Technical-organizational balance ⚖️

I recently started focusing on technical work after several months of organizational work and it’s been a lot of fun. I explicitly missed a couple things: being directly involved in a project, especially focusing deeply on a problem, and working closely with a small team.

A manager friend half-jokingly described the switch as career-limiting. He also joked we’re not paid to work only on things we enjoy. I can see his point, but there must be a balance. We are paid to do things well, and I think that’s difficult when we don’t enjoy what we’re doing, at least in part.

This recent switch has me thinking of “The Engineer/Manager Pendulum” and the follow-up “Engineering Management: The Pendulum Or The Ladder”. All the quotes below are from these essays.

If management isn’t a promotion, then returning to hands-on work isn’t a demotion, either.

I prefer the term “organizational” to “management” for the non-technical work I do because most people think of the latter as people management. I wasn’t a people manager, but I was focused on project management, spent most of my time in meetings and learned to avoid any technical work in the critical path because I had no uninterrupted time to focus on it.

A tech lead is a manager … but their first priority is achieving the task at hand, not grooming and minding the humans who work on it.

The author provides appropriate advice:

Stop writing code and engineering in the critical path

The author mentions skill erosion after two years, but I experienced something similar after just a few months. Perhaps because I needed to make room in my head for a diversity of projects, I lost the context to go deep on any one of them. My activities were described as “leadership”, but I felt like those more directly involved were actually leading in a technical sense. I can see a need for leadership that stays out of the weeds, eg to avoid the sunk cost fallacy, but my role felt like an awkward middle-ground.

I think of this dichotomy as “technical” vs “organizational”. Both are important, but difficult to do well at the same time.

Management is highly interruptive, and great engineering — where you’re learning things — requires blocking out interruptions. You can’t do these two opposite things at once.

“Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” is an essay I think of often on that topic.

Anyway, I think this feeling of fun is positive feedback that it was time for the pendulum to swing from organizational work back to technical work.

… you can feel your skills getting rusty and your effectiveness dwindling. You owe it to yourself to figure out what makes you happy and build a portfolio of experiences that liberate you to do what you love.

I find the phrase “career growth” often refers to increased prestige, rather than fulfillment.

Try to resist the default narratives about promotions and titles and roles, they have nothing to do with what satisfies your soul.

Impact

A professional koan: of the projects I can work on, which has the most impact for the business?

Thinking about this highlights the importance of a prioritized backlog. If impact is a component of the prioritization, then the project with the highest impact is clear.

A senior manager recently commented on some faulty advice they’d heard about service development being more important than client development. They clarified that impact determines importance. We should be working on projects with impact.

“The Secret to Growing Your Engineering Career If You Don’t Want to Manage” makes several good points.

Many engineers become managers because management provides an obvious and well-defined leverage point to scale your impact.

It’s relatively easy to produce more if I can delegate work out to a team.

The less conventional paths outside of management require more creativity, and there are fewer available narratives of successful engineers outside of management for us to model ourselves after.

I can attest to this, and explore it further in “Technical-organizational balance”, but I find it surprising given the idea of parallel tech and management tracks is ostensibly common practice.

Your ability to decide where to spend your efforts to maximize your impact — what code to write, what software to build, and which business problems to tackle … You identify and solve problems that are core to the business, or you enable those around you to more effectively solve those core business problems.

Hopefully our ability to identify projects with high impact improves over time.

“How to Grow as an Engineer (Working Remotely)” also touches on impact.

It’s also not enough to just solve any problems. You need to be solving the right ones. You should constantly make sure there’s alignment between what you want and what the business needs…

Working agreement

I’ve had a good experience with something called a “working agreement” in the last couple teams I’ve worked on.

The main value I’ve seen is in the discussion, when everyone can have a voice regarding how a high-performing team operates. The process can help a new team gel. The resulting artifact provides a third value of resolving operational details for future reference. For example, rather than debate an issue anew, we can just reference the agreement, which all parties had a role in.

