Category Archives: Workplace

Leading software engineers

A friend (non technical) recently asked me how I lead my dev team, he had led product and marketing before, so I have attempted to focus on the differences, that said good team leadership has commonality with all disciplines.

I currently have three software engineers, one IT/Dev OPs and one product designer (3 female and 3 male). ¬†In the past I have led 23 teams. I will use this blog for my team to hold me to account ūüôā

Casting Workbook Team

No Surprises

Being accountable for “no surprises” is the core.¬†Where ever possible you should be accountable for all of the people that you work with, people should¬†not be surprised by what you say, because you have already¬†asked their opinion, maybe even evolved your thinking and they can see the process by which you went through to reach a decision.

It means more communication and more interaction with your people. It means you can be vulnerable. It means stepping outside of your “assigned” responsibility¬†and forming relationships with all parts of your organization, and other organizations. Its about being connected, its about being a leader and a follower. It shows that people understand you and your core principles. ¬†That you can be consistent and when you adapt they can see that to.

There are not things left unsaid, you are not passive aggressive or have control issues.

Being a Leader of context

The role you take on should change depending on the context.  Sometimes you are the coach, sometimes the mentor, sometimes the friend, sometimes a psychologist, sometimes the engineer, sometimes the product owner, sometimes the user advocate, sometimes the engineer advocate, sometimes the leadership context, sometimes the inspirer, sometimes the critic..  There are different leadership styles and yours should adapt.  In 2003, prior to my MBA this book really helped me step up my game The New Leaders: Transforming The Art Of Leadership Into The Science Of Results

You are the right person at the right time

Different places/ways to work

People are generally smarter/productive longer, when they can have different types of environments to work in and have multiple ways to express themselves.  Have multiple places that engineer can work in.  When I recruited my current team, I got the organization on board with the following:

  • Give the engineer a laptop
  • Have somewhere comfortable to work e.g. sofa, kitchen
  • Have somewhere serious/quiet with extra screen
  • Have somewhere they can stand up and code
  • Have somewhere outside if possible, natural light/fresh air is a great refresher
  • Make it possible to work remotely
  • That there are white boards for people to express, figure out a problem.

This is a good book if you want to really consider your culture and the way you work. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.  Without doubt you should ask each team member what helps them concentrate, what distracts them, what they need to stay in the zone.  The obvious big one for many is a good set of headphones. Do not underestimate the quality of a good display also, anything at the quality of a Retina can reduce eye tiredness.

Different physical environments can refresh you, help you think bigger or focus. Be flexible.

Leave chunks of time to code

Engineers are generally more efficient if given chunks of time to code.  Thus have your meetings meetings near mornings or lunchtime.  To give several hours of interrupted research/code time.

  • Get engineers to block out their time on their calendars, so product/founders can book time when needed
  • Use an IM system to ask questions such as Slack or Skype during those chunks of time and do not expect a quick response

Developers need chunks of time to be left alone to get on and focus

Being a good human being

This means understanding each others needs and wants. Expectations both from the lead and engineer should not be hidden, things should not be left unsaid.  Sometimes we need processing time, to check in destructive emotion, but you should still tell that person how they made you feel. You should also be kind but not nice.

Both people should be able to be vulnerable with each other and trust each other.  You both need to avoid surprises.   This is done through good communication, which is not common and takes effort. This needs time together.

  • Feedback in the moment, always ask permission before giving feedback and make it about the behaviour you saw. ¬†Do not assume intent, in fact assume positive intent. Give positive and negative feedback. Understand how each member likes to receive feedback. This is my slide deck from teaching my teams about feedback.
  • Weekly One to One checkins 10-30 mins, any fire issues? any smoking issues?
  • Monthly sit down at least one hour. ¬†I have a list of questions to always go through, which we agree when we start together.
  • Allow others to lead, giving opportunities to members of your team to lead on a project/task whatever you do not need to be the boss of everything.
Question set for monthly
 
First conversation should be to agree the questions, here is a starting set.  They should based around the culture we wish to create and how we want to treat our people
  1. How are you feeling? Any hot issues we should talk about?
  2. How are you contributing to the company and your team?
  3. Are you a Team player? How are you involving others in your process?
  4. How are you growing/learning? Are we are helping your reach potential? Do you have mastery?
  5. What are your Technical Capabilities here? Where do you feel competent? 
  6. How are you helping the company grow and evolve?
  7. Are you Hungry? How productive are you? Are you taking inspired action?
  8. Do you have a friend here?
  9. Do you have a mentor or coach in the company? Are you coaching others?
  10. Do you want stay with the team and the company?
  11. What can can we do better as an employer/me as your leader/CEO?
  12. Do you feel you have Autonomy? Are there things stopping you doing your job?
  13. Do you feel you have Purpose? Do you understand what we are building and why?
  14. Are you contributing to the wider community? What can we do to help?

