How to get engineering teams to eat their vegetables
These are the (polished) speaker notes from my talk “How to get engineering teams to eat their vegetables,” first given at The Lead Developer in London, England on 23 June 2016.
Many factors contribute to developer happiness. However, as engineers, we’re often singularly obsessed with the idea that our job satisfaction comes solely from solving only the most interesting technical challenges. In reality, research shows that we perform best when we are rested, feel valued, and feel connected to a cause so we can focus on high-priority work ¹.
This talk will focus on ways engineering teams can foster excellent working environments and cultures with minimally felt process: much like sneaking vegetables into desserts.
Let’s imagine the last time you felt excited at work. How did you feel? You probably felt like you were gelling with your team, that your work had meaning, that you were impactful. You probably felt well-rested! How great would it be to feel this way all the time?
The title of this talk is, “How to get engineering teams to eat their vegetables.” What do I mean by that? I don’t think it’s a secret that the technology industry can be a hard industry to work in if you’re a member of an under-indexed group. The question we have to address, then, is: how can the most people do their best work?
We want to work on how to foster excellent working environments with minimal process. The best process is one that isn’t overwrought, and isn’t really felt. This means using cultural norms as undocumented process. Unmanaged norms can lead to tricky situations, but when utilized appropriately they can be used to great effect.
Research points to a few overarching things being overwhelmingly important when we think of excellent working environments. Yes, interesting projects are important. However, satisfaction, productivity, and high performance can all be traced to teams. Dysfunctions can, too. We’re going to talk about excellent team dynamics.
Why, though? Why is this important? Why should you care? Why should I?
I’m interested in these systems because I’m a black woman and an engineer. This world is not carved for me. When things go wrong at work, I’m never sure if it’s because I’m a woman in a male-dominated field, or because I’m a person of color, or, if I plain-and-simple didn’t understand. This doubt radiates in the background, and colors every interaction I have in the workplace. As I exist in spaces I “shouldn’t,” my engineer’s brain is eternally pattern matching, looking for repeatable patterns that would help me feel more comfortable in the workplace.
My hypothesis is that the principles for general engineering happiness in the workplace correlate to inclusive environment for different kinds of people. A rising tide lifts all boats.
As software continues to proliferate, we need to consider that tech doesn’t only export the products it makes — but it also exports its culture and norms, and increasingly its idea of work, and how that work is done. I’m specifically speaking to corporate environments, but tech also sells this idea of “micro-entrepreneurship” pretty hard as well, which has its own sets of problems and indignities.
So, then: if we expect, realistically the world to work the way we work, we should iterate and improve upon our working process. As it stands now, it could really do with some improvement. Recently, a lot has been made about the future of work. The New York Times Magazine did a whole spread on it, and arguably, Slack is lending its voice to the conversation via our assertion that chat is the future of work communication.
Practically speaking, coordination is on the rise. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that “over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” ² What’s more, “at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.” ³ When I think about my day, I spend a lot of it coordinating — in pull requests, in spec writing, in staff meetings.
This means, that if a company is looking for a competitive advantage, “it needs to influence not only how people work, but also how they work together.” ²
The one thing I know to be true is that software is an an intensely coordination-heavy and highly collaborative process.
Software? That’s the easy part. I never understood why we didn’t call software engineering “soft skills” — it’s in the name! The truly hard skills are interacting with people.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard
To switch gears a bit — in the modern context, work provides a great deal of meaning: we make friends, construct a community, and in some cases, even meet spouses. It’s a great example of a secular community.
I don’t know about you, but I care about my work. It matters to me because if I’m going to spend my life, literally my life, my waking hours on something, I want it to mean something. I want it to count.
A society that’s based on what Noam Chomsky calls “Adam Smith’s vile maxim,” which is of course, idea that it’s “all for myself, nothing for anyone else” — that’s a society in which normal human instincts and emotions of sympathy, solidarity, mutual support are squashed and driven out.⁴ That’s ugly, and I want to spend my time making something beautiful.
We shouldn’t be striving to suppress our human instincts of community building, vulnerability, mutual support, but instead we should be trying to work in concert with them. Instead of labeling them as weaknesses we should be calling them what they are, which are strengths.
I want to be clear that there are shadow sides to this talk, and we’ll be discussing them as I go. By “shadow,” I mean a “dark, or less ideal aspect.”
