I want to tell you a story.
Paul* started as a junior engineer at a sexy tech company shortly after completing his BSc CS Masters. He worked hard, wrote good code, and got promoted. He developed a reputation very quickly as a rising star and soon got put onto teams doing tough projects.
Let’s move to introducing John*. John moved to Paul’s company after learning the ropes at another very good development shop, and came with a good reputation. John and Paul are now two mid-level engineers with a great track record, and are given a big ‘prove-yourself’ project and a handful of young engineers to lead. Here things fall apart. The team is morbidly unhappy, sprint goals are missed week after week, the team starts slipping on delivery dates like a toddler in a skating rink. Internal conflicts start picking up and people area leaving not only the team, but the company.
I have encountered this team in different levels of disfunction in various environments, either as a team member or an observer, and it is a pattern I have started to recognise in our industry. Let’s unpack some symptoms I have observed in the past:
- Code reviews are scathing and personal. “Are you THIS stupid?!”, “????!!!!!” or paragraphs of passive aggressive criticism are the norm.
- A senior engineer holds the big model in his head and hands out little chunks of micro-managed work to other engineers. When questioned, he answers with a ‘well, why do you need to know everything, I know what we are working towards, you just do your bit’. No one knows how the project is tracking or how to even find out how the project is tracking.
- When someone throws a white-board across the room, you can just as well disband the team and go on holiday.
- Newer team members are not allowed to contribute to a conversation, and are shut down with the “well, once you have been here as long as we have, you will learn how we do things around here.”
- The one who talks the loudest, wins.
Let’s head back to Paul and John and see how they are doing. Unfortunately, the constant praise they are used to have now de-generated into increasing pressure from senior management to get their team and project in order. In the past, Paul and John got where they are because they were smarter than everyone else AND they had the grit to push harder to get the work done. They have been rewarded for this repeatedly throughout their careers. It is just a case of doing this once again, right?
Unfortunately the strengths required from Paul and John right now are completely orthogonal to being the smartest and most hard-working engineer in the room. What no one told them was that they now suddenly have to empower other engineers to be the smartest and grittiest workers in the room. In order to do this, Paul and John suddenly have a steep learning curve ahead – they need to create a high conflict, high trust space in which younger engineers feel safe enough to deliver stretch work despite high ambiguity and self-doubt, probably while experiencing all of this themselves. This is a very steep learning curve and I have seen engineers fail in this space either by getting themselves fired (the white board incident was anectodal) or leaving out of frustration.
I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is that most engineers are a John or Paul at some point in their career, and for some this is a wall they can’t overcome.
The good news is that I believe that this is fixable.
A legitimate strategy can be to isolate technical experts and buffer a team from their emotional toxicity by separating a technical visionary role from a generalist team lead role. I am personally not a fan of this, because this means you have very senior brittle engineers and team success relies on inter-person collaboration between people known for EQ as a weakness.
Another strategy is to foster a culture in which Paul and John is introduced to this learning curve earlier in their career and are given mentors who are successful at facilitating team cultures like this. I can name people I regard as these role models I have had in my career – Malcolm Hall, Mylo Mannya, Anthony Robinson, James Greenfield and, most recently, Ian Davies.
I have, to date, chosen my career opportunities based on the presence of such people in a space – this is very important to me.
I don’t like throwing more and more critical feedback at John and Paul – this makes them more anxious about their inability to succeed and probably leads to worse leadership behaviour and more general angst. If we don’t empower John and Paul to succeed in this learning curve, we risk losing great engineers.
This brings me to burning the ships. Captain Hernán Cortés arrived at Veracruz in 1519, and had to capture new territory. He instructed his troops to burn the ships – he knew the only way to instill enough motivation to succeed was if there was no option to turn back. I have walked away from professional spaces with problems in the past, as many people do. We are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be in an industry where development skills are in high demand, so we always have the ‘ah, I have options open’ in the back of our minds. The accessible back door is a psychological safety tool that all people tend to leverage. The problem with this is that we don’t tend to take ownership for the problems in the space we are in now.
We need to burn the ships psychologically and commit wholly to taking ownership for the culture of the space we find ourselves in right now. The great working environment we all want won’t exist except if someone intentionally builds it.
How am I taking responsibility for building the kind of working environment I would like to work in? By opening up the tough conversations, while making sure people around me are emotionally safe. By rewarding the quiet rock stars vocally. By advocating and sponsorship of engineers who might find themselves in tough conflict situations. By talking about problematic behaviour I observe and building allies through conversation. Reward the good, don’t attack the bad. Ride out the tough times to stay long enough to see the good emerge.
Go burn your ships.