|Interview with coach Lisamarie Babik. Our discussion held July 29, 2008 at a cafe near Menlo Innovations.
Interview – Lisamarie Babik
WW – I’m with Lisamarie Babik from Menlo. This is July 29  after a great lunch.
WW – Give me a couple minutes about yourself and how you got to what you’re doing.
LB – My background actually is music, which is kind of funny. I’ve always found that there are an awful lot of people doing software who are music majors. I got to where I am through a long and winding course. I was a professional technical writer for a long time. I got out of that by taking the job that nobody wanted at my last company, which was being in charge of the software maintenance group. I did that so well I suddenly became the director of software development at this nice little software company in Southfield.
Then the whole dot-com thing happened and we had to start laying people off. Eventually it got to the point where I was the one being laid off. I was wandering around looking for something to do, and spent probably six months being unemployed and sending resumes everywhere. A friend got a job with Menlo, and so "Send them your resume! Send them your resume!" I sent them my resume and they invited me in for a day to go through the Agile Explained class, and frankly I just refused to leave!
I liked what I heard. It was so different and so fresh and so not-frustrating that I thought "I want to work in this place – I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what I have to do. Tell me to wash buckets and I’m going to wash buckets." I worked in the volunteer program a couple months before they ever gave me paying work. The first time it was as a developer and then they had me running the factory floor and doing some project management. I did that for about 3 years, and now I do mostly marketing and PR and coaching others within the factory. So I’m viewed as a resource that anybody can tap if they need advice on how to do things, or if they’re new in the factory and they’ve never done a planning game, or done estimation – they’ll come ask me and I’ll help out.
WW – Are there projects you work on as your own project?
LB – My projects I do are press releases and a lot of contest entry stuff, like we recently got a Sloan award for workplace flexibility. So I’m the one that’s responsible for doing all the writing.
I’m also working on "the book" that nobody can quite define what it is. So I do a lot of writing about what we do that doesn’t yet have a final form. That’s the majority of my projects. Then I get tapped in an extra capacity. Like this morning I was working on someone else’s project because they needed a High-Tech Anthropologist® for the day.
WW – Tell me about that job – what do you do there?
LB – High-tech anthropology®? "High-tech anthropologists® are highly compassionate, empathetic, and sympathetic people." Why I’m doing this job, I don’t know. [laughs] They’re specialized business analysts. They work with people, and make sure the software we design will meet their end needs. So it’s not defined by engineers, but by people like the people who are going to use it.
WW – Think of an instance where you worked on a team, something concrete where you helped them out with something or intervened somehow.
LB – We had a new project manager who was getting overwhelmed. We could see her boiling point rising, not that she was going to burst out in anger, but that she was going to burst into tears. That’s because she was so stressed by what was going on. So I took her aside and talked to her about the situation and what was going on, gave her some pointers about how she could handle the client that was being difficult, how she could handle the team that she didn’t know how to handle, and sent her back in. She handled things beautifully. From then on, she incorporated that, kept those lessons – she didn’t just do them once and throw them away. It was very gratifying for me to see that I had helped her grow.
I also will a lot of times play the part of the enforcer when I hear things going awry. [Someone will ask] a question like "Should we write a unit test for this?" and I yell "Yes, you should write a unit test!" from across the room. Or if a team is starting to screw around and I can see it’s affecting the dynamic of the team, I’ll sidle up to them gently and [whisper] "You’re disrupting everybody", to get them re-focused. They’ll say "We’re working – look, we’re writing code" – I’ll say "I was across the room, and you were disrupting me – I can’t imagine what it’s doing to the people next to you."
So, things like that.
WW – Think through the last 6 months – what was the best day you had?
LB – It’s hard to pick one out. Probably a really good day for me was the day I found out we made the Inc 5000 this year, because that’s a national recognition of who we are and of the hard work everybody in the factory is doing. Rich likes to spring those things on me, he kinds of keeps them to himself, till he can say "Guess what?" I got to have a big crow on the roof at all that.
