On Training Your IT Manager

A keen new manager, with ambitions to make his mark, can cause all sorts of unpleasantness in the workplace. Phil Factor explains how to train your new manager to the required standards...

A while back, I got a most agreeable job working as a DBA on a gaggle of Sybase systems for a Financial Services company. Compared to my previous white-knuckle ride in a start-up IT company, it was tranquil and stress-free. I had plenty of time to study my surroundings.

After a while, I noticed that the Comms team seemed to be enjoying their working life far more than the rest of us. There was always laughter in their group. Regular as clockwork at midday on Friday, their manager would slap his wallet and shout, “Come on guys, first pint is on me!” And off the team would go the local hostelry. The rest of us ate soggy sandwiches in front of our screens, while our managers scowled morosely at piles of memos, reports and emails. It also had to be more than coincidence that the Comms team always seemed to have special ‘offsite meetings’ at a local hotel with a widescreen TV whenever an important football match was on. Despite all this jollity and pub time, the team were, to everybody’s intense annoyance, highly productive and always met their commitments. Overtime and bonuses rained on them like manna from on high.

Eventually, their manager got promoted and his replacement came with a reputation for being tough, humourless and difficult. As we had become institutionalised into being miserable and unpleasant people, we gleefully awaited his arrival. Fireworks were expected and the whole open plan office was awash with a sort of pre-emptive schadenfreude. People moved their PCs around to get a better view of what would happen next. One or two members of staff hung mirrors on the wall in strategic places.

At first, it seemed that the situation was developing much as we had predicted. The new manager would storm about the office, and into his pigpen, barely acknowledging the existence of his team. Instructions would be relayed via curt emails. The visits to the pub, and gaiety in general, were curtailed and the Comms group went very quiet; studious even. Puzzlingly, however, the team seemed unperturbed and the expected uprising failed to materialize. They were often seen to confer quietly amongst themselves, as if planning something.

After a few weeks, the more observant among us detected that something was different. We noticed an increase in the frequency of conferences between manager and team. Soon, in his journeys about the office, the manager started to adopt a strange, clearly unpractised, facial gesture that was like the grimace of a sallow Transylvanian aristocrat. After a few more attempts, however, his facial muscles settled into these previously unfamiliar duties, and the grimace transformed into a sincere and rather fetching smile. We were stunned. One or two members of his previous team visited on a pretext, just to gawp.

After about a month we were startled by the once-familiar cry of “Right lads, it’s Friday lunchtime, what the hell are we doing here?” And off they went to the pub, laughing and joking, and watched by a sea of astonished heads furtively peering over the tops of cubicles.

In the weeks that followed, peals of laughter emanated once more from the Comms area, and good-natured jokes flew around the group. It was extraordinary. It was like being in Santa’s grotto. The group worked hard, like gnomes, often into unpaid overtime if a job required it, but seemed to know how to make the most of life, even whistling as they worked. In and around them was their new beaming, genial manager.

A short while later, the manager took the whole team out for an evening meal, as a special thank-you for finishing ahead of schedule a tricky network-replacement project. At this point, curiosity got the better of me and I approached one of the Comms team members. He was a veteran who had chosen a ‘technical’ career path, which meant that he always reported to managers with less knowledge and experience than himself.

“Come on, this didn’t happen by accident” I said, “How did you do it? Did you dope him or something?”

“I’d love to tell you all, but my throat goes dry when I have to talk.”

I took the hint and off we went to try out the guest bitter in the local pub. I lined up a few glasses along the table and, as we sipped on the amber nectar, he explained as follows.

“Managers have to be trained to your ways. They always arrive in a state that makes you whistle to yourself and wonder who’d had charge of them before you. It is very similar to the training of a puppy. At the start, there is a lot of ‘leaping up’, and ‘straining at the leash’, and ‘playful nips’. By a system of training and reward, you modify that behaviour.

All we’ve done is take that basic behaviour modification process and adapt it for IT manager training. I didn’t invent it, oh no” he added, “I learned it ages ago from a grizzled old analyst in ICL.”

At this point, we had a fascinating conversation that lasted a couple of hours but which I have condensed into the following IT manager training manual:

Stage 1: Observation
When a new manager arrives, observe his or her behavior closely. Start making a list of all of his, or her, good qualities. Many systems analysts find this hard, and protest that their manager hasn’t got any. One often has to struggle, but after a while the process of listing them becomes intrinsically fascinating and one often ends up startled by the length of the list. In order to “take away the sting” some teams counterbalance this with a list with of the manager’s faults. However, I advise against this as it can be counterproductive to the task at hand.

