When Developers Work Late, Should Manager Stay or Go?

Sunday Dec 20th 2009 by Eric Spiegel
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A veteran developer sees project management in a different light now that he has been on both sides of the fence.

It was well after 10 PM and I was furiously writing code in my cubicle when I heard the footsteps behind me. My heart sank and I even felt a tingling of dread creep up my spine.

An intruder?

No. Much worse

My manager.

Let’s turn the clock back to earlier that morning. I was writing software for a major payroll conversion that was supposed to take place that coming weekend. We had tested and tested and were continuing to test in preparation for the big conversion that would impact over one hundred thousand employees.

I was feeling pretty confident and very well prepared. Then that all changed in an instant. Our business analysts had mistakenly mapped a bunch of fields incorrectly and the logic was much more complex than what we were already doing.

It was agreed that this shouldn’t stop the conversion and that we needed to code the changes immediately so we could run one full test cycle.

Let me be more clear. My manager agreed. I was simply told.

He sauntered into my cube and said “I have a challenge for you.”

Uh oh.

He proceeded to explain the wonderful challenge ahead of me for the rest of the day, and likely night. I had already racked up so much comp time with this project, I’d never be able to take it all. So the idea of extra work wasn’t exciting.

But it was my job, so I half-heartedly smiled and said “Sure, whatever you need. Let’s get to work.”

As everyone was filing out of the office as dusk set in, my manager came back over.

“Is it working yet?,” he asked, using the smart alack tone that he was famous for. Of course it wasn’t.

He continued, “Hey, don’t worry. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Those were words I really didn’t want to hear. I wanted to focus on getting this code done and didn’t want my manager popping in every hour with some smart alack quip.

I said, “You know, I think I got this. You don’t have to stay.”

“Sure I do!” he said with sincere enthusiasm. “If you run into a road block, I’ll be here to make sure you get an answer. And I’ll order in pizza.”

Great. I would be annoyed, but not hungry.

Sure enough, every hour on the hour, he would pop in and say something he thought was very witty. Did this help me code faster with better quality?

Nope.

I just wanted to be left alone to concentrate on the task at hand.

So back to the 10 PM visit from my omnipresent manager. This time he just sat in my cube and didn’t leave. He kept peppering me with questions that I’m sure he thought were very helpful.

Here is the thing: If he was somewhat technical, he could have asked relevant questions or maybe even offered helpful suggestions. But he hadn’t written code in years – and never in the language I was using.

Therefore, every question just slowed me down. I came close to asking him to go home again, but knew he wouldn’t leave. So I just kept coding while he rambled on or just sat behind me reading the newspaper. Maybe I was supposed to feel comforted that he was there to provide moral support.

Finally at 3 AM my tests were all successfully completed. I got a pat on the back and he told me how much he appreciated me staying. I was so bleary-eyed, I could not have cared less if he had told me aliens had landed.

The next day my manager sang my praises to the team and the business users. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the recognition. And it was very rewarding when the conversion went off without a hitch.

But man, I was still perturbed any time my manager stayed late with me because I felt my stay was inevitably being extended by his presence.

Now I’m the Developer’s Manager

Now fast forward about ten years. I’m now a manager for a team of developers. It’s getting late one afternoon and a customer calls me up and starts yelling in my ear. Some system we sold them was down and they had to produce reports by the following morning or there would be hell to pay.

Next Page: "I hadn't coded in years and never in the language he had to work with..."

I didn’t want to pay hell, so I tracked down my best developer and said, “Guess what? I have a great challenge for you!”

No kidding. I sounded just like my former manager. Kind of like when you have kids and say, “Don’t sit so close to the TV or you’ll ruin your eyesight” – as soon as the words leave your mouth, you realize you sound just like your parents.

Well, I’ve learned it’s the same for managers and their team members. In looking back, I realized the different pressures previous managers were under and how they were only trying to help me.

Of course I stayed late with my developer to solve this customers’ problem. And guess what? Yep, I hadn’t coded in years and never in the language he had to work with. So I could offer very little in the way of technical guidance.

But if I went home and left him there to work late, would that even be fair? If I had to ask a team member to sacrifice, then I had to sacrifice as well.

I stayed to make sure they had all the resources required to solve the problem. And yes, I made sure they were fed.

Those were the unselfish reasons to stay. The selfish reasons were that it was ultimately my responsibility for this customers’ satisfaction. If we failed to fix their system, then it would be me explaining to my boss why we failed. So I needed to be there to make sure I did everything possible to ensure a positive outcome.

As a parent, you can also learn from your own parent’s mistakes. You learn they aren’t perfect. Same thing goes for being a manager. I didn’t bug my developer every hour. (Maybe every other hour.) And I didn’t just sit there staring over his shoulder with nothing useful to say.

Eventually, the problem was solved because my developer was smart and had all the tools and resources necessary to resolve the issue. If this time around I was just there for moral support, then so be it.

The next time, the story may be different and I’ll be right there, late in to the night to make sure all ends well. Just like a good, responsible parent would do for their children.

ALSO SEE: Are You a Blue Collar or White Collar Developer?

AND: Do Nice Engineers Finish Last in Tough Times?

AND: Why Developers Get Fired

Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.

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