Firstly, this talk is heavily based in the social research I could find, but who knows who or what the researchers were optimizing for? I’m not at all sure what which groups were studied, or the makeup of these groups, so your milage may vary.
Secondly, this is definitely an idealist pitch, a high-water mark that we can progress towards.
Thirdly, I’m a single, straight, cis, childfree woman. There are privileges to that! I am immensely satisfied by my work, but I don’t think we should be consumed by it, nor am I suggesting that professional successes are the only important ones in life.
I did quite a lot of research from this talk, and much of it comes from the following books: Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen; Better, Smarter, Faster by Charles Duhigg; An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, and SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient by Jane McGonigal.
I found these books useful, and you might too!
Let’s discuss the qualities of high performing teams, and practical tips you can take back to work with you.
Qualities of high performing teams
Let’s define our terms. What’s a team?
Teams make commitments to coordinate action, to address the issue at hand, for the sake of the project’s shared mission.
— Fernando Flores, “Conversations for Action” ⁵
Teams are the organizing principle of companies. I’m on at least three distinct teams at any given time. You may be as well.
Google has done lots of research about the qualities of a good team, and they found that the norms of a team matter a great deal. Norms are very powerful — it’s how we as humans enforce and model behavior, so identifying these norms is key in figuring out how to unlock the potential of a group of people.
Good teams tend to have the following norms:
- Enthusiasm and support
- A sense of togetherness (a good team wants you to win)
- display vulnerabilities open and honestly
Good teams foster an environment of voicing your opinions and taking risks without fear of retribution. This is especially important when you consider that when people feel safe to report errors they will. Therefore, a team with a high error reporting rate is not a dysfunctional team, but in fact, a well functioning one. Vulnerability, then, leads to a learning culture, wherein information can be easily and fluidly spread.
In the technology industry, we see this beautifully expressed with blameless postmortems out of Etsy. When they investigate outages or problems, engineers are encouraged to give a detailed and honest report. In return, the engineer can be expected to be treated sans blame, fear of punishment, or retribution. This allows engineering teams to sidestep the “name-blame-shame cycle” ⁶ and take full ownership, as a team, of structural issues.
Ultimately, it feels refreshing to have this level of vulnerability in your life, especially your working life. Vulnerability is strength, and it allows us to admit when we are wrong and truly learn from our mistakes.
When we look at all these traits (enthusiasm and support, sense of togetherness, vulnerability) at large, it’s what’s known as “psychological safety”, and it allows you to bring more of your full self to work, so you can be more self actualized and authentically yourself in more spheres of your life.
We also need to consider that much of work is the performance of work — image managing, downplaying our self-perceived weaknesses, and playing politics. It’s a full-time job, downplaying these weaknesses — imagine what we could accomplish otherwise! ⁹
Teams become an amplification of their internal culture. We create our projects, and we create our culture — one informs the other. A team who is enthusiastic, vulnerable, and connected are teams that are frankly, more productive.
Productivity, then, is a measure of comfort.
What are other qualities of good teams?
Good teams are smarter. Good teams, teams that are gelled, are collectively more intelligent. Research shows that good teams accomplish tasks better than a collection of smart individuals, because there’s less posturing. Not to mention, it takes a ton of bad ideas before you get to a single good idea, and a good team allows you to quickly sort through ideas, good or bad because you’re not worried about managing perception.
Good teams share control. They demonstrate they actually are listening, care when someone is flustered or upset, defer to the judgements of the people on the team, and treat the concerns of others as our own. Good teams demonstrate empathy.
Satisfaction is satisfaction. What satisfies a team satisfies an individual:
- believe that your work is important
- personally meaningful
- clear and defined roles
- psychologically safety
Interestingly enough, as Cate Huston notes, that it’s not solely overwork that leads to burn out, but the absence of control, insufficient reward, lack of community, absence of fairness, conflict in values then overwork.
Firstly: psychological safety may not be available to each person on your team. Under-indexed groups like people of color, women of all stripes, queer, or trans folks may not actually be able to bring their whole selves to work because of some very real safety concerns. That’s a real shame. We need to do better.
Secondly, there is a difference between being professional-yet-vulnerable, and bringing baggage to work. Be your best professional self.
Now that we are familiar with the quality of a good team, let’s talk about the small practicalities that set the stage for good team genesis.
