2017 in Review

2017 has been quite a year. Looking back at my 2016 in Review post, here were my two biggest goals for 2017 and a mini retrospective:

  • Give away my Legos so that I can work with new ones.
    • Despite having the same title, I had a very different job at the end of 2017 than at the beginning. Sometimes it feels like I went from this to this.
  • Keep learning…
    • About my slice of the industry by hosting more meetups.
      • This didn’t happen at all.
    • About management via the Rands Leadership slack.
      • This was a triumph, and my network is stronger than ever.
    • About parenting and my kid by using my parental leave.
      • I spent a lot of time with my kiddo, using 26 days in 2017, up from 16 in 2016.

What follows are the stories behind these snippets, and a few other things that happened.

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A look back as 2017 closes.

The path to delegation

When I started the year, I directly managed 9 engineers in 3 teams of 3.

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My little org chart, in January 2017

One team had a new hire which was perfect timing as another engineer on that team was about to take six months of parental leave. I was the scrum master for all three teams, and things were going well. I was beginning to notice that some of my goals as a manager of these teams were not possible. I didn’t have time to sit in on project meetings and ask questions. I didn’t know why a decision was made, or if the team had enough context to act. After reading If Your Boss Could Do Your Job, You’re More Likely to Be Happy at Work, I was nervous: I’m an experienced software engineer but there are many facets of my team’s work that I can’t easily do. I saw my job as consisting of these four pieces:

  1. Human management, including performance reviews, feedback, 1-1s, empowering folks to resolve their problems, and so forth.
  2. Outward and upward communication with different teams and leaders, sharing my team’s context and understanding the company’s context to share with my team.
  3. Project management, including scrum facilitation and keeping everyone on track.
  4. Domain specific guidance, directing the team to build a long-term vision for the future.

I couldn’t delegate (1), though I did encourage my reports to set up 1-1s with each other to build trust and share feedback with each other. For example, I don’t review pull requests, but they do: they know best if their peers are living up to or exceeding their team standards for code quality.

For (2), I started a monthly newsletter for my teams in 2017, sharing a brief “What we did” e-mail with a link to a “How and Why” verbose explanation and analysis of those projects. I loved writing that newsletter, and crafting silly puns to pepper it with. This newsletter has been read by our stakeholders, partner teams, and executives, and has been terrific for growing my team’s reputation. Eventually I did not have time to do the research, draft it, and have my engineers review it for accuracy. Rather than halt the newsletter altogether, my team graciously agreed to take on the content writing, reducing my time commitment to about a half hour of copy-editing. I still have a lot of monthly check-ins with leaders from other teams around the org which are so very helpful.

For (3), I hired a Technical Project Manager. I’d never worked with a TPM before and so I wasn’t sure how to hire one, exactly what their job would be outside of the (many) responsibilities I would be delegating to them, or even how to assess their success. I owe many thanks to Bryan Campbell and the many fine folks in the Rands Leadership slack for helping me define all of those things. I had a slow and steady on-boarding plan for my TPM, but they zoomed ahead. Within a month, the teams’ projects were completely handed off, and a few months later the teams’ shipping velocity increased by 50%. I owe a great degree of my success this year to them.

(4) is an area I had been delegating to my engineers, and continue to delegate to them. I thought that hiring a TPM would give me more time to focus on localization and internationalization technology and bring more specific technical guidance to the team. I started attending the SF Globalization meetup and an internal class on deep learning with natural language processing. I started a #localization channel in the Rands slack. I was going to host more meetups and bring more brilliant speakers to share their experiences with us, but I didn’t.

Plans changed

Our meetup in December 2016 took a lot of time to put together. We had three presenters from my teams and they each spent about a month writing, refining, and practicing their presentations. I figured we’d pick do another meetup in Q2 of 2017 after we’d gotten some big projects done and found time again to hone presentations. May 2 happened and a lot of priorities shifted. Over the next couple of months, in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and time pressure, hosting a meetup was no longer on my radar. It stayed off of my radar for the rest of the year.

Those months of uncertainty also shifted teams and projects around; one of my reports switched to another of my teams to help them build out a high priority project (and they nailed it). Elsewhere, new teams emerged to tackle some of the most urgent projects for the company.

At the beginning of the year, my plan was to transition one of my reports to manage their team. This would free me up to go deeper on my other two teams and finally provide some technical direction, that thing that I was missing. The transition was a success and that team has a terrific new manager. There was a slight change to the plan, though: in September, I took on one of those newly emerged teams with 4 reports and 2 open headcount to fill.

