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TV hosts as a guide for software managers

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I’ve been watching master interviewers recently and thinking about them as a model for what a software manager should be doing. Late night TV hosts and long-form journalists like those on 60 Minutes are fantastic interviewers and great models of how to lead a software team.

tv interviewer

A good interviewer doesn’t lead the discussion. He doesn’t tell the subject what to talk about. He understands that the subject is the focus, the expert on the topic.

She knows her audience, and helps the interview subject know them too. She gives context about what the audience will like, what has worked and hasn’t worked in the past. She guides the interview keeping it focused and from running too far off in tangents. She looks for nuggets that might be interesting to explore further and encourage that exploration.

She keeps track of time, so the person they’re interviewing doesn’t have to. Instead of a list of topics to check off in a certain amount of time, she has an overall goal for the interview, and an outcome to guide it towards. If time becomes tight, she will find ways to focus the remaining time on the most important things.

An interviewer produces bad interviews when he thinks he is there to be in charge, to run the interview. When he sticks to a rigid schedule, and ensures that he asks and gets answers for the list of pre-defined questions in a pre-defined order, the quality suffers. The answers are unpredictable so the rigid schedule predictably gets off track. Some topics end up rushed, especially those toward the end, and there’s no time to explore an interesting topic discovered during the course of the interview.

The interviewees come away dissatisfied. They weren’t there to think, they were there to implement someone else’s ideas.

Many software managers think that the job is to run the development process. Define a list of requirements. Turn those into tasks. Enforce discipline so that each and every task gets done on a predictable schedule to meet the estimates.

This turns out like those pre-scheduled rigid interviews. Tasks at the end get rushed, and done poorly. Discoveries along the way don’t get explored. The product might meet all the requirements, but there’s no soul to it. It’s mediocre and probably poor quality.

The team is dissatisfied. Instead of thinking and solving problems, they were a task machine, taking someone else’s ideas and implementing them on someone else’s schedule.

Whether she’s in a management position over the team or a product manager responsible for creating a product with a development team, a great software manager acts more like a great interviewer.

She doesn’t jam every minute of every day with pre-planned work, knowing that slack time is important because of the unpredictable time required for the work. She knows that the team will discover new interesting ideas as the product takes shape and she makes sure the team will have time to explore those. She doesn’t act as the time-keeper, enforcing time boxes, but instead gently guides the team into making sure the most important work gets done in the time available.

A great manager is a facilitator and moderator. He’s not the owner of the team, or the most important among them, or the task-master.

He comes with the context and understanding of what the customer needs, and what the team goals are. He makes sure the team keeps all those in view, and gently guides discussions and explorations in that direction. He looks for interesting patterns and options to explore that further those goals, and steers the team away from irrelevant tangents.

A great manager provides guide rails from within which a team can explore safely. She’ll help the team stay on track, not because she needs to enforce some notion of control and schedule, but because she can free the team to be better when they don’t have to think about things like schedule and which metrics they’re chasing. She can keep track of those, and provide nudges and reminders to keep things moving in the right direction.

The best interviewer is invisible, measured by the impact of the resulting interview. No one measures him by how much he knows about the topic or how many questions he got through or how well he kept to the schedule.

The best managers are those whose teams have the biggest impacts.

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