Flow can mean many things but when it comes to workflow it usually refers to that feeling, discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when you enter a state of intense focus and lose yourself in an activity. 

Video games are a great example. They take advantage of this feeling to keep you immersed, which is why it’s so easy for gamers to “lose time” and just get wrapped up. The same feeling usually drives your most productive and best work.

When you manage developers, their workflow should be treasured and valued. That’s why, to improve developer focus, it’s vital to avoid weighing them down with minor interruptions or non-urgent pings. 

“Flow is characterized as this experience where the task that you're doing is perfectly matched to the skills that you have.” -Katie Wilde on the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 7:51

1. Acknowledge that it take 23 minutes for devs just to get into flow

Did you know that it takes 23 minutes to get into a flow state? For some people it takes even longer. That means that for every question, disruption, email, and interruption that you or your coworkers are subjected to, it could be half an hour of productivity down the drain. We talked to Katie Wilde, VP of Engineering at Ambassador Labs, about how she manages workflow

“Say you got a Slack ping, and you're like, “oh, I'll just ask a question.” How long does it take you to find the thread again? What's that total interrupt time? It's 23 minutes…that's been measured.” -on the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 11:11

2. Defrag dev calendars

Some interruptions are unavoidable but many of them aren’t. Planning your calendar in a way that works around the needs and workflows of your team is necessary to maximize everyone's productivity. 

For instance, scheduling meetings on days when weekly meetings already occur can help preserve focus time by not disrupting other working days. 

Devs need to communicate with their managers on what times they have available away from normal workflow and then it’s up to engineering leaders to plan around those schedules. As a dev leader, you have to look at your devs’ calendars, not your own, and react accordingly. 

“If you're a manager, when you're scheduling, don't look at your calendar, and then find a time and then see where you can slot the engineer in…look at the engineer's calendar and see, where can you tack the meeting on that it is after another meeting, or it is maybe at the start of the day, the end of the day… and ask them!” -Katie Wilde on the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 12:31

3. Suck it up - schedule your work around focus time

When managing large numbers of devs, it can seem like a chore to work around many different schedules or attempting to get meetings done only on specific days. We asked Katie what her trick to juggling so many different calendars and meetings was, and she had one thing to say: “Suck it up.”

Devs are the backbone of software production and it’s important to prioritize their productivity whenever possible. To help them stay on task and be able to really focus on their work, they need to have meetings planned around their day - not yours.

Providing consistency for your devs - meeting them when they are ready, available, and focused - helps them maintain a flow state and maximize productivity. But more than that, it’s the right thing to do. Devs want to build cool stuff, not have their days ruined by their own calendars.   

Katie says it best:

“That might mean that, as the manager, you have a little bit weirder hours. I hate to say this, but kind of suck it up… There's no way to get around that.”-on the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 13:23

Watch the full interview-

If you would like to hear more about how managers can work around a developers schedule and other great insight from Katie Wilde, check out the full podcast on your favorite podcasting application, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube

Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This article is inspired by Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

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In a typical manufacturing company, a supply chain is the chain of companies that you rely on to make your product. For example, a mobile phone manufacturer buys processor chips from a supplier. That supplier needs to buy a part from another manufacturer. And that manufacturer relies on yet another company for the raw metal.

But what is the software supply chain? And how do you keep it secure? We spoke with Kim Lewandowski, co-founder and head of product at Chainguard, to explain the details.

Your software supply chain is more complex than you think

The software supply chain can be complicated. Mainly because it’s difficult to know how far it reaches. Take a simple example: If you use Salesforce to keep track of your customers, you store your customers’ data on Salesforce’s servers. Not a problem, surely? But Salesforce could have a breach. And what about the servers themselves? Those servers might run on Windows. If that has a security bug, hackers have another way in. How about the software that Salesforce uses to host its website? If that is hacked, you have yet another breach.

 

“When I think of the software supply chain, it’s all the code and all the mechanics and the processes that went into delivering that core piece of software at the end,” Kim explained. “It’s all the bits and pieces that go into making these things.” -On the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 11:28

Keeping the software supply chain secure involves checking who has keys

The important part of keeping your supply chain secure is making sure that you track down what you’re using. And checking that they’re secure and reliable. Every new third party can be a potential problem. If you don’t do your due diligence, you won’t know what risks you’re taking.

As Kim explained, a favorite analogy of hers is thinking about doing construction work on your own home.

“You have a contractor. Well, they need keys. They have subcontractors. You give the keys out to all their subcontractors. Who are they? Where are they from? What materials are they bringing into your house?” -On the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 12:09

The more third party tools you use, the more out of control it can become

It all comes down to accountability. It can easily start spreading rapidly. One third-party tool that you use to create your software might rely on five separate third parties. And you don’t know what code they’ve got hidden under the hood. Your keys are suddenly all over the place.

The only way to keep it under control is to remind yourself to check and to do regular audits of the services you use. Kim believes it’s helpful to think of every new tool as a package coming to your home.

“How is your package getting to your house?” Kim said. “What truck is it riding on and who is driving those trucks?” -On the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 12:44

Get the full conversation

If you’d like to learn more about the software supply chain, and how to make sure that yours is secure, you can listen to the full conversation with Kim over on our podcast.

Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This article is inspired by Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

Discover Our Most Popular Podcasts
Join the Dev Interrupted discord

At Netflix, we don’t just think about productivity - we engineer it. There’s an entire team within Netflix dedicated to productivity. I lead the Develop Domain along with my Delivery and Observability Domain peers, and together, we make up Productivity Engineering.

I recently sat down with the Dev Interrupted podcast to discuss all things productivity, how I run my team, and how other managers should view employee success. Here’s how we think about it at Netflix:

Can productivity be engineered?

In short, yes! Productivity is not a generic term for team performance or a perfunctory buzzword used during team meetings. The productivity team is an actual organization. The work we do is foundational to Netflix’s development teams. Productivity Engineering lives within the broader, central Platform organization.

The role of the Productivity Engineering team is simple: we exist to make the lives of Netflix developers easier. Abstracting away the various “Netflix-isms” around development, delivery, and observability, productivity allows devs more time to focus on their domain of expertise. 

“We are sort of like the nerds’ nerds, if you will, enabling them to use our platforms and tools so that the work that they're doing is focused on studio and streaming, without thinking about everything that's under the hood.” - On the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 2:31

With the recent addition of Gaming to the list of Netflix’s pursuits, the resulting focus becomes even more important.

Practically speaking, it’s the role of Productivity Engineering to help with things like coding, testing, debugging, dependency management, deployment, alerting, monitoring, performance, incident response, to name a bunch. Netflix utilizes the concept of a “paved road,” the frameworks, platforms, apps, and tools we build and support to keep our devs rolling. The idea is to keep workflows streamlined and enable developers to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. If the road ahead is cleared of obstacles, you’re going to get to where you need to go faster and with support along the way. 