One to one, face to face is the highest bandwidth of communication

Your processes and system should evolve.

The way you do things should be Agile (as originally intended i.e. flexible and evolve NOT rules).  Agree a workflow together from product to engineer.  It should change and evolve to be right for the context.

  • When starting with a team, I will audit all current systems and ask for each members¬†views privately on each tool/system/process, to ensure the less confident or shy people get their say
  • I will then have a team meeting to review what we need and what we like
  • Any team wide system change should involve all parties
  • Deadlines should have engineer involvement and not be dictated downwards

For example in my latest team we discussed the tools we wanted and we decided to use

  • Slack for IM
  • BaseCamp for idealization and research
  • Github for product/features/user stories and code/issue management – The way we used tags evolved several times.

Freedom to solve the actual problem

Sometimes¬†Product/founders/Engineering leads may try to solve the problem in their way i.e. micromanage. ¬†Giving the engineer the “code monkey” role of just coding to a very prescribed way i.e. an exacting feature. ¬†Giving no space, to actually problem solve can be very limiting and create an environment where creativity and innovation are stifled i.e. the evil called micromanagement. Most humans do not like their freedom taken from them. ¬†So find the the right balance between the organizations’ needs and the employees. That said some people like more structure, context matters.

  • Give space for engineers to solve the problem in their way. If you are already¬†using Agile then you may evolve the story a couple times as users respond to the work.
  • Within the user stories/feature requirements do not limit. ¬†Ensure you actual describe the problem you want solve, suggestion ideas/solutions but where possible do not dictate
  • Involve the team in talking about the features and discussing possible approaches, but the actual engineer who takes the feature gets to decide
  • Engineers should have some understanding of the customers. Ensure your engineers meet customers, and¬†spend time with your Customer success/relations people.
  • Keep the engineer accountable for the response by users. Thus have good monitoring software and have a culture when engineer go back to check the real world implications of their work.

Micro Management is the evil of leadership, it kills creativity, innovation, trust, and growth. It can appear both in a manager and in the processes you impose on your people

A culture of science

Scientists experiment many times and fail many times and one day they get it right.  Encourage a culture of learning from mistakes not teasing/persecution which means encouraging experimentation and forgiveness.

  • Discussion should be based on logic in reference to code
  • Create an environment where people can I say “I do not know.. but here is an idea/feeling/instinct”
  • Call people out if they tease others about their failures or use it to argue they case in a discussion
  • Careful to¬†not let irrelevant¬†aspects enter into the discussion such as gender, race, age or sexuality. I say careful because humour can involve these but they should not sway discussions and the receiving of the humour should not be hurt.

Experimentation and failure should be Ok, team members should not “haze” each other. Leadership need to be able to move on

To build a team well, needs reflection and the teams involvement

The team needs time to connect as a team and evolve together as a team.  We have a book club where we talk about the teams performance in terms not related to code. How good are we at communicating:

  • Giving/receiving feedback
  • How do we react to others ideas?
  • Who do we go to help us through problems?
  • Who pair code with more often
  • How much do we know about each others strengths and weaknesses?
  • How vulnerable can we be with each other?

We used The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to kick start this conversation.  Every couple months we take time to talk about how a team we are in terms of communication. You need to invest in the actually team to have a team..

You need time for the team to talk about the team, spot weaknesses and evolve

 Ask your people how you are doing

“How am I doing?” should not be a hard question for you. ¬†Ask it informally in your one to one monthlies and formally at least every 3 months. ¬†The no surprise rule should be for all. It should be 360 your leaders, peers and your people. ¬†Find out if people get what¬†they want and what they need from you, in terms of communication, conflict/challenge, advice and performance.

You learn faster by other people telling you what you are doing right and wrong

Collaborating with your leader

Hopefully you chose your boss carefully when you were recruited into the organization.. but things evolve, so maybe that perfect person you went to work for, moved on.  I have found the best leaders are those who keeping growing i.e. they read about how to be a better leader, they can be vulnerable with you and you can talk openly.  When you make mistake your instinct is to tell your boss, when one of your team performs really well you never feel the need to take credit and generally you have no fear of your boss talking to your team.  If you do find the above hard, understand why.

  • Never underestimate the amount of time you will need for your leader
  • Know each others strengths, weaknesses and blind spots
  • Find those things you really enjoy about each other
  • Find those things that you find difficult and talk about them
  • Build strong relationships throughout the organization, ensure all find you approachable

Success in any organization is about working together and helping each other evolve

Adding to the team

Whilst you as the lead will drive this process, you should involve the team in the process. You should ensure everyone is trained and good at the interview process.  This may mean mock interviews, where your team interview you. Its worth noting that you do not want more clones, you need different types of people, skillsets, who sometimes will clash, but have the communication skills and reasoning capacity to grow from each other.

