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I don't like you very much

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While on vacation, I pinged a few friends of mine to ask them if they'd give me a LinkedIn recommendation. I'm hearing that people are using LinkedIn as a replacement for resumes, so it seemed like a good idea.

Imagine my surprise when one of my "friends" declined!

Bob -- let's call him that -- is a nice enough guy. Very enthusiastic about software methodology X. Bob was a rabble-rousing advocate of X at my last big client. Bob and I didn't see eye-to-eye -- this isn't my first rodeo and there are lots of solutions to complex problems -- but we got along okay. Sometimes Bob would stand up and espouse X at length, telling us all the world would be better if we all used it. At these times I usually mildly pointed out to Bob that changing the entire world might be a little ambitious for a 12-person team. Sometimes I had poorly performing teams that I was unable to help improve, but Bob never said anything about it. As far as I knew, Bob and I were friends who just had different opinions about software development. After all, we were on an agile team and experts in agile methodologies: if Bob had problems with me or my performance, it shouldn't be a mystery to either one of us.

That was until Bob got elected to chairman of the board of the X Alliance. I'm not sure if that did it for him, but something obviously got him into a snit. The reply I got was "...I'm inclined to decline your request, Daniel. If you care to visit more, call me..."

WTF?

So now I'm on my vacation wondering what the heck is wrong with Bob. But I guess that will have to wait. I honestly don't know what interests me more, why Bob doesn't want to recommend me or why I thought Bob would recommend me when he won't. I think the second question has a lot more potential than the first!

But it got me thinking of the folks I've met who don't like me very much. I've been doing this twenty years. There aren't a lot -- most people could care less about me one way or the other -- but some folks actively dislike me. For each of these folks I've thought long and hard about what our problem was together. Maybe you can get something out of my mistakes.

Rusty was running a startup in Georgetown. Rusty was a PhD, professor, and former VP of software quality at BigCorp. Rusty had decided that it was time to cash out of working for the man and get into the startup world.

Only problem was, he knew nothing about actually writing software.

So that's where I came in. I was the lead. With Rusty's blessing, I interviewed and hired the team and started our first iteration.

Problem was, Rusty was a bit of a micromanager.

We coded in his basement -- yeah it was that kind of gig -- and Rusty used to wander around the work area musing on various things we "might" do with the code. Sometimes he changed the team's direction from day-to-day. Other times he just asked a lot of questions that stopped them from working .

Obviously this couldn't go on. So I sat down with Rusty and had a heart-to-heart talk with him. It basically consisted of "we can't help you if you change directions hourly". We could change each iteration, but hourly was just too chaotic.

What I didn't know was one of the team members had been "chatting" with Rusy offline about how much better they could handle things than me. (Ouch!) So when Rusty and I had our talk, Rusty was convinced the problems were all mine.

Rusty and I struggled for another week or two, with him trying to take more and more control over the team and my trying to tell him to back off a bit. Finally I offered to complete the next two iterations and get most of the functionality out the door and then I'd walk -- as long as he'd get out of the way and let us run. Either that or we could split amicably right now.

He declined, so the whole thing fell apart.

I thought for many months about Rusty and how I might have managed that differently. I heard later that the entire effort fell apart with Rusty not paying anybody (he defaulted on $15K worth of invoices to me alone) so perhaps the thing was doomed from the start. But I know for a fact that Rusty was not a big fan of mine for a long time. (Interestingly enough, I also heard that he regretted letting me go)

I'm not sure there is any lesson to learn from that one. Don't hire people who are sneaky, maybe.

Jim joined a team I was on a few years ago. I had nothing to do with hiring Jim, but as soon as his name was mentioned one of the other teammates went "uh-oh". I asked why, and was told that Jim wasn't very easy to get along with.

Boy was that an understatement!

Jim was a nice enough guy, but he had the worst consulting skills of anybody I have ever seen in my life. Instead of guiding clients to discover issues and solve them together, he would always say "give me your three biggest problems so i can solve them for you."

I'm not joking. This was his schtick.

Clients usually just stared at him dumbfoundedly. Sometimes the smart ones pointed out that Jim was supposed to be helping them identify solvable problems.

Before Jim started, he sent us all (he included everybody in every organization that was part of hiring him in his CC list) a 15-page PDF of what he thought the answers to our problems were. The rest of the team, horrified, asked me to talk to Jim about maybe waiting a week or so and talking to the rest of us and understanding things a bit more before conquering the world.