It’s also about helping developers enjoy the ride. To abuse another metaphor, a sound engineering experience should be like dining at a fine restaurant. If done right, you rarely remember the waitstaff, have a hard time finding something you like, or worry about how they prepared the food; you simply enjoy the experience. If Productivity Engineering is doing their job, they act as the restaurant and waitstaff with developers as the customer, providing nothing short of a beautiful end-to-end experience. 

Measuring Outcomes vs. Output

Measuring all of that productivity can be hard, and there’s no one unicorn measurement to rule them all. Hence, developer productivity teams should focus on impact and outcomes. Above all, Netflix focuses on customer satisfaction. Our philosophy is that while how something is delivered is important, the impact of what’s delivered is ultimately of greater importance. 

"If you're running around a track super-fast, but you're on the wrong track, does it matter? So really, what are you delivering? How you're delivering is important. But if that thing that you're delivering is ultimately doing what you want it to do, that's the most important thing." - On the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 5:05

In this model, the outcome always wins over output or activity. For instance, standard productivity deployment metrics (DORA) as applied to our customers become an important proxy for measuring our success. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for productivity are viewed as a reflection of a team’s performance as it relates to customer satisfaction.

I’m a big fan of the SPACE framework, developed by Nicole Forsgren, for precisely this reason. How are our customers doing in terms of Satisfaction, Performance, Activity, Communication, and Efficiency? The answer to those questions reflects how we’re doing as a Productivity organization.

"This is our strategy, these are our hypotheses around, how we're going to improve our customers' productivity. Are those things paying off? And if you can't measure them in some way, who knows? Right? So yeah, we're getting a little more hardcore about this." - On the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 24:17

Key metrics provide productivity teams with a holistic view of performance by establishing benchmarks. Understanding that everything needs to be viewed within the proper context, it’s difficult to improve as an organization if nothing is measured or tracked. 

Comparing Productivity 

Comparing developers’ productivity across teams is a thorny subject at best and downright dangerous for team morale at worst. As the old saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy” or what I typically say, “comparisons lead to unhappiness”, or with my kids “eyes on your own paper!”. 

The productivity teams at Netflix take a contextualized view of dev teams rather than relying solely on raw data. Every project is different, the customer base is different, the use case is different, personas are different, and where a team is within the software development life cycle is different.

It’s a basic understanding that comparing apples to oranges is not good math. A team that is just starting out and building something new, is going to look very different than a team with a mature product. By recognizing this, it becomes almost impossible to rank teams against each other because very rarely, if ever, will teams be doing the same thing, in the same space, the same way, with the same people. 

Even a measurement of an outcome pertaining to customer satisfaction (CSAT) is not straightforward. At Netflix and across the industry, we’ve found that satisfaction for internal teams skews lower than satisfaction for customer-facing teams.

The reason? Teams within Netflix are their own harshest critics. When attempting to gauge the performance of an internal team vs a customer-facing team, it’s understood that the internal team is almost always going to score lower on satisfaction, even if both teams are equally effective. 

Context is everything. Measuring productivity means being mindful of context. 

Pushing Productivity 

Any company that wants to be successful must understand how to measure its success. Productivity doesn’t count for much if an organization is not moving towards desired outcomes. 

By viewing productivity as more than just a concept or a raw set of data, the hard-working teams at Netflix have turned productivity into an actual apparatus. It is a living, breathing team of human beings whose devotion to empathetic efficiency improves customer satisfaction and dev team quality of life. I am incredibly proud to lead these teams, and I sincerely hope the work we do inspires other organizations to improve their developers’ experience.

And if you want to be as productive as Netflix, remember that metrics are only as good as their context! 


If you enjoyed this article and you would like to learn more about the work that I do at Netflix, I invite you to come join me at INTERACT on April 7th

This will be the second time that I have sat down for a panel discussion hosted by Dev Interrupted. I love being a member of the Dev Interrupted community because they are such an amazing resource. If you are a team lead, engineering manager, VP or CTO looking to improve your team, come to INTERACT and check out the community - I promise you will learn something.

Pretend you are watching your favorite show on Netflix: Sit back, relax & watch as I share the stage with other amazing engineering leaders from places like Slack, Stack Overflow, American Express, Outsystems, Drata & many more.

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Fact: Over 26% of adults in the United States have some sort of disability. To ignore such a massive part of the population would be ill-advised for any company, legally, financially, and above all, ethically. How can you stay ahead of the curve when it comes to maintaining a progressive and responsive organization? 

We reached out to two experts - Alwar Pillai and Perry Trinier of Fable – on the topic of designing products that have inclusivity for people with disabilities at their core. Here are the 3 things they think every engineer, developer and product designer needs to know about inclusive design and how it will inevitably affect the future of their companies.

1. Inclusive design has already brought us Alexa, Siri and countless other smart gadgets

Often times people assume that tech companies are driving innovation through focus groups or trying to cater to the average consumer, but that’s not always true. Some of the greatest recent innovations in tech have been found by designing technology to be as accessible as possible to people with disabilities. By keeping the designing process inclusive, you maximize potential for growth.

Alwar Pillai: Each of us today use technology that’s been designed for assistive technology users first, from as simple as an electric toothbrush, which is designed for people with motor impairments, but this is something that everyone uses now… you have voice to text was for people with disabilities again. And now we have... Siri, and Alexa, and like dictation, and all of that existed because it was designed for people with disabilities first, so it is already proven that when you practice inclusive design, and design for the edge cases, there is that broader impact.

2. Inclusive workplace culture draws in better talent

When you put inclusivity and accessibility at the front lines of your work culture and development process, you not only maximize your potential customer base but increase your pool of applicants and make your workforce more efficient. Some of the best talent in the world of inclusive design comes from people who use accessibility technology daily. Maximizing your accessibility to potential employees gives your company the best shot at finding the right person for the job. What does it mean today to build an accessibility first dev culture? 

Perry Trinier: I think it's like sort of the opposite of saying that accessibility is an afterthought. In this case, accessibility is absolutely primary. And it's also like a shared understanding on the team that accessibility isn't an extra feature or like a defect that they can backlog. It's just a table stakes dimension of the quality of what they build, and that they kind of aren't finished building what they're doing if it's still inaccessible.

Alwar Pillai: There's a lot of barriers when it comes to trying to build an inclusive team, to just the workplace tools that are out there, you know?... And so we've had to do a lot of... custom workarounds for some things. But it has resulted in every single person in the team understanding the impact of accessibility and taking that extra initiative and make sure whatever they're sharing with... each other internally is easily accessible to everyone.

3. Inclusive design’s influence is set to explode

There seems to be a cultural divide when it comes to inclusivity and many companies are hesitant to make the necessary changes to fuel a more accessible work culture. Making the effort to enact real change is necessary for the health of your business and the respect of the individuals who need accessible technology. More and more individuals and companies are seeing the need to stay current with inclusive design or, better yet, lead the way to establishing new and exciting ways to stay inclusive.

