What do I do with my time?

Question:

I’m a new manager, new to both the company I work for and to management. When I joined this company there were several fires for me to help put out, and every day I was busy dealing with one urgent task or another. But now I’m drifting. My boss doesn’t have time to tell me what to do, I don’t have any features that I am responsible for, and no one is urgently requesting my time. What is my job, now that things are no longer on fire?

Ah, yes. One of the challenges of management that we don’t often talk about is those times when you have no clear urgent tasks. Engineers deal with uncertainty in relatively bounded forms, such as, how should I break down this big project into smaller chunks, how should I architect this system, who should I talk to for information about this feature, what library should I choose? These are enough to stymie some, but usually by the time you’ve been working for a few years you know how to get started on these types of problems.

Management, however, is a different beast. Management is like being in operations. Operations engineers must balance a series of ad hoc needs (system configurations or permission granting, say), with fires (outages), and long-term strategic projects (moving to a new data center, upgrading a major piece of critical infrastructure). As a manager you also have regular ad hoc needs (1-1s, meetings, small decisions) and fires (hiring, firing, projects in trouble, outages). And you have long-term strategic projects (planning for the team growth, thinking about the next quarter’s goals, anticipating future obstacles). Like operations engineers, many managers get really good at the ad hoc and the fires, and really bad at the long-term strategic projects. It’s much easier to do things right in front of you than it is to think abstractly about unclear topics.

When faced with the blank slate of empty time and no obvious deliverables, what can a manager do to make the best use of that time?

As a new manager to a new company, downtime is a good chance to learn the existing systems. Learning things that you aren’t actually working on can be really challenging, so if it’s feasible you might find small bugs to fix or minor improvements to build, things that aren’t urgent (in case another fire crops up) but that will give you the feel for working in these systems. You can also use the downtime to meet with other teams that your team works with, learn about their projects and challenges, look at what they’re busy with. Lend a hand to their managers, or help your boss fill that gap if they don’t have one.

At some point, though, you will have gotten comfortable with the teams, the code, the projects, and you’ll still find yourself with downtime. This is the chance to flex your strategic thinking. Take a bigger-picture look. What are you not doing that is important, but not urgent? Maybe it’s planning for reviews next month, setting up a team dinner, doing some proactive outreach to candidates you may want to hire in six months, or finishing that presentation that you have promised to give on testing but keep putting off. What are the recurring problems your team is having? What is not going smoothly? What could you be doing to resolve that? Remember, part of your job now is to define what work needs to be done. Your boss won’t always be able to tell you what to do, and she probably expects you to tell her what needs to be done. Use this time to answer that question.

Sometimes we put downtime to use in bad ways, and I don’t mean procrastination. There are times when the best thing you can do with downtime is take a breath, check in on the internet, watch a talk you have been meaning to see. All of that is better than using downtime as an excuse to make work for other people, which can happen if you’re not thoughtful. If you use your downtime to half-bake a feature and throw it into prod for your team to support, that is harmful. If you use your downtime to wander around and interrupt your engineers who are busy working, that is harmful (and yes, I’m guilty of that sometimes!).

You are responsible for finding productive uses of downtime, and part of that is resisting the urge to meddle, micromanage, and distract your team just because you don’t know what else to do. Is everything going ok? Are your teams productive, getting things done, working on the right stuff? Great! Use your time to think about the future, write a blog post, catch up on small unfinished errands. Don’t worry, there will be another meeting, another fire soon enough. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.

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