Why Tech Teams need Clear Team Values

OK, so a conversation with Garbados/Diana on Gnu-Masto-Social-Don tied in with some deep-founded thoughts and has started a little fire somewhere inside me. She was talking about the “PTSD” effect on developers, through bad bosses and/or bad effects – the latter isn’t something I’ve been so close to, but makes me wonder how I’d react if, for instance, a library I’d contributed to had been used in warfare.

Sadly, bad bosses are more commonplace, though. Sometimes “bad” can mean “evil”, as in acting against others’ interests. Other times it can simply mean “misunderstanding” or “unlistening”, which can happen for more and less excusable reasons. Not all managers want to be managers. Real life gets in the way. And, importantly, TECH IS REALLY HARD TO UNDERSTAND. Realistically, if you haven’t worked 10+ years on a variety of tech projects, then you’re probably still getting your head round just what “tech” and its myriad systems actually means.

Tech is hard because systems are hard. And tech brings together all the systems – code, infrastructure, hardware, changes, as well as people and business value.

I’m at the point of my life where I feel like I’ve got a small grip on this. And the question I have right now is – how can we open up “tech” in terms of a wider audience understanding its challenges, nuances, effects and needs? How can we help “bad bosses” to navigate through the – let’s face it – infinitely confusing landscape of technology in a way that benefits both the people working in tech, as much as the organisation they work for?

I’m old enough to know that work has a huge emotional impact on our lives – that for many, our job is probably the most likely thing to influence whether we’re satisfied with life, or hating it. As my kids grow up, I can’t seriously look them in the eye and tell them that work is great, that if you just follow your passion, jobs will be brilliant. Because it’s more than that – it’s about finding a space that encourages a two-way relationship, a mutual symbiosis between worker and organisation. They cannot exist without each other.

As a Tech Director for a few years, one thing I’m annoyed I’ve never quite found time for is to have more time on team values. It strikes me that this is the one thing, the single discussion, that unites the people involved in “the craft”. if you hire passionate people (or if you can enthuse them to become passionate) then individual values soon emerge quickly. Not all of these will be shared across all the team, and balancing these is one of the broader jobs of the Tech Lead. But if things are important to the team – and, if done right, to the team as a whole – then perhaps these things need to be written up, shouted out, scrawled on walls, printed on banners.

Because understanding tech is hard, and if the team doesn’t do it, then nobody else will care.

This discussion, and the courage to do this – this is what we should be doing as part of our teams, a reignition of collectivism and strength in the team. Values, not (necessarily just) hours or pay, are what drives us, and what we should be taking an individual stand on. Values should be baked into the discussion from the moment we talk to a prospective new employer, or new employee – the up-front expectation that we take our art seriously, that we believe what we do has value to others, and that any compromise cannot be taken lightly.

And that’s just a start.

Weeknotes 08×10: Open Cat Strategy

  • Monday. First meeting with a cat in. Takes the idea of “herding cats” to a new level.

  • Tuesday. Day off, but some pro bono work for the charity project steering group I’m on. A group of four of us pore over survey questions for a few hours, assessing whether we need them, or whether they need changing. Two words: User Needs. By keeping that at the front of our minds, we get to the core – relevance. The words blow everything open – who are the stakeholders and what do they want? How does each question relate to that? It’s murky work, bouncing between impossible problems and linguistic technicalities. Here are biscuits half-covered in chocolate, and no cats.

  • Wednesday sees me going through the ‘final’ tech strategy approach with the tech team. It’s ‘final’ in that it forms the starting point for more targeted action and discussion. No plan is ever final. The finality is a con trick really – the plan will change, but in terms of the planning process, the stamp of “[FINAL]” in the document is a token and a symbol for timescales and confidence. Some work has been “done”.

  • Tuesday’s survey work weirdly overlaps a lot for the tech strategy work, for me. Measuring stuff is really hard, and both strands of work involve deciding what to measure, up against the bleak shards of limited time. Danger in every direction – the fine sliver of a Venn diagram that collates objectives and relevance, with practicality and available tools. It strikes me that nobody really gets how hard that is – that applied metrics is more of a bugger than software, which is already a form of voodoo magick.