Perry Trinier: I think it's important to invest in helping the team members to build the knowledge and specifically set goals for reports to, for example, complete a course in accessibility. It's an important skill, just like security and performance are for front-end developers. And it should be treated in that same way for professional development. And there are tons of resources online courses on LinkedIn, Udacity. And there are lots of blog posts and talks by experts in the community like Marcy Sutton, and they’re directed to developers, like front-end developers who just need to learn what they need to know to be able to test their interfaces and to build experiences that everyone can use, so I would say that's the place to start is just with building up that capability.

Design is changing… Moving towards a more inclusive future

There is a fundamental gap in what is provided and what is needed for many people who use accessibility technology. The way of the future is to practice an inclusive design culture and keep every person in mind in your design process. 

Alwar Pillai: The way we build digital products right now is broken. There is a digital divide between the experiences of people with disabilities and people who are able bodied. And we as people who are part of engineering teams and engineering cultures, it's our responsibility to make sure we change the way we build products and make the process more inclusive, so that more and more people have access to the products that we're building.

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If you want to know more about Fable and their ability to help your company evolve and grow while staying accessible to everyone, please visit www.makeitfable.com. Be sure to listen to and review this interview’s podcast and many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube or any of your favorite podcasting apps. Also, be sure to join the Dev Interrupted Discord community where we have conversations about topics just like this going all week long.

 

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Chaos Engineering might sound like a buzzword - but take it from someone who used to joke his job title was Chief Chaos Engineer (more on that later) it is much more than buzz or a passing fad - it’s a practice. 

The world can be a scary place and more and more companies are beginning to turn to Chaos Engineering to proactively poke and prod their systems and in doing so are improving their reliability and guarding against unexpected failures in production and unplanned downtime. 

During my career I dealt with my fair share of outages, including one that caught me mid-song during a bout of karaoke and far too many that woke me up at 02:00. As the co-founder and CTO at Gremlin, I do my best to make sure no other engineers have to suffer sleepless nights worrying about their product. 

But the question remains, what is Chaos Engineering and where did it come from?

A Short History

The spiritual predecessor to Chaos Engineering is often called by a much more widely recognized name - disaster recovery. The focus when this practice was introduced is much the same as today: proactively suss out production problems by injecting failure. 

Netflix’s Chaos Monkey is probably the most well publicized Chaos Engineering tool as it arguably kickstarted the adoption of Chaos Engineering outside of large companies, but this has led to the erroneous belief that Netflix invented the practice. In fact, the practice was already widely in use amongst the titans of technology. 

Over a decade ago during my time as a Lead Software Engineer at Amazon, we implemented several crude practices designed to inject failure into our systems. The most rudimentary of which was employed by a man called Jesse Robbins, who earned the nickname “Master of Disaster” by running through data centers pulling out cables. 

Let’s just say the practice has evolved a lot since those early days and your data center cables are much safer these days.

What is Chaos Engineering?

“What Chaos Engineering really is, is the art, if you want to call it that, of introducing controlled chaos.” - 2:16 on the Dev Interrupted podcast

At its core, Chaos Engineering is a disciplined approach of identifying potential failures before they have an opportunity to become customer facing outages. 

It is a practice that lets you safely test your assumption about how your systems will behave under duress by actually exercising resilient mechanisms in a controlled fashion. You literally "break things on purpose" to validate and build resiliency. The end goal of Chaos Engineering is not to inject arbitrary failure into a system, but rather to strategically inject turbulence to enhance the stability and resiliency of your systems.

How Chaotic is Chaos Engineering?

I always tell people that Chaos Engineering is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually as far from chaotic as you can get. When performed correctly everything is in control of the operator. That mentality is the reason our core product principles at Gremlin are: safety, simplicity and security. True chaos can be daunting and can cause harm. But controlled chaos fosters confidence in the resilience of systems and allows for operators to sleep a little easier knowing they’ve tested their assumptions. After all, the laws of entropy guarantee the world will consistently keep throwing randomness at you and your systems. You shouldn’t have to help with that.

How do I Start?

One of the most common questions I receive is: “I want to get started with Chaos Engineering, where do I begin?” There is no one size fits all answer unfortunately. You could start by validating your observability tooling, ensuring auto-scaling works, testing failover conditions, or one of a myriad of other use cases. The one thing that does apply across all of these use cases is start slow, but do not be slow to start.

What I mean by this is to start testing across just a few nodes versus impacting your entire fleet. We refer to the impacted area as the “blast radius” and we highly recommend starting with a small blast radius (the number of systems impacted) and increasing it over time.

By starting small you allow yourself to gain confidence in both the experiments you are running and your systems. Of course your risk tolerance is also a factor of how large a blast radius your organization will use. 

For instance, a large banking institution with millions of customers has a much lower risk tolerance than a tech startup with a couple hundred customers. In that case, they would want to run experiments in a programmatic way and would need to be very explicit about communicating to the rest of the organization what tests are going to be run and when to avoid any unplanned 2am or 3am disasters. 

Eventually you want to get to the point where all of this is automated, a process we refer to as “continuous chaos.” Starting small with automation could be something as simple as taking out a single node; then taking out five nodes; then ten; and so on. Eventually you automate the process at a level you are comfortable with.  

“Ultimately you want to be able to handle any of this random chaos being thrown at you, because that's what the world is, it's entropy, it's degradation” - 7:35 on the Dev Interrupted podcast

No Tolerance for Downtime

When I founded Gremlin, it was just myself and my co-founder developing the first iteration of the product. The business looked very different then and I jokingly referred to myself as the “Chief Chaos Engineer” responsible for implementing code that was mostly used by enterprise companies. Many of these companies came to us because they had reliance thrust upon them by the US government or they had top-down reliability standards and they wanted a tool to help them shore up their systems. 

As the company began to evolve, so did the customer base. These days it’s not just Fortune 500 companies that care about reliability, it’s everybody. Planned downtime is a relic of days gone by. It is no longer acceptable to espouse planned maintenance windows as part of development lifecycles and customers don’t have the patience for products they rely upon to spend any time unavailable. Companies recognize this dynamic - and it’s not a hard one to miss. 

Seemingly our appetite for technology has gone up exponentially while our ability to stomach downtime has drastically decreased. Customers expect that your product is always working, always running. If your product is down because of outages then there are ten other similar products waiting in the wings to take their money. 

Making Lives Better

Visibility is high these days and companies don’t need the publicity that comes with making any unforced errors, let alone to be subject to errors not of their making. No one wants to be blown up on Twitter because their product isn’t working or because one of their downstream dependencies or their cloud provider had an unexpected outage. 

By preparing for the worst, we can be at our best as an industry and can be prepared when disaster eventually comes knocking. That’s why when an unexpected outage occurs or there is a production failure customers will never even know it happened. 

I often joke that we are the engineers’ engineers because many of us know that feeling of being jolted from a dream at 03:00 by our pagers, groggily wiping our eyes and whipping out the laptop to go dig through a sea of monitoring dashboards and logs. It’s not fun and it’s exactly why I founded Gremlin. Because there is a better way to approach operations than merely sitting back on our haunches and waiting for the next outage. Chaos Engineering not only helps to protect against the randomness of the world, but also teaches people how to build more reliable software. And if enough people build more reliable software, we build a more reliable internet.