  • Be clear what the team is missing and what you need
  • Agree on what you are looking for both terms of technical and personality
  • Ensure the all those that are interviewing try out their questions, again no surprises
  • Have space for something social
  • The best interviews are like a great chat amongst friends about something technical
  • Personally I hire on communications skills, problem solving skills, learning capability and then current technical skills
  • I often look for potential as much as current craft capabilities
  • I do not hire more of me, I want diversity
  • If employing someone with less experience, be clear what the areas are and put in place a training program to fill those gaps.

I look for growth potential, hunger, curiosity, pro-active, problem solving capability, how they will add value to the team and how they will help the team evolve. Then I start start to consider technical experience.

Software engineers are great problem solvers

Sometimes we box people into a role.  Humans are so much more than their job title and job description. Most people are capable of applying their skills in other domains.  You have a problem, why not ask a software engineer?


I will keep adding to this blog as I learn.

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Is ageism a lazy form of decision making?

Ageism is often used in reference to what some people think about older people. I have seen ageism used to undermine the opinions and thoughts of younger people.

I think what I have learned is that perception of someones age has some strong prejudice and assumptions that come with it. That these undermine people when they need not. That by treating someone with more or less respect due to their age can often blind you.

together we are stronger

Friends

My friend circle varies massively in age range with my oldest friend being 35 years older then me and my youngest 23 years younger.  Interestingly I find younger people more prejudice than older for  relationships. Personally I like a good mix of friends who we can have fun, conversation and trust.  Having friends from very different backgrounds, helps me to have greater perspective of the actual world.

Dating

Dating sites encourage age discrimination, with Tinder/POF/okCupid (not eHarmony) having it as priority information. Age seems an easy category to filter on, but like looks it’s not a good predictor of¬†chemistry or how you feel with someone. What little I know of relationships is you need to be a partners (that control and guidance should¬†be shared by both), grow together and respect each other. Also I have found that some people are more concerned how others think i.e. he looks too old for her or vice versa than anything inside the actual relationship. We are sometimes concerned with one taking advantage of the other. ¬†The question really is what is equal? No doubt a journey travelled together is more powerful and sharing the different perspectives of your different experiences is more powerful.

Being younger in work

My experience in my twenties was there was a lot of assumption by older people about what I did and did not know.  I found myself looking older to be heard.  I had a goatee for a long time to and dressed to look older, it made a huge difference in the reception of my thoughts.  I also found that adults/leaders/managers would not include the why when they were doing something and just tell us what and sometimes how. I felt like a child and I did not like it, in fact it made me more rebellious. And in part I gave up sharing my best ideas. The best leaders who would explain the why would get best of me.

Life Stage

Our Life Stage can sometimes be mistaken for ageism, for example couples tend to hang with couples, couples with kids hang with couples with kids. ¬†Whilst this is not always true, there is something in it. ¬†One potential employer asked me because you have a child will you be able to truly commit to this job. I just left the interview, and I don’t have a child!

Being Older in work

Now as an older person occasionally I have been asked if I have too much responsibility or have the energy to really commit to a job i.e. stay late on a regualry basis.  The energy one is something I have seen both to me and others (if you know me you know I have more energy then the average 16 year old).  In fact it has increased the older I get (hangovers however last longer then they should)! Medical science is also improving the quality of our lives, which is good because most of us will not be able to afford to actually retire. One employer asked me because I was older would I be able to keep up with the younger employers?  I asked him what he actually meant, he said are you hungry enough to work long hours?  It felt like he liked to take advantage of people.  I have always worked long hours.  Six months ago I worked for two years seven days a week.. My age had nothing to do with it.

It’s assumed that if you’ve made it to a certain level, you must be over a certain age and have advanced credentials (Eg. A master’s degree). Assumption makes an arse out of me and you.

Startup and Techs

When I go to startup pitches I find the Angels (Investors) tend to favour young men. There is a combination of sexism¬†and ageism going on here. ¬†And there is a mythology that all successful startups are built by young people, which is not supported by any science but appears to be the “view”. This article digs into this.

Mark Zuckerberg apparently said that people under 30 are smarter.  Another article explored The Brutal Ageism of Tech. One practice of hiding jobs behind Recent Graduates is explored here.  There appears to be a view that people over 50 should not be in leadership jobs.

Rising above ageism

I want to be better than my past experience, I want to evolve not enforce a stupid prejudice. So here are my suggestions to myself:

Never ask someone their age

Do not judge someone by their age.  It is lazy, get to know them first. Attitude may be effected by your age but is not dictated by it. Just because you started with same (or opposite) political view as your parents does not mean you keep them.  Its experiences not age that will determine what they become.

