I'm a technolgist at TodayTix, the posts below are about work, but probably don't reflect my employers opinions. If you want to connect about work related topics, then this is probably the best place to do it. Work related tweets @workoworko
Productivity advice famously doesn't work. A persons tips are almost certainly only applicable to them - we are unique individuals, perhaps with only a love of searching the internet for productivity tips in common. So with that caveat I'm sharing an approach that's been working for me. Your mileage will vary as the internet often says.
Like lots of people in engineering lead roles I have a lot plates to spin. I have 3 main tools I use to make sure I'm dropping the right things - an infinite bullet list of notes and links (in Workflowy), my calendar (colour coded, but more on that later) and a Miro dashboard, which I spend some a little bit of time updating on a Monday morning.
The dashboard is pretty simple, but it helps me ensure that I'm spending my time on the right things and also communicate to my team what I'm focussing on this week.
Driving (up to 50% of my time) - initiatives where I'm a key contributor, or I'm directly accountable
Supporting (20%) - important but I'm playing a supporting role
Monitoring (5%) - I need to know what's happening but I'm not a contributor
Directs (at least 20% of my time) - my direct reports
Coaching (~5%) - people I'm keeping an eye on (maybe skip reports) or am supporting in some way
The colour coding is the key, because I then use that in my calendar and notes to visually link everything together. If I glance at my calendar and there's two much green, then it means I'm not spending my time on the right things. It's not a hard and fast rule, but a heuristic that helps me keep things on track.
There's a template available in Miroverse if you want to give it a try.
When I started off in web development, back in the last century, everyone was a generalist. And generally people didn't really know what they were doing. Which was fine, we made it up as we went along, learning little bits along the way. For most engineers working with the web, the problems weren't that complicated. Tying to get your blink tag to render on various versions of IE and Netscape Navigator. Infuriating for sure. But in the grand scheme of things not that complex.
Fast forward 25 years or so and complexity abounds. Or it can do. Especially for bigger organisations working with bigger teams on (hopefully) bigger problems. In the front-end world new frameworks have supercharged the user experience of many web based products and services. With the added complexity and learning curve that a power tool demands. App development, for a while the home of the 'native' developer also has a plethora of cross-platform and alternative authoring options. These promise (though don't often deliver) a simplified development environment. Away from the front end, contributors to languages such as Grails, Python, GoLang and node.js add more and more features. Promising better, more powerful tools, with an ever improving developer experience (I said promise).
So where does this leave engineering teams and hiring managers. In a medium sized tech company nobody can know the entire architecture and tech stack. At least not with any mastery beyond some boxes on an investor presentation. It takes a team to deliver and in most organisations lots of different skills.
When hiring engineers, I always enjoy learning about how they solve problems that I don't see everyday. I meet a lot of candidates. It's fascinating how peple deploy so many different tools and technologies in such a variety of combinations. Sometimes people describe themselves as "full stack engineers" - which isn't a phrase I love. Full stack invariably means some back-end and some front-end engineering experience. But it doesn't mean the entire stack. No one person at TodayTix Group is able to deliver with mastery across every part of our architecture. We don't expect any one person to do so.
But we still hire full stack engineers. Teams taking on a problem need to be able to solve that problem regardless of the technology or tool that it touches. Which is why we have cross-functional teams with a mix of skills, experience and perspectives. Good engineering practices and process can go a long way regardless of the technology in play. The best full stack engineers (or multi-stack engineers for want of a better label) can bring multiple points of view. Arguably good engineers are generalists. However, complex problems often need someone to focus on a specific area, and in tech companies that specialism can get very, very specific. Which can be good for the organisation and very rewarding for individuals, at least for a while.
When I say a while, I have a specific example in mind. When I joined TodayTix Group I inherited a migration project. The goal was to integrate an acquired business. Moving off a legacy main-frame system that was decades old. Many of the project team had been maintaining this system for decades as well. They were true specialists. Day to day work for the team was a combination of being a care worker, therapist and engineer. But their decades of deep specialism hadn't equipped them or the company for the future. This wasn't the fault of the team. A failure of leadership had stymied technology strategy. A failure of people management and career coaching. Aligned with diverging company and individual priorities. The longer the business stuck with the mainframe the less incentive it had to develop the engineers supporting the system.
In a career as an engineer it makes sense to focus on the challenge at hand, to specialise in technology and tools that benefit you and your team. The path to being an experienced engineer is to build experience. Learning a new framework isn't experience. Solving some real customer or business challenges with it is experience.
But focussing on a single tool without taking the time to check-in on wider developments in your industry and chosen field is limiting. Ideally your manager should be taking some time to help you get this kind of perspective. But that's not always the case - especially if you're not a full time employee, work for yourself or work in a smaller organisation (and unfortunately in some bigger companies too!). If that's the case it's important to find other ways to do this. To have someone who you can chat to about career development, technology changes and what that means for you.
The goal for more experienced engineers is to be a general specialist. Someone with a variety of experience in different technologies, with knowledge of one or two technologies that are current. Like gardening career development is easier if you do it a little and often - not go on a training course once every 10 years.
Government believes too many students are racking up debts studying “soft” 3-year university courses in arts and social sciences, and is looking to funnel more 18 year olds towards technical training that is cheaper and will pay a faster economic dividend.
It probably was “soft” compared to some degrees, but I learnt an awful lot of “soft” skills that have proved way more important than the technical skills that I learned on the job.
Feels like every few months I end up sharing this link. Email has been around for 40 years and it's still catching us out.
Some thoughts on technical leadership and coding.
The other day someone in the team asked me if I still write code. Which got me thinking about how, especially in agency land, senior technologists often don’t. Faced with the growing need for Technical management and client facing technologists, many larger digital agency environments have a fork in the road where people can pursue a less hands on route.
Over the years I’ve worked with lots of senior folks who continue to be practitioners. People from an engineering background who are still, at least some of the time working with software. This isn’t unusual in other fields - nobody expects the top brain surgeons to do all the operations, but they are expected to do some. The same is true for lawyers and in agency land often true for strategists and UX / design folks.
That’s not to say that management and leadership aren’t skills in themselves, skills that require practice and a significant time commitment. As an engineer the way you scale and produce a better output is (or at least should be) by having a team. The team is your unit of awesome.
There’s code, and then there’s code. On the projects I’m involved in the amount of real technical output I contribute varies significantly. Often the things I’m doing are prototypes, setting a direction - more like someone doing a sketch that communicate an approach or a style. It’s not about being ‘the best developer’, firstly because defining best is difficult (fastest, fewest bugs, most code, least code, best collaborator etc..) and also because that’s probably not your role on the project.
Sometimes it’s just about chipping in with a bug fix, picking up a few tickets and helping when the deadline is looming and JIRA is looking a bit unpleasant. It’s fairly unlikely that I’m going to be picking up lots of dev work across any of my client work, but it is an aspect of how I go about solving problems in my day-to-day work.
That’s not to say it’s easy to stay on top of the ever changing technology landscape, but for me it’s not a binary choice between management and coding. They are part of the dynamic of technical leadership, and it’s important that you make time to develop your skills in both areas.
2017-11-15 14:47:11 GMT permalink