Manny Vellon

Manny
Manny

If you are lucky in your career, you will have a few good bosses. They are people who inspire you and teach you how to be a better developer, manager, or person.

Manny Vellon was my first boss at Microsoft. Since leaving college, I had a string of good jobs, but not the best managers. I was a bit raw and somewhat guarded by my experiences.

I was the third person to join the team. There was our Director, Manny as Development Manager and me, so for the first few years, I got to work very closely with him. He had already been at Microsoft for several years in the Developer Tools team, so he had survived and thrived in a callous and competitive culture.

At first, I just respected his programming skill and knowledge. We were building the initial code together. I was amazed at the effortless way he would jump down into the assembly when he needed to understand why some bug was happening.

Once we started making more progress and started meeting with other teams, I was blown away by how he handled the often-tense situations.

Microsoft in the mid-90s was still in its heyday of competitive culture. Disagreements were handled by being louder, making threats, or sneaky political moves to undercut other teams.

In these settings, Manny was the vision of calm confidence, transparency, and good humor. If this didn’t diffuse the situation, he would calmly take apart whatever PM or DM was threatening our team or pounding their fist on the table. They would be left trying to maintain their dignity and backtrack as quickly as they could. He wasn’t cruel or mean. He was firm, he was interested in what was right and would accept no less.

As soon as one of these meetings ended, Manny would be right back to his jovial, wise self.

He was transparent, but not in an obvious way. It was just who he was. He didn’t feel the need to guard information. He knew that I could do my job better if I had the complete picture.

He pushed me to be better, to be more ambitious in my goals. He modeled those expectations himself. If we had a deadline, he was always there, with the rest of the team. Doing whatever he could to push us to hit our commitment. If I got something done but could have done it better, he would challenge me to take it to the next level. Always with humor. He made me feel like it was important to him that I grow. He considered that responsibility as my manager seriously.

A lot of who I am as a leader today comes from the lessons he taught me and what I learned from watching him work. Anyone that has worked with me since then has heard me tell a Manny story or three.

Manny Vellon died on May 27th while hiking.

I had lunch with him a couple of years ago, and I told him how much he meant to me. I am very grateful that I did that. I wish I had kept in better touch with him over the years. I know that there was a lot more I could have learned from him as he moved from Microsoft into starting his own companies and being a CTO.

My deepest condolences go out to his family and friends. There has been a massive outpouring of stories and emotions from the people he touched over the years. My own experience is hardly unique.

In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, he asks you to imagine your funeral. What will people say about you? What would you hope that they would say? I hope that Manny would see how he positively touched the lives of so many and be content.

My intent with writing this is not just to tell you about a beautiful and inspiring person but also to charge you with that kind of influence on others.

If you are a manager or leader, the behavior you model, and the lessons you impart can change the direction of the people around you. Positively and negatively. What are you modeling? What are you teaching?

If there was someone like this in your life, a teacher, manager, mentor, or friend, tell them. You will be glad you did, and it will mean a lot to them.

Presenting Remotely

While I am an experienced video-conferencer and a reasonably experienced presenter, presenting to a remote audience is still something I am learning how to do. Having just given a talk this morning, I did want to share some things that are working well for me at the moment.

The Tools

Today I presented from my Mac Mini, and so used a separate webcam. The important thing here is that it was placed above my eye-line and not below. This is a lot more flattering of a view (i.e., not up your nose). If you are presenting from your laptop, raise it so that you get a similar angle.

I only have a single screen, so in presentation mode, I would lose my presenter view. Personally, I heavily rely on the presenter’s view. So I used my iPad with Duet to have a second screen. I use keynote primarily. I’ve noticed that Google Slides doesn’t work well with this setup.

You see my headset mic. Obviously, for a presentation to a group, you want the highest quality audio, an inexpensive headset mic works well. I prefer this over the iPhone style headphones (corded or cordless). The sound is better. If you use a wireless mic, make sure it is fully charged before you begin. At some point, I may switch to a podcaster desk mic, as the headset isn’t that flattering.

What is missing here is a good light. I have a big window to my left and a smaller one in front of me, so I get some natural light. However, most of my lighting does come from ceiling lights, which is not the most flattering on video. I ordered a you-tuber-style ring-light, but it is taking a very long time to arrive. I’ll need to find the optimal place for that light so that it isn’t casting weird shadows on my face.

Presentation Style

If you see me speak in person, you will know that I have a tendency to walk around on the stage and use my hands.

When presenting from a desk, I “bring in” my movements a bit so that they don’t go beyond the video frame. I watch myself out of the corner of my eye to know the edges as I am talking.