I’ve found a scaffolding helpful for structuring the conversation:

  • Core values
  • Expectations
  • Norms
  • Agreements

Core values are simple ideals and can be aspirational. For example, “we provide each other psychological safety”, or “we do our best work together.” An artificial constraint of, say, five values can help motivate discussion, and improve accessibility of the resulting list.

Expectations provide an opportunity to state explicitly what we might be assuming. For example, “I assume best intentions” or “I assume folks have the big picture in mind, even for small changes.”

Norms provide an opportunity to express preferences. For example, “(given designing, writing and reviewing code requires focused attention) I benefit from no-meeting blocks”, or “I read emails, but aggressively purge (so I don’t mind a follow-up a day later).” Note that norms are becoming more operational.

Agreements build on and finalize the preceding sections. For example, “(To work efficiently and respectfully) we’ll respond to code review requests within a day, or communicate otherwise” or “We’ll use a single email adress for the team, differentiated by suffix (so it’s easy to find all emails, but it’s also possible to filter).”

It can take some time to build rapport, especially if the team is new, so budget an hour for discussion, and likely an additional hour on another day to finalize. It’s helpful to share the scaffolding in advance, so folks can start adding ideas. Having a different person lead development of each section improves participation.

These teams have a stated goal to review the agreement periodically, but in practice I’ve found on-demand is sufficient.

“The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done” by Cal Newport

Cal Newport, who wrote a book I like called Deep Work, recently wrote an article “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done” on the decline in popularity of productivity tools, largely due to their inefficacy dealing with a steadily increasing onslaught of said things.

I’ve tried GTD and various todo apps and can relate. Inbox zero still has value for me, though I’ve had more success with regular, aggressive purging than meticulous categorization. The former has also been an effective strategy in general, eg binary prioritization.

I’ve found team autonomy to be an effective goal, and was interested to learn about a history of the term in the workplace:

[Peter] Ducker argued that autonomy would be the central feature of the new corporate world

Newport makes a distinction that autonomy doesn’t mean isolation:

Productivity, we must recognize, can never be entirely personal

I agree. Prolonged isolation is an anti-pattern, but I still think there’s value in reserving time for focus work, focusing on the things we can change, and ensuring folks have what they need to make the changes they’re tasked with.

Newport has a great insight regarding overload being caused by a lack of awareness into other’s time:

Because so much of our effort in the office now unfolds in rapid exchanges of digital messages, it’s convenient to allow our in-boxes to become an informal repository for everything we need to get done. This strategy, however, obscures many of the worst aspects of overload culture. When I don’t know how much is currently on your plate, it’s easy for me to add one more thing […] Consider instead a system that externalizes work [emphasis added]. Following the lead of software developers, we might use virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time

The article repeatedly reminded me of agile, which is eventually alluded to: “Following the lead of software developers … What if you began each morning with a status meeting in which your team confronts its task board? …”

I like the idea of constraining input to status meetings. It’s a challenge in practice, but worth exploring in principle.

Bias to the server-side

Problem statement

I was recently working on a support issue, which had client- and server-side aspects. Complicating the issue, we only had partial visibility into server-side health and no visilibity into client-side health. It was hard to even tell where to start investigating. We were also working closely with a partner, who could give us some visilbility, but with high coordination cost.

One approach was to create client visiblity for us and the partner, but this would take time to roll out, didn’t immediately reduce the coordination cost and risked fatiguing the partner.

An alternative approach was to increase the server-side visiblity. We took this approach because we could start investigating immediately (no coordination cost or roll out latency). We might even be able to resolve the issue without requiring the partner to do any work. Also, having more visibility and confidence in the server-side would help if/when we do need to make client-side changes.

Solution

So, my takeaway is simple: when faced with a choice between server- and client-side options, bias toward server-side.

From a product perspective, any work required of customers is friction to adoption. From a technical perspective, it’s much easier to change servers than clients.

The value of a dashboard

Problem statement

A project I’m familiar with recently had a series of issues. Each issue was investigated somewhat independently. It was hard to share common code, share data across roles and track progress over time.

