How to Communicate When Trust Is Low (Without Digging Yourself Into A Deeper Hole)

This is based on an internal quip doc I wrote up about careful communication in the context of rebuilding trust. I got a couple requests to turn it into a blog post for sharing purposes; here you go.🌈✨🥂

In this doc I mention Christine, my wonderful, brilliant cofounder and CEO, and the time (years ago) when our relationship had broken down completely, forcing us to rebuild our trust from the ground up.

(Cofounder relationships can be hard. They are a lot like marriages; in their difficulty and intensity, yes, but also in that when you’re doing it with the right person, it’s all worth it. 💜)

Tips for Careful Communication

When a relationship has very little trust, you tend to interpret everything someone says in the worst possible light, or you may hear hostility, contempt, or dismissiveness where none exists. On the other side of the exchange, the conversation becomes a minefield, where it feels like everything you say gets misinterpreted or turned against you no matter how careful you are trying to be. This can turn into a death spiral of trust where every interaction ends up with each of you hardening against each other a little more and filing away ever more wounds and slights. 💔

Yet you HAVE to communicate in order to work together! You have to be able to ask for things and give feedback.

The way trust gets rebuilt is by ✨small, positive interactions✨. If you’re in a trust hole, you can’t hear them clearly, and they can’t hear you (or your intent) clearly. So you have to bend over backwards to overcommunicate and overcompensate.

There are lots of books out there on how to talk about hard topics. (We actually include a copy of “Crucial Conversations” in every new employee packet.) They are all pretty darn cheesy, but it’s worth reading at least one of them.

I’m not going to try and cover all of that territory. What follows is a very subjective list of tactics that worked for Christine and me when we were digging our way out of a massive trust deficit. Power dynamics can admittedly make things more difficult, but the mechanics are the same.

Acknowledge it is hard beforehand:

“I want to say something, but I am having a hard time with it.”
“I have something to say, but I don’t know how you’ll take it.”
“I need to tell you something and I am anxious about your reaction.”

What this does: forces you to slow down and be intentional about the words you’re going to use. It gives the other person a heads up that this was hard for you to say. Most of all, it shows that you do care about their feelings, and are trying to do your best for them (even if you whiff the landing).

… or check in afterwards.

“I’m not sure how that came across. Is there a better way I could have phrased it?”
“In my head that sounded like a compliment…how did you hear it?”
“Did that sound overly critical? I’m not trying to dwell on the past, but I could use your help in figuring out a better way.”

It’s okay if it’s minutes or hours or days later; if it’s still eating at you, ✨clear the fucking air.✨

Speak tentatively.

“Speak tentatively” is the exact opposite of the advice that people (especially women) tend to get in business. But it’s actually super helpful when the relationship is frayed because you are explicitly allowing that they may have a different perception, and making it safer to share it.

“From my perspective, it looks like these results might be missing some data… do you see the same thing?” opens the door for a friendly conversation based on concrete outcomes, whereas “You’re missing data” might sound accusatory and trigger fear and defensiveness.

Try to sound friendly.

Say “please” and “thank you” a lot. Add buffer words like “Hey there”, or “Good morning!” or “lol”. Even just using 🌱emojis🍃 will soften your response to an almost unsettling degree. This may seem almost insultingly simple, but it works. When trust is low, the lack of frills can easily be read as brusque or rude.

Take a breath.

If you are experiencing a physical panic response (sweating, heart racing, etc), announce that you need a few minutes before responding. Compose yourself. Firing off a reply while you are in fight-or-flight mode reliably leads to unintentional escalations.

If you need to take a few beats to read and process, take the time. But empty silence can also generate anxiety 🙂 so maybe say something to indicate “I’m listening, but I need a minute to absorb what you said”, or “I’m still processing”. (We often use “whoa…” as shorthand for this.)

(Alternately, if you find yourself really pissed, “whoa” becomes a great placeholder for yourself to get yourself under control 😬 before saying something you’ll regret having to deal with later.)

“The story in my head”.

When you are in a state where you are assuming the worst of someone and reading hostile intent into their words or actions, try to check yourself on those assumptions.

Repeat the words or behaviors back to them along with your interpretation, like: “The story in my head is that you asked me to send that status email because you don’t trust me to have done the work, or maybe even gathering evidence that I am not performing for a PIP.” This gives them the opportunity to reply and clarify what they actually meant.

Engineer positive interactions, even if you have to invent them.

Relationship experts say that there’s a magic ratio for happy, healthy relationships, which is at least five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. If you only interact with the people you have difficult relationships when you have something difficult to say, you are always going to dread it. Forever.

It might seem artificial at first, but look for chances to have any sort of positive interactions, and seize them.

Communicate positive intent.

In a low trust environment, you can assume everything you say will be read with a voice that is menacing, dismissive or sneering. It behooves you to pay extra attention to tone and voice, and to add extra words that overcommunicate your intended meaning. A neutral statement like “That number seems low”, or “Why is that number low?” will come out sounding brusque and accusatory, e.g. why isn’t that number growing? it’s your fault, you should know this, I blame you, you’re bad at your job. Not might: it will. Try to immunize your communication from distortion by saying things like,

“Hey, I know this just got dropped in your lap, but do you have any idea why this number is so low?”
“This number seems lower than usual. I’m wondering if it’s due to this other thing we tried. Do you have any better ideas?”
“I know it isn’t exactly in your wheel house, but can you help me understand this?”
“I’m new to this system and still trying to figure out how it works. Should this number be going down like this?”

It may seem excessive and time consuming, but it will save you time and effort overall because you will have fewer miscommunications to debug. ☺️

Give people the opening to do better.

We tend to make up our minds about people very quickly, and see them through that lens from then on. It takes work to open our selves up again.

“Assume positive intent” is a laudable goal, but in practice falls short. If every word someone says sounds accusatory or patronizing to you, what are you supposed to do with that advice? Just pretend you don’t hear it, or tell yourself they mean well? That’s not sustainable; your anger will only build up.

But if you can hold just enough space for the idea that they might mean well, then you can give them the opportunity to clarify (and hopefully use different words next time). Like,

Person A: “Why is that number low?”
Person B: “I’m not sure.”
(pause)
Person B: “…. Hey, sorry to interrupt, but the story in my head is that you think owning that number is part of my job, and now you’re upset with me, or you think I’m incompetent at my job.”
Person A: “OMG no, not at all. I’m just trying to figure out who understands this part of the system, since it seems like none of us do! 😃 Sorry for stressing you out!”

and maybe next time it will start off like…

Person A: “Hey, do you have any idea why this number is low? It’s a mystery … nobody I’ve talked to yet seems to know.” 🙂

Remember the handicaps, value the effort.

Ever meet someone you didn’t like online, and realize they’re terrific in person? Online communication loses sooooo much in transit. Christine and I know each other extremely well, and still sometimes we realize we’re reading way too much into each other’s written words. That’s when we try to remember to move it to “mouth words”, aka zoom or phone. Not as good as in person, but eons better than text.

Once you’ve met someone in person, it’s usually easier to read their written words in their voice, too.

Some people just aren’t great at written communication. Some people have neurodiversities that make it difficult for them to hear tone. Some people have English as a second language. And so on. Do give points for effort; if they’re trying, obviously, they care about your experience.

To the best of your ability, try to resist reading layers of meaning into textual communication; keep it simple, overcommunicate intent, and ask for clarity. And if someone is asking you for clarity, help them do a better job for you.

 

How to Communicate When Trust Is Low (Without Digging Yourself Into A Deeper Hole)

Questionable Advice: “How can I drive change and influence teams…without power?”

Last month I got to attend GOTO Chicago and give a talk about continuous deployment and high-performing teams. Honestly I did a terrible job, and I’m not being modest. I had just rolled off a delayed redeye flight; I realized partway through that I had the wrong slides loaded, and my laptop screen was flashing throughout the talk, which was horribly distracting and means I couldn’t read the speaker notes or see which slide was next. 😵 Argh!

Anyway, shit happens. BUT! I got to meet some longstanding online friends and acquaintances (hi JJ, Avdi, Matt!) and got to eat some of Hillel Wayne’s homemade chocolates, and the Q&A session afterwards was actually super fun.

My talk was about what high performing teams look like and why it’s so important to be on one (spoiler: because this is the #1 way to become a radically better engineer!!). Most of the Q&A topics therefore came down to some version of “okay, so how can I help my team get there?” These are GREAT questions, so I thought I’d capture a few of them for posterity.

But first… just a reminder that the actual best way to persuade people to listen to you is to make good decisions and display good judgment. Each of us has an implicit reputation score, which formal power can only overcome to an extent. Even the most junior engineer can work up a respectable reputation over time, and even principal engineers can fritter theirs away by shooting off at the mouth. 🥰

“how can I drive change when I have no power or influence?”

This first question came from someone who had just landed their first real software engineering job (congrats!!!):

“This is my first real job as a software engineer. One other junior person and myself just formed a new team with one super-senior guy who has been there forever. He built the system from scratch and knows everything about it. We keep trying to suggest ideas like the things you talked about in your talk, but he always shoots us down. How can we convince him to give it a shot?”

Well, you probably can’t. ☺️ Which isn’t the end of the world.

If you’re just starting to write software every day, you are facing a healthy learning curve for the next 3-5 years. Your one and only job is to learn and practice as much you possibly can. Pour your heart and soul into basic skills acquisition, because there really are no shortcuts. (Please don’t get hooked on chatGPT!!)

I know that I came down hard in my talk on the idea that great engineers are made by great teams, and that the best thing most people can do for their career is to join a high-performing, fast-moving team. There will come a time where this is true for you too, but by then you will have skills and experience, and it will be much easier for you to find a new job, one with a better culture of learning.

It is hard to land your first job as a software engineer. Few can afford to be picky. But as long as you are a) writing code every day, b) debugging code every day, and c) getting good feedback via code reviews, this job will get you where you need to go. When you’re fluent and starting to mentor others, or getting into higher level architecture work, or when you’re starting to get bored … then it’s time to start looking for roles with better teachers and a more collaborative team, so your growth doesn’t stall. (Please don’t fall into the Trap of the Premature Senior.)

This is an apprenticeship industry. You’re like a med student right now, who is just starting to do rounds under the supervision of an attending physician (your super-senior engineer). You can kinda understand why he isn’t inclined to listen to your opinions on his choice of stethoscope or how he fills out a patient chart. A better teacher would take time to listen and explain, but you already know he isn’t one. 🤷

I only have one piece of advice. If there’s something you want to try, and it involves doing engineering work, consider tinkering around and building it after hours. It’s real hard to say no to someone who cares enough to invest their own time into something.

“how can I drive change when I am a tech lead on a new team?”

“I have the same question! — except I’m a tech lead, so in theory I DO have some power and influence. But I just joined a new team, and I’m wondering what the best way is to introduce changes or roll them out, given that there are soooo many changes I’d like to make.”

(I wrote a somewhat scattered post a few years ago on engineers and influence, or influence without authority, which covers some related territory.)

As a tech lead who is new to a team, busting at the seams with changes I want to make, here’s where I’d start:

  1. Understand why things are the way they are and get to know the personalities on your team a bit before you start pitching changes. (UNLESS they are coming to you with arms outstretched, pleading desperately for changes ~fast~ because everything is on fire and they know they need help. This does happen!)
  2. Spend some time working with the old systems, even if you think you already understand. It’s not enough for you to know; you need to take the team on this journey with you. If you expect your changes to be at all controversial, you need to show that you respect their work and are giving it a chance.
  3. Change one thing at a time, and go for the developer experience wins first. Address things that will visibly pay off for your team in terms of shipping faster, saving time, less frustration. You have no credibility in the beginning, so you want to start racking up wins before you take on the really hard stuff.
  4. Roll up your sleeves. Nothing buys a leader more goodwill than being willing to do the scut work. Got a flaky test suite that everybody has been dreading trying to fix? I smell opportunity…
  5. Pitch it as an experiment. If people aren’t sold on your idea for e.g. code review SLAs, ask if they’d be willing to try it out for three weeks just as an experiment.
  6. Strategically shop it around to the rest of the team, if you sense there will be resistance…

At this point in my answer 👆 I outlined a technique for persuading a team and building support for a plan or an idea, especially when you already know it’s gonna be an uphill battle. Hillel Wayne said I should write it up in a blog post, so here it is! (I’ll do anything for free chocolate 😍)

“How can I get people on board with my controversial plan?”

So you have a great idea, and you’re eager to get started. Awesome!!! You believe it’s going to make people’s lives better, even though you know you are going to have to fight tooth and nail to make it happen.