Do you practice active listening? When someone tells you something do you give them eye contact and acknowledge that you understood them? Do you repeat it back? Listening is the baseline of trust, and the beginning of a great working team.
Play a game
Jane McGonigal is a neurologist and game designer. In her book Superbetter, she lays out lots of ways that games are surprisingly amazing for fostering human connection. Lots of things happen when people play games together:
- you become more in sync
- you mirror each other — in breath, and even in your neurons.
- Playing a game with someone increases your empathy for that person, the group they belong to, and bumps up your capability for compassion in general.
McGonigal focuses on video games, but these good effects can be felt while playing a game of catch, going for a walk, or moving a heavy object — anything that requires hand-eye coordination.
Pair programming is awesome. It’s so rare that we actually talk about code in concretely as opposed to abstractly. If you spend time developing, I encourage you to do more of it. If you manage people, encourage your staff to pair program. It’s a great way to learn how to approach problem solving with code differently! (I’m also a set-up nerd, so I love seeing how others work, what plugins they use, etc.)
The best meeting is the one you don’t have, but, if you’re gonna have a meeting — practice good meeting hygiene. Ken Norton has written and spoken extensively about this, so if you’re interested in revamping your meeting culture, you should check his work out. I’ll sum up what I find best about better meetings:
- Provide an agenda. This allows people to have a chance to think about what they’re gonna say — this is especially helpful for women, remote folks, and introverts.
- Consider interruption-free meetings. Women often get interrupted while speaking. Instituting a culture of interruption free meetings can help address this.
- Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak up. Good teams have an equality in turn-taking while speaking, and they make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.
Those first five minutes of a meeting? Where there’s loads of cross-talk? That’s actually the most important part of a meeting. It’s a time for you to bond with your workmates, and find out what’s going on in their lives outside of work. Do you know if they have pets or maybe have a vacation planned? Do they have kids? Is there a hobby they’re particular passionate about? What this comes down to is this: Are you genuinely interested in them as humans? Interest is the basis of human bonds. Stronger human bonds are ultimately what help us create this ideal working environment.
Completing cycles of feedback are important so you grow and learn as a team, and avoid falling into stasis. Furthermore, it’s an essential mechanism by which to calibrate your team. Gelled teams exhibit care for one another, which is the breeding ground for good feedback. Giving timely feedback isn’t harmful, it’s helpful. If I have food in my teeth, I’d want you to tell me — this is the self-same principle of effective feedback.
Firstly: you can’t make people do what they don’t wanna do! There is research that shows that humans, even when the choice means nothing, would still prefer to make a choice. We all crave autonomy.
Secondly: Giving feedback can be really hard, and it takes effort and practice to do well.
Thirdly: Chit-chatting can be hard for remote teams! Remember to keep them in mind, and include them, too.
- Productivity is a measure of comfort
- Good teams are a secret weapon
- Don’t suppress your humanity
Vulnerability, solidarity, mutual support — it’s our superpower! Let’s use it.
Many thanks to the many people who listened to this talk and gave me feedback, and the Slack engineering team, who are every bit as aces as they seem.
¹ Schwartz, Tony. “The Secret to Sustaining High Job Performance.” New York Times. 13 November 2015. Web.
² Duhigg, Charles. “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” New York Times Magazine. 25 February 2016. Web.
³ Cross, Rob, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant. “Collaborative Overload.” Harvard Business Review. January-February 2016 issue. Web.
⁴ Requiem for the American Dream. Dir. Kelly Nyks, Peter D. Hutchinson, Jared P. Scott. Perf. Noam Chomsky. Naked City Films, PF Pictures, Gravitas Ventures. 18 April 2015. Documentary film.
⁵ Barba, Lorena. “Beyond Learning to Program: Education, Open Source Culture, and Structured Collaboration in Language.” Pycon 2016, Portland Oregon, May 28th 2016 —June 5th 2016 . Keynote. Video.
⁶ Alspaw, John. “Blameless Postmortems and Just Culture.” Code as Craft. 22 May 2012. Web.
⁷ Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.
⁸ Stone, Douglas, and Sheila Heen. Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. Print.
⁹ Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Matthew L. Miller, Andy Fleming, Deborah Helsing. An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2016. Print.
¹⁰ McGonigal, Jane. SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. Print.