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My expected end-of-2017 org chart.
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My actual end-of-2017 org chart.

 

Over a weekend of heavy breathing and reflection, I wrote something for my team announcing my intentions:

  1. I’d focus on human support.
  2. I’d continue advocating for the team through external communications and gather context for them.
  3. I’d drop my goal for technical depth. This meant ceasing my involvement in the deep learning class, which was great, but my time spent on it was not helpful to my team.

The Revised Plan

The last quarter of the year went by in a blur with hiring, onboarding, and feedback to and from my team. At one point, I was interviewing for my new team, for my new manager’s replacement, and for a peer manager; in a given week I had something like 10 phone screens and 5 on-sites. I don’t recommend doing that at length, but it worked for us. While I was distracted by hiring, my teams excelled and shipped a slew of major projects. They didn’t need me to provide technical direction or depth.

In hindsight, this should have been obvious to me. I took 26 days of parental leave in 2017, mostly in week-long blocks. Each time I got back, my team had done something amazing in my absence. I strove to not be their bottleneck – to be wanted, rather than needed – and I think I succeeded.

Before I became a father, I wondered how parental leave could work for a company. How does a team manage when someone is out? How does the team manage when their manager is out? It all goes back to delegation and clear expectations. This year, there was a brief period in which:

  • My VP of Engineering was on parental leave and so they delegated some important procedural work to a director.
  • My director was on parental leave but had already delegated agency to me.
  • I went on parental leave, and my engineers and product managers knew what they needed to be successful.
  • My reports’ next available manager was our CTO in case of any problems, though another director volunteered to help, too.

For a short period of time, our leadership chain of command was needed only to approve expense reports. It helped that our leaves were staggered and of varying lengths (6 weeks, 3 months, 1 week), but the clear lines of communication and delegation made this relatively simple.

Wins and Challenges

Wins

  • Working with our new TPM, my localization teams had a great framework for success through incredibly uncertain times. I put together a slide deck to enumerate all of the many things that we’ve accomplished this year and was blown away by the depth and breadth of all of our projects. I’m so very proud of the work they accomplished this year.
  • My new search team has gone through a lot this year, including 3 months of heavy recruiting. Despite that, they’ve done a lot of exciting work and are primed to succeed even more greatly in 2018.
  • Despite the roller coaster of the year, I managed to be home for my family more often than not. I managed to catch up with friends and extended family. I managed to increase the depth of my professional network. I love that developing a sustainable work/life balance is part of my job.
    • I watched my kiddo start to stand up, then to walk, then to run. He talks constantly, especially to tell me “No.” He climbs on all the things and can even climb a tall playground ladder to get to the slide! Parenting him is amazing and terrifying and I’m so glad I’ve been there to see it all.
    • Parental leave has also been the best thing for detaching him from my wife’s hip. He’s gotten used to me through these extended periods of just-us time which means she can actually do things without having to be the center of his world. Like shower.
  • I managed to write a couple of things here, like this Gender Diversity in Tech Reading List and my Manager README, the latter of which I hope to present this year at conferences1.

Challenges

  • Finding the right balance for each team. I have 14 direct reports now and directly manage 3 teams. I indirectly oversee a fourth team, 3 more reports with 2 more open headcount to fill. 2017 has been a huge year of growth for me, and 2018 will be too.
  • My new team is distributed, which brings different challenges. My prior teams and I are based out of San Francisco, and so I’ll be traveling to Brooklyn more frequently and working to build out more methods of low-overhead communication. I’m not ready for an iPad on wheels just yet, though.
  • As the size of my team grows, their problem sets diverge. I have new managers who need different support than my engineers who’ve known me for a year and a half, who need different support than my new and remote engineers. I have new skip-level reports to support, too.

Plans for 2018

  • I started a new cyclical feedback, assessment, and goals framework for my teams in November and I’ll continue testing it out. I’ll write more about that in a separate post as I gather more data.
  • Empower my new managers to empower their reports. It’s empowerment and agency all the way down.
  • Remember that parental leave is not vacation, and to take advantage of both. I want to continue to lead by example in these areas and demonstrate that time to be with your family or to restore your energy is available.

Footnotes

1: Interested in hearing me speak about this or other things I’ve written about? Drop me a line!

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