So I called Jim up. Let's just say the conversation didn't go very well. Jim was immediately on the defensive. He said he was just helping as best he could and that he was just offering ideas (his email did not read that way. In fact, it looked like he was positioning himself to be our saviour, not another team member).

Jim and I had a rocky relationship from there on out. Every day I would ask Jim to lunch of breakfast to talk. Every day Jim would turn me down. I had a team in trouble, so I recommended Jim come and help them out. Jim played politics with the gig. Jim would send out 30 MB emails to 50 people. I asked Jim not to do that because it filled up people email boxes and made them angry. Jim argued with me and asked me to tell him which people were getting angry so he could go talk to them directly.

Finally Jim worked his way out of work. Teams didn't bring him problems to solve. Customers left him off invite lists. Eventually the money ran out and Jim left the gig.

Hist last day of work, we're both getting ready to go home. I go over to his cube, smiling, thinking that we'd end this thing on as positive a note as possible.

Jim says, "Hey Daniel, can you do me a favor?"

"Sure thing, Jim"

"Can you pull out all of the knives you stuck in my back before I leave?"

I just stared at him, amazed. My mouth hung open. Later on I thought I should have said something like "Those look like self-inflicted wounds there, Jim" but at the time I just smiled like you would at a crazy person and quietly left.

I was always afraid Jim was going to go beserko one day. Perhaps he will.

I don't think there's a lesson there, either. The interesting thing is: my team didn't back me up. They were there to complain about Jim and to expect me to do something about it, but when it came time to actually talk to Jim they were a bunch of chickens.

Perhaps the lesson is: courage.

Pete was a project manager on a mission-critical effort for a Fortune 20 company. I met with Pete's boss and he was concerned that the project wasn't running the way it should.

"I don't know how to put my finger on it, but something isn't right. Go find out what it is and fix it."

So I got to be the guy who came in to wield the axe.

The first day I met Pete I was sitting in my office. In walks this guy who was a foot taller than me. Like a total idiot, I said the first thing that came into my mind

"Damn you're a big sucker" (except it wasn't exactly "sucker" I used)

You know, Pete and I never did get along after that. Years later I found out that he had always been self-conscious of his height. My first remarks to him closed a door that could never be re-opened again. As we worked together he was nice enough, but he never made decisions with me around, never cc'ed me in any project emails, never met with the customer while I was present, etc.

In short, I got froze out.

Looking back, I should have raised a bit of a stink. After all, somebody was paying me good money to come in and fix things. But at the time, I didn't want to make waves.

I think the worst attribute any team member can have is not wanting to make waves. In fact, I think it's the number one attribute I would actively seek out to exclude from a team. Everybody has to work without nets on an agile team. If we're not taking emotional chances and communicating, we're losing ground.

So I just tried to go along and get along and see what little stuff i could fix around the edges. I shortened our cycle time. I instituted a new way of keeping track of stories/features. Some of this stuff seems big, but at the time it was viewed as slim pickings.

After about six months I decided to leave the project. It was just too uncomfortable.

I always regretted needlessly antagonizing Pete. I could have kept my mouth shut -- after all, I had a gnarly enough job as it was. It required an easy touch and a diplomatic way of conducting myself. Instead I was about as diplomatic as a hand-grenade.

There are a bunch more, but these are the ones that stand out. It'll be interesting to talk to "Bob". Did I drop the ball? Is Bob just being religious about process X and won't endorse me because I'm not a true believer? If so, Bob and I can just agree to disagree. Did I do very poorly in Bob's eyes and he just never talked to me about it? If so, what the heck? Why not? We worked together for months!

Whatever it is, if it's like all my other experiences it will be a little of my fault and a little of Bob's fault. If there's one thing I've learned, no matter how good you are, how slick your skills, there's just going to be a certain percentage of people who are going to say "I don't like you very much"

Such is life.

17 Comments

Enjoyed reading this because ironically, I used to have a problem to dislike somebody. I guess I was raised to always see the best in people, or be understanding for their problems (not that I liked everybody, but if somebody was a jackass I would wonder what his problem was and how to possibly help him, instead of just saying f*** y**). So sometimes it came as a big surprise to me when I realized some people don't like me - even though I never did anything to set them off, to my knowledge. The concept was difficult for me to grasp - why wouldn't everybody try to get along? To this day I think these are the only people I allow myself to completely give up on. I suppose I could confront them, but why bother? There are billions of other people to get along with.

