Top Down and Bottom Up

My wife and I were recently talking about one of our mutual friends, a researcher in a “soft money” position. This means that instead of getting paid by the university from general funds, she’s responsible for bringing in the money for her salary, research team, facilities, etc., through writing grants. This has become increasingly difficult over the past several years, as NIH funds were kept constant (i.e., reduced in real terms) during the Bush administration, then decimated during the financial collapse and the sequester. People now talk about having to write ten grant proposals (a hugely time-intensive activity) to get one accepted.

Despite this, our friend has managed to thrive, continuing to pull in significant grants even as the funding environment constricts. Her method is simple – she focuses completely on grants, research, and publications, to the exclusion of everything else. She avoids meetings, reduces administrivia to a minimum, doesn’t respond to non-essential email, and to as much a degree as possible, ignores all external demands on her time. She’s extraordinarily disciplined in her time management, and continues to be successful in a challenging environment.

She’s taken a very top-down approach. Her priorities are defined by her high level goals. As long as she’s producing, and as long as she doesn’t need to rely on other people, she can take a strategic view, concentrating solely on her own priorities, and ignoring the types of tasks that equate to being a good team player.

On the other side is the bottom up approach. You have long-term goals, and you work steadily towards them, but much of your time is spent on emergent tasks, or in less goal-focused ways. You mentor more junior colleagues, perhaps organizing a reading group, giving tech talks, or running workshops. You pay attention to your email and answer questions when they come up, always jumping on operational issues and error reports. You’re the go-to person for your specific area, help out in design and code reviews, and always make time for people who have questions, providing value across the organization. If you’re a manager, then you might encourage star team members to go after important opportunities, even if elsewhere in the company – it might cause your team some short-term hardship, but it will be good both for them and, in the long run, the company. You may not be as focused on your specific success metrics, but you understand that in the long term, being a good team player provides value to the organization.

Of course, things aren’t always so rosy in paradigm-land. The top-down approach is an inherently selfish one, and if taken to an extreme can produce the brilliant jerk no one wants to work with. A coder who won’t take part in code reviews, bug hunts, or team meetings. Who doesn’t help out when people have questions in her area of expertise. Doesn’t answer email not directly related to her projects, and isn’t interested in sharing her technical expertise. She might be kept around if she’s a good producer, but she’ll be viewed as a resource with limitations, won’t be promoted, and won’t be put onto the big, important projects where she’d be able to make the biggest impact.

Things don’t look much better for the dysfunctional bottom-upper. Every day you come in to an avalanche of email – they occasionally hide bits of critical information, so can’t just be ignored, and you can spent hours fruitlessly sifting through your inbox. You go through the day in a flurry of meetings other people have set up, interviews of people who won’t be on your team, unexpected demands (let’s not call them “requests”) and random emergencies that require immediate attention. From time to time, you’re able to accomplish one of the tasks related to your personal responsibilities, but you’re generally so swept up in the daily maelstrom that it’s nearly impossible to get anything done. The only time you have to complete your actual tasks is after hours, or when working from home, when no one’s around to buttonhole you. You’re working as hard as you can, but you always feel like you’re shoveling back the tide.

The key is to be able to match your approach with your role, without letting it get too extreme. A manager has to be top-down in external relations – driving toward KPIs, keeping her team focused, preventing external distractions from interrupting the team from their goals. Internally, she has to be bottom up, resolving conflicts and crises, making time for her direct reports, mentoring, and so on. But she can’t let her goal focus exclude the possibility of taking part in larger initiatives, even if not directly related to her projects, and she can’t become so interrupt-driven that she starts thrashing.

Likewise, being an individual contributor is, to a large extent, about cranking through large amounts of high quality code. This requires long contiguous periods of shutting out the world, which in turn requires a top-down, goal-driven, anti-social approach. If you share an office or a cube, it means turning your monitor away from your roommate. If you’re in a high traffic area, it might mean fighting for a different location, or creating visible barriers to interruption (I’ve seen do-not-disturb signs, headphones, cardboard walls, even a sheet draped over a cube). But the people who succeed wildly don’t just code, they also provide leadership, do code reviews, answer questions, and make other people feel welcome. It’s a tough balancing act, but that’s why “great” is so rare and “good” so much more common.

2 thoughts on “Top Down and Bottom Up

  1. Great post. I think environment has a lot to do with what kind of behavior you see from people.

    Are individual contributors rewarded for collaboration, or is their review based solely on indivudual contribution? (the term “individual contributor” is not one of the better phrases used in modern HR) Are managers rewarded for the success of their team, or on the success of the company or division?

    Do coders have a cube/office/home office where they can cut out distractions for a few hours a day, or do they have an open plan office where its hard to find time to get ‘in the zone’ at any time during a normal day? (Even a great employee is going to be reluctant to do yet another code review if they are way behind on their work).

    Its vitally important for managers to be aware of and create an environment where the behaviors they want are allowed to develop.

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