Playing Software Developer Hot Potato

Sunday Sep 12th 2010 by Eric Spiegel
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Software developers with difficult attitudes bounce around from team to team. What happens when they land on your team?

“Have I got a deal for you!”

Based on my past experience, these words were not usually a positive indicator of cheery news from Sam, my peer manager from the product development team.

I knew what was coming: Ashish, one of the developers on my client services team, had been bugging me about moving over to Sam’s group. However, we were already short-staffed, so I told Ashish we’d reevaluate next year. Because of our implementation backlog we really needed him to stay put for now.

Ashish didn’t give up. He made his case to my (pretend) buddy Sam. I call him that because Sam pretended to be my buddy whenever he wanted something.

Sam came back to me: “You know Ashish wants to come over to my engineering team and I know client services is short-staffed. I propose a trade. You take Sandra and we take Ashish.”

As I started to object, Sam raised his hand and said, “Before you say no, think about this. Sandra makes less money and she has as much experience as Ashish. Plus her communication skills are superb.”

All these things were true, especially the communication skills comment. The ability to easily communicate with our customers was a key job requirement for our team. Ashish did a decent job, considering English was his second language. On the other hand, Ashish said he preferred not to deal with customers and this was a chance to keep him happy within our company, so he wouldn’t look elsewhere.

However…

However, there was a big “but” to consider. And that was the fact that everyone in management knew that Sandra was considered a “hot potato.”

She had bounced around to every technically-oriented team except mine, spending time not only in software development, but also quality assurance, product management and documentation.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t technically capable. She could hold her own with the other developers. The problem was her attitude.

She was unusually combative if someone disagreed with her. To put it briefly – which Sandra herself never did – she was extremely difficult to work with.

Everyone on the management team knew she would have been fired, except that she was a minority. I won’t get into her ethnic background because I know how stereotypes work, and don’t want this story viewed through a biased lens.

I will say that HR had warned each of her managers to document every single “event” that caused consternation for her coworkers and manager, especially related to performance reviews.

Considering that conspicuous history, you’d think this would be an easy call for me. Alas, the CEO of the company also came to see me about taking Sandra onto our team.

His pitch went something like “your interpersonal skills are off the charts and I know you’ll find a way to manage Sandra without a problem.” In other words, “I’m afraid to fire her and get sued, and you are our last best hope to prevent lawyers from becoming involved.”

I have “nice guy” syndrome that doesn’t always translate well in intra-company politics. So against my better judgment, I acquiesced.

In my defense, I had turned around a couple other difficult personalities in the past and thought I could pull it off with Sandra.

I should have given it a lot more thought.

The Big (Bad) Switch

Ashish practically jumped for joy and couldn’t pack up his cubicle fast enough. Sandra, on the other hand, was not jumping for joy.

This was old hat for her. The client services team was just one more stop on her merry-go-round.

She sat in my office and politely smiled, nodding her head as I explained her new role and responsibilities. I didn’t bring up any of the negative history because I didn’t see a need to rehash what happened.

I wanted her to get the message that this was a clean slate and past transgressions didn’t matter. Plus I knew that she didn’t see anything in the past as her fault, so that conversation wouldn’t have ended well.

Looking back, this was the equivalent of sticking my head in the sand. I should have handled it differently, working with HR and her last manager (not letting my buddy Sam completely off the hook) to convey this WAS her last chance and treated it like probation.

It should have been stated that way in the open and not behind closed doors. Because everyone in management knew she had nowhere else left to go. Kind of like on Lost when Ben was asked why he would go to the side of the evil smoke monster and he answered, “Because no one else will have me.”

Fast forward a couple weeks and my phone rings. It was an irate customer who cannot believe someone from our team made one of his employees cry. Can you guess who caused those tears?

I called Sandra into my office and asked her about it. She rolled her eyes and sighed.

“That person was just stupid. She didn’t have a clue about how to properly set up an environment and was wasting my time.”

I responded, “I thought you said the deployment went great?”

“It did,” Sandra replied, “Once I got little miss ‘know it all’ out of the way. She was way too sensitive about it. It’s not personal, just business.”

The Inevitable

Sure enough, the deployment was a technical success, but a client relationship disaster. Sandra reluctantly agreed to apologize, but the damage was done and the customer relationship was continually contentious from that point forward. The situation made the rest of the team highly resentful that Sandra had put us in that position.

No surprise, but in Sandra’s mind, this wasn’t a big deal. The software was deployed and working as promised. It wasn’t her fault the client didn’t have a competent resource assigned.

After talking it over with HR, we did agree to put Sandra on probation. When we sat down with her to talk about the terms of probation, she didn’t say a word but her face betrayed her anger. I could have guessed what would happen next.

Sure enough, the very next day, one of Sandra’s team members came into my office and shut the door. Sandra had evidently been belligerent with a junior member of our team, berating him about asking stupid questions.

Turns out the stupid one here was me. By taking Sandra on to the team, I had ruined our team chemistry, which had been superb.

We let Sandra go the next day and sure enough, she sued. Perhaps she had a legal agenda from the start.

In retrospect I don’t believe there is anything we could have done to change her actions. However, at the first signs of trouble, the company could have handled the issue better.

It’s too easy to sweep problems under the rug, but eventually someone is left holding the hot potato and will certainly get burned.

ALSO SEE: Are these Developer and IT Salaries Believable?

AND: Do Developers Need to Brown-Nose To Advance Career?

AND: Developer Layoffs Are Never Fair

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