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Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This article is inspired by Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

Continuous Delivery isn’t about how fast you can deliver, it’s about the outcome your delivery achieves. Bryan Finster, author of the 5-minute DevOps series and founder of the DevOps Dojo, joined our Dev Interrupted Discord community to answer your questions about outcome-based development, continuous delivery, and why failing small is better than failing fast. 

Bryan is currently a Distinguished Engineer at Defense Unicorns but has also worked for Walmart as a systems analyst and eventually became a staff software engineer for Walmart Labs. He had previously appeared on the Dev Interrupted Podcast to further talk about these subjects as well as the most common pitfalls dev teams find when trying to optimize their delivery process. Listen to the episode here:

This Community AMA took place on January 8, 2021 on the Dev Interrupted Discord.

Necco-LB: 📢📢 Community AMA📢📢   @everyone 

Topic: Outcome-based Development with @BryanF (Bryan Finster)

Bryan, thanks for joining us today!

Bryan Finster: Thanks for having me!

col: Bryan... great quote. "A developer is a business expert who solves problems with code." Thank you. Tremendous concept.

Bryan Finster: Thanks. That's who we are. We aren't Java spewing legos. If we don't understand the business, the code won't.

Rocco Seyboth: YES!! @col Love it. @oriker says "a business decision is made with every line of code"

Bryan: Exactly. How does this change improve the bottom line. Even more, how does it improve the lives of our customers?

Necco-LB: We really enjoyed having you on the podcast to talk about Outcome-based development and what continuous delivery should be trying to achieve. I was hoping you could explain to use what Outcome-based development means?

Bryan: It's just focusing on the outcomes. It's pointless to focus on how we do things if the outcomes are poor. It's also about Hypothesis Driven Development. The act of defining the expected value before we attempt to deliver it and then measuring for that value. Instrumenting the application to see how close we get so we can adjust. I frequently see people just being feature factories, pounding out changes that no one needs. That just costs money and increases support. We should be deliberate about what we do and say "no" when the value isn't obvious.

Cocco: When it comes to delivering value to the customer sooner, what things do you commonly see teams worrying about that they perhaps shouldn't (or not worry about, when they should?)

Bryan: "I can't release this! It's not feature complete!" No, get the incomplete change out there and make sure it doesn't break anything.

Necco-LB: You mentioned during the podcast that Pride is the best metric ever. Can you explain that a little bit?

Bryan: If I own the business problem, own the solution, own how to make it better, own the outcomes and see people getting value from my work, then I have pride in what I do. I want it to be good. I want it to be secure and stable and I want to continuously improve it.

Necco-LB: When you talk about outcome-based development you often talk about the things that need to happen before hands touch the keyboard. What are some of those things?

Bryan: We need to understand the value we are trying to deliver and we need to define how we expect to deliver that value at the detail level. It's not enough to write a vague user story. We need testable outcomes that we agree should deliver that value. Behavior Driven Development is the most effective tool I've found for that. We also need to make sure we aren't trying to deliver ALL of the value at once. What if we are wrong? We usually are, statistically. So, what is the smallest, highest value thing we can deliver to find out? Sometimes the right answer is to stop at that point. Invest in the outcomes, not the plan or the work.

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Read the unedited AMA and join in the discussion in the Dev Interrupted Discord here! With over 2000 members, the Dev Interrupted Discord Community is the best place for Engineering Leaders to engage in daily conversation. Join the community >>

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Cocco: What patterns/trends do you see in teams who can deliver the outcomes they want? (Are there common factors in teams you've seen that move from struggling -> successful?)

Bryan: Yes. Actual continuous delivery and product ownership. They can deliver small changes daily and they have ownership of what those changes are. They have the safety to challenge things without fear and they are not pushed so hard that there is no time to think of better ideas. Software development is a mental activity, not typing.

Necco-LB: You work with a lot of different teams at the DevOps Dojo. What are some of the most common pitfalls preventing a team from optimizing their delivery process?

Bryan: They are given the wrong problems to solve. They are asked to solve stupid problems like "how many changes did you make today?", "How many stories did you complete this sprint?", They don't know how to work as teams because they are incentivized to work in silos. So, requirements are poorly defined, testing suffers, speed suffers. They need to be solving the business problem. What is measured will change. Be careful what and how you measure.

Necco-LB: What are some first steps a team can take if they want to become more outcome focused?

Bryan: Focus on the business problem and get close to the user. Empathize with them and what value they need. This really applies to anything. If you don't respect your customer, you won't need to worry about them for very long.

Necco-LB: What is the role/responsibility of the developer in this outcome-based development model?

Bryan: On a good development team you have engineers and product ownership. Engineers ship working solutions. They know they are working because they tested them, delivered, them and observed that their tests were accurate.

Rocco Seyboth: In 5 Minute DevOps you talk about observing what high performing teams do then modeling other teams to the same process and behavior... how do you reconcile that with the belief that every team is different and should have the flexibility to do things their own way?

Bryan: Actually, I advocate against cookie cutter templating of teams in that post. We should standardize on improving outcomes.

Necco-LB: Friends, that's just about the top of the hour. Bryan has a real job that needs to get done, but feel free to keep the questions coming asynchronously throughout the day - he'll be popping in and out to answer them. Bryan - thank you so much for joining our community today and answering our questions!

Bryan: Just some contact links to leave and I want to thank everyone for the conversation. I love talking about these topics.
https://www.linkedin.com/in/bryan-finster/

https://bdfinst.medium.com/

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Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This AMA is based on an episode of Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

Following a recent interview on the Dev Interrupted Podcast, OutSystems CEO and founder Paulo Rosado joined us to chat about his path to founding the company, advice for successful leaders, and the growing threat of technical debt. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Tell us about OutSystems' founding story. What inspired you to start the company?

In February 2021, OutSystems was valued at $9.5 billion dollars - but it certainly didn’t start out that way. The idea behind OutSystems was decades in the making, and its mission stems from what I observed after moving to Silicon Valley back in the mid-nineties. 

My journey in technology began when I graduated with a degree in computer engineering from Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Lisbon, Portugal and moved to the US to get my Masters in Computer Science from Stanford. Afterward, while working in Silicon Valley, I began to understand just how much of a problem technical debt was. 

While working on a very large engineering team, we were faced with tackling a gigantic project in Java and I realized the issues of releasing and maintaining code sustainably. The lack of productivity in the software development process was appalling. Fixing this problem is ultimately what motivated me to found OutSystems. 

Before founding OutSystems, there was a small company I founded and later sold, which focused on internet and intranet projects. It wasn’t a bad company, but we kept failing. Projects were never delivered on time or on budget. 