Wow. I don't know if it's just a literary device being employed here, but this article comes off as the work of somebody with a lack of empathy.

Through the description of the actions of each of the people with whom he disagrees, I immediately found myself sympathising with the "other side". I mean, there are the usual dailywtf-style "this guy is really dumb/awful to work with/whatever" stories, and we all get a bit of a laugh out of them, but this just comes across as a situation where the author is unable to grasp why other people might behave towards him in these ways, or feel particular feelings towards him.

> I honestly don't know what interests me more, why Bob doesn't want to recommend me or why I thought Bob would recommend me when he won't. I think the second question has a lot more potential than the first!

Sure, the second question is more interesting, but I don't think this article goes any distance towards attempting to answer it.

People behave in particular ways for reasons that seem apparent to them. The tone of this article annoys me because it appears to suggest that people who behave according to motivations that are hidden from the author are somehow at fault.

I just think this is symptomatic of so many of my experiences within the IT industry - people always assume that their own motives are pure and good, and that everyone else is acting dishonestly (to screw the client, or to avoid doing work, or to advance their own career). I much prefer to assume that if I don't understand somebody's motivations, the burden is on me to try to understand, rather than just writing them off as bad/lazy/dishonest/whatever.

As the author, I've done a poor job of communicating. For that, I apologize.

Nobody is at fault here. Let me be perfectly clear about this. The question is what types of lessons to learn from interactions with other people. You're never, ever going to learn the exact motives of everybody you interact with. In each of these cases, multiple attempts were made to understand and communicate motives, paradigms, and worldviews. These attempts failed.

In the first case, the conversation is unfinished. It's the preface to the article. In the second case, teams can't live in chaos. "Rusty" wasn't wrong, it's just we needed to communicate about things and were both unable to do it for various reasons. In the third case, "Jim" was just an amazing piece of work. If it was just me then that's one thing, but everybody had the same opinion of him. So I don't think it's anything I'm bringing to the table. I could tell you stories of several other people who had the same experience with Jim, but that's just beating up on Jim. From Jim's point of view, the rest of the world was wrong. Here he was, obviously with the answer to the problems we had, and we weren't reasonable enough to let him solve everything. (I know this because he said as much to me on a couple of occasions)

In the fourth case, I screwed up. I took liberties with my language and reaction that I hadn't earned yet. No amount of communication is going to fix an initial bad impression.

The purpose of this article isn't to slam other people or to say that people with hidden motives are somehow bad. If that's all you got out of it I really did a poor job. The purpose is to review various people that didn't like me and explore why.

You can monday-morning quarterback this thing to death -- I know, because I have. But at the end of the day, conditions are always imperfect, everybody is always acting the best way they know how, and still you end up not getting along with some people. That's just life.

Of course I'll never know the entire story -- and all you have is my side of things. But I don't blame these people, look down on them, or anything like that. Sometimes, as the article concludes, shit happens. It's impossible to get along with everybody you meet.

You can say "forget it, I'm not worrying about it" or you can obsess over it. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is try to find some kind of narrative to put over it that teaches you a valuable lesson. It's not a perfect solution, but it allows growth without demonizing others or putting yourself down. It's a certainty that the narrative is going to be incomplete and trivializing of certain things, but that's also unavoidable.

I don't understand how someone declining a request to write a recommendation gets you to assume he dislikes you. He just doesn't want to recommend you.

I know plenty of people that I like and work with, but that I wouldn't want to write a recommendation for. This is largely because I do not believe in lauding someone's good sides without also addressing their shortcomings. The latter will not be looked kindly upon in a recommendation. In short: I can not honestly write a recommendation.

Good post. I agree - sometimes people just don't like each other on some base primordial level, there's no getting around it, and pretty much nothing you can do. Reminds me of a situation or two.

People just have to remember - they are their own company. They exchange their time for money. If you're not happy during the time you're exchanging, leave. Totally detached and professional. And if there's someone in the team you're joining who you recognise you're just not compatible with - it's him or you. Decide quickly and move on.

