My 20-month Leadership Journey

“Director of Engineering” / DOE. What does that actually mean? What does it mean in the specific context of the company I work for, MOIA? And in the context of who I am, Finn? With my strength, my weaknesses, my education and my past experiences?

I am in the Role of the DOE for 20 months now. Good enough a reason to reflect on the journey until now.

  1. How did it change my view on “Leadership”?
  2. How did it change my view on teams?
  3. And how did it change my view upon myself?

Find those three reflections in the three sections below.

Leadership

I like servant leadership. Some people also call it host leadership. And maybe the second expression fits even better to me. If I am host a party, I invite a lot of people. I host them and welcome them when they arrive. I am typically not their servant. Instead, I make them feel comfortable and see to their needs. I try to accomplish something (a party) by connecting people and make sure they have a good time.

If you ask leaders, especially in modern Product- / Software-Development, I would dare to say that 90% of people would attest to themselves that they are servant leaders, that they are not micro managing teams. When people ask me, I do state the same. However, despite good intentions a lot of people are micro managing, certainly waaaaaay more than the other 10%. “Managers” are interfering with daily tasks of teams or team members. Managers are telling teams and people what to do and how. So, am I part of a group having a wrong self-assessment?

Looking into Wikipedia, I find:

In business management, micro management is a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls and/or reminds the work of their subordinates or employees.

If I translate that to the software building teams, then I would state:

A micro manager is a person, who closely observes and/or controls and/or reminds the work of a team.

If I want to ensure a servant leadership style, I must work hard to not closely observe the work of the team. I shall certainly not control their work nor remind them what to do. Hence, I have to: look away, have a loose contact with the team and when I see something is forgotten: not remind them.

That is sometimes really hard.

I am not just a DOE. I am also a person with 10+ years of experience improving the quality of the software and entire product a team is contributing to. And I do know for a fact that there are a couple of points, where the teams I work with can improve, in parts significantly. The problem is: if I “go into details” ( = closely observe ) and start to coach teams “hands-on” how they can accomplish a certain thing better ( = control ) and “iterate” with them on it ( = remind), then I am the very definition of a micro manager. Huh.

So, what to do instead? As a first simple approximation: Training and/or Empowerment.

Sometimes people know how to work smarter, they just do not feel a mandate to spread the word and go change the world (or their team’s process, if not the world). If I am lucky, they share their idea in a random water cooler conversation or scheduled 1:1. For that case, the matter is rather simple: I can offer my knowledge and support in individual coaching and mentoring and encourage / empower the person to “Go. Do it!”.

However, if people and teams are not aware of the room to improve… then the only lever I have is to influence them = to give them structure and culture. And both things take a long time. “Giving structure” relates to the roles we have and how they collaborate. What leaderships roles do we need in the team? Who is responsible for what? How shall those abstract roles communicate and interact with each other? I can then postulate an abstract model and hope (fingers crossed!) that many or most or maybe-maybe all teams interpret it in the right way and actually do it. Structure set.

Afterwards, I can offer trainings. With recommendations how to approach an abstract problem or generic situation. How to write stories. How to conduct event stormings. How to create story- and service maps. How to take full days for occasional team alignments before the next-big-thing on the roadmap comes. And then I can hope (fingers crossed!) that many or most or maybe-maybe all teams interpret it in the right way and actually do it. Culture set.

I just need to be sure to build something resilient, yet flexible for our business model into culture and structure. If both is too weak it will topple and create chaos on the next stress point. If it is too rigid, we loose our ability to adopt.

All of this led for me to the interesting revelation, that I sometimes have to not help a team or make a decision for them, even if they want it. I would, upon request, become their micro manager. Which, in the long run, does not serve the team, the product or the entire company.

20 months into this journey, I got the ropes a bit. I failed, too. But I hope to learn. If there is one recommendation I can give, it is a quote from a character in a 60 year old novel:

Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.

Leto Atreides

In conclusion, it means that if you have to look away, have a loose contact with a team and when you see something is forgotten: not remind them, then you mostly have to deal with yourself: with the unease in your chest. You have to let go of control. You have to fully submerge into trusting many people you maybe do not even really know. And then wait and see and observe wonderful things to happen.

Teams

Autonomous Teams for the win!

I studied physics. And back then, in the working group where I was, the two professors gave all folks full autonomy on conducting experiments, measuring, improving and – obviously – writing their own theses. On the one hand I learned to motivate myself towards an abstract goal early on and work towards it autonomously, also without external pressure. On the other hand, I learned to value managing priorities, time, workload and work packages myself.

