Wednesday, November 03, 2010

11/3/2010 The ah-HAH

This blog is supposed to be about kids, not work, but in these past extraordinary weeks, work has been on my mind a lot.

Especially in learning how to keep conversations under control, how to keep a master-distractor from taking over a conversation, getting out from the defensive position, in handling criticism with grace. What is this, diplomatic negotiations? These are not things most engineers ever have to deal with, and manipulating discussions isn't my forte.

Monday during a one-on-one meeting intended for me to give constructive feedback to my awful boss, he immediately turned to what is wrong with my performance. He opened with a controlling rhetorical question, "You know I hired you, right?" When I didn't react as I awaited the point, he prompted, "Right?" Yes, obviously I know he hired me. (Note to self: find a polite way to take back control when someone tries to defuse you with a stupid rhetorical question.)

When I started this job last February, I was given a task I had no direct experience with -- but this is my element, I'm good at learning, and this was not rocket science. I dove in, asked a lot of questions, learned quickly and immediately started reporting problems and bugs and suggesting improvements to the vendor. That's my job.

But this boss has a completely different take on this. He said that a learning curve, lack of training and inexpertise on the product is why I was encountering all the problems. He didn't directly deny that I'd found real problems, but criticized me for "lack of humbleness."

Humbleness? Is this for real? Is there even a checkbox for that for evaluating engineer's work?

Never in my career have Ieven been accused of overconfidence, let alone arrogance. I don't doubt I come off self-assured sometimes (and good, I wish I did more), and I don't hold back at all when there's something I know well. But lack of humbleness? It's so asinine that I have to wonder if I'm encountering a subtle form of sexism. Would he accuse a man who'd pushed as hard as I had and learned as fast as I had of "lack of humbleness" ?

He went on to say that the vendor I've worked with had complained about me. I stopped him and asked point-blank, "Who complained?" Evade, brush off. "Who said what, and when?" More tutting and shaking his head, like "oh grasshopper, you must learn when to let these things go." I would not let it go: "WHO SAID WHAT." Finally he retorted the name of a sales manager, someone with whom I have very little direct interaction, but had to work with one of his employees early on. This liason was a nonresponsive, technically weak, dismissive sales engineer, and I did ask the sales manager if there was anyone else who had "more time" to support me.

Since then, I did finally get a line to a true support guy, who's worlds better. Things started moving. Now I've spent many many hours, written countless messages, talked on numerous conference calls, responded immediately to requests for information from this company, and in return received much gratitude and appreciation: "We've never had a customer give us this feedback," "Thanks for finding that, we never knew that was a problem." Their top software engineer that they never ever let talk to customers started emailing me for guidance in how to redesign some of their features.

We've developed a solid working relationship, and long since eclipsed that early rocky start.

But rather than sticking up for me when the incompetent guy's sales manager boss said something about our strained working relationship months ago, my boss took this as only more evidence of my inexperience, of my need for training, of my weakness, of my lack of tact and grace -- and, apparently, lack of humility. And he has not updated his opinion, or facts, about my working relationship with this company since.

So for this boss to bring up a complaint from this company as a problem with my performance as worthy of formalizing is pretty outrageous. So outrageous that I'd welcome an attempt to write it up and formalize to submit to HR. Go right ahead. I know any investigation or attempt at corrborating my "bad behavior" would turn up nothing but accolades. Oh dear, there I go being un-humble again.

I told my boss that if he couldn't "remember" what the sales manager said, then I'd just ask the manager myself. "Ohhh, I wouldn't do that," my boss says. "Let it go. It's important to maintain a good relationship with the company." I said cheerily, "That's exactly why I'm going to call him, so I can straighten out any remaining problems." Once again, he said not to -- and then, "I'm not lying, he really did complain about you."

Not lying? Who said anything about lying? Why did "lying" even come up? Who's thinking about lying? Unless....

Fascinating, these little slips.

Regardless, this boss will forever be unmoved. The very thing I did to do a good job is, to him, a sign of a lack of humbleness. A comment from a sales manager early on about my frustration with a molasses employee has permanently fixated in my boss's head that the problems, both in relationships and in technology, are with me.

This stuff shouldn't bother me, and it bothers me a lot less now that I've talked to his boss and I know the door is open to discuss any future untenable situations. If my boss brings up my "performance" ever again, I will not discuss it until he puts it in writing , and we discuss it with his boss too. I'm tired of the guy railing on me in private, using words and tones of voices that are far outside acceptable work decorum.

That's the huge weight on my psyche. Then it got better.

Yesterday, a 5-minute meeting with a high-level engineer I've not worked with much, turned into my favorite situation: a one-on-one whiteboard in which I get to ask 1001 questions of a skilled engineer and finally put some pieces together. It got me thinking, and that night, I went home and did a lot of reading and studying and drawing to understand. This is fun! Learning new network protocols and methods is exciting, and there's a lot there I sort-of know, but not well.

This afternoon, something else came up that led to my asking more questions of my wonderful coworker Yoon. In 15 minutes, she put it all together with the sort of progressive, organized, clear detail that makes it all fit in my head. And I had a rare and welcome ah-HAH moment. It's all spinning around in my head now, and I can't wait to get to work tomorrow so I can follow up on some of the things she explained, and maybe borrow a book before she gets to work and needs it herself. (For the geeks out there, it's about MPLS and transporting Ethernet over it.)

As a network engineer, it's not often I work with other women at all, let alone so closely -- and even rarer with one who is so so sharp and explains exactly what I need to know, and explains it really well. Having a great mentor at the ready is what any engineer lives for! No doubt there is a similarity in communication style too, likely one that comes from being of the same female yakkity-yak species : I need detail laid out perfectly to "get" something, and she thinks and easily explains at that level (even if she understands things 10 times faster than I do).

A former coworker and boss and current friend (you know who you are Sean) asked me recently, "Why do you stay there?" Well, that's why. It's for the ah-HAH moments, few and far between as they are. The ah-HAH is so powerful that it even trumps the verbal abuse and criticism and childish interactions I get from a childish, insecure, incompetent manager who twists a good job I did into a bad one. But the geek in me won this week.


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