Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Don't Interrupt me!

As a consultant I've had several opportunities to work at home. If you work at home and you have family, you must expect interruptions for family needs. I had one friend who put a lock on his home office to keep home life “out”. Some people find the interruptions quite aggravating, and rent offices away from home to “draw the line.”

After I had been interrupted a few times in my home office, I drew a parallel between home and office work that really resolved this issue for me: If you're an employee working in an office, your boss can interrupt you. There's nothing a family member can do at home to compare with such interruptions. Family interruptions are a positive pleasure in comparison. Let me tell you about the last two times - when I was an employee, not a consultant - that my boss stepped into my office.

There he was, suddenly looking over me as I rushed to meet the days' critical deadline. We had a new, nasty vice president of engineering, and it looked like Tom was feeling the pressure.
“I need a five year plan!” he said.
“Tom,” I replied, “I have no idea how to make one.”
“Just make something up, anything! I have to submit a plan today.”
Now I understand the value of long-term planning, and I've done a lot of it in the computer business, but I would pity ANYONE who took such plans seriously. Things change much too fast. I tried to explain to Tom that since we were doing software testing, we needed to wait to see Development's five year plan. Presumably we would test whatever they thought they could create.
“That doesn't matter,” he said, “Just do anything that looks reasonable.”
And so I did. An hour later I emailed him a spreadsheet with project guesses, proposed staff size, guesses at the time needed to test each item. I felt I had produced something consistent and at least possible. Then I returned ruefully to trying to meet today's critical deadline.

A week later I was striving to meet the day's critical deadline when Tom appeared in my office, looking tense.
“I need you to join me in a meeting for a few minutes,” he said. So I did.
In this meeting, I was introduced to our new, nasty vice president of engineering. He waved a few pages at me. “I have a few questions about your five year plan,” he growled. Within minutes, I realized that my plan had not been consistent enough. The guy was on to every inconsistency and I got grilled for each and every possible issue. Why did I think two people could test X? Shouldn't they need far more hours to do it? Etc.

Now I'm sure you know that I wanted to say “Tom just told me to throw some numbers together, make up anything!” Unfortunately Tom is one of the nicest managers I ever worked for, and I decided I could not possibly try to throw him to the wolf. So I stood there and took it, acknowledging errors, making corrections, and getting ever more bloody for over an hour. Now THAT's what I call an interruption!

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