I have sometimes used a standing desk configuration to be a bit more natural. Still, given the constraints of standing in one place when speaking versus sitting, I think I prefer sitting.

You need to be more effusive, more visible when presenting with slides through a video conferencing system. You will be seen in a small video window in the corner, so you want to be more than a “talking head.”

The Environment

Before I talk, I will usually check what the background behind me looks like using zoom or Photobooth on the mac. That gives me an idea of what is visible behind me when I am talking. I generally try to clean up, so that there isn’t a mess for people to focus on. I will sometimes add a few small things of visual interest in the background, though. I think that is more humanizing and also gives some easter eggs for the audience.

Be careful when previewing what you think the audience will be able to see in your environment. On multiple occasions, I have cleaned up to the edges of what I saw as the video frame. Only to find that zoom had been showing me a cropped view of what everyone else could see. Quite embarrassing to watch a recording and see a pile of stuff on your floor that you didn’t realize other people could see.

Substance Over Style

In the end, everything above is about polish, not content. If you have something novel, something interesting, to say, that is the most critical thing. If you have a limited time to prepare, focus on making sure that what you present will be useful and informative to your audience. Rehearse your talk so that you feel comfortable presenting it and can smoother over any hiccups with technology or literal hiccups.

If your content is right and you are comfortable presenting it, your audience will remember it as a good talk. Then you can focus on cleaning up that pile of t-shirts in the corner of your room or make sure that you don’t look like a vampire because of the lighting.

If you are upping your remote presentation game, I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.

The Personal Strategy Off-site

If your company is starting to plan for getting back into your office, now is a good time for you to schedule a personal strategy day.

The Whirlwind

In the whirlwind of the day-to-day work, it is often hard to carve out time for something that does not have a specific deliverable. Working from home can be even more challenging because of the additional pressures of helping your family. In the tech lead training program I am doing at Onfido, we are currently discussing how to be more strategic leaders. A familiar dictum of strategic thinking is the criticality of taking the time to think and plan.

The Personal Strategy Day

Liminal spaces are the transitionary spaces between things. In the liminal space between moving from working at home to being back fully in the office environment, you have an opportunity to try something new—a personal strategy day.

Block out a day in your calendar as people start moving back to the office. There will be some turbulence then as everyone is transitioning. It is the perfect time to start thinking about what you want to accomplish for yourself and your team before the whirlwind starts up again.

The Personal Off-site

Companies schedule off-sites to get away from the distractions of the office. If you can find a “third place” (a place that is not your office or your home) where you can focus, that is ideal. If not, book a secluded conference room in your office, or find an empty desk far from where you usually sit. If you are still at home, let your family know you are working, and need some blocks of focused time.

Focus

Don’t read your e-mail. Don’t take any meetings. Your job on that day is to think and plan. To help me focus, I will usually print out whatever supporting materials I think I need and work on paper to avoid the lure of the notifications and other electronic distractions. Think of this as a gift of time and focus that you are giving yourself.

What to consider

Think of the time before the lockdowns began. You may have just been starting on your 2020 commitments and deliverables. What was going well then? What were your concerns? Now think through what you have learned about your team, the work, and yourself during the lockdown. What do you want to keep, and what do you want to discard as you go back to the office? What about the industry you are in, and the world at large has changed? What new pitfalls and opportunities are there? Now think ahead to the rest of the year. What new goals should you have for yourself and your team?

Take notes. Write things down. You will want to refer to them as you go through the year to revisit or remind yourself of your thinking.

Now make a plan. Not too detailed because the world is going to keep changing. Detailed enough that you feel as if you have something against which to execute. Write that down also. With milestones, if possible.

Finally, think about the process you just completed. Did it work for you? Would you do it again? If so, what would you change next time?

Retrospect and Revisit

This whole process may take anywhere from a couple of hours for you to an entire day. Don’t be too preoccupied with the length of time you spend. You are starting to build a practice of taking time for strategic thinking, so this is about taking more time than you have before.

If you found this valuable, you may want to plan your next strategy day for six or twelve months from now. Again, block it out in the calendar early and protect that time!

You may also find that it is good to schedule smaller blocks of time, weekly or monthly, to revisit your plan, track progress, and make adjustments. These blocks of time are strategic thinking too!

Conclusion

If you struggle to keep time for strategy, building a structured approach like a personal strategy day may help you create a practice. Using the liminal times like transitioning from lockdown back to whatever it is that comes after is an opportunity to block and protect time. The liminal times are also crucial for strategy because your past assumptions are likely no longer correct, and there may be some opportunities or challenges that weren’t visible before.

Some resources

I’ve spent the last several years building a structured personal strategy process for myself. Many people have inspired my practice. Their suggestions may inspire you as well.