After studying I started to work in a startup that was way too chaotic that anyone would have started to manage my work directly (see part of the tech department in the picture above). And then I joined a consultancy that specialised on building autonomous product- and delivery focused teams. One could say that I got a really great education on the values of autonomous teams that decide for themselves, how they fulfill certain requirements and/or business goals. What became tedious for me in the previous company was to always work on an autonomous team and setup from my traditional QA Role. On top of that, once we got a desired autonomous-teams setup into place, naturally, my impact or contribution was limited to this single one team.

With the move into the DOE-Role, I finally had the chance to just give this autonomy to teams without them having to convince me of it. How cool was that?

Rather than giving specific lists of tasks […], I gave broad guidance and told them to prepare the task lists and present the lists to me. Rather than telling everyone what we needed to do, I would ask questions about how they thought we should approach the problem. Rather than being the central hub coordinating maintenance between two [teams], I told the [team leads] to talk to each other directly.

Things did not go well.

L. David Marquet – Turn the ship around!

The very same thing was true for me. What I failed to realise was, that not all teams and people where ready for this. In fact, in one team I lost two Backend-Developer over it. Later, I had an explicit conversation with the Technical Lead in this team about the issue. The person shared that they and, by extension, the team never understood the tasks they should do with the open questions that I asked. They shared their frustration of how hard it was to always interpret my questions so that they could derive the ToDos for them. How tedious it was to collect my exact expectations of how to conduct a specific task.

That was very eye-opening and a true learning for me. After taking some time to talk about it, we were able to resolve this “small” 😉 missunderstanding. The Technical Lead – and by extend – the entire team afterwards took more ownership over their roadmap, their technical debt – and a meaningful way to combine the two things into a sensible roadmap. Autonomously. Empowered.

I learned yet again how important explicit expectation setting is, even if you only give room and space for people (and do not restrict it). Since if they are not aware they can walk into this room, it may very well be, they never will.

Looking at the teams I work with now, I believe we are all setup to embark with an autonomous setup. Which is the true hard requirement to creatively build a society-disrupting fancy new technology.

Myself

Sometimes, I feel lonely. Sometimes, I feel frustrated. The quality of Feedback that I get went down once the word “Director” moved into the title of my role description. Apart from my peers, there are very few people in the organisation that (still) give me true feedback. Constructive feedback, the difficult stuff. I am very grateful to them. Amongst other, this is especially a shout out to Stef, Roza, Julez, Alina, Roya and Laurita. Thank you, for your candid and helpful feedbacks. They are the foundation for the growth that I still hope to experience ♥

Interestingly, while I get less feedback and less often, people obviously expect me to reflect even more than everyone else on every word or sentence, eye-contact or other day-to-day interaction that I write, have or do. It took me a while to realise that this is not my personal experience but part of “becoming a leader”. That is a part of what I, as anyone else, have to cope with. And the only way to “mitigate” the lack of feedback is indeed to reflect more and deeper than before. To no real surprise, this leads to actually gain a better understanding of ones strength and ones “learning opportunities” (a.k.a. weaknesses).

I am energetic. And positive. And I inspire people. Apparently. I never interacted with myself. It is hard to understand how a group of 50 people observes and actually sees me in a remote meeting (with 20 cameras off) when I share something. Being “energetic” is typically associated positive and seen as a strength. Unless people feel a pressure to behave the same way. I learned to walk this line a lot more careful than in the past. I also learned to share in which context people should understand something that I say. Do I give advise, recommendations or do I want people to do specific things in a specific order? (mostly it is one of the first two) I take more time for it now, which in turn leads to some people being annoyed by my constant disclaimers. Well…, there still is some learning opportunity for me, I would say. 🙂

And then there are days, where I just want to go back into one single team. Become their Quality Specialist. Tear down the “QA Column”. Delete all tasks (just keep stories!). Write awesome Acceptance Criteria. Introduce strict but fun WIPs. Convince people of more pairing. And in this way speed up the delivery and increase the quality of the product of the team. As I did so many times in over 20 teams before.

But then also, I want my kids to not have to do a driver license. I want our society to advance to a point in their mobility where no one does driver licenses any more. Where we do not need to privately own a car- and by extend have to occupy public spaces with those huge chunks of metal. And I know, I learned, that I can have a much larger impact in a position that scales across teams. Which enables others. Where people are empowered and trusted. Hence, I am in fact truly motivated to continue my current journey. To do the very best that I can in the role I am currently playing. I will do everything to the extend of my skills and abilities, with the knowledge at hand to make my vision, MOIAs Vision, become reality. It is not yet time to rest 🙂

Quality Titans

Over the past two years, I analyzed with a couple of colleagues how we judge how much quality is “good enough”. Such a statement is usually an outcome of a discussion and a consent that needs to be found on every different project and every different company.