We would think to ourselves, “We’re smart. How is this possible?” Our inclination was to blame the requirements of the project, labeling the scope as incorrect and adjust from there. However, we began to realize that the companies hiring us for these projects wanted us to make changes as we were developing in response to rapidly changing environments. 

The issue we began to face was the continual accumulation of technical debt. We would reach first production and realize we had built something users didn’t want, requiring us to go back and rework the stuff we had just built. 

“We came up with this realization that the problem was not that the requirements up front were wrong. The problem was that the cost of changing wrong requirements, which are a fact of life, is very high.” - on the Dev Interrupted podcast at 6:03

 

This phenomenon was occurring in 90% of projects at the time. Things were always over budget and always late. 

Today, it’s easy to take this for granted because concepts like Agile, DevOps, CI/CD are mainstream. But at the time, you had to build software the same way you build a bridge.  

Why is technical debt a challenge for companies now? How has this problem changed?

Technical debt has become a large problem for businesses, and one that only compounds with time. Tech debt doesn’t have a singular cause - it’s the accumulation of several factors. 

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen first-hand the complexity brought about by the evolution of software development. For instance, we’ve seen an explosion of languages, paradigms and frameworks that can all be used to achieve a solution. Often these languages are dispersed with no connections between them, so tracking these dependencies requires a great deal of sophistication. 

In addition to this, turnover within the development team is a critical problem that leads to technical debt. The moment a company loses a developer, the knowledge accrued by that developer also departs the company. The hole left behind is complex, including code,  frameworks and intent behind how their systems are structured. 

It’s been my experience that a lost team member can take as much as 20% to 30% of the fundamental knowledge of a system with them. Reverse engineering their work is both time-intensive and inefficient. 

Companies have tried to corral this problem by investing in coding standards. While these constraints can help mitigate the loss of a valued developer, our research indicates turnover remains a significant problem. 

OutSystems recently released a study on the effects of technical debt. What were its findings? 

Recently, OutSystems surveyed 500 large companies around the world to examine the cost of technical debt facing businesses and uncover the challenges companies face as they confront its causes. The results from the companies surveyed were many of the same things I’ve observed throughout my career. 

It’s important to note that while the causes of technical debt have largely remained the same, the pace at which technical debt occurs has grown substantially.

And so it's a hack, right? What we call a hack at OutSystems, they did a hack to just release the software quickly. And those hacks compound into technical debt.” - on the Dev Interrupted podcast at 27:11

The survey we conducted isolated three major causes of technical debt. They are as follows: 

  1. The amount of developer frameworks. An increase in frameworks leads to an increase in technical debt. 
  2. Developer erosion. Employees leaving an organization and taking legacy knowledge with them. 
  3. Compromises in quality of architecture and code. Often caused by a shortsighted view that what needs to be done now is more important than long-term stability of the codebase.

In the past, companies believed they could buy their way out of this problem, but that strategy has proven ineffective. The reality is, the most successful companies must build the software they require to meet their business needs. 

Simply purchasing what you need doesn’t solve your problems because even purchased systems must be cobbled together, requiring unique API’s, unique UI’s, unique portals, and unique mobile applications. 

Does OutSystems play a role in helping companies cut tech debt? 

The core of what we do at OutSystems is focused on tackling those three fundamental problems. We understand that technical debt amasses slowly over time, through a myriad of decisions that appear much smaller at their onset than their totality would suggest. Once these “tiny” decisions become a major problem, they inhibit investment in current operations and future innovations. 

The increasing pressures of today’s fast-paced business environment often push companies toward decisions that spiral into technical debt. The good news is that by creating a development process that marries short-term deadlines with long-term strategic goals, it’s possible to “pay down” that debt. 

I believe that any company is capable of whittling away technical debt with the correct tools and processes, and I founded OutSystems because companies shouldn’t have to choose between building fast and building right. 

To learn more about technical debt, how to combat it, and what to expect in the future, you can download the 2021 Technical Debt Report on our website.  

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Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This article is based on an episode of Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

Dan is the founder of Tellspin, an on-call scheduler in Slack for DevOps and developers (https://tellspin.app). Helping workspaces reduce their contact footprint, resolve incidents faster, and regain deep focus.

Code smell is a way to describe code that hasn’t aged well and has the potential for a lot of issues.

It usually is the source of a lot of hot fixes or workarounds keeping it functional. My most common reflex is to rewrite it. However, if I’m not careful, I’ll waste an entire day and not improve anything.

After a decade of programming, here are my 7 steps to reduce code smell gradually.

Step 0: Admit there is a problem

I start to recognize my code is smelly when I start saying things like “that time only took an hour.”

I’m usually doing something simple, like adding another field to a form or another schedule for a customer. I quickly add in code because it feels like the easiest thing to do and ship the feature. There are so many other things on my plate, I don’t have time for this, I’ll say to myself.

By the 5th or 6th hour I’ve hacked the same spot, I realize, had I rewritten it sooner, I would have actually saved time. 

Step 1: Identify spots to clean

Smelly code is so disorganized.

Is it really smelly or do I just not understand it? It’s very tempting to always default to a rewrite. If I write all the code, I’ll understand it. But who is to say the next person who looks at it will?

Similar to profiling code to identify the slowest spot, I work to identify the place that smells the most. Are there sections of the code that new devs are always struggling with? Are there frequent small changes that require touching lots of different files or methods?

Creating a list of smelly code helps identify which sections of code need the most attention.

Step 2: Pick the worst spot

Smelly code is like dirty dishes.

With a stack of dishes, I’ll plug my nose until I dispose of the rotting food that’s causing the stink. It was easy to blame the whole pile, but for the most part, all of the other dishes are fairly clean. They don’t need immediate attention. The rotting smell came from something I forgot to clean off when I was in a hurry.

When there is a piece of code that’s really rotten, it’s often hidden somewhere in the pile. Maybe an abstraction went too far, spreading a hundred lines of code across dozens of files.

I keep in mind that I need to fix the worst smell; most of the other code is good enough and doesn’t need my immediate attention. 

Step 3: Resist the urge to do everything

Smelly code is never-ending.

Perhaps the hardest part of improving a code base is scoping it to one thing. It’s so liberating to finally get a chance to clean up, that I can easily take it too far. I’ll think, “While I’m at it, I might as well clean up this… oh! and that other thing needs fixing too.” 

Resist! Do not do everything. 

If I try to tackle everything, I’m not going to finish. Even more likely, it’s not going to pass code review. It’s better to do one piece at a time - ya know, like eating an elephant. 

Step 4: Make sure it’s better

Smelly code has edge cases.

Inevitably, in the process of rewriting, I discover why the code was written that way in the first place. I might even stumble across a can of worms. At that point, I realize my not-so-dimwitted co-worker wasn’t as dumb as I thought (or even more likely, I discover I was the one who wrote the code originally 🤦‍♂️).

 After learning all the edge cases, I’ll be tempted to walk away.

Step 5: Don’t immediately give up

Smelly code is messy to work with.