Solution

  1. Capture canonical queries in version control
  2. Periodically run queries, persist and visualize output (aka ETL)
  3. At a higher level, invest in tooling to facilitate such dashboard creation

The end result is much more awareness of the underlying data. Folks in different roles can see the data and ask questions, which often improves the quality of analysis. For example, we now review the dashboard weekly and look for changes as we roll out fixes. Because we now have a pipeline, we can also run different data sources through it to check the analysis.

Resume guidance

I’ve recently been reviewing student resumes as part of a university recruiting program and a few best-practices stand out.

Google has a good video on resume formatting that describes most of these practices. In these cases, I mention a time in the video.

Ok. Here are the best-practices:

  • Recommended resume format at ~2:30
  • Resumes are read in the context of a job description (example). Companies hiring for a job read a resume to see if you have the training and/or experience to do that job, so
    • You can briefly describe what the project was, but invest most space describing what you did and how you did it. Google recommends a phrasing at ~6:00: “Accomplished [x] as measured by [y] doing [z]”
    • Bold key words to highlight your toolkit (~5:25), eg “backend engineer”, “python”, etc, so the reader can match the resume to the role at a glance.
  • It takes a lot of effort to tune a resume for all applications, but may be worth it for the 1-2 jobs you really want
  • Ideally, your resume tells a story, eg some Python in year 1, more Python in year 2, created a service using Python in year 3 –> this person has experience in Python and is using it to start exploring service eng
  • Submitting a resume may feel like an impersonal process, but it’s just people on the other side looking for new teammates. That’ll be you after you’re hired 🙂 The points above try to make it easy for that person to see you’re a great fit for the job.

Squads

This is an organizational pattern I like:

  • 2-5 ppl
  • Cross-functional
  • Focused on a specific goal
  • Weekly demo to squad

I’ve heard this refered to as a “squad”, “swarm”, “e team” and “feature team”.

One of the nice things is the sense of comraderie from working closely with a small group on a specific goal. Another nice thing is the group dissolves after the goal is accomplished, giving the members closure and chances to try new things without switching teams. Another benefit is broad awareness of how a system works.

This pattern works well in a larger context:

  • Shared code ownership
  • 10-50 ppl
  • Focused on a specific, but larger goal
  • Fortnightly demos from all squads
  • Shared calendar for all squad coordination meetings

When a squad accomplishes its goal, the members dissolve into the larger group. Individuals can learn about work in the larger group by attending the fortnightly demos and/or sitting in on other squads’ coordination meetings.

For example, a product may be supported by several teams. To avoid exposing the org chart in the product, make a large team who’s goal is to make that product excellent. Define a squad for each significant work item. All members of the large group are free to contribute code to the product.

An underlying principle is alignment around customer value over specific products or features. Rather than a group of people owning a code base in perpetuity, regardless of the amount of work required, squads form in response to need.

A counter-example would be several teams supporting a product and that product having disjoint features. Another counter-example would be a large team trying to maintain the interest of all its members in weekly coordination meetings. Yet another counter-example would be lots of individuals working in isolation, esp if they’re doing so to avoid coordination co

Binary prioritization

Prioritizing unplanned work is hard, especially when we’re overwhelmed.

In this context, I’ve found it helpful to split things into two groups: important or not. My team calls this “binary prioritization”. We work on the important stuff and forget everything else; anything misidentified as unimportant will bubble back up.

Brandon Chu’s essay “Ruthless Prioritization” provides a helpful distinction: work within a project vs work between projects. The former benefits from binary prioritization; the latter from a more rigorous process, like OKRs.

This also reminds me of Amazon’s “Bias for action” principle, and the Agile principles. For example, Agile embraces change (“Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage”). Binary prioritization enables us to embrace a high volume of change.

Bias for action

This is straight from Amazon’s leadership principles. It also seems related to binary/ruthless prioritization, the Agile principle of “Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done”, and customer focus.

An ambiguous problem may have many possible solutions. We risk slowing to a halt investigating all of them. It’s helpful to regularly question if a given task is important. “Analysis paralysis” might describe this, but I prefer Amazon’s phrasing: “Bias for action”.

As a concrete example, in an interview, there may be many possible ways to solve a problem, but time is limited and solving the problem by any means is preferable to identifying all possible solutions without implementing any.