Josh Work Professional Organizations Trip Reports Conference Report: 2001 LISA: MetaLISA

Monday I attended the MetaLISA workshop, which is about managing systems administrators. After introductions (with the usual who you are, where you work, and what you wanted to get out of the workshop), we discussed the common topics.

We first discussed motivation and retention, trying to answer the question of how you provide motivation to help retain your quality personnel. We decided that providing a good work environment without major stressors would be better than just throwing money (salary) at the problem, that authority and responsibility should both be well defined, and that resources have to be made available to handle problems.

Next we discussed the different types of people. Some system administrators are of the "work 9 to 5, get a check, leave work at work" type, whereas others are of the "computers are my life so I play on them at home too" variety. One manager organized his group so the former group was given the trouble-ticket queue processing and the latter group was given more of the infrastructure and hard install problems.

We then discussed the career path issues. Several companies now have multiple paths and levels, such as Team Lead, Project Lead, and Assistant Manager, each with appropriate and well-defined levels of expectations, evaluation scores or results, experience, requirements, and so forth. Providing different levels of responsibilities, independence, authority, and even money (base pay increase) on a path for both technical and management types, junior to senior, seems to work well. Even better is when there are well-defined criteria for promotion and lateral transfers between tracks. Remember, however, to provide allowances for exceptions or case-by-case waivers in your written policies.

Next we covered professionalism. Some people lie on their resumes. Some people don't have the dress code covered and don't wear the right clothing (suit or t-shirt) to an interview or to the job itself, and don't do so even when informed to do so. Some people don't understand the concept of punctuality. Some people don't know how to be tactful, or to provide the right level of information, or even to say "I don't know" to the customer. One topic of discussion was how to educate these people on how to improve these skills. Information sharing, such as email lists, databases, and even IRC channels, helps teams share knowledge, cross-train people, and can provide a way to let everyone contribute. Admitting when youre wrong builds trust for when you're positive you're right. Encouraging people to ask for help can work, but so can offering help and asking people if they need help. However, the insecure may not respond or take you up on the offer. For these people, if you present a situation as a "show me what you did so I can learn," it may help. Don't use killing statements (such as "you're wrong") but ask leading questions ("what if").

Next we looked at determining what information is important (to share) and what is not (to keep political fallout from the team)? One technique is to have a staff meeting and say "here's the important stuff" and let folks leave if they don't care about the politics. Getting folks to realize "best" isn't always "right," or that politics can override the right technical basis, is necessary. The team needs to be aware that there are politics even if they don't know the details. However, email is often not the best medium for this; in-person and telephone contact may be a better (or at least good in addition to) way to contact and inform people. Also, some people may not have a framework to put the details in; giving them the framework and answering their questions is good. Some people, though, just don't care about the political issues. Sometimes, having face-time in meetings with your people and the lord high political muckety-muck may be useful.

Many people can follow a checklist and don't have problem-solving skills. How do you teach them to acquire the skills? Problem-solving is linked to curiosity and background and experience. Teaching people skills is important. Using child-raising techniques, such as brainstorming with a timer, may be helpful. Again, you have to be careful to ask leading questions and not use killing statements that make the other person defensive. People need to remember to look at the big picture so they would make the right big-picture decisions and so questions of direction get addred within the group. Also, the problem and scope need to be explicitly defined, because that sets some limits. Finally the instruction or detail level of the recipient may be relevant; instructions to senior people may be much less detailed than instructions to juniors.

The next major discussion topic was the balancing act between technical and management responsibilities and tasks. Some of the tricks include allowing the people who report to you assuming you're still technical, knowing that the theory can be as good as the technical details, keeping yourself informed about major issues, and using one day a week as a technical day for working on small projects. Also, if you only rise to the point of comfort, whether that's team lead, division lead, project manager, company head, or whatever, you may be better able to find your balancing point. One of the problems is trusting the people to whom you hand your pet projects off to do the "right thing" with them.

Finally we discussed moving from an ad-horoup to a more procedural-based group. Formalizing processes by documention. Document not only how things work, but also why the decisions were made. Pairing people, one to explain and one to write, can work well. Starting with something like script is a good start. Having a cheat-sheet or template can be very helpful. But you have to practice what you preach; document things yourself so your people will. Also, make documenting a requirement for the performance review.

After the workshop a group of us headed over to Old Town for a (touristy) Mexican dinner at the Old Town Café. This was followed by some hot tubbing (in the "maximum occupancy 10" tub where we once again managed to get 35 people in at once, comfortably) and partying again in the Presidential Lanai Suite.

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Last update Apr24/02 by Josh Simon (<>).