I agree with Ivo, there is probably only a handful of people out of the hundreds I've worked with that I'd be willing to write a recommendation for. The rest certainly have positives, but I wouldn't feel right-writing a positive only review, and doing otherwise would be insulting to most, and not wanted.

qft

I just think this is symptomatic of so many of my experiences within the IT industry - people always assume that their own motives are pure and good, and that everyone else is acting dishonestly (to screw the client, or to avoid doing work, or to advance their own career). I much prefer to assume that if I don't understand somebody's motivations, the burden is on me to try to understand, rather than just writing them off as bad/lazy/dishonest/whatever.

Interesting enough you call the rest of the team you felt admired and respected you chickens....if you had looked at the situation differently based on your own admission about me I might have been just the person you were seeking with the courage you were looking for.

Respectfully,
Jim

PS. I passed on this post to Bob.

I actually discovered the Facebook variant of this when I started doing the meme "Memories" - basically you ask your "friends" to put their best and most memorable memory of you - before that fb account was disabled, I had like 2,000 "friends" - you'll soon find out who are not really your "friends", when they can't even put ONE memory. You'll realize that only you ***real*** friends will have great memories of you. Lesson: Life is about building a library of wonderful memories. :)

Or maybe it's because most people don't like fucking about with stupid memes.

You've got some bigger problems if you need an internet meme to vet your friends.

Or maybe it's because most people completely despise facebook memes and the morons that continuously post them.

Usually people are happy to write you a LinkedIn recommendation if you write them a nice one first, then point out that you did it when asking them.

No offence but you really do look like an asshole and the type of douchebag that'd rape a $20 an hour meth hooker if no one was looking.

Interesting post Daniel.
I have long given up working with others, mainly because I find the person I get along with is myself. I do think you are doing some good introspective thought on why people do and do not get along.

Unfortunately, a trait that really affects everyone is generally motivated by a self centered desire to think one is the best in the work the work they do. The team concept gets lost in a morass of feelings when even minor decisions do not go the persons way. Different people react with either visible outbursts, or just simmer quietly. Now, some people can maturely handle and rise above these feelings, but that is not the case with many people.

So the question arises what to do? And, the answer is not simple. What has worked for me in the past is to give lots of praise for the good, and careful redirection for the bad. It is hard to communicate effectively with someone who is screwing up bad. Mainly, because in their concept of what they are doing is just fine in their eyes. I have found redirecting them to work on smaller parts of the puzzle may result in more succinct progress.

I have never been a programmer, or a software creator. So these thoughts may not apply. I do imagine though when you are working in a team many people would have their feelings close to their skin.

I'm not sure which I find more interesting ... the post or the comments.

I did like the link to Scott Berkun's article though - thanks for the link.

To add in one more wrench, just remember that Guy's advice is to not be afraid to polarize people. If people can't feel strongly about you one way or the other, you're doomed to mediocrity.
http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/01/the_art_of_inno.html

I think the one thing I learned to accept with age is that not everyone is going to like me in life ... and that's OK. I don't have to delve into their feelings and try to force them to my side. It's fine to accept it at face value and move on, too. Take a short moment to reflect on what you might have done differently, accept the outcome as it was meant to be, and grow to a new place.

I think this also reflects the problem with LinkedIn and Facebook - sometimes you outgrow a list you don't really want to have contact with anymore, but it becomes un-PC to unlink them or unfriend them because you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Before such tools, you wouldn't have kept the same database of people for this long - people would come and go as your life progressed, with only a few key players sticking around. Now you have everyone and their brother on your list, which provides the opportunity for such sticky situations.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on October 2, 2009 9:41 AM.

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  • Nikole Gipps: I'm not sure which I find more interesting ... the read more
  • Robert Miller: Interesting post Daniel. I have long given up working with read more
  • Stephen Wilks: No offence but you really do look like an asshole read more
  • Joanna: Usually people are happy to write you a LinkedIn recommendation read more
  • Kartik Agaram: Related: http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2009/how-to-keep-your-mouth-shut read more
  • rpcutts: Or maybe it's because most people completely despise facebook memes read more
  • rpcutts: Or maybe it's because most people don't like fucking about read more
  • Paul "The Pageman" Pajo: I actually discovered the Facebook variant of this when I read more
  • Jim: PS. I passed on this post to Bob. read more
  • Jim: Interesting enough you call the rest of the team you read more

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Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
On the low-end of the spectrum, I realized that a lot of people have problems logging into Facebook, of all things. So I created a micro-site to help folks learn how to log-in correctly, and to share various funny pictures and such that folks might like to share with their friends. It's called (appropriately enough) facebook login help