Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ode to Middle Management

Pumpkin slept much better last night than she did the night before. I got one stretch of 4 hours and another stretch of three and a half hours- which is enough to make me feel pretty darn good.

It is a good thing that I had my brain back today, because I only had one purchase requisition left to write. The rest of the day's to do list looked like this:
  • Write [employee's] performance review
  • Write endorsement quote for [vendor who gave us two week's worth of free work last year- and no, this wasn't a quid pro quo]
  • Write my 2009 goals, based on departmental goals we wrote last year and the changes in priorities that have already occurred
This may not look like a very long list, but performance reviews are hard to write and always take me several hours. Also, the person who usually provides desktop support was out sick today, so I was fielding support requests, too. I am not at all qualified to field most desktop support requests, so that is always challenging. I'm getting better as my employee cross-trains me on the finer points of Windows support.

If you are reading this and thinking that it doesn't sound like I do much science- you're right. Sort of. I can't post my exact title without identifying my company, but I can say that anything related to computers at this company rolls up to me. That includes the aforementioned desktop support (mercifully performed most of the time by the employee whose performance review I was writing today), but also scientific informatics (providing tools to store and analyze scientific data) and bioinformatics (using computational tools to research scientific questions). I am also the person who writes IT policies, represents IT and informatics in management meetings, and manages our budget. Management takes about 30% of my time. User support takes about 10% of my time. I spend about 50% of my time on scientific informatics. The remaining 10% is spent on bioinformatics. I don't spend a lot of time on science, but I do spend a lot of time on things that require me to understand other people's science, which is a great situation for me.

Believe it or not, I also enjoy a lot of the management tasks I do. I am good at understanding a company's culture and system and figuring out how to get things done. This is one of the most important things a middle manager does, in my opinion, and I enjoy it, because I enjoy getting things done. This was also one of my strengths as a project manager (which is what I did at the company I worked at before this one).

I fought becoming a manager for a while, thinking that I wasn't really doing anything when I was a project manager- it seemed like I spent my days just telling other people to do their jobs. But then I joined a project that had a brilliant technical lead but no project manager. It was an absolute mess. They couldn't say when they would deliver anything, and were about to have the entire project canceled. This would have been a shame, because it was a good project, producing useful software that was loved by the scientists who used it.

I was able to get them a realistic schedule and keep them on it. I also started doing the progress reports that they were supposed to do, and used those to make the case to the next level of management about why the project should be allowed to continue. That was my epiphany moment when I realized that management can be very important, and that although what I was doing seemed obvious to me, it wasn't obvious to everyone, which is why the project had been floundering. I vaguely remember that there is some quote about how you should find the thing that seems obvious to you but not to most other people, and that is what you are meant to do with your life. I guess technical management is that thing for me. On one hand, it seems a bit sad to think that my calling in life is to be a middle manager. On the other hand, as Hubby points out, the pay is good, and someone has to make sure stuff gets done and the right people get credit for it.

This post has veered seriously off the original course I intended for it. I sat down thinking I would put up today's to do list, and note how I spent my day on words, which was sort of fitting, since I starting my day listening to some very powerful words. Barack Obama sure knows how to give a speech. He eloquently and movingly expressed many things that I agree with. I hope he and the team he has assembled also know how to get things done. I guess I hope that he has some good middle managers!


  1. It sounds like you are spending your days and nights at worthy endeavors.

    At my company, the stereotype is that women make the best project managers and system engineers because we take a more holistic view. I don't know if that is true, but I definitely do take a more holistic view than most people.

    BTW, do you have any relatives visiting from NZ this year that can resupply me with Easy-Yo packets?

  2. I completely agree with you on all points, from the time and thought it takes to write a performance review to the importance of a project manager. I have also seen some IT projects really struggling mainly because there was no project manager (or not one doing their job correctly).

    Although I hate doing status reports and taking and reviewing meeting minutes, I really do understand the importance of doing those tasks, and doing them right. And I have the ability to sum up information in the right way to the right people, which has been an important skill for from my beginnings in IT as a tech writer to being a project manager. This comes naturally to me, and I absolutely see the value in all levels of my work. And luckily, it's why I really enjoy what I do.


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