Infiltrating an Organization (or: Joining a New Team)

It takes some time to integrate into a new team. I always feel like an outsider at first. As I build friendships and trust, I’m able to contribute with increasing effectiveness. Having noticed some patterns, I’ve been able to make the process faster and smoother using a few simple tricks.

Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development describe what happens when a team is formed. His theory has four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. As I stared writing this post, I noticed that the stages I was describing lined up fairly well with his. It’s important to note that I’m talking about joining an existing team, where he talks about a team being formed entirely from new people.

I will relate the stages I’ve noticed using his labels, but leave it as an exercise for the reader to compare to his more detailed descriptions.

1) Forming

When I first join a team, everyone is as clueless about me as I am about them. Anything I can do to facilitate interaction here is valuable. I like to set out a couple trinkets on my desk, things that show my personality and interests. This creates openings for others to start conversations, which can help to break the ice. It can be awkward and uncomfortable as the “new guy”, but getting through this sooner really helps speed things up.

I also tend toask a lot of questions while I’m getting my bearings. The hard part here is gathering information without judging or commenting too much. Honesty is important, but this early in the process, it can be more damaging than helpful. It’s easy to forget that things were built with constraints and assumptions I wasn’t there to experience.

That being said, looking things over with a fresh set of eyes can uncovermany interesting things. So that I don’t lose track of them, I write every idea and observation down and revisit them later.

2) Storming

After a month or two, I start getting used to what’s going on, and the problems the team is solving. The things that seemed strange before may now be routine, but some will still get in my way. My productivity improves, but I don’t feel like a full member of the team yet.

This is when I start going through my list of suggestions. I remove the items that no longer make sense, and then prioritize the remainder. I work through my list slowly, applying gentle pressure, trying to ask questions of various people on the team. Sometimes the questions receive insightful answers, other times they provoke good changes. Occasionally they uncover issues with team dynamics or lost political battles. All of these outcomes are valuable in different ways.

Essentially, I am trying to develop my voice. By waiting until I’ve been in the team a bit, I have a much firmer foundation to launch from. Being honest, and being able to disagree respectfully are necessary to fully contributing to the team. Just remember to take it slowly. If you come on too strong too suddenly you can alienate your coworkers.

With time, everyone gets used to me and my style. Once they realize that I can challenge opinions without judging their source, things become a lot smoother.

3) Norming

After a while, I run out of questions. At this point, I will have a pretty good understanding of the architecture, the history and opinions that shaped it, and have a rough idea where people stand on the important issues. Others should have a good idea where I stand too.

This is when I start fine-tuning my personal processes, and trying to resolve anything that’s still holding me back. I expect to have a good relationship with my manager by this point. I would be bringing up more serious issues earlier, but now I want to start bringing up everything else. If our relationship strong enough, this is when I would try to fix that also.

Sometimes I never make it to this stage. I might be spending too much energy arguing, or feel like my contributions are not appreciated. If I don’t make it here within a few months, and have no clear path to improve things, I know it’s time to brush up my resume.

4) Performing

With good working relationships, enough context about the problem space, and all my major issues resolved, I can now focus on getting some work done.

Sharpening The Saw

One of the best things about working in the software business is the high rate of change. Not only do we work with machines that radically change in capability every few years, but new techniques and technologies are constantly appearing on the scene. It is a fascinating new frontier that never gets dull.

One of the worst things about working in the software business is the high rate of change. If you only focus on your job and stop paying attention, you could wake up one day unemployed with an obsolete skill set. Keeping up to date is a lot of work, and it becomes harder every year.

Some skills hold up better over time. Solid work habits are priceless, and can help you advance your career even where technical skills are lacking. Work management, software design, and coding practises are good subjects to study as well; they don’t age nearly as fast as specific technologies, and they can make a big impact on the quality of your work. Unless you become a manager however, you’re still going to need to study technical stuff.

The only way to really learn a tool is to use it, so study at home isn’t always enough. Some employers will deliberately favour new technologies to keep skills fresh and employees happy, but this is not the standard. If your company starts to lag behind industry trends, you might consider changing jobs while it’s still possible.

There are some tricks that help me stay up to date: I listen to podcasts while exercising or doing simple chores. Public transit is a great opportunity to read while commuting. A smart phone helps me squeeze in a few extra blogs and tweets when I’m waiting for something. This isprimarily how Ifollow industry trends.

To learn specific technologies, I’ll spend an hour or two a few times a week reading or watching videos. I need to play with something to understand it, so I spend an odd evening banging away at some pet project.

My study used to be limited to an occasional book or seminar, but increasing my study time, and opening myself to podcasts, blogs, and twitter has made a huge difference in my career. I have more to contribute in design meetings. I have opinions on various technologies I haven’t even used. It takes more energy for sure, but I feel like I am a better developer for it, and I don’t regret it onebit.

This business is a challenging one, but exciting as well. If you are the kind of person that loves to learn, explore new technologies, and push yourself to constantly look at problems in new ways, then embrace the change and you will do well.

Managing Priorities Outside of Work

I’ve been fortunate to take some serious down time during the summer. After working pretty much non-stop for ten years, things have piled up. I took some time to rest, then got to work on some personal projects that have been neglected far too long.

What I’ve learned, however, is that it takes more than time to get things done. After about a month, pretty much all I’d achieved was completing a couple video games, and putting all the things I wanted to do into one very long list.

My first thought was that I wasn’t focusing, so after listening to a podcast by Scott Hanselman about organization, I decided to try the Pomodoro Technique. This is a fairly simple system where you try to focus completely on a task for 25 minutes at a time, shutting out all distractions.

After a bit of Internet searching with no results, I started making my own pomodoro timer application. I had something working in a couple hours, barely holding myself back from adding sounds and animations. It would have been a lot faster, but I wasn’t completely focused on the task.

Armed with my timer, ready to experience my first burst of productivity, my wife came home from work. I told her excitedly how I’d built this magical thing, and how I’m going to start getting so much done. Then she asks me one simple question, “Why didn’t you use the timer from the kitchen?” This is when I realized that my problem was focus on a whole other level. I was doing work, but I wasn’t doing the right work.

This is a common problem in the software world: getting overwhelmed by a giant list of tasks, doing a little bit of everything, and completing nothing. I’ve experienced this first hand, and have been using effective tools for dealing with it for years, but I had never considered applying them to my personal life.

I tried a few things next, but the best help came from the book Getting Results the Agile Way, which was also mentioned in the podcast. It combines agile philosophy with some ideas about balancing life priorities and energy levels. I’m not committed to the entire process, but the parts I am trying have already made a big difference. By focusing on three goals a day, I’m now managing to plow through even dauntingly large tasks. Though I’m not doing everything on my list, I’m getting the most important things done, and because I feel that I’m making progress again it’s motivating me to work harder.

Taking the time off has been really good for me. Beyond organizing my personal priorities, I’ve also been organizing my main workspaces: my office, and my kitchen. You could say the experience is like rebooting a computer; it took a bit of time, but now I feel fresh and full of life, ready to tackle something new.