I’m frustrated imagining how far away the current code is from a better solution. I’ve got the code in my head, I know the edge cases, and I’ve got the context. It’s important not to give up as the solution may be right around the corner.

I keep thinking about it while I go for a walk. Maybe even take a break. Solutions often come to me while I’m on walks or in the shower.

Step 6: Use the co-worker bobblehead

Smelly code needs attention.

I steal my co-worker’s bobblehead and explain aloud what I’m doing. In the process, I figure out what I've missed or overlooked. 

If a bobble head isn’t available, I resort to using my actual co-workers. (I’m checking my assumptions by walking them through what I’m thinking step by step.)

Step 7: Publish or throw in the towel

Smelly code can improve.

At the end of my steps I have a complete solution or I’m banging my head on the keyboard. If it’s the first, I push the change and take a breath of fresh air. If it’s the second, I commit it to a branch and plan to revisit another day. Sometimes we can’t have nice things.

Rinse and repeat

The depth I go into each step changes based on complexity or how critical the code is. Sometimes I can run through each of the steps in a few minutes, other times it’s spread out over a few weeks. It really depends on what I’m working on.

Running through these steps helps me gradually improve my code. There’s nothing better than finally getting a fix for some smelly code merged and into production. Sometimes we can have nice things.

Dan Willoughby is the founder of Tellspin, an on-call scheduler in Slack for DevOps and developers (https://tellspin.app). Helping workspaces reduce their contact footprint, resolve incidents faster, and regain deep focus.

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Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This article is inspired by Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

 

 

Presenting a Dev Interrupted Community AMA - Adam Furtado - Chief of Platform at Kessel Run - Answering your questions about scaling Kessel Run

How will the wars of the future be fought, and who is heading these advancements in technology? Back in 2017, the US Air Force created a program called Kessel Run, which aids war fighters in the realms of DevOps, Agile, and UX, and the head of this project was an analyst by the name of Adam Furtado. In February of 2021, we interviewed Adam on the Dev Interrupted Podcast and shortly afterward hosted an AMA on our community Discord server.

Adam is the Chief of Platform at Kessel Run, and his story of how he almost single handedly led the US Air Force from 1970's software delivery methods to modern DevOps is one of the most incredible episodes of Dev Interrupted we've had. Adam talks about translating engineering to military officials and how he had to shift his mindset from application development to creating a system of systems. Listen to the episode here: 

This Community AMA took place on February 26, 2021 on the Dev Interrupted Discord.

Necco-LB: 📢 📢 Community AMA📢📢   @everyone

Topic: Scaling Agile & DevOps

We're getting started in 15-minutes! Adam Furtado joins us to share his experience and expertise in scaling his organization (Kessel Run) from 5 >> 200+ developers!

Necco-LB: Let's get this thing started! @here

Welcome to our little community Adam! I can honestly say your episode of Dev Interrupted this week was one of the most interesting episodes I've produced.

Adam Furtado: Thanks for having me! I'm happy to hear that.  Fighter jets are inherently cool.

Necco-LB: I don't think anyone can argue with that. To start things off, Adam can you give the community some quick context about Kessel Run? How many developers in your organization, what you’re building, etc.

Adam: Sure thing, KR is an Air Force organization proving that government-led software development will lead to better mission outcomes than outsourcing our software to companies that specialize in building airplanes (and using the same processes for their software).   We build applications for warfighters to more efficiently strategize, plan, execute, task and assess the complexities of air campaigns. We have grown to about 1300 people… I’d guess. 400 of those are developers.

luisfernandezbr: Adam. What are the top 5 tech/dev metrics that you consider important to measure on a dev team? (Not product metrics like MAU, MRR).

Adam: I think they change as an organization changes... but for the most part I love the DORA 4... I think when used properly (and together!) it can tell you quite a bit about where you need to invest in your organization.  The relationships between the metrics are what drives the value and I think often get forgotten about.

Necco-LB: Were you looking at different things (metrics or ways of visualizing work) when KR was smaller vs today?

Adam: For sure. I led most of our app development at first and we were/are an XP shop.  Our teams were always very diligent about pulling the next story from the top of the backlog etc., so we never really had a WIP problem.  When I moved over to lead our platform org, they were using a poorly-executed pseudo-scrum model and all of a sudden all of the DeGrandis/Kersten/Kim stuff I have been reading my whole career started to make a ton more sense.  In building internal services, it was amazing to be able to see why work visualization matters and SEE the constraints building up.  I'm so glad that I made the switch to build the empathy needed to be a more effective leader.

Necco-LB: Sounds like a big jump indeed. I have to say I’m wicked curious about how software development is different from within the military vs. the corporate environments most of us know.

Adam: Traditionally, the DoD was a case study in poor waterfall dev.  Years of requirement development by people very removed from the work, leading to a contract being put in place that could only feasibly be won by a big defense contractor, years of development to "deliver" the "finished" software to be tested by separate government test organizations for a year or so and then "fielded" manually by folks traveling around the world putting CDs in machines. We've proven that all that risk avoidance actually INCREASES risk and we've had it backwards all along.  To biggest thing we focused on early was how to reach Continuous Delivery with the heavy GRC requirements that we have in Defense (and rightfully so).  So we worked with a forward-leaning IT leader in the Air Force to create and pilot the first Continuous Authority to Operate in the DoD.  So instead of an approval to deploy to classified systems at the "end", we got our processes approved so everything coming out of our org was approved to go into those production environments.  That’s prob the most unique thing.

luisfernandezbr: How you measure the evolution of your dev teams? And what initiatives and practices you use to grow them (like Dojo's etc)? What content do you recommend about DeGrandis/Kersten/Kim?

Adam: Deploy Frequency, Lead Time, Mean Time to Restore and Change/Fail Rate... Accelerate is the bible on this one (Forsgren, Humble, Kim)... Phoenix and Unicorn Project for Gene Kim's take on how to transform IT to DevOps approaches in big, slow companies... Making Work Visible by Domenica DeGrandis is a fantastic book on understanding what keeps us for being as productive as possible.... Mik Kersten's Project to Product on increasing flow.  There are a ton of others, but that's a good start.

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Read the unedited AMA and join in the discussion in the Dev Interrupted Discord here! With over 2000 members, the Dev Interrupted Discord Community is the best place for Engineering Leaders to engage in daily conversation. Join the community >>

Dev Interrupted Discord, the new faces of engineering leadership

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drdwilcox: Thanks for joining us. During the podcast episode you talked about gaining momentum with some early wins. How did you keep that momentum going?

Adam: We struggled there, to be honest. The early wins were so much easier to "sell" to stakeholders.  "There wasn't an app before... now there is.  So I'm impressed". The first year we were deploying MVPs left and right and were the Belle of the ball.   However in building large scale systems, we started focusing a lot more on our infrastructure, data models, optimization, internally efficiencies... and things that were providing real value- but weren't as visible.  Those things are a lot less interesting to stakeholders. The Government has a very output-centric approach to value.  We have focused on building an outcome-driven organization, so there is always a conflict when discussing what is or isn't valuable.

drdwilcox: I don't think it's just the government, to be honest. I have the same struggles in my private company. Output as defined by Product are sexy, all the other things are not. What was effective for you in getting the stakeholders re-engaged?

