Category Archives: Technology Career

A Tech Lead Is Not A Manager: Influence vs. Authority On Agile Teams

I previously wrote about how I worked on an agile team as a tech lead. The article focused on the things I recommend. Today, I’m going to take the opposite approach and share what to avoid: the misuse of authority including mistaking an influencing role for an authoritative one.

You can read the original article here.

Roles, Roles, Roles

On agile teams, a Tech Lead is far more like a Software Architect or an Agile Coach or a Product Owner or an Engineer than a Manager, Director, or another role with people reporting directly to them. You don’t have AUTHORITY as a Tech Lead, your weapon of choice is INFLUENCE. Of course, even people with authority should rely on influence as much as they possibly can. Authority is a tool in the toolbelt of some roles, and those people must use it sparingly. Autonomy is too important to take away from creative workers (and Engineers are indeed creative).

At times authority must be used by people in what I like to call “dark side” roles. Managers, Directors, Veeps, etc. must at times use the stick instead of the carrot. Usually, this is reserved for extreme cases when a team member is refusing to follow company policy or is threatening or endangering someone. In a positive culture, these things should seldom IF EVER happen.

One of the things I love about the organization at my current company, HealthEquity, is the culture of influence. Influence is the currency of the day at all levels of leadership, and it’s used efficiently and effectively.

What Does Misuse Of Authority Look Like?

Some key things to look out for: body language, word choices, and the audience. Watch for words like these coming from your mouthhole:

But, I’m the Architect/Manager/Director/Scrum Master/Tech Lead/etc…

…you have to do this.
…this is the only option.
…because I said so.
…it’s my way or the highway.
…eat crap and die.

Absolutes and personal attacks/insults are not going to work. They may sometimes achieve the immediate effect you wanted, but it’s going to come back to bite you in the end.

Avoid negative feedback in a group setting at all costs. If you MUST provide negative feedback (and yes, sometimes we must) always, ALWAYS, do so in a private 1:1 situation. Involve your people leader if you aren’t comfortable one-on-one.

Instead, look for ways to encourage, build-up, support, and assist people in doing what you believe should be done.

Shameful Anecdote Time

Once, in an earlier decade of my life, I was an inexperienced young team lead. I had responsibility for a developer who was undertaking a critical task. The task wasn’t moving along the way my manager and my manager’s leader hoped it would. There was some time sensitivity involved, and I was asked to research the issue and get things moving along. I did some investigation and found that the developer was spending a lot of time (over 50%) not engaged in his work.

I’ll admit it; I was frustrated.

Instead of following the advice I’m giving in this article, I decided to walk right up to this person’s cubicle and ask how the work was progressing. Nothing particularly wrong with the approach, although in hindsight, I should have known the discussion was likely to become sensitive. I should have invited the developer to a private location to discuss one-on-one.

Anyway, when we spoke, the developer told me how well it was going and how hard he was working and how he’d have this already late project completed just as soon as he could, but not for at least a few more days. When describing the work remaining, I felt it was completely trivial. It could have been completed THE NEXT MORNING.

I won’t go into detail, but I lost my cool. I felt pressured and I let the pressure rule my emotions. My voice rose high enough for at least neighboring cubicles to hear, if not more. I told this developer that he would finish this work by the end of the next day or there would be hell to pay.

I’ve never seen someone’s face go from zero to pure unadulterated hatred so quickly.

The developer finished the required work on my timeline, but I had ruined a relationship and completely demotivated my co-worker. As kind, cheerful, and pleasant as I could be, it never made up for my error. The individual became a habitual underperformer, and eventually was let go by our manager.

I’ve always wondered how the situation might have gone if I knew then what I know now. Would I have pulled this individual aside privately? Would I have offered my help or another’s on the team to push through the last bit of work? Would I have asked more about the situation and sought to understand why he was underperforming in the first place?

I’d like to think I would have. I’d like to think I’d have given less weight to some of the authoritarian “truths” I’d been exposed to growing up.

Avoid False Truisms Of Authoritarians

Avoid being taken in by the truisms of autocratic leaders like Bonaparte and Hitchcock. Do not let their philosophies influence your leadership style.

“Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self-interest.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

“If an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?’ I say, ‘Your salary.’” – Alfred Hitchcock

The work we are doing in any creative or thought-related organization requires 100% of the team’s buy-in, commitment, and enthusiasm to be as effective as possible.

Leaders don’t and can’t have all the best ideas. Create psychological safety for people you work with to aid their growth and contributions.

Authoritarian leadership styles have little or no place in Agile organizations.

In closing: I recommend avoiding the “command and control” mentality in favor of “inspire and innovate”. Tech leads (and technology leaders in general) aren’t running military operations; we are engaged in creative endeavors.

