Three years into my software engineering career I was loving life. I could fix anything in the codebase with no doubts in my ability. I was confident, too. Most 24 year olds are. When I was offered the opportunity to become a dev team lead I jumped at the chance. With so much confidence, what could go wrong?
The first few months hit me like a freight train. I might have been a good developer, but I wasn’t a good leader - not yet. It was a humbling experience that I continue to grow from to this day. Great leaders understand that learning is a process that evolves over time, but only if you open yourself up.
In the past year as the host of the Dev Interrupted podcast, I have had the pleasure of interviewing and learning from some of the best engineering leaders in the business.
Here are 5 of their most inspiring lessons:
Always be delegating
Brendan Burns, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft
Brendan is widely known as one of the co-founders of Kubernetes. But he is also responsible for managing over 650 engineers at Microsoft. Even though Brendan takes time to schedule as many one on ones as possible - sometimes as many as 14 in one day, and something he views as a priority as more teams become remote - he knows such large teams can only be successfully managed through delegation.
Let go of the instinct to jump into every project. It’s ok if your teams make mistakes. They’re going to learn, but only if you give them the space and agency to grow. Stepping away from micromanaging can feel scary, but it will set your organization up for long term success and your employees will thank you for it.
Remote first, not remote friendly
Shweta Saraf, Senior Director of Engineering at Equinix
Shweta had the unique experience of undergoing a fully-remote acquisition during the pandemic. Her small team was acquired by Equinix, the largest data center company in the world. As if this adjustment wouldn’t have been difficult enough on its own, Equinix wanted Shweta and her team to teach them - an organization with over 30,000 employees worldwide - how to implement remote work best practices.
To be as successful as possible with this transition they chose to embrace remote work completely. There would be no half measures. If they were going to become a remote work company, they would be remote first - not remote friendly.
Leadership with empathy
Ben Matthews, Director of Engineering at Stack Overflow
Ben wants leaders everywhere to know that no one has ever done a better job because they were scared, stressed, or worried about their future. Especially not in jobs centered around creativity and problem solving like software development. Providing people with benefits such as mental health days does more for an organization’s productivity than measuring hours worked ever could.
When you take care of people they will work better and faster - that’s also what they want to do. Everyone wants to be successful. Value creation happens when people are provided for, not when they are treated like widgets.
Comparison leads to unhappiness
Kathryn Koehler, Director of Productivity Engineering
Kathryn believes that what’s being delivered is ultimately of greater importance than how something is being delivered. Though she is in charge of making sure engineering teams at Netflix run smoothly and efficiently, she takes great care when evaluating a team’s performance. She understands that productivity isn’t simple math.
That’s because 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. Ranking teams against each other shouldn’t be the goal. Success is best measured in context, not in competition.
Darren Murph, Global Head of Remote at GitLab
Darren tells anyone that will listen there is a quick way to improve your meetings: make them harder to have. He believes people deserve to be able to focus on their work. No one wants to sit on video calls all day. Zoom fatigue is real. Focus should remain on critical day-to-day functions, not on hopping in and out of meetings that leave you feeling exhausted and unproductive.
Leaders should embrace tools like Slack that allow teams to gather consensus asynchronously. Reserving synchronous time for purposeful meetings like making decisions or sharing important status updates.
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The office of the 20th century is a testament to design. A great deal of thought goes into the layout of a building. How are the offices laid out? Where are the elevators located? Where will teams meet? But the focus on co-located office space is quickly becoming a relic of the past. To meet the challenges of the 21st century GitLab's Head of Remote Darren Murph is pushing organizations to put just as much thought into their remote work structure as they would an office building.
For many companies, the transition to this mindset comes with difficulty. They've shifted into remote work as a necessity, but maintain the 20th-century ‘office-first’ mindset. While this is passable and can work, it's not ultimately taking advantage of the key benefits of a virtual atmosphere.
To take advantage of the shifting dynamics, GitLab is using their own platform to consolidate all of their virtual collaboration. Providing a single source of truth, GitLab has designed the virtual version of a central hallway where all work is funneled. This breaks down organizational siloes and enables the GitLab team to collaborate with maximum efficiency, by making sure that everything is as visible and as transparent as possible for everyone in the organization.
A company’s ‘central hallway’ is going to look different from organization to organization, but the takeaway for all remote organizations and engineering leaders should be the importance of de-siloing information across your organization. This will encourage virtual collaboration and boost creativity.
Meetings that Support Remote Culture
A Chief People Officer once asked Darren, “How do we make our meetings better?” His response? “Make them harder to have.”
Darren believes that you should have as few meetings as possible because people deserve to be able to focus on their work. From this belief flows the practice of using tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to gather consensus asynchronously, and then reserve synchronous time for meetings where only decisions are made or important status updates are shared.
This has the effect of focusing a team’s attention which is important as teams become distributed around the globe, and time zones become a greater issue. It's far too easy for your entire day to be meeting with teams across your organization, with people coming online in various time zones to fill your day. Instead, the focus should remain on having critical day-to-day functions performed asynchronously - with meetings taking a back seat.
In addition to focusing an organization's efforts, being thoughtful about structuring remote work also reduces meeting fatigue. We’ve all experienced being on Zoom or other video conferencing software continuously throughout the day. Not only is it inefficient and distracting, but it can lower your company morale and leave you exhausted and feeling like you didn't accomplish anything during the day.
Darren’s ideas may have seemed radical just a couple of years ago. But he and the folks at GitLab are pioneering - and thriving - in today’s remote environment. The office of the 21st century is undoubtedly going to be virtual, so remember to put as much rigor and thought into your virtual work structure as you would if you were designing a building.
To learn more about how GitLab and other companies transitioned to remote work, check out Dev Interrupted's Remote Work Panel on August 11, from 9-10am PST.
Interested in learning more about how to implement remote work best practices at your organization?
Join us tomorrow, August 11, from 9am-10am PST for a panel discussion with some of tech’s foremost remote work experts. This amazing lineup features:
- Darren Murph Head of Remote at GitLab & Guinness World Record Holder as the most prolific blogger ever
- Lawrence Mandel Director of Engineering at Shopify & Hockey Enthusiast
- Shweta Saraf Senior Director of Engineering at Equinix & Plato Mentor
- And the Panda himself, Chris Downard VP of Engineering at GigSmart
Dan Lines, COO of LinearB, will be moderating a discussion with our guests on how they lead their teams remotely, how the current workplace is changing, and what's next as the pandemic continues to change
Don't miss the event afterparty hosted in discord from 10-10:30am with event speakers Chris and Shweta, as well as LinearB team members Dan Lines and Conor Bronsdon.
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