What NOT to do:

Walk into the team meeting and drop your bomb idea on everyone cold:

“Hey, I think we should stop shipping product changes until we fix our build pipeline to the point where we can auto-deploy each merge set to production, one at a time, in under an hour.” ~ (for example)

…. then spend the rest of the hour grappling with everybody’s thoughts, feelings, and intense emotional reactions, before getting discouraged and slinking away, vowing to never have another idea, ever again.

What to do instead:

Suss out your audience. Who will be there? How are they likely to react? Are any of them likely to feel especially invested in the existing solution, maybe because they built it? Are any of them known for their strong opinions or being combative?

Great!!! Your first move is to have a conversation with each of them. Approach them in the spirit of curiosity, and ask what they think of your idea. Talking with them will also help you hash out the details and figure out if it is actually a good idea or not.

Your goal is to make the rounds, ask for advice, identify any allies, and talk your idea through with anybody who is likely to oppose you…before the meeting where you intend to unveil your plan. So that when that happens, you have:

  1. given people the chance to process their reactions and ask questions in private
  2. ensured that key people will not feel surprised, threatened, or out of the loop
  3. already heard and discussed any objections
  4. ideally, you have earned their support!

Even if you didn’t manage to convince every person, this was still a valuable exercise. By approaching people in advance, you are signaling that you respect them and their voice matters. You are always going to get people’s absolute worst reactions when you spring something on them in a group setting; any anxiety or dismay will be amplified tenfold. By letting them reflect and ask questions in private, you’re giving time for their better selves to emerge.

What to do instead…if you’re a manager:

As an engineer or a tech lead, you sometimes end up out front and visible as the owner of a change you are trying to drive. This is normal. But as a manager, there are far more times when you need to influence the group but not be the leader of the change, or when you need to be wary of sounding like you are telling people what to do. These are just a few of the many reasons it can be highly effective to have other people arguing on your behalf.

In the ideal scenario, particularly on technical topics, you don’t have to push for anything. All you do is pose the question, then sit back and listen as vigorous debate ensues, with key stakeholders and influential engineers arguing for your intended outcome. That’s a good sign that not only are they convinced, they feel ownership over the decision and its execution. This is the goal! 🌈

It’s not just about persuading people to agree with you, either. Instead of having a shitty dynamic where engineers are attached to the old way of doing things and you are “dragging them” into the newer ways against their will, you are inviting them to partner with you. You are offering them the opportunity to lead the team into the brave new world, by getting on board early.

(It probably goes without saying, but always start with the smallest relevant group of stakeholders, and not, say, all of engineering, or a group that has no ownership over the given area. 🙃 And … even this strategy will stop working rather quickly, if your controversial ideas all turn out to be disastrous. 😉)

“How do I know where to even start?!? 😱”

Before I wrap up, I want to circle back to the question from the tech lead about how to drive change on a team when you do have some influence or power. He went on to say (or maybe this was from a third questioner?*):

“There is SO MUCH I’d like to do or change with our culture and our tech stack. Where can I even start??”

Yeah, it can be pretty overwhelming. And there are no universal answers… as you know perfectly well, the answer is always “it depends.” ☺️ But in most cases you can reduce the solution space substantially to one of the two following starting points.

1. Can you understand what’s going on in your systems? If not, start with observability.

It doesn’t have to be elegant or beautiful; grepping through shitty text logs is fine, if it does the trick. But do any of the following make you shudder in recognition?:

  • If I get paged, I might lose the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out what happened
  • Our biggest problem is performance and we don’t know where the time is going
  • We have a lot of flaky, flappy alerts, and unexplained outages that simply resolve themselves without our ever truly understanding what happened.

If you can’t understand what’s going on in your system, you have to start with instrumentation and observability. It’s just too deadly, and too risky, not to. You’re going to waste a ton of time stabbing around in the dark trying to do anything else without visibility. Put your glasses on before you start driving down the freeway, please.

2. Can you build, test and deploy software in under an hour? If not, start with your deploy pipeline.

Specifically, the interval of time between when the code is written and when it’s being used in production. Make it shorter, less flaky, more reliable, more automated. This is the feedback loop at the heart of software engineering, which means that it’s upstream from a whole pile of pathologies and bullshit that creep in as a consequence of long, painful, batched-up deploys.

Here’s a talk I’ve given a few times on why this matters so much:

You pretty much can’t fail with one of those two; your lives will materially improve as you make progress. And the iterative process of doing them will uncover a great deal of shit you should probably know about.

Cheers! 🥂

charity.

* My apologies if I remembered anyone’s question inaccurately!

Questionable Advice: “How can I drive change and influence teams…without power?”

Choose Boring Technology Culture

Honeycomb recently announced our $50M Series D funding round. We aren’t the type to hype this a lot; Emily summed it up crisply as, “Living another day on someone else’s money isn’t business success, even though it is a lovely vote of confidence.”

Agreed. The vote of confidence does mean more than usual, given the dire state of VC funding these days, but…raising money is not success. Building a viable, sustainable company is success.

Whenever we are talking to investors, something that inevitably comes up is what a bomb ass team 🌈 we have. They have always been impressed by our ability to recruit and retain marquee names, people we “shouldn’t have been able to get” at our stage; honestly it’s even better than they realize, because we have heavy hitters all up and down the company, most of whom simply aren’t as well known. 😉 (Fame, and this may shock you, is not a function of talent.)

People join Honeycomb for many reasons, but “culture” is one of the most commonly cited. We have never been shy about talking about the ways we think tech culture sucks, or the experiments we are running. But this has given rise to the occasional impression that we are primarily cultural innovators who occasionally write software. We really aren’t.

In fact, I’d say the opposite is true. We try to choose boring culture.

What The Fuck Does “Culture” Even Mean?

Ok, so this is where the problem starts. This is why it grates on my nerves any time someone starts making pronouncements about how “your culture is bad”, “culture is the problem”, “fix your broken culture”… AUUGGGHHH. Those sentences are MEANINGLESS.

What does “culture” even mean?? Let’s consult the interwebs:

  • Culture: “An umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions and norms for a group; knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of those individuals”
  • Culture: “The shared values, goals, attitudes and practices that characterize an organization; working environment, company policies and employee behavior”
  • Culture: “Maintain tissue cells, bacteria, etc in conditions suitable for growth”

Well, at least that last one makes sense. 😛 But if culture means everything, then culture means nothing. That’s just not helpful!

Instead, let’s disambiguate company culture into two categories. There is the formal culture of the organization (meetings, mission/vision, management, job ladders, hiring practices, strategy, organizational structure, team dynamics, and so on), and there is the informal culture of the people, the ways that humor, playfulness, and practices manifest in groups and individuals.

Organizational culture is professional, formal, structural, institutional. Managerial responsibilities, promotions, compensation plans, and fiduciary duties are just a few of the .many aspects of organizational culture.

Informal culture is chaotic, joyful, free-spirited, and fun, individualized, inherently anarchic and bottoms-up. It’s things like writing release notes in limerick form, bringing banana bread to work after an outage, long pun threads, slack channels dedicated to pets, competing on the number of employees named “Jess”* vs “Chris”*.

Organizational culture is the cake; informal culture is the frosting. Organizational culture is what leaders are hired to build, informal culture is what bubbles up irrepressibly in the gaps. (I wish I had better names for these!) And when it comes to formal, organizational culture, you don’t want to be in the business of innovating.

Culture Serves The Business

As a leader, you should absolutely care about your culture, but your primary responsibility is the health of the business. The purpose of your culture is to make your business succeed. It does not serve you, and it does not serve the people you care about, to be unclear on this front.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this is simple or easy. It is not. You are dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, and it is all about tradeoffs. What might be best for an individual in the long run (for example, leaving your company to pursue another opportunity) might harm your business in the near term. Yet you might decide to celebrate them in leaving and not pressure them to stay, because you believe that what’s best for your business in the longer term is for employees to be able to trust their managers when they say, “I believe that working here is the best thing you can do for your career right now.”

The transactional nature of work relationships is how they differ from e.g. family relationships. You can form intense bonds and deep friendships with the people you work with — you may even form bonds that transcend your work relationship — but your relationship at work comes with terms and conditions.

Your company culture can’t be everything to everyone. Nor should you try.

You HAVE to care more about the health of the business than about culture for culture’s own sake. Even if — especially if — you have lots of strong opinions about culture, and there are lots of ways you want to deviate from common wisdom. Doing well at business is what earns you more innovation tokens to invest.

“Choose Boring Technology Culture”

Dan McKinley coined the phrase “choose boring technology” and the concept of innovation tokens nearly a decade ago.

“Boring” should not be conflated with “bad.” There is technology out there that is both boring and bad [2]. You should not use any of that. But there are many choices of technology that are boring and good, or at least good enough….The nice thing about boringness (so constrained) is that the capabilities of these things are well understood. But more importantly, their failure modes are well understood. — @mcfunley

The moral of the story is that innovation is costly, so you should choose standard, well-understood, rock-solid technologies insofar as you possibly can. You only get a few innovation tokens to spend, so you should spend them on technologies that can give you a true competitive advantage — not on, like, reinventing memcache for the hell of it.

The same goes for running a business, and the same goes for organizational culture. We have collectively inherited a set of default practices that work pretty well, like the 40 hour work week and having 1x1s with your manager. You CAN choose to do something different, but you should probably have a good reason. To the extent that you can learn from other people’s experience, you probably should, whether in business or in tech; innovation is expensive, and you only get so many tokens. Do you really want to spend one on a radical reinvention of your PTO policy? How does that serve you?

Innovation gets all the headlines, but I would posit that what most companies need is actually much simpler: organizational health.

Great Culture begins with Organizational Health

There’s this book by Patrick Lencione called “The Advantage: How Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.” (He is best known for writing “Five Dysfunctions of a Team“.) This guy is to organizational health what James Madison was to constitutional government: a very specific kind of genius.

I picked up “The Advantage” in 2020, around the time Honeycomb stopped teetering on the brink of failure, once it became clear we were likely to be around for a while. It made a huge impression on me. He makes the case that most businesses spend a ton of energy on trying to be “smart”, and relatively little on being “healthy”.

Healthy orgs are characterized by minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover. Health begets — and trumps — intelligence.

As Lencione says, an organization that is healthy will inevitably get smarter over time. People in a healthy organization will learn from each other, identify problems, and recover quickly from mistakes. Without politics and confusion, they will cycle through problems and rally much faster than dysfunctional rivals will. And they create an environment in which everyone else can do the same, which creates a multiplier effect.

The healthier an org is, the more of its collective intelligence it is able to tap into and use. Most orgs exploit only a fraction of the knowledge, experience, and intellectual capital available to them, but the healthy ones can tap into almost all of it.

Organizational Health Is Too Boring

No one would disagree with any of this, in principle. ☺️ EVERYBODY wants to work at a place where the mission, vision, and values are clear, meaningful and inspiring; where everyone is rallied around the same winning strategy; and where it’s crystal clear how your role specifically will contribute to that success. Everybody agrees that a healthy organizational culture leads to better outcomes.

So why isn’t every company like that?

Well, it is much easier said than done. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It is unglamorous work, difficult to measure, and at the end of the day we are always making risky decisions between conflicting tradeoffs based on partial information. We are imperfect meat sacks who lack self awareness, struggle to understand each other, and get hangry and snap. And the job is never done. You never “get there”, any more than you are ever perfectly healthy with perfect relationships.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We don’t have to be perfect to be a meaningfully better presence in people’s lives. We just have to be healthy enough to achieve our goals.

Nobody Wants An “Exciting” Company Culture

When you tell your partner you had an exciting day at work, do they respond with “uh oh 😬🔥🧯”?

All too often, excitement at work comes from strategic swerves, projects getting canceled, lack of focus, missteps or conflicts, anxiety and passive aggression, outages or downtime, outrageous demands coming from out of left field, or getting information at the last minute that you should have had ages ago. Living on the edge of your seat can be very stimulating! Firefighting is a huge rush, and if you’re part of the essential glue holding this creaky vessel together, you can get hooked on feeling desperately needed.

But this isn’t good for your cortisol levels, and it doesn’t move the company forward. When so much of your energy goes to bailing water and staying afloat, you don’t have much left over for rowing the oars. You want energy going to the oars.

Should work be exciting? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s not the adjective I would reach for. Emotional rollercoaster rides don’t provide the kind of circumstances that tend to unlock great design or engineering, or collaboration or focus. I would rather reach for words like achievement, fulfillment, pride, comradeship, or the joy of being part of something greater than yourself, not “exciting” or “fun”.

Leaders Worry Too Much About Making Work Fun

As a leader, your job is not to “make work fun”. You are not here to entertain your employees. Your responsibility is to build a formal culture that works, that supports the success of the business.