  • This week I’ve finally got a near-final version of the tech team strategy for the year ahead (although all the juicy detail is for the next 6 months). I thought I’d write up the final approach as a weeknotes bonus – I really want to open up my thoughts more on this, for some reason. As it is, it’s taking longer than expected, so here’s a start – my approach to a tech team strategy as a Google Doc. Hopefully I’ll carry this on and fill out the later details over the next week or so, but maybe it’s useful to someone out there, or others can chip in their notes too?

Kevin Bacon saying "Free the Bacon"?

Bacon and chips?

  • Wednesday morning, presenting the tech strategy to my team of 5 is… An interesting exercise. Going into it, you assume people are on board, forgetting that people are involved in other work, and that this has been ‘your baby’ for a while. They have other other priorities, like deliverables and getting out of the door on time. Switching the atmosphere is hard – “hey everyone, stop what you’re doing and listen to me” doesn’t always work well. I set out my slides with bullet points and really try to avoid sounding like a damn corporate manager, but slides make it so easy. Still, the basic narrative is there – I spend a few minutes on why it’s important and what’s happened, before getting to the details. It’s always good to slow people down a bit, even if they don’t want to.

  • Halfway through I realise that while I assume that the tech strategy has been formed from “inclusive consultation” and picking people’s brains a lot, it’s now at the point where I, as tech lead, have to kick it on a gear and take on ownership. There’s a switching point, where I realise I’m saying: “This is what’s going to happen. I’ve decided.” – this is, to be honest, quite a scary point as it’s a flip from how I usually think, and it’s a moment that risks a lot of negative comeback. It’s the moment you have to have a bit of confidence – in the way you’ve approached it, and in what you’ve drawn out. And there’s always time to change it later. A plan is never the end point.

  • In fact, all the work up to that point has been to sense check that you’re satisfying everyone to a decent extent. A plan is never going to solve everything – the plan is there to work out what you’re not going to solve, either now or soon, at least. And the job of the lead here is to understand the difference between individuals’ needs, and team needs. The team strategy will address team needs. 1-1s, mentoring, and general life can address everything else.

  • The long period (months) of tapping into people, followed by an hour to turn it into a planned push. Is this like tai chi? In tai chi, in pushing hands, everything is sensory – observe, flow, observe, flow. If it is necessary to push things in a new direction, then it is only to assist it in a direction that it is going already, and only at a moment when there is no resistance. Everything is already in place, there is nothing really to do. Bonus link of Cheng Man Ching footage.

Animated gif of some very good tai chi or kung fu choreography

Last retro

  • One of the worst outcomes for any strategy-type meeting though is silence. Fortunately, and I take this as a good sign, I have to stop the meeting descending into a retro – questions and suggestions for detail start coming up, which I hope/think means that people understand it, and want to get on with it. Relief.

  • I’ve had a couple of bugs I’ve been looking into recently which have gone quite deep into code and history. I’m reminded of just how powerful tools can be – the combination of git, github, Jira, and the myriad APIs which tie them all together, mean I can skip through time like Scott Bakula. Thanks to everything getting tracked, I can give an explanation of why something is so with time and certainty. Amazing.

Animated gif of Quantum Leap with Scott Bakula surrounded by blue light. Text reads "My Body is Ready"

Logging into Jira

  • Thursday brings a celebration of Joel’s 30th, and Obi’s departure next week. They organise a wine and cheese tasting after work. Sadly I have no photos which are suitable for here.

  • Friday is supposed to be a day for retro and a 1-1, but #son2 hits the season of colds, and we’re cautious after breathing problems the last two years. A troublesome night with wheezy coughs (not helped by getting back at midnight), a Doctor’s appointment in the morning, and we end up with the day back in the hospital in Brighton. Shuttling back and forth along the coast is a dreamy way to end the week. We’re all good by 5pm and out and home by 7pm, but I’m asleep soon after. Feels like the end of the series.

In links

Following on from last week’s thoughts on games, movement and focus, this article on Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism has some interesting notes on the overlap between the body and compassion:

Buddhism is a bodily practice first, in which one speaks the nembutsu aloud. Then the heart may open and the mind may follow, but only if one is sufficiently humble and clear of the need to possess and the desire to control the world through the intellect.

This post on what a leader does has been reassuring, in light of the strategy work. Sam sets out three important threads and responsibilities: Seek feedback, set context, provide support (“safety zone”).

Things I’ve written:

In culture

  • I’ve come off Steam recently, as am very much in Nintendo world. Currently playing Mario Golf: Advance Tour on the GBA, Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the DS, and Link (the first) and Mario Kart: Double Dash on the Gamecube. They’re all fantastic, in their own way. So much thought.