Adam: It's still a work in progress, to be honest.  We constantly harp on the risk of NOT transforming in this way.  The 2018 National Defense Strategy hits on this hard and all of our Senior leaders are pushing the same message.  So that has been really helpful.  General Brown, AF Chief of Staff, has done a great job of being clear about where we need to drive, so that allows us a bit of a trump card when we come into contact with someone who is trying to hold back progress.

Necco-LB: That idea of selling to stakeholders is really interesting, especially in the military. What did you have to say or do to convince your higher-up that  the counter-intuitive dev methodologies like releasing more frequently was worth a try?

Adam: We had no support early on.  The incentive process in the military rewards people who follow the rules and work within the system.  We sort of worked quietly off to the side on a project nobody really cared about to prove the value once delivered.  Once we got that delivered… we had MASSIVE dollar savings, so we started to be loud about it.  In fact, we were told not to use the “Kessel Run” moniker by higher ups… we decided to do it anyway and started promoting pretty hard.  By the time our first FastCompany article came out, all those senior leaders changed their tune and now they will say they were supporters all along. I am constantly doing that translation/evangelism work. And in the military, people swap out of positions every year or so generally, so some new person will get dropped in with no idea what’s going on and we need to start over again.  “Nope, the cloud is a real place…” Continuous Delivery has broken every gov process.  The test community doesn’t know what to do or look for… Requirement Managers don’t understand their place.  Configuration Management is just…. Different now.  I don’t need some guy managing a spreadsheet of what versions of software are deployed where.   We are in a weird transition period right now. In a lot of ways those stakeholders are sick of hearing from me.  I'm sure they hear Charlie-Brown-teacher-voice when I try to discuss this stuff at this point.  So we have worked on finding the proper champions in higher up places to do that work for us.  The very top of the Air Force totally gets it.  It's everyone in between who need to keep their head down to keep rising in the ranks.  (Tale as old as time...)

Necco-LB: Geez, what a thing. I can't believe you have the energy to continuously fight these battles within your own organization.

Cartoon of two people "Yeah so - don
Read more about Kessel Run and smuggling DevOps into the Department of Defense

Adam: Someone once told me a story about this dad who brought his family to the beach.  They had this big, pink inflatable bunny that the kids were using in the water.  Every so often the bunny would deflate and the kids would run back up the beach to the dad and he would huff and puff and blow it back up.  Kids would be happy and go back in the water.  An hour later, kids are back again and the dad is blowing it back up.  This person said "that is what innovation in the government is like".  Every once in awhile you need someone or something to "pump up your bunny".   The work I do is so exciting and fulfilling, all the BS that I have to deal with, all the money that government employees are leaving on the table, the bureaucracy ends up being worth it.

Necco-LB: That is a great analogy. Reminds me of how you talked about the mission driven culture at KR on the podcast. Can you talk about why you believe the culture of your organization is so important? And any advice you might have for organizations who are bifurcated?

Adam: Organizational alignment is incredibly important.  One place we have struggled is that we put such an emphasis on teams, that teams built strong individual identities.  They were empowered to solve their problem, but over time became less concerned about other teams' problems.  This was never more evident than working with the ops/platform teams.  The app teams knew what their users needed and all they cared about was meeting their needs.   Meanwhile, we had a whole organization with organizational outcomes that were the priority.  Let to a lack of empathy across teams and the communicate at the seams of teams was challenging. We are still digging ourselves out of that, but one thing we focus on is that mission-driven culture.  All it takes is a day like yesterday, with airstrikes in Syria, to level-set everyone on the seriousness of our work.  The mission aligns the teams towards a common goal and common outcomes.

luisfernandezbr: Adam. Thanks for the great tips. What were the big challenges that you had when increasing the dev team?  Things like knowledge sharing, share learning and maintain quality and excellence. Could you share some tips about this, if it is the case?

Adam: We sucked at all those things.  That mission-driven culture led us down the unenviable path about feeling so much pressure to deliver and support our users, that tech debt mounted and documentation suffered.  We struggled investing in automation in favor of getting short term wins.   The last year we have really rebalanced and ensured that we are providing space for our teams to organize their time better.  None of it was intentional, but regardless of what we said, we (leadership) were giving off the vibe that teams couldn't possibly slow down to invest in tech debt or spend time focusing on automating toil away.  We have had to be super clear that it is EXPECTED that teams work at a sustainable pace, invest in their code bases, invest in their professional growth and personal health and be okay saying "no". We have a lot of military members on our team, so saying "no" to your superiors is always a culture change we have to work on internally.

Necco-LB: Working on technical dept and automation vs. new features is something everyone can relate with for sure. I think we'll let Adam get back to his far more important job at Kessel Run. One last question, if someone here wants to get involved with Kessel Run, where can they go? Should they reach out to you?

Adam: This was fun- thanks for having me.  You can follow me on Twitter at @adamsfurtado or you can reach out directly at afurtado@kr.af.mil.  To follow along with KR, you can follow @kesselrunAF on most social media platform. I'd also like to plug that we are currently hiring for a bunch of roles from product leadership to engineers.  It's an incredible place to work and you can make a real impact.  Please take a look and reach out to me with any questions! Thanks again!

Antonette: Job opportunities at Kessel Run here: https://grnh.se/3201d1713us

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Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This AMA is based on an episode of Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

Listen and subscribe on your streaming service of choice today.

Dev interrupted Discover our Most Popular Podcasts - with a variety of headshots from former speakers

Putting employees and your community first should be a crucial priority for every organization, and it shouldn’t exist only in principle - it must exist as an actionable goal. Fostering a community within your team creates a foundation for high-performance, but it only works if you lead people-first.

At Stack Overflow, the level of collaboration between engineers is a step above any other organization I have seen. It takes conscious effort on the part of leadership to foster a work environment that puts employees first. Managers should choose to put people first, because it’s the right thing to do, not just a vague claim to a cliche. 

Thankfully, we live in a world where the data demonstrates that caring for people first is also the economic thing to do. No one has ever done a better job because they were scared, stressed, or worried about their future; especially in jobs centered around creativity and problem solving such as software development.

This commitment to people is the leadership philosophy behind Stack and helps guide our decision-making and our workplace culture. It also helped us to create Collectives™ on Stack Overflow. To get there, we needed a successful engineering team and culture - here’s how we built it. 

Indicators of team health

Common metrics that organizations tend to follow are often a symptom of a team’s performance, but not necessarily the whole story. Velocity, predictability, bug rate, etc should be viewed as an indicator of team health, not as a goal to be achieved; sometimes the best indicators to follow are subjective, and relative to the people and teams. 

After all, what does success look like? If people are getting what they need, agreed upon expectations are being met, and team morale is high, that’s real success. If this kind of people-driven success is occurring, you’ll start to notice that things like velocity time and predictability will naturally improve and not the other way around.