So what, am I dooming you to a life of bureaucratic beige and meetings without puns? Fuck no.

If formal organizational culture is like the architecture, then informal culture is furnishings, light displays, murals and banners — whatever you do on the inside. You don’t want someone getting overly creative with the load-bearing beams. Save that for when it’s time to paint “Frozen” murals on the walls and hang the matching icicle curtains.

You want formal culture to be boring, stable, reliable, load-bearing…because this creates a safe structure for people to bring the humor, the fun, the joy, the delight, without any fear of building collapse. The company doesn’t have to bring the fun; people bring the fun. Have you met people? People are fucking weirdos. 🥰 If you create an emotionally safe zone and the conditions for success, informal culture will thrive. 🪅People bring the fun🪅 — they always do.

The best informal culture is almost always bottoms up. But managers, execs, HR/People teams, etc can encourage informal culture. One of the most powerful things you can do is just participate. Show up for drinks, play the board games, keep the puns rolling, get silly with your team! Your participation gives people permission and shows that you value their creative cultural labor at work.

Of course there are no bright lines — companies can throw great parties! — but that’s not the job; building a healthy org is the job. Doing that right frees people up to have joy at work. It makes the celebrations that much bigger, the fun that much funnier.

Success Is Rocket Fuel For Fun

Think back to the most corporate fun you’ve ever had at work — the biggest parties, celebrations, blowouts, etc. Were they holiday parties and random occasions, or were they actually linked to great achievements? I bet they were the latter.

You don’t gather at work for the fun of it, you come together to do great things. It stands to reason the peak moments of joy and bonding are fueled by a sense of accomplishment.

Even on a smaller scale, levity and joy are inextricably linked to doing great work and making customers happy. For example, ops/SRE teams are notorious for their gallows humor around outages (ops is ALWAYS the funniest engineering team, in my experience ☺️). But dark humor is only funny when you are also taking your work seriously. Joking about the inevitability of data loss stops being funny real fast if you are actually playing fast and loose with customer backups.

In the absence of success, progress, and high performance, the kind of “frosting” behaviors that bring so much hilarity to work — joking and teasing, puns and stories — actually stop being fun and start making people feel distracted, irritated and on edge. You don’t want to hear a steady stream of jokes from somebody who keeps letting you down.

Side note: unhealthy orgs may have pockets of humor, but it often comes at the expense of other, less prestigious teams. Lots of people may feel too anxious, powerless or threatened to participate. Your experience of whether those companies are “fun” or not is likely to depend heavily on where you sit in the hierarchy. But a healthy org creates the level conditions for humor, playfulness and creativity throughout the org.

Investing Your Innovation Tokens

So yeah. Despite our reputation for cultural innovation, I’d say we’re actually pretty conservative when it comes to operating a company.

Not only are we not revolutionaries, we are actually trying to do as little differently as possible, because innovation is costly!! Instead, we (as a leadership team) are more focused on trying to execute well and improve upon our organizational health. For the past year, we have been laboring especially hard over strategy — the diagnosis, guiding policy, and set of coherent actions we need to win. Our first responsibility is to make the business succeed, after all.

Which brings us back to the topic of innovation tokens.

I started writing down some of the innovation tokens I feel like we’ve spent. But it dawned on me that when I look at most of the cultural experiments we run, and the things we talk about and write about publicly — stuff like the dangers of hierarchy, hiring, interviewing, high-leverage teams, engineering levels, rituals for engineering teams, etc — it doesn’t feel like innovation at all. It’s all just about trying to have a healthier organization. Hierarchy sucks because visible hierarchy has been shown to dampen people’s creativity, motivation and problem-solving skills. Engineering levels are important because they bring clarity. And so on.

What makes something rise to the level of an innovation token is the amount of time we end up asking other people to invest lots of their time into.

  • Like, we are 1.5 years into a 4 year experiment having an employee on our board of directors. We are about to spin up an internal Advisory Panel to more broadly distribute the impact of our employee board member around the company.
  • In the past, we have experimented with regular ethics discussion groups.
  • Last year we did a deep dive into company values with small breakout groups.
  • Some internal decisions around things like values are handled, not by estaff, but by a group of six people; one employee representative of each org, nominated by their VP; who do a deep dive into the material together and come back with a decision or recommendation.
  • We are about to start the process of developing our own leadership curriculum. We know that we need to equip our managers with better tools, and culturally indoctrinate new employees, so I am excited to build something with our cultural fingerprints all over it.

We run a lot of experiments around transparency, like, the agenda for exec staff meetings can be viewed by the whole company. After every board meeting, we present the same thing we showed to the board to the whole company during all-hands. We are transparent on salary bands. Stuff like that.

We are far from perfect; we have a long ways to go, and when I look around the org it’s hard not to only see all the work left to be done. But we are a lot healthier and better off than we were a year ago, which was better off than we were two years ago, let alone three.

The Experience Of Making This Will Be With Us Forever

A few months ago I was reading this lengthy profile of Sarah Polley in the New Yorker, as she was doing a bunch of press for her new movie, “Women Talking”. (The movie itself sounds incredibly intense; I am still trying to find time and emotional energy to watch it. Someday!)

One thing she said got lodged in my brain, and I’ve been unable to forget it ever since. She’s talking about the experience of having been a child actor, and how intensely it informs the experience she strives to create for everybody working on the set of one of her movies; where parents get to go home and have dinner with their kids, etc.

[He] told her, “If this film is everything we want it to be, maybe, if we are very lucky, it will affect a few people for a little while, in a way that is out of our control. The only thing that’s certain is that the experience of making it will be with all of us—it will become part of us—forever. So we must try our best to make it a good experience.”

Making a movie that lots of people want to see, one that was a good financial return on investment, buys you the ability to make even more movies, employ more people, take even bigger creative risks. If all you want to do is be a niche indie player, working on a shoestring budget, more power to you. But if you really believe in your ideas, and you want to see them go mainstream … you need mainstream success.

Sarah Polley makes movies. We make developer tools. ☺️ But the same thing is true of working at Honeycomb.

If we are very lucky, and work very hard, our work may help teams build better software and spend fewer, more meaningful hours at work, for a long time to come. I love our mission. But the only certain thing is that the experience of making it will be with all of us, become part of us, forever.

So we should try our best to make it a good experience. ☺️

charity.

Footnotes

(1) Inherited Defaults

How to access these inherited defaults can be a bit more complicated than I make it sound. Working as a manager at Facebook for two years taught me more about these defaults than anything else I’ve ever done in my career. Big companies have had to figure a lot of shit out in order to function at scale, which is why I often advise anyone who plans on starting a company or being a director/VP to do a stint at one. Will Larson’s book “An Elegant Puzzle” does a great job of laying out defaults and best practices for engineering orgs, and his blog has even more useful bits.. Otherwise, you might wanna get yourself an advisor or two with a lot of operator experience, and get used to asking questions like “how does this normally get done?”

(2) Corporate Fun

There’s plenty of stuff in the grey area between formal, organizational culture and informal, individual culture. Companies often stray into fun-like adjacencies like holiday parties, offsites, etc. Fostering a sense of “play” and informality is actually really important for making teams click with each other, and obviously the company should foot the bill if it’s a work function. Just be mindful of what you’re doing and what your goals are when you veer into the rocky shoals of Forced Corporate Fun. 😆

Choose Boring Technology Culture

Questionable Advice: “People Used To Take Me Seriously. Then I Became A Software Vendor”

I recently got a plaintive text message from my magnificent friend Abby Bangser, asking about a conversation we had several years ago:

“Hey, I’ve got a question for you. A long time ago I remember you talking about what an adjustment it was becoming a vendor, how all of a sudden people would just discard your opinion and your expertise without even listening. And that it was SUPER ANNOYING.

I’m now experiencing something similar. Did you ever find any good reading/listening/watching to help you adjust to being on the vendor side without being either a terrible human or constantly disregarded?”

Oh my.. This brings back memories. ☺️🙈

Like Abby, I’ve spent most of my career as an engineer in the trenches. I have also spent a lot of time cheerfully talking smack about software. I’ve never really had anyone question my experience[1] or my authority as an expert, hardened as I was in the flames of a thousand tire fires.

Then I started a software company. And all of a sudden this bullshit starts popping up. Someone brushing me off because I was “selling something”, or dismissing my work like I was fatally compromised. I shrugged it off, but if I stopped to think, it really bothered me. Sometimes I felt like yelling “HEY FUCKERS, I am one of your kind! I’m trying to HELP YOU. Stop making this so hard!” 😡 (And sometimes I actually did yell, lol.)

That’s what I remember complaining to Abby about, five or six years ago. It was all very fresh and raw at the time.

We’ll get to that. First let’s dial the clock back a few more years, so you can fully appreciate the rich irony of my situation. (Or skip the story and jump straight to “Five easy ways to make yourself a vendor worth listening to“.)

The first time I encountered “software for sale”

My earliest interaction with software vendors was at Linden Lab. Like most infrastructure teams, most of the software we used was open source. But somewhere around 2009? 2010? Linden’s data engineering team began auditioning vendors like Splunk, Greenplum, Vertica[2], etc for our data warehouse solution, and I tagged along as the sysinfra/ops delegate.

For two full days we sat around this enormous table as vendor after vendor came by to demo and plump their wares, then opened the floor for questions.

One of the very first sales guys did something that pissed me off me. I don’t remember exactly what happened — maybe he was ignoring my questions or talking down to me. (I’m certain I didn’t come across like a seasoned engineering professional; in my mid twenties, face buried in my laptop, probably wearing pajamas and/or pigtails.) But I do remember becoming very irritated, then settling in to a stance of, shall we say, oppositional defiance.

I peppered every sales team aggressively with questions about the operational burden of running their software, their architectural decisions, and how canned or cherry-picked their demos were. Any time they let slip a sign of weakness or betrayed uncertainty, I bore down harder and twisted the knife. I was a ✨royal asshole✨. My coworkers on the data team found this extremely entertaining, which only egged me on.

What the fuck?? 🫢😧🫠 I’m not usually an asshole to strangers.. where did that come from?

What open source culture taught me about sales

I came from open source, where contempt for software vendors was apparently de rigueur. (is it still this way?? seems like it might have gotten better? 😦) It is fascinating now to look back and realize how much attitude I soaked up before coming face to face with my first software vendor. According to my worldview at the time,

  1. Vendors are liars
  2. They will say anything to get you to buy
  3. Open source software is always the safest and best code
  4. Software written for profit is inherently inferior, and will ultimately be replaced by the inevitable rise of better, faster, more democratic open source solutions
  5. Sales exists to create needs that ought never to have existed, then take you to the cleaners
  6. Engineers who go work for software vendors have either sold out, or they aren’t good enough to hack it writing real (consumer facing) software.

I’m remembering Richard Stallman trailing around behind me, up and down the rows of vendor booths at USENIX in his St IGNUcious robes, silver disk platter halo atop his head, offering (begging?) to lay his hands on my laptop and bless it, to “free it from the demons of proprietary software.” Huh. (Remember THIS song? 🎶 😱)

Given all that, it’s not hugely surprising that my first encounter with software vendors devolved into hostile questioning.

(It’s fun to speculate on the origin of some of these beliefs. Like, I bet 3) and 4) came from working on databases, particularly Oracle and MySQL/Postgres. As for 5) that sounds an awful lot like the beauty industry and other products sold to women. 🤭)

Behind every software vendor lies a recovering open source zealot(???)

I’ve had many, many experiences since then that slowly helped me dismantle this worldview, brick by brick. Working at Facebook made me realize that open source successes like Apache, Haproxy, Nginx etc are exceptions, not the norm; that this model is only viable for certain types of general-purpose infrastructure software; that governance and roadmaps are a huge issue for open source projects too; and that if steady progress is being made, at the end of the day, somewhere somebody is probably paying those developers.

I learned that the overwhelming majority of production-caliber code is written by somebody who was paid to write it — not by volunteers. I learned about coordination costs and overhead, how expensive it is to organize an army of volunteers, and the pains of decentralized quality control. I learned that you really really want the person who wrote the code to stick around and own it for a long time, and not just on alternate weekends when they don’t have the kids (and/or they happen to feel like it).

I learned about game theory, and I learned that sales is about relationships. Yes, there are unscrupulous sellers out there, just like there are shady developers, but good sales people don’t want you to walk away feeling tricked or disappointed any more than you want to be tricked or disappointed. They want to exceed your expectations and deliver more value than expected, so you’ll keep coming back. In game theory terms, it’s a “repeated game”.