  • I’m back to reading The Erstwhile again, and really getting back into it. The first few chapters seemed to be a bit clunky, but Catling has found his style again, and the language and ideas are now barreling along in an impressive and fearful way.

  • After reading issue 1, I’ve also picked up the other 4 issues of Barrier, an English/Spanish comic about migration and aliens? Looking forward to it.

Weeknotes 08×09: Ping Pot Problems

  • Full speed ahead this week. The head is in full planning mode. No fancy Kerouacian prose this week, but I’ll keep the photos in…

  • My main achievement* this week was to establish a new game to pass the time. Inspired by various throwing games I saw in France recently, some ping-pong balls, flower pots and a low table were dutifully repurposed into a game I’ve come to call “Ping pot”. Bounce the balls off the table, into one of the pots. Simples.

  • not really my main one, but I like it.

Ping Pot: A table, surrounded by ping pong balls

  • (Ping Pot is definitely not just an executive version of Beer Pong.)

  • This is actually a serious exercise, DESPITE THE BALLS EVERYWHERE. I have a theory that problem-solving is – for me, at least – done best when the body and mind are both working together, without undue focus. Any gentle form of exercise is helpful to problem-solving, from going to the toilet, to going for a walk, to darts or tao chi. Firstly, screens are really, REALLY bad to have in front of you – they’re filled with information and all sorts of emotional routine attachments that distract you. And secondly, distracting the body with something simple somehow “greases” the mind – the semi-automated flow of physical energy also gets thoughts flowing better. As I said, it’s a theory.

  • As a result, these week’s photos are also all things from floor level?

  • An oddly unexpectedly “therapeutic” week. A few things I’ve not been so happy about have been playing on my mind, particularly at 11pm or 5am. Writing a draft email to the ether helped – like weeknotes, the act of getting things down clears things out of the brain.

  • I also read this short read on why we’re creative and problem-solving, and why that makes us grumpy, which definitely helped a lot this week. I’m often grumpy, and have written about trying to find the craft in my work some while ago. The article helped me realise that I do see the world as ‘problematic’ (or ‘puzzlematic’?), and I’m split between loving solving problems, and getting annoyed that others aren’t as ‘solvey’. So the perspective is a good one, and I can calm down.

  • Thursday afternoon, a quiet office and some decent work planning for the epic we’re currently on. We’re changing our underlying geographies, and I wonder if this is the most complex thing we’ve done in five years – it touches on all of our code, with no easy answers in some places. The team are doing a good job, up against annual leave, sickness, and Obi leaving.

  • My main aim now is to keep it on track, which means: Structuring the information learned so the work can continue to be distributed; Keeping an eye out for more detailed gotchas; Turning information into a plan with priorities and estimates (that hard part I’ve talked about before; and Keeping people interested in the work as the endurance test sets in.

  • Pace is everything in these things – pace and rhythm. A piece of work spanning multiple (2 week) sprints can feel like a never-ending slog if done badly. We’re over the big initial hurdle of facing an unknowable, chaotic mammoth, like those times you stomp up a huge hill at the start of a mountain walk. Feels like we need to enjoy the view and the refreshing meander now. I wonder how to build this in.

  • Should “pushing back against delivery pressures” be on the list of duties for a tech team lead? How can one value the longer term sustainability of slowing down? (This question of “undemonstrable value” seems to be a recurring theme at the moment.)

  • Behaviour management. This is something I really struggle with, because it’s rarely a clear line. Is there a difference between ‘rude’ behaviour, and ‘annoying’ behaviour? Not triggered by anything specific, other than looking through a feedback and suggestions form.

In links

  • gov.uk on roadmaps:

    ”But getting them right is hard. Roadmaps are born of all sorts of compromises: between committing to a plan while remaining agile; between giving product teams autonomy while aligning their work to business goals; and between improving existing software versus getting new stuff out the door.”

  • Warren Ellis again, in his Orbital Operations newsletter:

    ”I hope for, and fully expect, futures scenarios to get weirder and wilder, hyperlocal and supermodernglobal, very quickly. 2001 to 2018 has been the training ground for the New Next.”

  • Managed to post some minor internet postcards to Disposable Evidence – sign up, for something a little bit different.

In photos

A beer bottle on the street floor

A child's shoe on the street floor

A pink anarchy sign sprayed on the street floor