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Posted on: Tuesday, 03 February 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Every once in a while as I talk to developers around the world it is not uncommon for me come across developers who feel they are under a constant watch.

 

Managers on the other hand do not hesitate to consider this an integral part of their job and label this as their being 'detail oriented'.

One of the young and budding project managers, that I worked with at Multiplitaxion Inc, who for the purposes of this post, we shall refer to as Fred, described his daily activities to me in an informal conversation. Based on my recollections of the past I may not be quoting this person word-by-word but I do keep the spirit of what he was trying to say one-hundred percent intact. Here is Fred, describing his daily routine.

I start my day by looking at the bug tracking system to see how many bugs are out there in the bug tracking system and what are the pending items in the task list. Then I talk with my development team during the afternoon and check how many they would be able to close for the day. With that done, I check with my QA team how many items they will be able to close in a day. I spend afternoons assigning tasks and bugs to individuals; both in the development and the QA team. During the evening I check up the list again about how many items were actually closed and follow up with the teams if there is a variance in what was expected and what was done.   

I say this at the risk of sounding like a jerk, but the mere act of hearing this individual describe his day was both humorous and pathetically tragic. Here was an individual working hard to destroy his career and turn himself into data entry operator for the bug tracking system and a watchdog merged into one when he thought he was 'managing' the project.

As we spoke I could literally picture a what-would-you-say-you-do-here discussion from office space; and yet; this individual found it his responsibility to be in control and in charge of every single bug that was there in his project.

The desire of being in control was in fact so intense that he took it upon himself to get every single cosmetic bug in the project closed. He didn't close them himself though; he got the developers to do it while he maintained timelines and checked-up on his team to see what the status of the bugs was; regularly; often even twice a day.

Another manager I happened to witness, was notoriously famous for calling up people during the weekend and asking them to come down to office every time she discovered a bug while he was testing the build herself during the weekend. QA was called and questioned on why the bug wasn't detected. The individual actually did consider himself very detailed-and-organized. Everyone else of-course, considered him a notorious asshole.

These are but just two examples. Look around you and you'll find many others. The act of getting into too many details about your project sends a subtle signal  to you team. It tells them that you, do not trust them to take the correct decisions and get things done. It de-motivates kick-ass performers to an extent most 'detail oriented' managers cannot even begin to imagine. Cube Queen for example, expresses her frustration with her managers desire to indulge in every little minutia of her job:

This week in our fabulously fun staff meeting, I made sure that I talked for at least 15 minutes. That’s 14 minutes longer than I usually participate. My colleague and I were testing out a theory. She thought the reason behind our leader’s strange behavior towards me — ignoring and discounting me, pretending like I’m not standing right in front of her so she doesn’t have to say good morning to me — was the result of my lack of communication during staff meetings.

So today, I blabbed on and on about the boring nitty gritty details of everything I worked on, including phone conversations I’ve had within the last week. Sure enough, directly after the meeting I got a, “Great job at staff, boy you’re really busy.” Right on cue!

Don’t ever forget and don’t ever underestimate the power of minutia with leaders who have small brains. And that would be about 90% of them! If you work for a short-sighted, incompetent idiot who is incapable of strategy development and only focused on the tactics that it takes to get a project done, you must — I mean must — live in those details and broadcast them proudly. Even if it’s against your nature.

Yes, this is also in line with kissing A**, which I don’t like to promote, but in this case it’s a necessity! The incompetent leader lives for that crap. There’s also a bit of narcissism here. The incompetent boss looks for lame things like staff meetings for his/her underlings to express their subordinate positions. Meaning, bow to the king or queen. This personality gets off on the power that comes with “this is my staff meeting and these are my servants reporting. Bow to me!” So bow!

I want you to try something tomorrow. When you see your incompetent boss or senior leader in the hallway, stop and tell them about that great process you just finished, or the phone calls you had to get the project done. Live in minutia!   

If you are a manager does it sound like cube queen is being unfair and overly critical? At the end of the day, all the poor-little-manager is expecting from his team is that they brief him with details of the work they are doing. Yes, he gives attention to details and wants to get things done the first time. Is that such a bad thing?  Dave Taylor tactfully uses sarcasm to answer this same question by turning the tables on a potential micro-manager:

Question Asked:

I just had someone tell me I'm a "micromanager", but I have no idea what this really means. Yeah, I have a high attention to detail and I like to have things done right the first time, but why is this a negative?

Dave's Answer:

Well, when you submitted this question, you shouldn't have used the word "Yeah" in your question, and you originally had single quotes around "micromanager", but I fixed that, and, well, your grammar isn't quite what it could be.

Oh? You just wanted me to answer your question? Not tell you how to ask your question in the first place? Now you're starting to see the difference between interacting with people and trying to manage their every breath, to control rather than manage, to project the message "you're incompetent and I just don't trust you to do even the simplest thing correctly."

That's what a micromanager is: someone who manages at a level far lower, far more detailed than is necessary or appropriate.    

The next time you feel the need to 'drill down' into more details when you team gives you a status; consider if the drilling down is really necessary or it is just your egoistic itch that you simply feel like satisfying. Ask yourself if you just 'have to' know and understand every moving part in that CRUD form your team worked. Question yourself on why you 'must' know who introduced that bug.

Hire smart teams of  kickass developers who have great chemistry. Get them on a project, be there if they need something, get out of their way and let them manage themselves.  After all, you were hired to help your team so that nobody comes in their way to success; and that includes you too.

If you developers are excited about what they are doing and they genuinely respect you they won't stop talking about their project and what they are working on. If they are not excited, find out why they're not and get them excited. Have informal conversations, and fun filled stand up scrums; not never-ending status meetings.  For anything else that you want to know, use the right tools.

Check-ins and your version control system can give you as much details about the project as you want; a daily build provides you with all the status you might be interested in. If you need more details, teach yourself how to write code, grab the latest copy of your team's codebase, read and help them if you genuinely can.  If possible, be an active member and own a task yourself. What ever you do; don't bother them with lengthy meetings, full of stupid questions which make you sound like you lack trust. Don't indulge in random policing  under the name of being 'detail oriented'.

If you cannot 'sense' the health of your project and have to constantly peck on people and drill deep into irrelevant details to figure out how healthy your project is; you might not be the 'detail oriented manager' that you think you are after-all; You might, in fact, be a micro-manager or yet another classical prick; and you may not even know it.