I learned SO MUCH from interviewing sales candidates at Honeycomb.[3] Early on, when nobody knew who we were, I began to notice how much our sales candidates were obsessed with value. They were constantly trying to puzzle out out how much value Honeycomb actually brought to the companies we were selling to. I was not used to talking or thinking about software in terms of “value”, and initially I found this incredibly offputting (can you believe it?? 😳).

Sell unto others as you would have them sell unto you

Ultimately, this was the biggest (if dumbest) lesson of all: I learned that good software has tremendous value. It unlocks value and creates value, it pays enormous ongoing dividends in dollars and productivity, and the people who build it, support it, and bring it to market fully deserve to recoup a slice of the value they created for others.

There was a time when I would have bristled indignantly and said, “we didn’t start honeycomb to make money!” I would have said that the reason we built honeycomb because we knew as engineers what a radical shift it had wrought in how we built and understood software, and we didn’t want to live without it, ever again.

But that’s not quite true. Right from the start, Christine and I were intent on building not just great software, but a great software business. It wasn’t personal wealth we were chasing, it was independence and autonomy — the freedom to build and run a company the way we thought it should be run, building software to radically empower other engineers like ourselves.

Guess what you have to do if you care about freedom and autonomy?

Make money. 🙄☺️

I also realized, belatedly, that most people who start software companies do so for the same damn reasons Christine and I did… to solve hard problems, share solutions, and help other engineers like ourselves. If all you want to do is get rich, this is actually a pretty stupid way to do that. Over 90% of startups fail, and even the so-called “success stories” aren’t as predictably lucrative as RSUs. And then there’s the wear and tear on relationships, the loss of social life, the vicissitudes of the financial system, the ever-looming spectre of failure … 👻☠️🪦 Startups are brutal, my friend.

Karma is a bitch

None of these are particularly novel insights, but there was a time when they were definitely news to me. ☺️ It was a pretty big shock to my system when I first became a software vendor and found myself sitting on the other side of the table, the freshly minted target of hostile questioning.

These days I am far less likely to be cited as an objective expert than I used to be. I see people on Hacker News dismissing me with the same scornful wave of the hand as I used to dismiss other vendors. Karma’s a bitch, as they say. What goes around comes around. 🥰

I used to get very bent out of shape by this. “You act like I only care because I’m trying to sell you something,” I would hotly protest, “but it’s exactly the opposite. I built something because I cared.” That may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that vested interests can create blind spots, ones I might not even be aware of.

And that’s ok! My arguments/my solutions should be sturdy enough to withstand any disclosure of personal interest. ☺️

Some people are jerks; I can’t control that. But there are a few things I can do to acknowledge my biases up front, play fair, and just generally be the kind of vendor that I personally would be happy to work with.

Five easy ways to make yourself a vendor worth listening to

So I gave Abby a short list of a few things I do to try and signal that I am a trustworthy voice, a vendor worth listening to. (What do you think, did I miss anything?)

🌸 Lead with your bias.🌸
I always try to disclose my own vested interest up front, and sometimes I exaggerate for effect: “As a vendor, I’m contractually obligated to say this”, or “Take it for what you will, obviously I have religious convictions here”. Everyone has biases; I prefer to talk to people who are aware of theirs.

🌸 Avoid cheap shots.🌸
Try to engage with the most powerful arguments for your competitors’ solutions. Don’t waste your time against straw men or slam dunks; go up against whatever ideal scenarios or “steel man” arguments they would muster in their own favor. Comparing your strengths vs  their strengths results in a way more interesting, relevant and USEFUL discussion for all involved.

🌸 Be your own biggest critic.🌸
Be forthcoming about the flaws of your own solution. People love it when you are unafraid to list your own product’s shortcomings or where the competition shines, or describe the scenarios where other tools are genuinely superior or more cost-effective. It makes you look strong and confident, not weak.

What would you say about your own product as an engineer, or a customer? Say that.

🌸 You can still talk shit about software, just not your competitors‘ software. 🌸
I try not to gratuitously snipe at our competitors. It’s fine to speak at length about technical problems, differentiation and tradeoffs, and to address how specifically your product compares with theirs. But confine your shit talking to categories of software where you don’t have a personal conflict of interest.

Like, I’m not going to get on twitter and take a swipe at a monitoring vendor (anymore 😇), but I might say rude things about a language, a framework, or a database I have no stake in, if I’m feeling punchy. ☺️ (This particular gem of advice comes by way of Adam Jacob.)

🌸 Be generous with your expertise.🌸
If you have spent years going deep on one gnarly problem, you might very well know that problem and its solution space more thoroughly than almost anyone else in the world. Do you know how many people you can help with that kind of mastery?! A few minutes from you could potentially spare someone days or weeks of floundering. This is a gift few can give.

It feels good, and it’s a nice break from battering your head against unsolvable problems. Don’t restrict your help to paying customers, and, obviously, don’t give self-serving advice. Maybe they can’t buy/don’t need your solution today, but maybe someday they will.

In conclusion

There’s a time and place for being oppositional. Sometimes a vendor gets all high on their own supply, or starts making claims that aren’t just an “optimistic” spin on the facts but are provably untrue. If any vendor is operating in poor faith they deserve to to be corrected.

But it’s a shitty, self-limiting stance to take as a default. We are all here to build things, not tear things down. No one builds software alone. The code you write that defines your business is just the wee tippy top of a colossal iceberg of code written by other people — device drivers, libraries, databases, graphics cards, routers, emacs. All of this value was created by other people, yet we collectively benefit.

Think of how many gazillion lines of code are required for you to run just one AWS Lambda function! Think of how much cooperation and trust that represents. And think of all the deals that brokered that trust and established that value, compensating the makers and allowing them to keep building and improving the software we all rely on.

We build software together. Vendors exist to help you. We do what we do best, so you can spend your engineering cycles doing what you do best, working on your core product. Good sales deals don’t leave anyone feeling robbed or cheated, they leave both sides feeling happy and excited to collaborate.[4]

🐝💜Charity.

[1] Yes, I know this experience is far from universal; LOTS of people in tech have not felt like their voices are heard or their expertise acknowledged. This happens disproportionately to women and other under-represented groups, but it also happens to plenty of members of the dominant groups. It’s just a really common thing! However that has not really been my experience — or if it has, I haven’t noticed — nor Abby’s, as far as I’m aware.

[2] My first brush with columnar storage systems! Which is what makes Honeycomb possible today.

[3] I have learned SO MUCH from watching the world class sales professionals we have at Honeycomb. Sales is a tough gig, and doing it well involves many disciplines — empathy, creativity, business acumen, technical expertise, and so much more. Selling to software engineers in particular means you are often dealing with cocky little shits who think they could do your job with a few lines of code. On behalf of my fellow little shits engineers, I am sorry. 🙈

[4] Like our sales team says: “Never do a deal unless you’d do both sides of the deal.” I fucking love that.

Questionable Advice: “People Used To Take Me Seriously. Then I Became A Software Vendor”

Architects, Anti-Patterns, and Organizational Fuckery

I recently wrote a twitter thread on the proper role of architects, or as I put it, tongue-in-cheek-ily, whether or not architect is a “bullshit role”.

It got a LOT of reactions (2.5 weeks later, the thread is still going!!), which I would sort into roughly three camps:

  1. “OMG this resonates; this matches my experiences working with architects SO MUCH”,
  2. “I’m an architect, and you’re not wrong”, and
  3. “I’m an architect and I hate you.”

Some of your responses (in all three categories!) were truly excellent and thought-provoking. THANK YOU — I learned a ton. I figured I should write up a longer, more readable, somewhat less bombastic version of my original thread, featuring some of my favorite responses.

Where I’m Coming From

Just to be clear, I don’t hate architects! Many of the most brilliant engineers I have ever met are architects.

Nor do I categorically believe that architects should not exist, especially after reading all of your replies. I received some interesting and compelling arguments for the architect role at larger enterprises, and I have no reason to believe they are not true.

Also, please note that I personally have never worked at a company with “architect” as a role. I have also never worked anywhere but Silicon Valley, or at any company larger than Facebook. My experiences are far from universal. I know this.

Let me get suuuuuper specific here about what I’m reacting to:

  • When I meet a new “architect”, they tend toward the extremes: either world class and amazing or useless and out of touch, with precious little middle ground.
  • When I am interviewing someone whose last job title was “architect”, they often come from long tenured positions, and their engineering skills are usually very, very rusty. They often have a lot of detailed expertise about how their last company worked, but not a lot of relevant, up-to-date experience.
  • Because of 👆, when I see “architect” on a job ladder, I tend to feel dubious about that org in a way I do not when I see “staff engineer” or “principal engineer” on the ladder.

What I have observed is that the architect role tends to be the locus of a whole mess of antipatterns and organizational fuckery. The role itself can also be one that does not set up the people who hold it for a successful career in the long run, if they are not careful. It can be a one-way street to being obsolete.

I think that a lot of companies are using some of their best, most brilliant senior engineers as glorified project manager/politicians to paper over a huge amount of organizational dysfunction, while bribing them with money and prestige, and that honestly makes me pretty angry. 😡

But title is not destiny. And if you are feeling mad because none of what I’ve written applies to you, then I’m not writing about you! Live long and prosper. 🖖

Architect Anti-patterns and fuckery

There is no one right way to structure your org and configure your titles, any more than there is any one right way to architect your systems and deploy your services. And there is an eternal tension between centralization and specialization, in roles as well as in systems.

Most of the pathologies associated with architects seem to flow from one of two originating causes:

  1. unbundling decision-making authority from responsibility for results, and
  2. design becoming too untethered from execution (the “Frank Gehry” syndrome)

But it’s only when being an architect brings more money and prestige than engineering that these problems really tend to solidify and become entrenched.

Skin In The Game

When that happens, you often run into the same fucking problem with architects and devs as we have traditionally seen with devs and ops. Only instead of “No, I can’t be on call or get woken up, my time is far too valuable, too busy writing important software”, the refrain is, “No, I can’t write software or review code, my time is far too valuable, I’m much too busy telling other people how to do their jobs.”

This is also why I think calling the role “architect” instead of “staff engineer” or “principal engineer” may itself be kind of an anti-pattern. A completely different title implies that it’s a completely different job, when what you really want, at least most of the time, is an engineer performing a slightly different (but substantially overlapping) set of functions as a senior engineer.

My core principle here is simple: only the people responsible for building software systems get to make decisions about how those systems get built. I can opine all I want on your architecture or ours, but if I’m not carrying a pager for you, you should probably just smile politely and move along.

Technical decisions should be ultimately be made by the people who have to live with the consequences. But good architects will listen to those people, and help co-create architectural decisions that take into account local, domain, and enterprise perspectives (a Katy Allred quote).

Architecture is a core engineering skill

When you make architecture “someone else’s problem” and scrap the expectation that it is a core skill, you get weaker engineers and worse systems.

Learning to see the forest as well as the trees, and factor in security, maintainability, data integrity and scale, performance, etc is a *critical* part of growing up as an engineer into senior roles.

The story of QA is relevant here. Once upon a time, every technical company had a QA department to test their code and ensure quality. Software engineers weren’t expected to write tests for their code — that was QA’s job. Eventually we realized that we wrote better software when engineers were held responsible for writing their own tests and testing their own code.

Developers howled and complained: they didn’t have time! they would never get anything built! But it gradually became clear that while it may take more time up front to write and test code, it saved immensely more time and pain in the longer run because the code got so much better and problems got found so much earlier.

It’s not like we got rid of QA  — QA departments still exist, especially in some industries, but they are more like consulting experts. They write test suites and test software, but more importantly they are a resource to make sure that everybody is writing good tests and shipping quality software.

This was long enough ago that most people writing code today probably don’t remember this. (It was mostly before my own time as well.) But you hear echoes of the same arguments today when engineers are complaining about having to be on call for their code, or write instrumentation and operate their code in production.

The point is not that every engineer has to do everything. It’s that there are elements of testing, operations, and architecture that every software engineer needs to know in order to write quality code — in order to not make mistakes that will cost you dearly down the line.

Specialists are not here to do the job for you, they’re to help you do the job better.

“Architect” Done Right

If you must have architects at all, I suggest:

  1. Grow your architects from within. The best high-level thinkers are the ones with a thorough grounding in the context and the particulars.
  2. Be clear about who gets to have opinions vs who gets to make decisions. Having architects who consult, educate, and support is terrific. Having “pigeon architects” who “swoop and poop” — er, make technical decisions for engineers to implement — is a recipe for resentment and weak architectures.
  3. Pay them the same as your staff or principal engineers, not dramatically more. Create an org structure that encourages pendulum swings between (eng, mgr, arch) roles, not one with major barriers in form of pay or level disparities.
  4. Consider adopting one of the following patterns, which do a decent job of evading the two main traps we described above.

