Herding the Skunks

Posted on February 13, 2012 by

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Management, particularly of chaotic entities, is often called “herding cats”. Several years ago, EDS made a big splash with their Super Bowl commercial that showed Cat Herders moving teams of cats across the country, much like Cowboys used to move cattle. But what do you do when the cats are actually skunks, or a Skunk Works department in your IT Organization?

Skunk Works can have a negative connotation, so let me clarify what I mean before proceeding. Skunk Works in this case refers to a team of people that seek to innovative the technology of an organization through the adoption of new tools, processes, and technologies. Skunk Works may develop these solutions internally, or they may evaluate new technology from third-parties. Depending on the organization, Skunk Works may or may not be officially sanctioned. If the Skunk Works is unofficial, it can sometimes be referred to as Shadow IT.

I had the pleasure managing such a team when I worked at Orbitz Worldwide. While the team’s official charter was to manage the 1000+ servers that ran the air search backend, including the data running in this environment, the team had a strong talent to find innovative ways to solve many problems in the organization. When I took this team over, I was somewhat intimidated with the sheer genius of the team members. I felt that I would have very little to contribute in the way of the technology that these guys were developing, and instead I sought to find other ways to provide value.

Instead of seeking to manage these skunk projects, I sought to draw positive attention to these projects, and sought to help my team get these projects integrated into the mainstream technology platform. While my team evangelized their technology amongst the development and operations teams, I sought to block and tackle at the management level. When upper management asked why my team was working on the projects that they were, I justified their work by showing how it achieved our VP’s overall goals and objectives. When my team needed changes to the environment (new servers, etc), I represented these changes in the Change Advisory Board, supporting and standing behind my team. We were so successful in our evangelization efforts at both the management and technology levels that we were able to publish a paper for the 2008 Computer Measurement Group, and members of my team were able to open source their work.

I would like to think that my team was successful not only because of the strong technology, but because of some key things I tried to focus on. First, I sought to keep down the noise level for my team. I wanted my team to focus on the development work that they were doing, and I wanted to be the one deflect or absorb any heat from management. Second, as I mentioned earlier, I was always ready to defend my team’s work and explain how it fit the overall goals of the organization. Third, I acted as a liaison between my team and other teams in the organization that could possible adopt the technology we were developing. Because of my previous roles at Orbitz, I knew many different teams and had an extremely good knowledge of how our architecture worked. This allowed me to find other ways to use our technology and make it more sticky in the organization.

In the end, it really wasn’t about herding my skunks to behave a certain way. Instead it was about herding my skunks so that they were protected from the rest of the organization and could focus on innovating.

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Posted in: Michael's