It is also quite different, depending on your product life cycle. This talk starts with this “balance” of how-much-quality you need and investigates how this knowledge can be taken into the interactions of you and other people in the team.

For the entertainment part, it’s wrapped into an cheesy story about ancient gods and titans – arguably a bit too cheesy 😉

A Star Trek Fan-Fiction Retrospective

Yes, I am a Trekkie. And while I usually do not share such stuff it is the little bit of context setting I need for this blog post.

Since everyone moved to their home offices in the wake of corona, our team put some deliberate effort into their ceremonies, to make them something “special”, to compensate for not meeting IRL any more. Thus, I had the honor to design our first online retro. I received fantastic feedback, thus I thought it may be quite interesting for others to try something like this, too.

The Format

I chose a format that I call 2 : 4 : 8 (I believe I found this label somewhere else, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dig it up and link to it again).

The idea of the format is the following: In normal Retros there are up to 10 devs and 2 – 3 other roles. Due to the nature of the roles, also a lot of tech problems are usually shared. In the democratic dot-voting afterwards, the developers often promote the tech topics. I am not saying that this is bad intention, it’s just a natural outcome based on the interests of the different groups in a retro.

To avoid this effect, we went for a format which supports “minorities” and focuses on how important a topic to a certain person is. In this format usually topics come up that are super important to some people but can in the other format never be shared other than in a side note. It’s a very inclusive retro edition.

Here is how it works:

  • each person writes down what the two most important things are to them. There is no categorization: could be things to start or stop or change or …, there is just limitation that it could only be 2 things in total for each person.
    (Most retros allow unlimited amounts of contributions but restrict the categories, this was the other way around: unlimited/no categories but restricted to 2 contributions).
  • after each person found two issues that were most important to them, the participants were paired up. Then, 2 paired-up people need to agree on the most 2 important thing inside their pair.
    (So 2 people each bring 2 topics = 4 issues in the pair. Then the pair needs to pick the top 2 of them)
  • after the pairs found two issues they go into group discussion (2 pairs = 4 people now). Again, they should discuss the two most important issues.
  • finally, all get together with a total of 4 issues left. They are discussed, action items are derived and assigned. Finally, the retro is closed.

The Story

So I wrapped the retro into a Star Trek Story. I used the video conferencing system Zoom which allowed me to share video and audio from my computer. And it allowed me to design “breakout rooms” which I could then assign to the people. This was particularly helpful to have all the different discussions with different amounts of people. I also used google slides as the collaborative tool.

I think one can make it work with any tool and there are tools out there which work even better. This combination was just handy for me and I will use this as the example tool going forward.

Setting the Mood

Before the first people joined, I started my screen sharing with the presentation. The first slide had a video and background music. In this way, the people who joined early had a bit of space themed ambience music while waiting. That was already a positive and freshly surprising start.

After officially starting the retro, we watched a tiny teaser to get into the Star Trek mood:

We followed with a “Weather Check” to see how everyone felt and continued with a “Safety Check” to understand if the level of trust in the Retro was high enough. I used an anonymous google form to collect that data, that was a bit cumbersome to set up but an easy, quick and secure way to collect this information.

After that, we went into the 2 : 4 : 8 exercise: The Google Presentation Deck was shared with all and each person randomly picked a Star Trek movie character and wrote (5 min timebox) 2 things to change or stop or improve.

Then the people were asked to team up. There were prepared zoom breakout rooms in the call with names fitting the theme (“Bridge”, “Captain’s Ready Room”, …). On one slide there was a pre-selection which characters would meet in which room. In this way it was a random meet & mix of people who would share their thoughts.

After the pair discussions, we came back once more and divided into two groups with 4 or 5 people, each. Then both smaller groups reported the two main issues back to the whole group and we discussed actions for them.

This gave us quite some action items for 4 issues we found. It also turned out that no-one in the team (but me) watched Star Trek. However, everyone enjoyed the retro and some said it was “the best they ever had in their live”.

The full slide deck is here as a PDF. This is for inspiration, I don’t think that one could just copy & paste the whole thing.

This is a template for the retro. We were 9 people + me facilitating, thus, this is how it’s structured. The format itself also works for 30 people.

Don’t Let Architecture Astronauts Scare You

When great thinkers think about problems, they start to see patterns. They look at the problem of people sending each other word-processor files, and then they look at the problem of people sending each other spreadsheets, and they realize that there’s a general pattern: sending files. That’s one level of abstraction already. Then they go up one more level: people send files, but web browsers also “send” requests for web pages. And when you think about it, calling a method on an object is like sending a message to an object! It’s the same thing again! Those are all sending operations, so our clever thinker invents a new, higher, broader abstraction called messaging, but now it’s getting really vague and nobody really knows what they’re talking about any more. Blah.