If your architects don’t have the technical skills, street cred, or time to spend growing baby engineers into great engineers, or mentoring senior engineers in architecture, they are probably also crappy architects. (another Katy Allred quote)

The “Embedded Architect” (aka Staff+ Engineer)

The most reliable way I know to align architecture and engineering goals is for them to be done by the same team. When one team is responsible for designing, developing, maintaining, and operating a service, you tend to have short, tight, feedback loops that let you ship products and iterate swiftly.

Here is one useful measure of your system’s complexity and the overhead involved in making changes:

“How long does it take you to ship a one-character fix?”

There are many other measures, of course, but this is one of the most important. It gets to the heart of why so many engineers get fed up with working at big companies, where the overhead for change is SO high, and the threshold for having an impact is SO long and laborious.

The more teams have to be involved in designing, reviewing, and making changes, the slower you will grind. People seem to accept this as an inevitability of working in large and complex systems far more than I think they should.

Embedding architecture and operations expertise in every engineering team is a good way to show that these are skills and responsibilities we expect every engineer to develop.

This is the model that Facebook had. It is often paired with,

The “Architecture Group” of Practicing Engineers

Every company eventually needs a certain amount of standardization and coordination work. Sometimes this means building out a “Golden Path” of supported software for the organization. Sometimes this looks like a platform engineering team. Sometimes it looks like capacity planning years worth of hardware requirements across hundreds of teams.

I’ve seen this function fulfilled by super-senior engineers who come together informally to discuss upcoming projects at a very high level. I’ve seen it fulfilled by teams that are spun up by leadership to address a specific problem, then spun down again. I’ve seen it fulfilled by guilds and other formal meetings.

These conversations need to happen, absolutely no question about it. The question is whether it’s some people’s full time job, or one of many part-time roles played by your most senior engineers.

I’m more accustomed to the latter. Pro: it keeps the conversations grounded in reality. Con: engineers don’t have a lot of time to spend interfacing with other groups and doing “project management” or “stakeholder management”, which may be a sizable amount of work at some companies.

The “architect-engineer” pendulum

The architect-to-engineer pendulum seems like the only strategy short of embedded architects / shared ownership that seems likely to yield consistently good results, in my opinion.

The reasoning behind this is similar to the reasons for saying that engineering managers should probably spend some time doing hands-on work every few years. You need to be a pretty good engineer before you can be a good engineering manager or a good architect, and 5+ years after doing any hands-on work, you probably aren’t one anymore.

If you’re the type of architect that is part of an engineering team, partly responsible for a product, shipping code for that product, or on call for that product, this may not apply to you. But if you’re the type of architect that spends little if any time debugging/understanding or building the systems you architect, you should probably make a point of swinging back and forth every few years.

The “Time-Share Architect”

This one has aspects of both the “Architecture Working Group” and the “Architect-Engineer Pendulum”. It treats architecture is a job to be done, not a role to be occupied. Thinking of it like a “really extended pager rotation” is an interesting idea.

Somewhat relatedly — at Honeycomb, “lead engineer” is a title attached to a particular project, and refers to a set of actions and responsibilities for that project. It isn’t a title that’s attached to a particular person. Every engineer gets the opportunity to lead projects (if they want to), and everybody gets a break from doing the project management stuff from time to time. The beautiful thing about this is that everybody develops key leadership skills, instead of embodying them in a single person.

The important thing is that someone is performing the coordination activities, but the people building the system have final say on architecture decisions.

The “Advisor Architect”

I honestly have no problem with architects who are not seen as senior to, and do not have opinions overriding those of, the senior engineers who are building and maintaining the system.

Engineers who are making architectural decisions should consult lots of sources and get lots of opinions. If architects provide educated opinions and a high level view of the systems, and the engineers make use of their expertise, well  that’s fan fucking tastic.

If architects are handing them assignments, or overriding their technical decisions and walking off, leaving a mess behind … fuck that shit. That’s the opposite of empowerment and ownership.

The “skin in the game” rule of thumb still holds, though. The less an architect is exposed to the maintenance and operational consequences of decisions, the less sway their opinion should hold with the group. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring value. But the limitations of opinions at a distance should be made clear.

The Threat to Architects’ Careers

It’s super flattering to be told you are just too important, your time is too valuable for you to fritter it away on the mundane acts of debugging and reviewing PRs. (I know! It feels great!!!) But I don’t think it serves you well. Not you, or your team, your company, customers, or the tech itself.

And not *every* architect role falls into this trap. But there’s a definite correlation between orgs that stop calling you “engineers” and orgs that encourage (or outright expect) you to stop engineering at that level. In my experience.

But your credibility, your expertise, your moral authority to impose costs on the team are all grounded in your fluency and expertise with this codebase and this production system — and your willingness to shoulder those costs alongside them. (All the baby engineers want to grow up to be a principal engineer like this.)

But if you aren’t grounded in the tech, if you don’t share the burden, your direction is going to be received with some (or a LOT of) cynicism and resentment. Your technical work will also be lower quality.

Furthermore, you’re only hurting yourself in the long run. Some of the most useless people I’ve ever met were engineers who were “promoted” to architect many, many years ago, and have barely touched an editor or production shell since. They can’t get a job anywhere else, certainly not with comparable status or pay, and they know it. 🤒

They may know EVERYTHING about the company where they work, but those aren’t transferable skills. They have become a super highly paid project manager.

And as a result … they often become the single biggest obstacle to progress. They are just plain terrified of being automated out of a job. It is frustrating to work with, and heartbreaking to watch. 💔

Don’t become that sad architect. Be an engineer. Own your own code in production. This is the way.

Coda: On “Solutions Architects”

You might note that I didn’t include solutions architects in this thread. There is absolutely a real and vibrant use for architects who advise. The distinction in my mind is: who has the last word, the engineers or the architect? Good engineering teams will seek advice from all kinds of expert sources, be they managers or architects or vendors.

My complaint is only with “architects” who are perceived to be superior to, and are capable of overruling the judgments of, the engineering team.

Exceptions abound; the title is not the person. My observations do not obviate your existence as a skilled technologist.  You obviously know your own role better than I do. 🙃

charity

Architects, Anti-Patterns, and Organizational Fuckery

How to Throw A Company Offsite In A “Post-COVID” World

Earlier this month we had our first Honeycomb all-hands offsite in three years … our first one since February of 2020, before the plague. It was wonderful and glorious and silly and energizing and so, so SO much fun. It was a potent reminder of the reality that no virtual activity can compare with the energy of being physically present with people you care about.

I was talking with Paul Biggar last month, telling him about all the things we were doing both to create a safe environment and to ease the pangs of re-entry for a bunch of people who haven’t done this in years. Paul observed that it seemed like most companies are either 1) not gathering at all or 2) barreling forward as though COVID didn’t exist, and that there aren’t many stories about groups assembling safely.

So I said I would write one, if we pulled it off. And now that it’s been long enough that we can confidently say nobody came down with COVID at our offsite, here it is.

Offsites: luxury or necessity?

Honeycomb has always been proud to be a distributed company, even before the plague hit. It’s part of our belief system that this is just a better way of doing business.

But being distributed doesn’t mean that in-person connection doesn’t matter. It matters even more when you are all remote most of the time.

Getting together in human meatspace is expensive, it’s annoying, it’s awkward and uncomfortable and inconvenient … and it is necessary. It’s not optional or a “nice-to-have,” it is a ✨critical ingredient✨ of the recipe that makes high-performing distributed teams work. Spending time together face to face is the yeast in our bread, the bitters in our Old Fashioneds.

By the end of 2022, it had become clear that we are stuck with COVID for the long-haul. It was long past time to gather and get to know each other in person. But if we were going to do it, we had to do our best to mitigate the risks and adapt to the world we live in now. What precautions to take? Where to even start?

When and where, and why??

COVID concerns were part of the planning from day one. There were several constraints where to hold the event, which we immediately dubbed “Swarm” (of course). 🙃

  • Moderate weather. We wanted to be able to let people congregate outdoors as much as possible, as an additional insurance policy for the extra-anxious.
  • Centrally located” was the original goal, but most of the country is just too cold in February. We settled for a destination that everyone could fly to direct.
  • Legal safety. We needed to go to a state w/  here all of our employees felt safe, not targeted by various legal jurisdictions.
  • We did NOT care about glamorous locations. We knew we were going to spend our time at the hotel, focused on each other, not the locale.

In the end we chose Los Angeles — the the oh-so-glamorous LAX Airport Marriott, to be precise. 🌴🐠\\🍹

We originally scheduled the event for mid-January, to kick off the new year, but ended up witthlizadelaying five weeks into 2023 in case there was a wave of post-holiday COVID infections.

Preparing for the event

Our COVID safety plans are designed to maximize attendance, give people enough information to properly manage their own risk, and provide an extra-safe outdoor alternative for as many activities as possible.

We tapped Liz Fong-Jones to take point on COVID policy. (As a globe-trotting extrovert who goes to lots of events, she is our resident expert.) Having one czar in charge of policy turned out to be great; she didn’t have to ask permission from anyone or get consensus from a committee to update policies and make requests on the spot.

Leading into the event, our plans and preparations included:

  1. Adjacent outdoors space.
    We looked for a venue with extra capacity (plenty of space for social distancing and proper airflow) and a large outdoor area — covered, heated space for people to eat and socialize, even if it was rainy or cold.
  2. On site testing for everyone.
    Everyone was given a rapid nucleic test on checking in, and asked to take onesubsequently every 48 hours.

    • Testing was mandatory for everyone, including vendors, guests, and visiting dignitaries.
    • Positive first-line tests should confirmatory test with a PCR or second nucleic test and isolate until a negative comes back.
    • If anyone confirms positive, their instructions are to stay in their room until they test negative. Honeycomb pays for hotel and rebooking.
  3. Carbon dioxide monitors.
    Every conference room was supposed be set up with a mounted CO2 monitor where people can see it. (Carbon dioxide monitors are a good proxy measurement for air circulation and thus transmission risk.) We said, “if the number is above 650, masks will be required in the room”, but this didn’t quite play out (see “Retro” section).
  4. Social distancing.
    We had stickers for badges, color coded by the traffic light system. (This was for individuals to exercise control based on risk tolerance, not a universal rule):

    • Red — please keep your distance
    • Yellow — please ask before physical touch
    • Green — I’m comfortable with talking and physical touch
  5. Masks.
    Masks were available throughout the event, but not required. People were welcome to wear their own masks regardless, of course, and everyone kept one in their pocket, so they could put it on if anyone asked. (This happened a few times in my vicinity, and everybody cheerfully complied.)

    • We booked a shuttle to haul everyone into LA for dinner, and masks were required on the shuttle. People were also told to call an uber/lyft if they felt uncomfortable with the shuttle.
  6. Outdoor seating at restaurants.
    One of our most popular sessions was “small group dinners”, where we sent people out to LA restaurants in small cross-functional groups of 8 people (including at least one member of senior leadership per group). People could request an outdoor group.
  7. If a new variant or outbreak emerged…
    We wouldn’t be able to call the event off or reschedule without forfeiting the entire cost. Our contingency plan was to move the entire event outdoors to the pool area, if necessary.

Pacing ourselves: naps and snacks and breaks

We knew this trip was going to be intense and overwhelming for many if not most of us — even more so than most company offsites. Many people hadn’t traveled or spent time in large groups since the pandemic, all of us are used to working solo from home. Only a tenth of us (18 of 180) were working at Honeycomb in February of 2020, at our last offsite. So mental health and social overload were just as important to consider.

We told people, repeatedly:

Take care of yourselves. Do what you need to do to be fully present while you’re here, rather than here 100% of the time.

We scheduled only three sessions per day, plus lunch and dinner. We neither started very early or scheduled things very late. We left lots of padding in between sessions for snacks  and naps and breaks.

We set aside a “Recharge Room” with doors that closed, with nail polish, coloring books and markers, and board games. We set aside cubbies with signs marked “Introvert Corners — no talking please!”, and stocked them up with USB hubs and charging cables, so you could recharge your devices while recharging your soul (lol).

In retrospect

Over 86% of the company came (!!!) and we had a riotously good time — way, way more than I think any of us even expected or hoped to have. It was a memorable, sparkly reminder of the incomparable magic of what it’s like being together with people you care about.

We ran a survey afterwards. 50% of respondents said they felt safe, but their standards are low; 48% said they felt safe due to the testing, masking, and reminders; 8% said they felt safe because they spent as much time as possible outdoors. 10% (11 people, out of 109 responding) said they “did not feel very safe.”

