Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Radical Candor

Radical Candor is an ex-Googler's book about management. Kim Scott was the manager for Adsense's sales team, and grew the team for several years before joining Apple and then working with Twitter and Dropbox. That gives her resume great credibility.

She's not afraid to illustrate the number one rule to getting ahead in big corporations: know the senior boss personally (in this case Sheryl Sandberg), and have her support you no matter how you screw up. After she joined Google (immediately as a manager, by the way --- she didn't have to work there as a leaf node), she managed to piss off enough of her team to lose several team members to transfers and departures. She writes:
The great thing about working at Google was that the company gave me a chance to fix my mistake. My boss explained exactly what I’d done wrong—and then let me hire people to replace those I’d lost. I was able to bring several people who’d worked for me at Juice to Google. (Kindle Loc. 1558)
Sounds kinda like she got rewarded for pissing off  and demoralizing her existing team, doesn't it? In my experience, that was par for the course at large corporations, so don't hold it against her.

In any case, the book is actually a good one.  Her thesis is that everything in management starts from relationships. Fundamentally, you have to have great relations with your team, to the point where when you provide negative feedback, they see it as being helpful, rather than becoming defensive or quitting. The tools she provides in the book to do so are labeled "Radical Candor." Her example is that if you see someone with their fly down, you should call it out instead of ignoring it and not giving them a chance to correct it. The same applies to verbal tics, annoyances, and of course, poor performance on the job. The book covers many such examples.

One of the best points of the book is that you need both "Rock Stars" and "Super Stars." The idea is that "Rock Stars" are high performers who are satisfied with their role, while "Super Stars" are constantly looking for the next challenge who will leave if you don't move them up quickly enough. This initially sounded to me like she was encouraging you to pigeon hole your employees but fortunately she mentions that the whole point of relationship building with your team is that you understand what phase of life she's in, and what she expects out of her work. She points out that because it is human nature to over-worship "Super Stars", you shouldn't actually make a big deal out of promotions:
Announcing promotions breeds unhealthy competition for the wrong things: documentation of status rather than development of skill. (Kindle Loc. 3656)
Note: Google isn't a great example: promotions were always a big deal, at least in engineering. Similarly, I'll note that Twitter had a singularly poor engineering culture, so her constant use of Dick Costolo as being a great manager kinda lost points with me rather than being the great examples she intended. Of course, Costolo himself might or might not have been responsible for Twitter's poor engineering culture, but bear in mind that her book's probably not intended to apply to engineering management.

With all that in mind, I enjoyed the book. Everything she writes about 1:1s, skip reporting, and management by walking around rings true. The emphasis on asking for feedback in order to model desired behavior (you want every employee to be constantly asking for feedback in order to improve) is first rate. The book's readable and full of specific examples and case studies.

My biggest criticism of the book is that Scott's ego-centricism means that she barely references prior work and doesn't even mention classics of management literature (I suspect that this means that she never read them!). But that in itself is not enough for me to avoid recommending this book for every manager, engineer or not.

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