Talk to all like an adult

Take the time to explain why, treat all like equals and invest in a person. Treat others as you wish to be treated.

Ideas should be valued regardless of age

A great idea can come from experience but also from lack of experience. Understanding the idea is more important than making assumptions of what I perceive it to be or who delivers it. Ideas are always fragile, so grow it see where it takes you before dismissing it.

Actual experiences is more important than age

Wisdom I feel comes from experience more the bad ones than the good ones. Own your experiences, they maybe apply to others. That said, experiences can also limit us, sometimes you need to prove there is more to explore.

Age does not relate to capability

There are now more ways to learn, than ever before. ¬†And its not just knowledge,¬†There is more shared wisdom in the world. Take this article on reaching 40¬†and what you realize. Just look at TED.COM or the number of self help books.¬†Money does not always determine access to knowledge. And teaching has become better so we can all learn faster. In fact I would say that two things can show this how well read a person or how many “good” videos (ted.com) or video subscriptions a person follows e.g. RubyTapas. All of that said getting fit right is often more important than current capability.

Age does effect health but not energy or drive

That said, it can be severally muted with a good diet and exercise.  When I was younger I took my health for granted.  As I got older I appreciated my body more, learned more and in some ways I am fitter now than at any other time of my life.

What thoughts or experiences do you have?

Actions speak louder then words

A person, company, organization community can be judged on its actions and behaviours not its intents. Especially when the shit hits the fan. Its easy to be nice when the world is all good. Behaviours, the culture under stress shows the real capacity of the leadership.

Becoming a leader of an organization

So recently someone I respect has being promoted to become a leader of an organization.  I want them to be successful, so I thought long and hard if I had some good advice that I could share. Was there a good book I could recommend? Or a video?

I own about 60 books on leadership excluding the MBA stuff. ¬†There was one that I kept coming back to me, it was a book I first read when I had just being elected to office and became the cabinet member for Cornwall County Council (UK) as Community & Culture “Minister”. This role was a real step up for me in terms of budget (71 million) and staff (over¬†440 spread out over many locations), where there was often upto 4 leaders between me and the frontline staff.

Eric Brooke newly elected to the cabinet of Cornwall County Council 2005

Eric Brooke newly elected to the cabinet of Cornwall County Council 2005

The Best Place to Work by Ron Friedman

A good book for those who wish to improve their workplace. Provides a lot of evidence e.g. psychology studies and crafts them into a compelling narrative. The actions at the end of each chapter are a usefu summaryl.

A lot to learn here for all leaders and those who wish to be leaders. And maybe even for progressive trade unionists. And of course for people who would rather improve their workplace, rather than complain about it!

The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell by Oren Harari

This book not only had a lot of wisdom in it, that we often take for granted and thus forget. ¬†I think the best kind of leadership book is one you walk away from and think/feel I want to be led by this person. ¬†And to make it even better I know now how I can ‘upgrade’ myself to replicate this over time.

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them”

In the end the leaders behaviour will create a culture, so the book and video I recommended were as much about context (i.e. of this new leaders organisation, and its culture).

Another choice was the video by Simon Sinek, Start with the Why

This video ties into the need to inspire and effective leadership is about inspiration not overt control.

The book The Power of Why by Amanda Lang, had a number of factors I needed, it is written by a women who is also Canadian and the stories come from other industry sectors. Context is everything.

“Permission to dream is also permission to fail”

A book I found useful early in my career was The New Leaders by Daniel Goleman (he also wrote Emotional Intelligence).  It was this book that showed me on reflection, the different leadership styles you will apply e.g. command and control has its place, depending on the context.  It was also the book that helped to delegate with trust when moving into middle management.

Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion an inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through emotions..

 

There is a great TED video -> As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify by Yves Morieux

Suddenly it becomes in my interest to be transparent on my real weaknesses, my real forecast, because I know I will not be blamed if I fail, but if I fail to help or ask for help.

 

The last book is produced by CEO of the company with probably the best customer service on the planet.¬†Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh¬†journeys through time and a mans’ growth in understanding importance of leadership behaviours and their impact on the staff and thus the organisations’ culture.

Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

My last couple thoughts come from experience:

  • That leadership is as much about vulnerability, as it is about confidence – see Bren√© Browns TED¬†Video
  • That followers choose who inspires and leads them rather then manages and controls them
  • That women leaders are often better coaches then males, but the often to do not “give” territory for their coachees to succeed in.
  • That “rebels” can often be bright people who are bored, give them something to do, they could become your greatest innovators

Finally leadership is a skill that you will never master, so expect to fail, maybe even plan for it, that said we often “love” rather than just respect the leaders more who have failed and have come back to succeed.