Another good day was being able to come into the factory and work on my writing, and have a day when I’m really focused and have a great day of writing because of what’s going on around me. I can’t write in library quiet any more. I actually need the vibrancy of the factory going on around me to be able to write about the factory.
WW – Were there particular people who influenced you in what you do, or particular experiences that prepared you for what you do?
LB – Particular person with me – [P1], who was one of my bosses in my last job, and he’s just brilliant. When I got laid off, what I lamented was not the fact that I was leaving, I lamented that I was no longer going to have him as a mentor. Fortunately, throughout the years since I’ve left there, we’ve maintained a friendship and talk to each other through email. The funny thing to me is that though I lamented losing him, I got to know three equally brilliant people at Menlo, but brilliant in different ways.
[P2] has been a great mentor for me, in his own difficult poke-at-me-with-a-stick kind of way. It’s not a cushy, soft mentoring, but he kept me out of trouble. [P3] I look at more like a father figure that I can go to and say, "I’m having this problem and I’m not sure how to deal with it." He has a depth of business experience that despite my having been a director of development for two years, I didn’t get because he was at a much larger company than I was.
WW – Back to [P1] in particular – is there particular advice or influence where he helped you through – what made him that mentor to you?
LB – Probably the most brilliant thing he ever said to me was when I was thrashing – I couldn’t understand why the owners were making the decisions they were making, why my team was thrashing underneath me. I was having a hell of a time.
[P1] sat me down in his office, and said, "Lisamarie – the problem is you’re using logic. Sometimes when business makes decisions it’s not based on logic, it’s based on emotion." As soon as I had that I thought "Cool – OK – this isn’t something that I can necessarily fix – because when you’re thinking with logic, you’re thinking, ‘All I need to do is the right thing and this will stop’ as opposed to ‘Somebody is having a highly emotional reaction to this situation that I can’t control.’"
"All I can control is me." It was much easier to deal with that situation in the future.
I bring that up a lot with people — "The problem here is you’re using logic."
The other thing [P1] did was when I was director of development, I was responsible for the first round of layoffs. I had never been in that situation. I had a terrible time trying to figure out who of my team I was going to let go. These were guys that every day looked up to me, that were my friends. And I had to choose five of them that had to go.
Steven and I worked on that a lot and talked about one of the thing that was different from me vs. the others who were going through that process was that I actually cared about the people being let go. I refuse to use the word resource – these are people, not resources.
He kind of helped me soften [?] that experience so that I was able to learn from it and go forward, and never want to do it again, but I got to do it twice more.
When it happened the next time I was better prepared, because he had helped me become better prepared.
WW – Back to now – any techniques or things you do – "I should write a paper" or "I should do this again."
LB – I should write a paper on "story cards to run your life." I have a story board in my kitchen and it’s the only reason anything gets done at all. I got to the point where it’s what I need to order my life. I use them at work, and I always know what’s the next thing to work on. I use them at home and I always know the next thing to work on – I give them an estimate. Its great. I love it!
The other thing would be our High-tech Anthropology® practice. Just because the solutions we come to are so different and so well suited to the end user, that writing about that process as something that others could take and model is really important. We just haven’t had the time.
WW – Anything else you’d like to tell me?
LB – The only other thing I can think of off-hand is to tell you a little about my reaction the first time I was at Menlo. I had been through that class. It was not only an issue of "I’m not leaving" it was that recognition that after having thrashed at my previous job so long, it seems that there was a solution. These agile practices that Menlo was preaching at that time, and is still preaching were really it.
I’ve gone back and I’ve talked to people at my previous company – "Listen to me – there is a solution – you don’t need to be thrashing." Their response is "We don’t have time, we don’t have time."
I announced at Menlo at that first meeting that I wasn’t leaving and I was serious about it, and I’m still here 6 years later.
WW – All right – thank you very much, Lisamarie.
LB – You’re welcome.