Management, Productivity

Compliments from a Sales Guy

Why do sales guys find it so hard to pay an engineer a compliment?

Imagine this exchange

Jeff: Hi John, how was your weekend?

John: Great, I ran the London marathon and finished in 3 hours dead

Jeff: That’s amazing I can’t believe you managed to run all that way!

Jeff is trying to pay a compliment, but because he has such little idea of what John considers to be important he misses the mark and if anything is more likely to have caused offence.

Now take this into a professional environment. Jeff is a superb engineer, he sweats and bleeds over his code, he does this quietly and in the background, he takes pride in his work and just wants to see people benefit from using his systems. No-one outside of the engineering org really notices his impact because, due to him, everything ‘just works’  with almost zero drama.

One day he receives a request from John in sales who needs him to twiddle knob X, it’s a config change and he has it in production later the same afternoon – really nothing special. That said Jeff has really helped John out  and John is very genuinely grateful. He writes him an email thanking him, he even cc’s his boss. “Jeff I really appreciate all the hard work you put into twiddling knob X, it’s guys like you crushing the knob twiddler that make this company awesome’. Now Jeff should pleased, it’s nice of John to take the time, he recognises this, but it’s a terrible compliment since Jeff took no pride in the change and what’s more it’s clear from John’s email that he has no idea what Jeff does all day – if anything the mail is a de-motivator despite John’s best intentions.

So what should John have done, how do you compliment an engineer? The best possible way is to take the time to understand some of the complexities of their work, and thereby uncover some of what drives them and their passion.

This is of course uncomfortable and frustrating, a bit like trying to write with your weaker hand – the benefits are huge though. Let’s forget for a second about expressing thanks being a nice thing to do  – it also a way to influence and build trust across the organisation.

If as an individual, you can build trust and rapport in multiple parts of the org, you much better placed to get things done – especially when you really need a favour to get you out of a jam.

In this example, I’ve used a Sales guys and an Engineer, simply because I see this as the classic case, but it applies equally in reverse. It’s easy (and lazy) for an Engineer to dismiss Sales or Marketing as brainless – when in reality this attitude is simply highlighting ignorance of what it takes to be successful in these fields.

The point of this post? Try and figure out what those folks with the suits and nice hair are actually doing, it will benefit both you and your company. If they are open to it, try and share some of your stuff too.

On the flip side insults work in the same way, you might enjoy Professor Douglas Comer‘s essay  ‘How to Criticise Computer Scientists’


Too Much Trust

Trust trust trust trust trust trust trust trust trust trust
Excerpt from the management book I wish someone would write


A central theme in agile software development is that of trust. The agile (small a) movement speaks of openness, collaboration and collective responsibility – none of which are possible without trust. As a manager my team cannot be effective if they do not trust each other nor can I bring about anything but the most superficial change if they don’t trust me.

I’m not the only one who feels this way, turns out I’m in good company 1 2 3

So I like trust and consider it to be a ‘good thing’ but the point of this post is not to talk about how great it would be if there was more trust in the world. In fact I want to talk about situations where increasing trust can actually be destructive.

The total level of trust is undoubtedly important, but equally important is the distribution of that trust. The greater the differential between the relationship containing the most trust and that containing the least the less chance that the overall group can act as effective team.

A good high level example might be an engineering org and a sales org. It doesn’t matter how much internal org trust exists – if org to org trust is low the company will not perform as well. In fact the lack of inter org trust will felt all the more keenly in contrast to the strong internal trust that exists.

Applying this idea to a single engineering team, if a team has high trust for one another and a new member joins then it will take time for that new member to earn the group’s trust and be accepted as part of the team. This healthy and only natural. However if the team is split down the middle with two groups of high internal trust who do not trust one another then strengthening internal group trust will only entrench the distrust of the other group. In this case increasing trust can actually be harmful.

What I’m saying is that the effectiveness of a group to act as a team can be characterised by the weakest trust links in the group. If the differential between relationships is high then increasing trust in already strong relationships can actually hinder rather than help the team.

From a practical perspective, the manager’s job is always to create an environment where trust can grow, but it is important to focus on the low trust relationships since they are the ones that characterise the effectiveness of the team.