However, I would note that 5 of those 11 people didn’t actually attend Swarm. And one person pointed out afterwards that you had to choose “I did not feel very safe” if you wanted to enter any feedback at all about safety, so it was possible if not probable that some people would have chosen another option if they could.

 

I think we did pretty well. However, things can always be better!

What worked well:

  1. Outdoor spaces for eating, temperate climate, extra-spacious rooms for circulatory purposes.
  2. The rapid-nucleic tests we used were made by Lucira. (Liz says: “The tests were far more reliable than we thought they’d be — the brand has a reputation for false positives but we saw none, and only 3 invalid tests out of several hundred performed.”)
  3. Testing. We were hyper-diligent about testing. We actually ran out of tests on Wednesday, despite provisioning two for each attendee and a bunch of extras, and had to emergency lift in more, which is a great sign.
  4. Taking a layered approach to COVID safety. Not relying on any single prevention method meant that if one didn’t work well, we still had a safety net.
  5. Having a knowledgeable COVID czar.
  6. The Recharge Room with nail polish, art supplies and games worked really well, although designating other areas as “Quiet Zones” was ineffective and unnecessary.

What we can improve on:

  1. The 30-60 minute breaks sprinkled throughout the day were well-intentioned, but ineffective. Everybody was fucking wiped by late afternoon. Next time, I would replace all those breaks with one solid “Nap Breakfrom 4-6pm.
    • I think it’s important to acknowledge that we were all going to be flattened no matter what though. We aren’t used to this! It is HARD to leave the party to take care of yourself!
  2. We should have a team of COVID safety marshals, in addition to the Code of Conduct team.
  3. Next time we will ask people to submit their COVID test results — even if it’s just dropping a pic in a slack channel. Trust but verify.
  4. The CO2 monitors were confusing. They were hard to find, and most of them got installed in the wrong place. Also, the 650 ppm rule would have essentially meant everyone had to wear a mask in any closed room, which was not the goal. Our error here was not in failing to stick to the 650 ppm rule, but in making a rule we couldn’t keep.
  5. Next year, we will be explicit about the fact that CO2 monitors are for informational purposes, so individuals can factor it into their own masking choices and/or decide whether to move outside.
  6. Next year we will also emphasize that it is okay to ask the people around you to mask up so you can participate.
    • If you aren’t comfortable asking those around you to put on a mask, you can DM a safety marshal who will ask on your behalf.
  7. One session in particular had external facilitators come in and roam around the (closed) rooms shouting stuff. They tested clear for COVID, but in retrospect I really wish we had asked them to mask up, as it generated a lot of anxiety. This was our biggest covid safety lapse, in my opinion.

Offsites are necessary. Human connection feeds your soul.

What I learned from this event is just how much we were all craving connection. I was a firm believer in how much in-person connection matters to start with, and it still blew me away just how special, how irreplaceably precious the experience was. There is no possible way we could have made the kind of connections, learned the same lessons, and formed the kind of bonds we did if we had tried to do this as a remote event. If anything, it just made me even more intent on creating an event safe enough that everyone can join.

On the last night we had a party, with karaoke and a dress theme: “Wear something you wouldn’t wear to work.” By that point, it enough intimacy had been established that people seemed to feel safe letting their inner freak flag fly a bit, and it was just fucking incredible getting a glimpse into everybody’s inner selves and stories.

It seemed like others felt the same way, too. In the anonymous post-event survey, 100% of attendees said it was valuable to them. Representative feedback:

“I didn’t know how much I needed this, and I can’t wait for next year.”

Reintroducing a practice of spending time together is not only possible, I feel like we were able to do it in ways that adapt to the realities of the world we live in today.

That matters. I know I’ve said this like five times now, but for a distributed company, gathering together in person isn’t a nice-to-have, it is an absolute necessity. After meeting all of my coworkers, I feel this more strongly than ever. 💜🐝

P.S. None of us got COVID in the wake of our offsite. A handful of us did, however, manage to catch a common cold. 🦠

How to Throw A Company Offsite In A “Post-COVID” World

Every Achievement Has A Denominator

One of the classic failure modes of management is the empire-builder — the managers who measure their own status, rank or value by the number of teams and people “under” them.

Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to do this, but most of us secretly, sheepishly do it anyway to some extent. After all, it’s not untrue — the more teams and people that roll up to you, the wider your influence and the more impact you have on more people, by definition.

The other reason is, well, it’s what we’ve got. How else are we supposed to gauge our influence and impact, or our skill as a leader? We don’t really have any other language, metrics or metaphors readily available to us. 😖

Well… Here’s one:

✨Every achievement has a denominator✨

Organization size can be a liability

Let’s say you have 1,000 people in your org and you collectively achieve something remarkable. Good for you!

What if you achieved the same thing with 10,000 people, instead? What would that say about your leadership?

What if you achieved the same thing with 100 people?

Or even 10 people?

Lots of people take pride in their ability to manage large organizations. And with thousands of people in your org, you kinda better do something fucking great. But what if you instead took pride in your ability to deliver outsize results with a small denominator?

What if comp didn’t automatically bloat with the size of your org, but rather the impact of your work divided by the number of contributors — rewarding leaders for leaner teams, not larger ones?

Bigness itself is costly. There’s the cost of the engineers, managers, product and designers etc, of course. But the bigger it gets, the more coordination costs are incurred, which are the worst costs of all because they do not accrue to any user benefit — and often lead to lack of focus and product surface sprawl.

Constraints fuel creativity. Having “enough” engineers for a project is usually a terrible idea; you want to be constrained, you want to have to make hard decisions about where to spend your time and where to invest development cycles.

More often than not, scope is the enemy

As Ben Darfler wrote earlier this year about our approach to engineering levels at Honeycomb:

There are times when broad scope may be unavoidable, but at Honeycomb, we try to cultivate a healthy skepticism toward scope. More often than not, scope is the enemy. We would rather reward engineers who find clever ways to limit scope by decomposing problems in both time and size. We also want to reward engineers who work on the most important problems for the business, regardless of the size of the project. We don’t want to reward people for gaming out their work based on what will get them promoted.

The same is true for engineering managers, directors and VPs. We would rather reward them for getting things done with small, nimble teams, not for empire building and team sprawl. We want to reward them for working on the most important problems for the business, regardless of what size their teams are.

What was the denominator of the last big project you landed? Could you have done it with fewer people? How will you apply those learnings to the next big initiative?

Can we find more language and ways to talk about, or take pride in how efficiently we do big things? At the very least, perhaps we can start paying attention to the denominator of our achievements, and factor that into how we level and reward our leaders.

charity.

P.S. I did not invent this phrase, but I am unfortunately unable to credit the person I heard it from (a senior Googler). I simply think it’s brilliant, and so helpful.

Every Achievement Has A Denominator

The Hierarchy Is Bullshit (And Bad For Business)

My friend Molly has had an impressive career. She got a job as a software engineer after graduating from college, and after kicking ass for a year or so she was offered a promotion to management, which she accepted with relish. Molly was smart, driven, and fiercely ambitious, so she swiftly clambered up the ranks to hold director, VP, and other shiny leadership roles. It took two decades, an IPO and a vicious case of burnout before she allowed herself to admit how much she hated her work, and how desperately she envied (guess who??) the software engineers she worked alongside. Turns out, all she ever really wanted to do was write code every day. And now, to her dismay, it felt too late.

Why did it take Molly so long to realize what made her happy? I personally blame the fucking hierarchy.

The Hierarchy Lie

The “Big Lie” of hierarchy is that your organizational structure is a vertical tree from the CEO on down, where higher up is always better.

Of course any new grad is going to feel that way, on the heels of 15-20 years spent going through school year by year, grade by grade, measuring success via good grades and teacher approval. The early years of professional life are a similar blend of hard work, leveling up and basic skills acquisition. (They got Molly hopped on the leveling treadmill before she even had a chance to become a real adult, in other words. 😍)

But by the time you are fully baked as a senior contributor, maybe 7-8 years in, your relationship to levels and ladders should undergo a dramatic shift. At some point you have to learn to tune in to your own inner compass. What draws you in to your work? What fuels your growth and success?

Being an adult means not measuring yourself entirely on other people’s definition of success. Personal growth might come in the guise of a big promotion, but it also might look like a new job, a different role, a swing to management or back, becoming well-known as a subject matter expert, mentoring others, running an affinity group, picking up new skill sets, starting a company, trying your hand at consulting, speaking at conferences, taking a sabbatical, having a family, working part time, etc. No one gets to define that but you.

You have a thirty- or forty-year adult life and career in front of you. What the hell are you going to do with all that time and space??

Your career is not one mad sprint to the finish line

Literally nobody’s career looks like a straight line, going up, up up and to the right, from intern to CEO (to a coffin).

One of the most exhausting things about working at Facebook was the way engineering levels feltLiterally no one's career, ever. like a hamster wheel, where every single quarter you were expected to go go go go go, do more do more, scrape up ever more of your mortal soul to pour in more than you could last quarter — and the quarter before that, and before that, in ever-escalating intensity.

It was fucking exhausting, yo. Life does not work that way. Shit gets hilly.

The strategy for a fulfilling, lifelong career in tech is not to up the ante every interval. Nor is it to amass more and more power over others until you explode. Instead:

  1. Train yourself to love the feeling of constantly learning and pushing your boundaries. Feeling comfortable is the system blinking orange, and it should make you uneasy.
  2. Follow your nose into work that lights you up in the morning, work you can’t stop thinking about. If you’re bored, do something else.
  3. Say yes to opportunities!! Intensity is nothing to be afraid of. Instead of trying to cap your speed or your growth, learn to alternate it with recovery periods.
  4. If you aren’t sure what to do, make the choice that preserves or expands future optionality. Remember: Most startups fail. Will you be okay with your choices if (& when) this one does too?

Why do people climb the ladder? “Because it’s there.” And when they don’t have any other animating goals, the ladder fills a vacuum.

But if you never make the leap from externally-motivated to intrinsically-motivated, this will eventually becomes a serious risk factor for your career. Without an inner compass (and a renewable source of joy), you will struggle to locate and connect with the work that gives your life meaning. You will risk burnout, apathy and a serious lack of fucks given..

The times I have come closest to burnout or flaming out have never been when I was working the hardest, but when I cared the least. Or when I felt the least needed.📈📉💔

A disturbing number of companies would rather feel in control than unclench and perform better

But hey! Lack of inner drive isn’t the ONLY thing that drives people to climb the ladder. Plenty of companies fuck this up too, all on their lonesome. Let’s talk about more of the ways that companies mess up the workplace! Like by disempowering the people doing the work and giving all the power to managers, thereby forcing anyone who wants a say in their own job become one.

The way we talk about work is riddled with hierarchical, authoritarian phrases: “She was my superior”, “My boss made me do it”, “I got promoted into management”, and so on.

There are plenty of industries where line workers are still disempowered cogs and power structures are hierarchical and absolute (like flipping burgers at McDonalds, or factory line work). There are even software companies still trying to make it work in command-and-control mode, to whom engineers are interchangeable monkeys that ship story points and close JIRA tasks.

But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that for industries that are fueled by creativity and innovation, command-and-control leadership is poison. It stifles innovation, it saps initiative, it siphons away creativity and motivation and caring.

Studies also show that the more visible someone’s power is, the less likely anyone is to give them honest feedback.[2]

Companies that don’t learn this lesson are unlikely to win over the long run. Engineering is a deeply creative occupation, and authoritarian environments are toxic for creativity and people’s willingness to share information.

Hierarchy is just a data structure

The basic function of a hierarchy is to help us make sense of the world, simplify information, and make decisions. Hierarchy lets us break down enormous projects — like “let’s build a rocket!”, or “let’s invade the moon!” — into millions of bite size decisions and tasks, and this is how progress gets made.

A certain amount of authority is invested into the hierarchy model. If you are responsible for delivering a unit of work, the company needs to make sure you have enough resources and decision-making ability to do so. This is what we think of as the formal power structure [1], and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what makes the system work.

The problem starts when we stop thinking of hierarchy as a neutral data structure — a utilitarian device for organizing groups and making decisions — and start projecting all kinds of social status and dominance onto it.

A sensitivity to social dominance is wired deep, deep into our little monkey brains. It’s what tells us we deserve more power, leverage, pride, influence, and autonomy — and simply have more value — than those below us. It’s what tells us those above us are better, stronger and more deserving than we are, and that we owe them our respect and deference.

