Raymond]"

    Reading this was pure unalloyed joy, for I can imagine only two possibilities here.

    Either the poster was correct, and the page is incorrect (in which case he is currently sobbing because he has realised that his job of correcting this problem has just become much, MUCH bigger)…

    Or he was wrong. Now he needs to go cap in hand to everyone he badgered about his elephant problem in the last release, and ask if they could please change it back.

    Either way, I am sure we all feel deeply sorry for him, but WOW, what a schadenfreude buzz!

  34. Erika says:

    Rick C wrote:

    "…However, you still seem to be

    a little confused as the order is

    wrong…"

    and is missing a comma as well,

    after "confused."

    That comma is optional, not mandatory.  The sentence is just fine how it was written.

  35. yah yah says:

    † I jest.

    What an odd thing to have on one’s headstone. Almost as good as "I told you I was ill!"

  36. Blah says:

    Wow. Pretty sad that the managerial structure there has become almost as bad as that of IBM, but at least there’s actual talent underneath all the bureaucracy here.

  37. John Dempsey says:

    Anyone who nags me gets the UNC path address to my real live to-do list, and they can see their naggy topic on the list, in its proper prioritization, any time they want. So I am hands-on and open, and tell them precisely where they stand. You’re right, once they see this list they never talk more. Which is wierd. I’d like to be more integrated, but really these people are just checking boxes and playing C.Y.A.

    Love the use of "Elephant" in this post. Generally I am pro-pakiderm.

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