Stage 2: Establishing a baseline
Once the list is complete, set up a database that all can access. Log all occurrences of the manager’s ‘good behavior’ in the list. If your manager acknowledges your existence as human being one morning, then record the date and time that this occurred. Likewise, if he thanks you for doing something, log it. Perform a frequency analysis to find out how often the good behaviours occur. This is his “baseline” behaviour.

The goal then is to develop a strategy that will adapt the nature of this “good behaviour” and increase its frequency above your established baseline, and up to some predefined target level.

Stage 3: Developing a training strategy
With behaviour modification, punishment is out. It simply doesn’t work. This is a great disappointment to many an IT person being introduced to the technique. They anticipate, with some relish, wielding a large cattle-prod. Anger must be defused early on.

Instead, this technique works on a reward system. After a certain number of occurrences of “good behaviour” a reward must be administered. It is important to identify the reward. Flattery works well with managers: they can’t resist it. Everyone believes they are immune to flattery, but by goodness, most of us can take it by the skip-load. There seems to be no upper limit, and this is where Stage 1 pays off.

Alternative and supplementary techniques could include showing an interest in listening to how cute and clever a manager’s children are. It is hard work but most managers like nothing more than to tell you of all the clever things their children did. Another good reward is to work flat out on a job and get it done ahead of schedule. Alcoholic drinks and cigars should only be used as a standby, as a successful training session could have side effects to health.

As well as devising a reward system, you must also identify and use a ‘token’ system. The reason for this is that it is not always possible to administer an award directly – for example the manager may merit a reward during an external meeting. In such circumstances, one must administer a ‘token’ in lieu of a reward. With dogs, a simple pat on the head, a chocolate drop or a spoken ‘good boy’ is often enough; but this can be conspicuous with a manager. Instead, try to use a key phrase that the manager will come, by ‘Pavlovian’ training, to subconsciously associate with a forthcoming reward. Often, a meaningless word such as ‘synergistic’ works well.

Stage 4 Deployment
This is where good planning is put into effect. The team takes it in turn to take the lead, becoming what is known as the ‘dog handler’ to the manager. All other team members key in the occurrences of good behavior and they are logged immediately in the database. Did he say good morning? Tick in the box. Ten ticks, and a reward has to be administered by the dog handler, or a token if the reward cannot be immediately given. The dog handler is usually notified of this by an email or SMS message

If all is done properly, the frequency of good behavior should increase greatly, and the manager should become dimly aware that his good behavior is being noticed. He will begin to realise that, if he smiles and is polite, the work gets done quicker, or team-members start saying how cute his children look in his framed family photo.

Stage 5 Appraisal
This part of the project cycle involves reassessing the objectives or, in other words, working out if the desirable behavior has increased to the target levels, and re-defining the triggers that warrant reward.

For example: you might have recorded that, at one point the manager made a vague promise that at some undefined moment in the future the group might be allowed out to a nice country pub one Friday lunchtime. Your reward system for such desirable behavior may have increased the frequency of vague promises, along with the occasional insertion of a clear commitment to go to a pub lunch. You then shift the target behavior to “actually going for a pub lunch” and determine the reward system needed to reach that target. Then it is back to stage 4, unless you determine that you’ve reached all your objectives.

At this point the grizzled veteran sat back and took a satisfied pull on this pint.

“So you work on this system continuously?” I asked.

“Funnily enough, no” he replied “After a while, we genuinely start to like the manager as his behaviour and attitude becomes more agreeable. And because of all our hard work, flattery, and so on, he begins to like us. If Stage 5 is deemed successful we generally go back to background observations. We continue the reward system but at a more relaxed and instinctive level.”

“And then…?”

“And then everybody notices how successfully the group is working. The manager gets the credit and he gets promoted.”

“Is that fair?”

“Well, it pays for all the drinks he’s bought us. And we start again with the next manager. It may seem hard work but it gives us an interest, and we get good management for a few months before the inevitable promotion.”

Of course, I have simplified the techniques as described to me, as I have no wish to bore you. Wherever I have worked ever since, I have passed on knowledge of these techniques to anyone who will listen. If it is done in the right way, it works like a charm. One programmer I instructed even left the profession to become a dog trainer!

Now that I am, myself, a grizzled systems analyst I pass on the knowledge with the plea: Please don’t tell the management. However, fear not. You can be assured that they have secret techniques of their own!