For the record, predictability should never be the goal. The end goal should always be to create value for your customers and/or your community. Any team - or manager for that matter - can make predictability look good if they are making sure that they never fail a given estimate on paper, but that’s not an indicator of good product creation.

If you're actually producing value, and you have a well run team, predictability will follow. It's a side effect, a symptom of good team health. 

Servant Leadership

At Stack Overflow, we’ve had long talks about what metrics we feel provide valuable feedback and those we believe are valuable to track. Numbers are important and should not be ignored, but again, they should not be the standalone goal. Tracking the right metrics should facilitate introspection for your organization and leaders would do well to keep this in mind. If we have a bad sprint, it tends to trigger us to think, “what went wrong?” and “how can we improve this for next time?” instead of thinking this was a failure of certain individuals.

For instance, if you had a sprint where you achieved a really high velocity, you should celebrate that success. But at the same time, you should be asking yourself what led to that success. Was there a behavior that changed? Not everything is internal. Sometimes external factors, a pandemic as an apropos example, influence successful team metrics just as much as internal ones do. Remember to look behind the metrics to see what’s impacting team members.


As far as following specific methodologies is concerned, try not to get hung up on the little things; analysis paralysis occurs is often a huge drain on performance and focus of the team. Time spent sitting around and arguing about whether something is a three point or a four point story is not productive. Call it a four and keep moving. Good leaders should keep their developers developing, while removing any hindrances to their performance, ideally before it is even on their radar.

Building a team and your product

If you’ve been around software development long enough, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of joining an organization where everything is dictated in a top-down approach. This kind of “my way or the highway” thinking ultimately undermines your teams and makes your organization rigid in an industry that is far more creative than some like to admit. 

A good manager will do their best to accommodate their teams, even if that means allowing a team to communicate or operate in a way that is not established within an organization. Recently, one of my most productive teams started to struggle after the project we were working on started to shift. A lot of the QA and code review work associated with the stories became large and unwieldy and the common practice was to have that wrapped in with the dev story. That makes sense after all, the former can’t ship without the later. Eventually we just tried separating out the more cumbersome tasks into their own stories. The immediate and biggest reaction was from folks overly invested in the metrics: we just doubled our stories and made it appear that story cycle time virtually doubled. The instinct was to say “this is a step backward. Undo it all,” but that would be ignoring what's going on behind the metrics: more work was getting done, and the bug count dropped. As those were saying we need to go back because the metrics showed team health was bad, my response was to just change the metrics to accurately reflect our healthier team that chose their own workflow.

Adopting this mindset as a manager provides huge returns for your organization. People are happier when they are not being forced into something that doesn't fit. With team members that control how they work, on their own and especially with each other, comes higher value creation.

Work-life Balance

I have never met anyone that works better when they’re worried about what’s going on in their personal life. I’ve found this over and over in my career as a developer and eventually a manager inspired me to write about it. People who are under stress feel strained to come up with strong solutions and tend to generate less errors. Those people who say “this person just works well under pressure” are really just saying “This person's performance doesn’t fold as much as others once emergencies happen.” That's a good quality for them, sure, but nothing an team should brag about; that should be embarrassing that it happened enough that some people have reputations around crises.

Work-life balance is not something a company sacrifices, that’s zero sum thinking. It’s been shown time and again that the opposite is true. Providing people with things like leave, and an investment in their mental health has more for an organization’s productivity than filling out timesheets ever will. At Stack we have a policy of unlimited sick days, no questions asked. If you need a day, we trust you to be able to take care of yourself. 

When you take care of people they will work better and faster - that’s also what they want to do. Regardless of the stereotypes people will often hear from naysayers who balk at the idea of unlimited sick time, the folks who just want to phone it in and game the system are the minority. So much so, that spending the effort considering how to manage the time a person takes a sick day when they aren’t sick is probably more of a time sink than how much it will happen. 

By choosing to be invested in your people’s health, an organization chooses to be a place that values its employees. When you avoid zero sum thinking, getting trapped in the idea that if employees are benefiting the company must be losing, you begin to realize that working with, instead of against, those you represent leads to happier people and a better bottom line. 

We took all these leadership principles and applied them to Collectives

At Stack Overflow, we’re quite a flat company. And I don’t mean this by measuring the number of levels between an engineer and the CEO (it’s 4, for the record), but people of all levels have a voice in product decisions. Engineers are heavily involved in what we build and how it is built. Being a company built for engineers and driven by engineers is a huge part of why Stack Overflow is successful. 

This success has allowed a beautiful community to thrive on our public platform, but we are always looking at how best we can give back to that community. How do we help our community grow? How do we make those experiences more meaningful? Those are the questions that guide us at Stack. 

“Anything that fosters our users’ ability to help each other and to benefit from it. That's always a homerun.” - from the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 34:54

With that in mind, we’ve launched Collectives, a new way for the community to interact with the maintainers of the technology they use most. 

As I discussed on the Dev Interrupted Podcast, Collectives are dedicated spaces on Stack Overflow where you can find the resources (including questions and technical articles) and trusted answers you need, faster, by centralizing that content and connecting you with the product experts and trusted users. For instance, if you have questions about Google Go, you can get answers directly from those who help maintain the language.


I am extremely proud of the work that went into this, and the work that we continue to do to make it something our users can enjoy. Like all new adventures, there is a constant feedback loop we work through to try and keep making Collectives, and Stack Overflow, a better and more welcoming place. 

It is still the Stack Overflow you know and love

The Beta release of Collectives was a huge success. We’ve seen over 20,000 users join Collectives on Stack Overflow and start collaborating since the launch in June. That said, we know we don’t have a Collective for everyone (yet). For users that don't want to take part, or haven't found a Collective that they're excited about yet, their Stack Overflow experience is not going to change.

For instance, we're not changing accepted answers, whether it comes from Google (our new partner) or not. If people don't vote for an answer, it doesn't get accepted. Content moderation will be treated the same way. Moderators will interact with content from sponsored users just like they would anyone else. 

“I think the most positive thing about it is that people aren't losing the site that they love, and that we're really proud of.” - from the Dev Interrupted Podcast at 33:22

With our community update, organizations will be able to improve the visibility and detail of content being created around their technologies, and users will be able to find more relevant and accurate answers they can put to use solving problems while being better recognized for their contributions. Ultimately providing both organizations and users with more actionable insights. 

These efforts allow Stack to build better communities because after all that’s really what we do: we are in the business of building communities. 

Collectives do just that. 

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Starved for top-level software engineering content? Need some good tips on how to manage your team? This article is based on an episode of Dev Interrupted - the go-to podcast for engineering leaders.

Dev Interrupted features expert guests from around the world to explore strategy and day-to-day topics ranging from dev team metrics to accelerating delivery. With new guests every week from Google to small startups, the Dev Interrupted Podcast is a fresh look at the world of software engineering and engineering management.

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