It also tells us “if you lose status, YOU MIGHT DIE” 😱😱😱 which is why we may react to a perceived loss of status with a sting that seems astonishingly extreme and overwrought, even to ourselves, yet somehow impossible to shrug off.

hierarchies tend to get mixed up with social dominance

In general, it is better to pursue roles and growth based on the affirmative (what it is you want to learn, grow or do more of) than the negative (what you want to avoid, evade or stop doing). Your motivation systems don’t kick in to gear when you are feeling “lack of pain” — the system doesn’t work that way. They kick in when you get interested.

And if you are sick of doing something or being treated a certain way, chances are everyone else will hate it, too. Who wants to work at a company where all the shit rolls downhill?

Hierarchies have stuck around for one very good reason: because they work. Hierarchies are simple, intuitive, and allow large numbers to collaborate with low cognitive overhead. Unfortunately, most hierarchies become entwined with status and dominance markers, which can bring enormous downsides. At their worst, they can suck the literal life out of work, reducing us all to glum little cogs obeying orders.

We aren’t getting rid of hierarchy anytime soon. But we can use culture and ritual to gently untangle them from dominance, and we can choose to interpret formal power as a service function instead of a dictatorship. This frees people up to choose their work based on what makes them feel fulfilled, instead of their perceived status. (Also helpful? Flatter pay bands. 😛)

Good managers do not dictate and demand, they nurture, develop, and inspire. The most important roles in the company aren’t held by managers; they are all the little leaf nodes  busily building the product, supporting users, identifying markets, writing copy, etc. The people doing the work are why we exist as a company; all the rest is, with considerable due respect, overhead.

How to drain your hierarchy of social dominance

When it comes to hierarchy and team structure, there are the functional, organizational aspects (mostly good) and the social dominance parts (mostly bad). With that in mind, there are plenty of smaller things we can do as a team to remind people that we are equal colleagues, simply with different roles.

  • Be conscious of the language you use. Does it reinforce dominance and hierarchy? (Step one: stop calling management “a promotion”🥰)
  • De-emphasize trappings of power. The more you refer to someone’s formal power, the less likely anyone is to give them critical feedback or question them.
  • Push back against common but unhelpful practices, like “a manager should always make more money than the people who report to them.” Really? Why??
  • Are there opportunities for career advancement as an IC, or only as a manager? Everyone should have the ability to advance in their career.
  • Do your own dishes, everyone.
  • Practice visualizing the org chart upside down, where managers and execs support their teams from below rather than topping them from above. (I was going to write a whole post about this, then discovered other people have been doing that for the past decade. 🤣)

And then there is the big(ger) thing we can (and must!) do, in order to 1) make people go into management for the right reasons, 2) help senior IC roles remain attractive to highly skilled creative and technical contributors, and 3) encourage everybody to make career decisions based on curiosity, growth, and what’s best for the business, instead of turf and power grabs. Which is:

Practice transparency, from top to bottom

Share authority, decision-making and power

Technical contributors own technical decisions

Most people who go in to management don’t do it out of a burning desire to write performance reviews. They do it because they are fed the fuck up with being out of the loop, or not having a say in decisions over their own work. All they want is to be in the room where it happens, and management tends to be the only way you get an invite.

EVERY company says they believe in transparency, but hardly any of them are, by my count. Transparency doesn’t mean flooding people with every trivial detail, or freaking them out with constant fire drills. It does mean being actively forthcoming about important questions and matters which are happening or on the horizon…often before you are fully comfortable with it. Honestly, if you never feel any discomfort about your level of transparency, you probably aren’t transparent enough.

People do better work with more context! You’re equipping them with information to better understand the business problems and technical objectives, and thereby unleashing them and their creativity to help solve them. You’re also opening yourself up to questioning and sanity checks — which may feel uncomfortable, but 🌞sunlight is sanitizing🌞 — it is worth it.

Some practical tips for transparency

At Honeycomb, we present the full board deck after every board meeting in our all hands, and take questions. When we’re facing financial uncertainty, we say so, along with our working plan for dealing with it. We also do org-level updates in all hands, once per quarter per org. Each org presents a snapshot to the company of how they are doing, but we ask that no more than 2/3 of the presentation be about their successes and triumphs, and 1/3 of their material be about their failures and misses. Normalize talking about failure.

Being transparent isn’t about putting everyone on blast; it’s about cultivating a habit of awareness about what might be relevant to other people. It’s about building systems of feedback, updates and open questioning into your culture. This can be scary, so it’s also about training yourselves as a team to handle hard news without overreacting or shooting the messenger. If you always tell people what they want to hear, they’ll never trust you. You can’t trust someone’s ‘yes’ until you hear their ‘no’.

Transparency is always a balance between information and distraction, but I think these are healthy internal rules of thumb for management:

  1. If anyone has further questions or wants to know more details than what was shared, they are free to ask any manager or exec, who will willingly answer more fully, up to the boundaries of privacy or legal reasons. As employees, they have a right to know about the business they are part of. A right — not a privilege, which can be revoked on a whim.
  2. When making internal decisions about e.g. salary bands, individual exceptions to formal policy, etc, ask each other … if this decision were to leak, could we justify our reasoning with head held high? If you would feel ashamed, or if you really don’t want people to find out about it, it’s probably the wrong decision.

Some practical tips for distributing power

Power flows to managers by default, just like water flows downhill. Managers have to actively push back on this tendency by explicitly allocating powers and responsibilities to tech leads and engineers. Don’t hoard information, share context generously, and make sure you know when they would want to tap in to a discussion. Your job is not to “shield” them from the rest of the org; your job is to help them determine where they can add outsize value, and include them. Only if they trust you to loop them in will they feel free to go heads down and focus.

Wrap your senior ICs into planning and other leadership activities. Decisions about sociotechnical processes (code reviews, escalation points, SLI/SLOs, ownership etc) are usually better owned by staff+ engineers than anyone on the management track. Invite a couple of your seniormost engineers to join calibrations — they bring a valuable perspective to performance discussions that managers lack.

Demystify management. Blur the lines between people managers and engineers; delegate ownership and accountability for some important projects to ICs. Ask every engineer about their career interests, and if management is on the list, find opportunities for them to practice and improve at managerial skills — mentoring, interviewing, onboarding, etc.

Adults don’t like being told what to do

People do phenomenal work when they want to do it, when they are creatively and emotionally engaged at the level of optimum challenge, and when they know their work matters. That’s where you’ll find your state of flow. That is where you’ll do your best work, which is also the best way to get promoted and make durable advances in your career.

Not, ironically, by chasing levels and titles for their own sake. ☺️

People want to be challenged. They want you to ask them to step up and take responsibility for something hard. They want to be needed, and they want to have agency in the doing of it. Just like you do.

Oh yeah, back to Molly …

Molly, who I mentioned at the beginning, joined Honeycomb five years ago as a customer success exec. After realizing she wanted to go back to engineering, she switched to working our support desk to build up her technical chops while she practiced writing code on the side. She has now been working as a software engineer on the product team for over two years, and she is ✨rocking it.✨ It is NEVER too late. 🙌

<3 charity

p.s. Molly also says, “don’t waste time at bad companies, whether you’re climbing the ladder or not!” 🥂

 

[1] Formal power is only one kind of power, and in some ways it is the weakest, because it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the company and is only loaned out for you to wield on its behalf. (You don’t carry the innate ability to fire people along with you after you stop being an engineering manager, for example.) Formal powers are limited, enumerated, and functional. You don’t get to use them for any reason other than furthering the goals of the org, or else it is literally an abuse of power.

Formal power is fascinating in another way, too: which is that your formal power is seen as legitimate only if you ~basically always wield it in the ways everyone already expects you to. You can make a surprising call only so often; you can straight up overrule the wishes of your constituents extremely rarely. If you use your formal power to do things that people disagree with or don’t support, without taking the time to persuade them or create real consensus, you will squander your credibility and good faith unbelievably fast.

[2] I am not going to bother rustling up lots of links and citations, because I expect most of this falls into the voluminous category of “shit you already knew”. But if any of it sounds surprising to you, here are some classic reference works:

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Drive, by Dan Pink
The Culture Code: Secrets of Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle
A Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide to Being a Better Leader, by Ari Weinzweig

[3] The scientific literature suggests that dominating instincts tend to emerge in more overtly hostile environments. Make of that what you will, I guess.

 

Some other writing I have done on this topic, or topics adjacent …

The Engineer/Manager Pendulum
The Pendulum or the Ladder
If Management Isn’t a Promotion, then Engineering isn’t a Demotion
Twin Anxieties of the Engineer Manager Pendulum
Things to Know About Engineering Levels
Advice for Engineering Managers who want to Climb the Ladder
On Engineers and Influence
Is There a Path Back from CTO to Engineer?

The Hierarchy Is Bullshit (And Bad For Business)

Questionable Advice: Is there a path back from CTO to engineer?

I received this question in the comments section of my piece on The Twin Anxieties of the Engineer/Manager Pendulum, and figured I might as well answer it. It definitely isn’t a question I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about or anything. 🥰

As a former CTO coming off a sabbatical and wanting to go back to engineering, it’s good to hear that this can be done. Having had coding, architecting, and scaling skills before getting pushed to more lead role and looking to get back to working after the sabbatical, what would the roadmap look like to achieve this? Is it still possible having been away for a few years? What would be a good role to target for re-entry: principal/staff engineer? architect? — Mark

Personally? If I were you, I would return to engineering as a regular old software engineer, writing and shipping code every day in the trenches with (this cannot be emphasized enough) a really, really good team.

Your rustiest skill sets are always going to be the most tactical ones — writing software, reviewing code, reproducing bugs, understanding a new production system.

As a former CTO, you have many other skill sets to pull from — management, strategy, architecture, coaching, staffing, fundraising, etc. These skills are valuable. But they don’t degrade the way hands-on development does. You’ll still remember how to write a performance review two (or twenty) years from now, but writing code is like speaking a language: you use it or lose it. And just like with a language, the best way to freshen up is full immersion.

It’s not just about refreshing your technical chops, it’s also about re-acclimating yourself to the rhythms of hours, days, and weeks spent in focus mode, building and creating.

Think back to the time you first moved from engineering into a management role. Do you remember how exhausting and intrusive it was at first, having meeting after meeting after meeting on your calendar? You had to context switch twenty times a day — you were context switching constantly. You had to walk into room after room after room full of people and their words and emotions. By the end of the day you would be drained dry (and the days felt so long).

As an engineer, you spent your days in stretches of deep focus and concentration, punctuated by the occasional meal, meeting or interruption. But as a manager, your life is nothing but interruptions (and time boxes, and time-boxed interruptions). It took time to for you adjust to manager life and learn where to seek out new dopamine hits. And it’s going to take time for you to adjust back.

How much time? About six months, at least for me. I don’t think it’s being overly dramatic to say that you have to allow enough time to become a different version of yourself. You can’t just change personas and entire ways of being like you change your clothing. The process is more like…a snake shedding its skin, or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Don’t rush the process.

And don’t just pick up where you left off as an engineer. This is a beautiful opportunity for you to enjoy the terrible frustration of beginner eyes. ☺️ Learn a new language, learn a new framework, learn a new way of packaging and deploying your code. Freshen up your toolchain. Try a new editor. Catch up on some new testing or validation ideas that have developed or gone mainstream since you were last in the coal mines. (Take modern observability for a test drive? 😉)

Shit moves fast. A lot will have changed.

If you try to pick up where you left off as an expert, it’s really going to suck as you stumble through the motions that used to feel effortless and automatic. But if you start with something new, the friction of learning will feel ordinary and predictable instead. And pretty soon you’ll feel the engine start to kick in: the accelerated learning curve you’ll remember from learning a new technical skill for the 50,000th time.

Because it’s not just about refreshing your technical skills and your daily cadence, either… it’s also about reconnecting with your curiosity, and your attachment to (and love for) technology.

And you better fucking love it, if you plan to inflict the world of agonies that is software development on yourself day after day. 😭 So you have to reconnect with that dopamine drip you get from learning things, fixing shit, and solving problems. And you have to reconnect with the emotional intensity of shipping code that will impact people’s lives — for better or for worse — and of being personally responsible for that code in production. Of knowing viscerally what it’s like to ship a diff that brings production down, or wakes up your coworker in the middle of the night, or corrupts user data.

So yes. It is absolutely possible to return to engineering after a few years away. And yeah, you could come back as a principal or staff engineer. Someone will definitely hire you. However, I suggest otherwise. I suggest you come back as a senior engineer, writing software every day, for a good 6-9 months.

