Computers, Personal, Software, Thoughts

“The Deadline”: Part 3 on a Series on Leadership in Technology

Quite a bit has changed since my last post on leadership. I’ve been promoted to the capacity of full time team lead after my mentor, and manager left to work for another company. I was learning a great deal everyday, and being turned loose to manage the team on my own has been a baptism by fire. I’ve applied what I’ve learned already from my previous mentorships, and I’ve learned a great deal more over the last few weeks.

High bandwidth communication is key

I would have never gotten through the last few weeks on emails, and instant messenger alone. Its very important to have communications by voice to keep everyone updated and on the same page while respecting each other’s time. Several times in the past week I’ve watched an email thread bounce back and forth between many participants, only to get boiled down into a concise message at a standup meeting. A five minute verbal QA would take hours via email. Especially across different timezones.

Delegate, delegate, delegate

When moving into a managerial capacity, the content of your day to day work shifts dramatically. The first few days without being in the code left me anxious. But you know what? We have good guys that understand even more than I do, and if you give them a problem, they come back with a solution. Its hard to trust that it will happen, but it did. Over and over again. The key is not in just throwing out a problem and coming back the next day to find a solution. You should be available for questions, and clarification continuously throughout the development of the solution. I often found that checking in a few times a day on each developer was sufficient to answer any questions, understand the progress, and get a rough idea of when something would be delivered. A few times they would casually mention that they are stuck trying to figure out ‘x’. Turns out I know about ‘x’ and after a brief chat with some pointing to places in the codebase they got it squared away.

Be crystal clear about your requirements

We had a new screen we wanted to develop. We had a mockup done by our front end guys. Our BA loved it. Everyone was on the same page. Until we began to implement it and all of these tiny edge cases popped up. I’d assume a course of action was the correct one to take, only to discover that our stories were getting rejected by QA. Turns out we don’t share the same brain, and what I call working, someone else will call a defect. That creates a lot of extra work to resolve what is now a defect. Closer to the deadline of the deliverable, when I switched over to voice communication instead of IM, I was able to lock in requirements quickly and get instant feedback on how we should handle certain edge cases. Don’t be afraid to bother the higher ups with technical questions, because it is up to them to provide the definitive answer. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by shielding them from it and substituting their would be solution with something you invented.

Front load work you are less certain of

If you aren’t clear of how something is going to be executed, that is a problem. Its your job as a manager to find out! You don’t need to know every technical detail, but you do need a clear understanding of who the key players are, what the testing process is like, and how you will get this feature through QA and accepted by the business. We had some work on a feature that impacted a few systems downstream. Did we put this off until we took care of the easy stuff? Nope – we started with the pain in the butt feature. And good thing too because we were working on it up until the last minute. We didn’t realize how much latency there would be in getting just a ‘its working’, or ‘its not working’ from all the parties downstream from us. If you aren’t sure, begin immediately to error on the side of caution. The easy work you have a clear understanding of, and it should take a backseat to anything that isn’t as clear.

Pad your estimates

This entire iteration I was too optimistic with what we could turn out in a day. Estimating is hard, and I’m convinced we all suck at it. I’d like to believe my guys can come up to speed on a new technology stack and crank out some impressive code but there is a learning curve. Sometimes the only way forward is a painfully slow dive into the documentation. There are test suites that take forever to run. There are rejections when it comes time to merge, meaning the suite has to be run again. There are the seemingly simple issues that once you dive into become much more complex than anticipated. Rarely did we close a feature or bug in the amount of time I assumed it would take. Because of this I’m going to start padding my estimates to compensate for all of these little details that add up to something bigger.

And finally – know when to ask for help!

There was a certain point in the sprint when I knew we weren’t in good shape to hit our deadline. I mulled it over in my head and stressed about it, and let my pride get in the way a bit and was convinced that asking for help wouldn’t be necessary. It was a mentality of “if I can just get through these few stories here we will be back on top”. But of course, I’m sucked into a meeting, or new bugs pop up, or the feature I’m working on before it runs way over on time. Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you first identify the need for it. Forget how bad you think it will look. Forget the anxiety of revealing rough new code to outsiders. Its worse if you don’t ask and end up missing your target. I was surprised at how strong the support was once we asked for help. I had 10 extra people jump in and had them all working in parallel on the feature. My entire day was pointing people to new work, and answering questions, and following up on when it would be merged. And the astounding thing was by NOT touching the code, we were delivering more than if I had put on headphones and jumped in myself. And for the record, there was a minimum of sniping at our technical solutions from outsiders. It felt good to know we were a team and it didn’t need to be a perfect solution before you left outside people in for help.

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