When you go too far up, abstraction-wise, you run out of oxygen. Sometimes smart thinkers just don’t know when to stop, and they create these absurd, all-encompassing, high-level pictures of the universe that are all good and fine, but don’t actually mean anything at all. 

These are the people I call Architecture Astronauts. It’s very hard to get them to write code or design programs, because they won’t stop thinking about Architecture. They’re astronauts because they are above the oxygen level, I don’t know how they’re breathing. They tend to work for really big companies that can afford to have lots of unproductive people with really advanced degrees that don’t contribute to the bottom line.

A recent example illustrates this. Your typical architecture astronaut will take a fact like “Bitcoins are a blockchain service to exchange money anonymiously” and ignore everything but the architecture, thinking it’s interesting because it’s blockchain, completely missing the point that it’s interesting because it allows to exchange money anonymously.

All they’ll talk about is blockchain this, that, and the other thing. Suddenly you have blockchain conferences, blockchain venture capital funds, and even blockchain backlash with the imbecile business journalists dripping with glee as they copy each other’s stories: “Blockchain: Dead!”

The Architecture Astronauts will say things like: “Can you imagine a concept like Bitcoin where you can exchange anything, not just money?” Then they’ll build applications for supply chains that they think are more general than Bitcoin, but which seem to have neglected that wee little feature that lets you send and receive money without giving away your name — the feature we wanted in the first place. Talk about missing the point. If Bitcoins weren’t blockchain but they did let you swap money anonymously, it would have been just as popular.

Another common thing Architecture Astronauts like to do is invent some new architecture and claim it solves something. Kotlin, ProtoBuffer, REST, RabbitMQ, GraphQL, IOT, Micro Services, oh lord I can’t keep up.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these architectures… by no means. They are quite good architectures. What bugs me is the stupendous amount of millennial hype that surrounds them. Remember the Microsoft .NET white paper?

The next generation of the Windows desktop platform supports productivity, creativity, management, entertainment and much more, and is designed to put users in control of their digital lives.

Currently, the Apple MacBook Pro whitepaper claims:

Processor and Memory working at the speed of thought

Oh, good, so now I can finally stop thinking on my own since apple found a way to cut years of advance research in quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

Microsoft and Apple are not alone. Here’s a quote from a Sun Jini:

These three facts (you are the new sys admin, computers are nowhere, the one computer is everywhere) should combine to improve the world of using computers as computers — by making the boundaries of computers disappear, by making the computer be everywhere, and by making the details of working with the computer as simple as putting a DVD into your home theater system.

And don’t even remind me of the fertilizer George Gilder spread about Java:

A fundamental break in the history of technology…

That’s one sure tip-off to the fact that you’re being assaulted by an Architecture Astronaut: the incredible amount of bombast; the heroic, utopian grandiloquence; the boastfulness; the complete lack of reality. And people buy it! The business press goes wild!

Why the hell are people so impressed by boring architectures that often amount to nothing more than a new format on the wire for RPC, or a new virtual machine? These things might be good architectures, they will certainly benefit the developers that use them, but they are not, I repeat, not, a good substitute for the messiah riding his white ass into Jerusalem, or world peace. No, Apple, MacBooks are not suddenly going to start reading our minds and doing what we want automatically just because they got a new processor. No, Sun, we’re not going to be able to analyze our corporate sales data “as simply as putting a DVD into your home theater system.”

Remember that the architecture people are solving problems that they think they can solve, not problems which are useful to solve. gRPC may be the Hot New Thing, but it doesn’t really let you do anything you couldn’t do before using other technologies — if you had a reason to. All that Distributed Services Nirvana the architecture astronauts are blathering about was promised to us in the past, if we used DCOM, or JavaBeans, or OSF DCE, or CORBA.

It’s nice that we can use GraphQL now for the format on the wire. Whoopee. But that’s about as interesting to me as learning that my supermarket uses trucks to get things from the warehouse. Yawn. Mangos, that’s interesting. Tell me something new that I can do that I couldn’t do before, O Astronauts, or stay up there in space and don’t waste any more of my time.

Closing Thoughts

This entire blog post was shamelessly copy & pasted (including one of the pictures) from the same named post by Joel Spolsky, the former CEO and founder of StackOverflow: https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2001/04/21/dont-let-architecture-astronauts-scare-you/

All I did was to replace the mentioned technologies in this 19 year old text with recent examples, as my friend and former colleague Herman Vöcke suggested on Twitter.

The result is an up-to-date blog post. And what does that actually mean?

It means that while we developers like to concentrate on solving technical problems we still have to – also after 19 years – solve problems in the real world. And it is a good example of how everything old is new again in our industry.