QCon 2017 — Expert Teams

QCon NY 2017 talk by Matt Sakaguchi

This post is based on keynote speech by Matt at QCon NY 2017. I was in the audience (see QCon summary post).

Matt Sakaguchi has had an interesting career.

He grew up wanting to become a police officer. For his Asian parent’s, this wasn’t a very aspirational goal. But he grew up and became a police officer. Then he joined the SWAT team. Life was good. Until he suffered an injury and he was forced to consider life outside the police force for the first time…

Matt’s story was interesting and funny, but relatable because he talked about that question that we all wrestle with at various points in our life — “Now what do I?”

In Matt’s case, he was able to use his detective skills and experience working with teams to end up working for Google. The rest of his talk had two major themes (which I will paraphrase as): There’s more to life than work, and what an effective team looks like (at least for Google). Let’s look at effective teams first.

Effective Teams

If having ownership of the code is important for successful software development, what other factors are necessary to form an effective team?

For Google, effective teams looked like this:

Five dynamics of effective Google Teams

This rings true to me. While you can write code in a chaotic environment with a sociopath for a boss and colleagues that don’t really care about the work they do, I know from experience that you will produce better code if you:

  • have your own desk, equipment and work with like-minded people
  • feel like your voice is heard, that you are included and that you can trust people
  • work with people who are dependable
  • have a clear role with plans and objectives

There’s only been a few times in my career where I felt my work had meaning and impact. And it is very motivating.


There were 5 attributes that separated effective teams from less-effective teams (from this podcast):

  • Psychological safety — people feel comfortable taking a risk or asking a question and know they will be supported by their team mates, they feel safe to share personal and “crazy” ideas. Voice, Trust & Inclusion (making sure everyone has a good time).
  • Dependability — the knowledge that team mates will deliver quality outputs and meet their commitments
  • Structure & clarity — the team has well defined roles and responsibilities, everyone knows what they are supposed to do and they do it
  • Meaning — the work has personal meaning to the individual team members
  • Impact — the team members can see the value they bring to the greater good through their work

Highly dependable teams don’t need a lot of structure. If a team is already dependable then adding structure can be detrimental, however if they are not yet a highly dependable team then structure improves effectiveness.

The difference between psychologically safe and unsafe teams — safe teams beat targets by 17%, unsafe teams missed their targets by 19%.

The link to psych safety is definitely causal — psych safety caused teams to be more effective.

Individual accountability matters and team outcomes are supported by high performing individuals.

Balancing individual goals with team goals — find the project which helps achieve both, and follow through on commitments when asking individuals to make tradeoffs.

The team will take care of you as long as you are giving your best effort to the team.

You must follow through on promises in order to have credibility.

Google used to hire “all-star” teams but found that they are less effective than “championship teams” who understand the roles and support one another.

Creating a learning environment where you can ask each other lots of questions and collaborate to solve problems together. Treat problems as learning problems not execution problems results in collaboration and learning increasing in a team. Learning environments are exciting and people stay, in performance environments people burn out and leave.

Diversity does make a difference — diversity in many aspects, not just gender and ethnicity but also diversity of thought, creating an environment where everyone feels they can bring their whole self into work. (Diversity is not an old, old, wooden ship from the American Civil War).

Respect for different points of view changed the way some social activities were organised. Being intentional about supporting diverse viewpoints and being inclusive is incumbent on leadership. If people feel included and respected they will do better work.

Summary

Matt’s parting thoughts were also worth noting:

  • If you are in a negative team (which shoots down ideas immediately), create a rule where the first question in the meeting becomes, “How can we make this work?”
  • Make sure you don’t speak alot (or too soon) in meetings where you are not driving an agenda. As a leader, if you speak first, you can “poison the well” of thought; people are usually hesitant to offer input if they feel it is contrary to the opinion of the leaders in the room.

There’s more to life than work

The things I do for me stay with me, and die for me. The things I do for others are immortal and live on — Matt Sakaguchi (paraphrasing Albert Pike)
“Writing great code is awesome. Making a material difference in peoples’ lives is really awesome.” — also Matt

Improving the effectiveness of teams can make a material difference in peoples lives, because we spend most of our working life with people in teams.

But you also need to consider life outside of work. Who will be at your bed-side on your last day on Earth? These are the people that matter most. Spend time with them while you still can. Spend time doing the things you love doing while you still can.

Life & family is more important than work.