Your grounding in the technical challenges and solution space will be much deeper and richer if you come back hands on than if you came in at a higher level, detached from the rhythms of daily development. Working closer to production and closer to users will give you the chance to rebuild the intense empathy and connectedness to your work and team that tends to seep away the higher you go up the food chain. You’ll be more confident in yourself as a technologist if you honor your need to relearn and rebuild. And you will earn much more respect from your fellow engineers this way. Engineers respect people who respect what they do.

It’s better than jumping straight into the role of a staff+ engineer and trying to refresh your tactical/technical skills on the side. And you’ll be an infinitely more effective staff+ engineer once you’ve done the refreshing.

But if it feels like a demotion, or it’s too hard to swallow, or if the politics of promotions at this company make you leery: compromise by getting yourself hired as a staff or principal engineer, while being clear with your hiring manager that you plan to spend the first 6+ months slinging diffs. They should be fine with it (delighted, really) since a) ANY staff+ hire is an investment for the long run, b) this is a great way to onboard any staff+ engineer, and c) I don’t believe anybody can actually have staff+ level impact during their first 6-12 months at a company, since so much of the job has to do with people, process, technical context, systems history, etc which accrues over time.

Have fun, and do report back! Tell us how it goes!

charity.

P.S.: You don’t say how long it’s been, but I’m operating under the assumption that it’s been 5-10 years since you last worked as an engineer.

P.P.S.: 🚨unsolicited opinion alert🚨 I would personally avoid any role that includes “Architect” in its title (except solutions architects). To me, “software architect” rings of “someone who can no longer write code or perform as a software engineer, who has probably been at the same company for so long that their skills and knowledge now consist entirely of minutiae about that particular company’s technology. likely to be useless and/or helpless at any other company.” I say this with all due apologies to my architect friends, every one of whom is technically dazzling, operationally up-to-date, and has beautiful hair.💆 🥰

 

 

Questionable Advice: Is there a path back from CTO to engineer?

Advice for Engineering Managers Who Want to Climb the Ladder

We have been interviewing and hiring a pile of engineering directors at Honeycomb lately. In so doing, I’ve had some fascinating conversations with engineering managers who have been trying unsuccessfully to make the leap to director.

Here is a roundup of some of the ideas and advice I shared with them, and the original twitter thread that spawned this post.

What is an engineering director?

Given all the title inflation and general inconsistency out there, it seems worth describing what I have in mind when I say or hear “Engineering Director.”

In a traditional org chart, an engineering manager usually manages about 5-8 engineers, an engineering director manages 2-5 engineering managers, and a VP of engineering manages the directors. (At big companies, you may see managers and directors reporting to other managers and directors, and/or you may find a bunch of ‘title padding’ roles like Senior Manager, Senior Director etc.)

In smaller companies, it’s common to have a “Head of Engineering” (this is an appropriately weaselly title that commands just the right amount of respect while leaving plenty of space to hire additional people below or above them). Or all of engineering might roll up to a director or VP or CTO. It varies a lot.

When it comes to the work a director is expected to do, though, there’s a fair bit of consistency: we expect managers to manage ICs, and directors to manage managers.  Directors sit between the line managers and the strategic leadership roles. (More on this later.)

So if you’re an engineering manager, and you want to try being a director, the first thing you’ll want to understand is this: it is generally better to get there by being promoted than by getting offered a director title at a different company.

How to level up

Lots of engineers get tapped by their management to become managers, but not many become directors without a conversation and some intentional growth first. This means that for many of you, trying to become a director may be the first time you have ever consciously solicited a role outside the interview process. This can bring up feelings of awkwardness, even shamefulness or inappropriateness. You’ll just have to push through those.

If you ever want a job in upper leadership, you are going to have to learn how to shamelessly state your career goals. We want people in senior leadership who want to be there and are honing their skills in anticipation of an opportunity. Not “oops, I accidentally a VP.”

It is better to get promoted than hired up a level

There are a few reasons for this. It’s usually easier to get promoted than to get hired straight into a job you’ve never held before (at a org with high standards), and it also tends to be more sustainable/more likely to succeed if you get promoted in as well. Being a director is NOT just being a super-duper manager, it’s a different role and function entirely.

A lot of your ability to be successful as a director (or any kind of manager) comes from knowing the landscape, the product and the people, and having good relationships internally. When you are internally promoted, you already know the company and the people, so you get a leg up towards being successful. Whereas if you’ve just joined the company and are trying to learn the tech, the people, the relationships, and how the company works all at once, on top of trying to perform a new role for the first time.. well, that is a lot to take on at once.

There are exceptions, sure! Oodles of them[1]. But I would frankly look sideways at a place that wanted to hire me as a director if I haven’t been one, or hadn’t at least managed managers before. It’s at least a yellow flag. It tells me they are probably either a) very desperate or b) very sloppy with handing out titles.

If you want a promotion…

The obvious first step involves asking your manager, “what is the skill gap for me between the job I am doing right now and a director role?” Unlike in the movies, promotions don’t usually get surprise-dropped on people’s heads; people are usually cultivated for them. Registering your interest makes it more likely they will consider you, or help you develop skills in that direction as time moves on.

If you have a good manager who believes in you, and the opportunities exist at your company, that might even be all you have to do.(!)

And if so, lucky you. But as for the remaining ~80-90% of us (ha!) … well, we’ll need a bit more hustle.

Take inventory of your opportunities

Lots of companies aren’t large enough to need directors, or growing fast enough to create new opportunities. This can actually be the most challenging part of the equation, because there are generally a lot more managers who want to be directors than there are available openings.

If you do need to find a new job to reach your career goals, I would target fast-growing companies with at least 100 engineers. If you’re evaluating prospective employers based on your chance of advancement, consider the following::

  • Ask about their policies on internal vs external hires. Do they give preference to existing employees? How do they decide when to recruit vs grow from within?
  • Ask about the last time that someone was promoted into a similar role.
  • Tell the recruiter and hiring manager about your career goals. Don’t be shy. “My next career goal is to gain some experience managing managers” is fine. (That shouldn’t be the only reason you’re interested, of course.)
  • Size up the playing field. Is there oxygen at that level? Or are there a dozen other managers senior to you lined up for the same shot?

There are no sure bets. But you can do a lot to put yourself in the right place at the right time, signal your interest, and be prepared for the opportunity when it strikes.

a director is not a ‘super-senior manager’

A director is not just a manager on steroids: it is an entirely different job. It helps to have been a good manager before becoming a director, because many management skills will translate, but others will be entirely new to you. Expect this.

How being a good director is different from being a good manager

Let’s look at some of the ways that being a good engineering manager is different than being a good director.

  1. You can be a great EM, beloved by your team, without giving much thought to managing out or up. Directors cannot. If anything, it’s the opposite. You may get away with not coddling your EMs, but you must pull your weight for your peers and upper management.
  2. You can have a bit of a reputation for being stubborn or difficult as an EM, and that can be just fine. But having such a rep will probably sabotage your attempt at being promoted to director.
  3. You can be a powerful technical EM who sometimes jumps in to train engineers, be on call, or course correct technical and architectural decisions. This can even burnish your value and reputation as an EM. But this would all be a solid knock against you as a director.

Managers can get away with being opinionated and attached to technology, to some extent, while directors absolutely must balance lots of different stakeholders to achieve healthy business outcomes.

This difference of perspective is why managers will sometimes sniff about directors having sold out, or being “all about politics.”

(Blaming something on “politics” is usually a way of accidentally confessing that you don’t actually understand the constraints someone is operating under, IMO.)

A director’s job is running the business

Here’s the key fact: ✨directors run the business✨.

Managers should be focused on high-performing engineering teams. VPs should be focused on strategy and the longer term. Directors are the execution machines that knit technology with business objectives. (I like this piece, although the lede is a little buried. Key graf:)

managers, directors, VPs

Directors run the business. They are accountable for results. You can’t be bopping in and writing or reviewing code, or tossing off technical opinions. That’s not your job anymore.

Managing managers is a whole new skill set

The distance between managing engineers and managing managers is nearly as vast as the gulf between being an engineer and being a manager.

But it’s sneakier, because you don’t feel out of your depth as much as you did when you became a manager. 😁

As a manager, each of us instinctively draws on our own unique blend of strength and charisma — whatever it is that makes people look up to you and willing to accept your influence. Most of us can’t explain how we do it, because we run on instinct.

But as a director, you have to figure it out. Because you need to be able to debug it when the magic breaks down. You need to help your managers influence and lead using *their* unique strengths. What works for you won’t work for them. You have to learn how to unpack different leadership styles and support them in the way they need.

If you’re working towards a director role:

There are lots of areas where you can improve your director skills and increase your chances of being viewed as director material without any help whatsoever from your manager.

You ✨can not✨ be a blocker

Directors run the business … so you CANNOT be seen as a blocker. People must come to you of their own accord to get shit done and break through the blockers.

If they are going to other people for advice on how to break through YOU, you are not a good candidate for director. Figure out how to fix this before you do anything else.

Demonstrate impact beyond your team(s)

Another way to make yourself an attractive prospect for director is to work on systemic problems, driving impact at the org or company level. You could:

  • work to substantially increase the diversity of your teams or your candidate pipeline, and offer to work with recruiting and other managers to help them do the same (becoming BFFs with recruiting is often a canny move)
  • drive some cross-platform initiative to consolidate dozens of snowflake deploy processes and significantly reduce CI/CD build/deploy times, set an internal SLO for artifact build times, or successfully champion auto-deployment
  • champion an internal tools team with a mandate to increase developer productivity, and quantify the hell out of it
  • lead a revamp of the new hire onboarding process. Or add training and structure to the interview process and set an SLO of responding to every candidate within one week

I dunno — it all depends on what’s broken at your company. 🙃 Identify something causing widespread pain and frustration at the organizational level and fix it. 

Managing ‘up’ is not a ‘nice-to-have’…

If there’s a problem, make sure you are the one to bring it to your manager (and swiftly), along with “Here is the context, here’s where I went wrong, and this is what I’m planning to do about it.” No surprises.

At this point in your career, you should have mastered the art of not being a giant pain in the ass to your manager. Nobody wants a high-maintenance director. Do you reliably make problems go away, or do they boomerang back five times worse after you “fix” them?

…Neither is managing ‘out’

Managing “out” is important too. (Not “managing out”, which means terminating people from the company, but managing “out” as in horizontally, meaning your relationship with your peers.)

What do your peers think of you? Do you invest in those relationships? Do they see you as an ally and a source of wise counsel, or a source of chaos, gossip and instability, or a competitor with turf to protect? If you’re the manager that other managers seek out for a peer check, you might be a good candidate for director.

psst.. People are watching you

One of the most uncomfortable things to internalize if you climb the ladder is how much people will make snap judgments about you based on the tiniest fragments of information about you, and how those judgments may forever color the way they think of you or interact with you.

First impressions might be made by ten minutes together on the same zoom call…a few overheard fragments of people talking about you…even the expressions on your face as they pass you in the hallway. People will extrapolate a lot from a very little, and changing their impression of you later is hard work.

(Yes it’s frustrating, but you can’t really get upset about it, because you and I do it too. It’s part of being human. )

Because of that, you really do have to guard against being too cranky, too tired, or out of spoons. People WILL take it personally. It WILL come back to hurt you.

Remember, you don’t hear most feedback. If you visibly disagree with someone, assume 10x as many silently agree with them. If one person gives you a piece of hard feedback, assume 10x as many will never tell you. Be grateful. The more power you are perceived to have, the less feedback you will ever hear.

Pro tip

You can infer a surprising amount about how good a director candidate may be at their job, simply by listening closely to how they talk about their colleagues. Do they complain about being misunderstood or mistreated, do they minimize the difficulty or quality of others’ work, do they humblebrag, or do they take full responsibility for outcomes? And does their empathy fully extend to their peers in other departments, like sales and marketing?

Does it sound like they enjoy their work, and look forward to beginning it every day? Does it sound like they are all in the same little tugboat, all pulling in the same direction, or is there a baseline disconnect and lack of trust?

In conclusion…

Be approachable, be a drama dampener, project warmth. Control your calendar and carve out regular focus time. Guard your energy — never run your engine under 30%, and always leave something in the tank.

There are a lot more great responses and advice in the replies to my thread, btw. Go check them out if you’re interested.. and if you have something to say, contribute!.☺️

charity

Footnotes:

[1] Occasionally, it may work out to your benefit to jump into a new, higher title at a new company. This can happen when someone is already well qualified for the higher role, but is finding it difficult to get promoted (possibly due to insufficient opportunity or systemic biases). Just be aware that the job you were hired into is likely to be one where the titles are meaningless and/or the roles are chaotic. You may want to stay just long enough to get the title, then bounce to a healthier org.

Advice for Engineering Managers Who Want to Climb the Ladder