Who do you get to implement this critical fix? The senior techie or a grunt?

I was reading an article about making systems resilient and how events can conspire to cause problems. As Terry Pratchett said Million-to-one chances…crop up nine times out of ten. For example the day you have a power outage and fail over to generators, is the day you find the fuel tank for the generators has not been filled, and with the weekly tests, it has emptied the tank.

This article made me think about the best way of implementing changes. If you have a critical change that needs to be made with no possible errors; who do you get to implement it – the team leader, or a junior person in the team? (Grunt – slang: Junior person in a team, lacking prestige, and authority. The grunts do all of the heavy lifting, and when people lift heavy things, they grunt as they lift.)

I assume that you have the steps documented, and have tested them. For example using cut and paste instead of typing information. You copy files from test to production, rather than create from new.

I think it would be good for a junior person in the team to make the change, with the team leader watching. This has several advantages:

  • You only learn by doing. You can watch someone do something a hundred times – but it only when you have to do it do you learn (and get the fear of doing it wrong).
  • The junior person will be very careful, and double check things. The team leader may just check once – as there were no problems in the past.
  • The junior person will be focused on the changes. Having the team leader there as another pair of eyes, and looking at the systems overall can alert you to problems. Hmm we made the change – now that over there has produced an alert – is that connected? You need the team leader’s experience to make the judgement call, while the rest of the change is implemented.
  • When the change has been made and had unexpected side effects, the junior person can follow the backout process while the team leader is on the phone to management and the incident room to explain what happened, and what they are doing about it. There is nothing worse than trying to resolve a problem while explaining to the incident team conference call that you would rather fix the problem, than do a causal analysis of the root cause of the problems. I remember one manager said to the management call “We estimate it will take an hour to resolve. I will dial back in in 30 minutes and give a status – good bye”. It takes seniority and courage to make that sort of call.
  • When you are in a hole, it is easy to keep trying things, and making the hole deeper. Having the team leader as an observer means they can say “step back from the keyboard and let us discuss what we can do”.
  • One person whom I respected, said that his life goal was to make himself redundant, by getting his team to make the hard decisions. His teams always had a reputation of getting things done, and doing a good job. He said the hardest part of his job was standing back and letting the team gently struggle, and letting them get themselves out of the problem. He never told us what to do – he just asked us questions to make us find the solutions ourselves – to me that was the skilful part. As he said – “I am a manager, I am technical, but not deeply technical, and I could not solve the problem – but my job is to help you find the solution”

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