Research Computing Teams #167, 7 May 2023
Advising A Peer Whose Key Team Member Is Leaving.  Plus: Getting retrospectives right; Productized Services; Mojo; LLNL Sees Fortran’s Risks; Attack of the micro LLMs

Last week we described the sad story of our fictional colleague Daniel Miller.  Miller, who runs a Research Data Science team at an equally fictional university, is faced with the sudden departure in two weeks of his most experienced team member, Olivia Johnson, who has been acting as an unofficial team lead. Miller was not aware that Johnson was unhappy or looking for other opportunities. He now needs to urgently address several concerns, such as replacing Johnson, managing ongoing and upcoming projects, training events, and team members, and prioritizing Johnson's tasks in the meantime, and has asked us to advise him.

I got a number of people writing in with their advice, but people were hesitant to share their thoughts to the readership!  So I’ll give my recommendations, in the form of an email sent to our colleague, and highlight some things I saw in common from those that replied.

Miller has a number of urgent and important priorities to juggle.  So let’s tackle these in the order that we recommend handling them.  I’ll start the email to him, shout out if you see something I should change or add:

Hi, David:

Ugh, that’s a challenging situation!  I’m sorry you’re going through this.  Let me break this down into some immediate steps, next steps, and then some recommendations for the future.

Immediate steps: Johnson, HR, Coworkers, Stakeholders


There’s nothing really to say to Olivia about her new job other than “Congratulations!  Obviously I’m  very disappointed that you’re leaving us, but this sounds like a terrific role, and you must be very excited.  Tell me about it!”.

There’s no point in being upset with Johnson for leaving - it’s good and healthy for people to move on and seek new responsibilities.  Ideally we’d be offering them growth opportunities within our institution, but either way they won’t be on our teams forever.

There’s equally no point in trying to make a “diving save” to keep Johnson in this role.  By the time an offer is signed, that ship has sailed.  If she had come expressing some flexibility about start dates, we could advocate for as much time remaining in this position as possible to ease the transition.  You could certainly try gently raising that possibility now, but honestly I wouldn’t expect much.

I’d recommend asking her what she’s thinking in terms of an offboarding plan.  It sounds like she’s put a lot of thought into this, and she’s always been very diligent and clear-sighted about what needs to be done, so my guess is she’ll have a pretty good plan of action.

My recommendations to you for priorities for her off-boarding are pretty simple - the only real priority is getting as much of her knowledge shared as possible.  That means:

  • The state of the team - who’s happy, who’s not, who’s got what skills, who’s growing where, who’s working on what
  • The state of the projects - current status, and if there are any credentials etc. that need to be handed over
  • The state of the external stakeholders she’s been working with
  • How various activities get done
  • What her day to day activities are, and if she sees any of the team being able to step up to take any of them on 
  • Team priorities as she sees them

Some of this knowledge-sharing be done in the form of documentation; other can be done be shared through demonstrating, talking through, or having someone sit in on something.

Documenting mundane things like “day-to-day activities” really matters - it helps make sure there aren’t any things she does that get forgotten.  Lots of tasks don’t seem that important, right up to the point where they stop getting done.  Right now, no task is too small to get written down somewhere.

To make time for this brain dumping I’d recommend you ask her to cancel anything on her calendar that doesn’t absolutely have to be done, or can’t be double-purposed into supporting this knowledge sharing.  For instance, if she’s meeting one-on-one with team members, that can be turned into “one-on-one-on-ones” (#49) with you participating and turning them into hand-overs.  If there’s some work she’s doing to finish a project, see if someone can pair with her to see how something is done.  If she’s meeting with a stakeholder to hand over a completed project, that’s a great opportunity for someone to learn how to handle that activity.

Then talk about sharing the information with the team.  Make sure you agree on some simple wording about when she’s leaving, to where (if she's ok with that being shared), and some immediate next steps.  Commit to sharing the information together.

Schedule a meeting with her for later in the day, and let both of you catch your breath.   You’ll be meeting her a lot in the next two weeks.  But first there’s two urgent things to do, then two important things to do.  

Your calendar

Urgent thing one - as with Olivia, I’m going to strongly suggest you cancel or postpone everything on your calendar that can be cancelled or postponed.  You’re going to be busy handling all aspects of this.  Very little on your calendar right now is as far to the top right of the “urgent + important” quadrant of the ol’ Eisenhower matrix as dealing with this is.