Learn Like A Viking

My friend Ron Coulson (who I’ve known practically forever) has challenged himself to write a poem a day this year. He is well underway. This is #63 of 366, because, you know, leap year.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m no poet, but the subject matter here is near and dear to me — learning! I also enjoy a good metaphor and the Viking theme here is vivid and wonderful. Overall, it struck me as fantastic and I thought I’d like to share it with you all. Ron generously agreed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

drinking-horn

Untitled

Let us devour knowledge in a way
That would make vikings cringe
Let’s gorge ourselves until we
Vomit certainties no one can dispute
Let truths drip from our chins
As the spittle of enlightenment
Lands in our opponents eyes
Raise your mugs, my friends
Then chug down life’s lessons
Until we are drunken sages
Then sleep
Then do it all again

-Ron Coulson (2016)

If these words have inspired you to learn, check out the new page I’ve added to the blog where I’m attempting to keep track of some of the best coding katas. Try one out. Let me know if you have favorite katas you’d like to see there.

Interview/Hire Great Devs: Part 2

This is the 2nd and last post on hiring great developers. You should probably read Interview/Hire Great Devs: Part 1 if this topic interests you.

Fulfilling Expectations

Remember that the type of person you want to hire is going to expect around 3-4 hours total in the hiring process. If they feel that you don’t perform due diligence with them, their concern will be that you are not doing it with anyone else and that the team will suffer. Of course if the candidate doesn’t seem like a good fit at any point, cut them loose immediately and politely.

If your candidate made it this far, it’s time for…

Phase 3: In-Person Interviewing

Let Your Experts Do The Talking

Evil Nerd Genius
And now we all know the truth about German programmers…
They code in cuff links.

Next, have candidates interview on-site with your existing people for one to two hours (if you don’t want the whole team in there at once divide the time into 20-30 minute blocks). There are pros and cons to both approaches.

Be sure to communicate any overarching goals with your team. If this person is to fill a specific role, let them know so they can analyze the fit. If everyone you hire should be a continuous learner, make that clear. If you want someone who won’t be bored with tedious work, that should also be communicated. There are only two technical guidelines to stress.

Just.

Two.

  1. Long coding assignments should not be performed on a whiteboard.
  2. Long coding assignments should not be performed on a whiteboard.

There are plenty of decent alternatives to making a developer sweat about syntax and handwriting. Bring a laptop to the interview and pair program with them. Send them a coding assignment to complete on their own prior to the interview (time-boxed of course). This applies to anything longer than a fizz buzz-type problem.

Otherwise, let your experts ask whatever questions they believe are important. They are evil geniuses who want to unleash hell on your candidates, AND THEY SHOULD.  These should be some of the people you trust the most to help achieve your goals as an organization, they know the right questions to ask!

Afterward, get a quick thumbs-up count from your team and if it went well…

Perform A Leadership Review

Do an in-person with anyone your team doesn’t dislike. Probably 30 minutes or less. See if your impressions from the online/phone screenings seem to hold up. If you are considering this person for a role that may increase in responsibility, make sure to ask the right questions (including if they are interested in that sort of thing).
At this point, assuming success, proceed to…

The Final Phase: In-Person Closing

Sell, Sell, Sell (Be Obvious And Honest)

Allow 30 minutes to answer their questions and really sell them on the opportunity.

Sale! 50 Percent Off

What you have to offer is great, remember that! This is the company you chose to work for and continue to stick with. Even you you are having a bad day (we are all entitled occasionally) do not sell the opportunity short. Talk about the best parts of your job. Be enthusiastic. After all…

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Be completely open and honest. Don’t conceal problems but don’t highlight them as anything other than what they truly are: opportunities to improve. Developers are optimists. We believe in change for the better and want to help it happen. Appeal to our desire to solve problems.

Eat Lunch

The candidate that makes it this far should have a very informal lunch with the team he will be working with so everyone can get a feel for interpersonal relations… it’s very difficult to get a feel for someone who is expecting trick technical/personal questions at any point and is on foreign territory. Lunch offsite is neutral territory and you can learn a lot about a person in that environment.

Lunch is a good habit to get into anyway. I like it.

It goes without saying that if you get to this point then you most likely have a keeper.

Make An Offer

Do this after lunch or do it the following day. You should know if this is the right person for the job or not. You have all the information. If the answer is no, tell your candidate as soon as you know.

The Offering

Negotiation is to be expected. However, in today’s competitive market, get your best offer out on the table as soon as possible.

NEVER try to undercut a programmer/developer/engineer/etc. It will not end well for you. The candidate maybe offended and walk, or worse, join the company and go though all the training and ramping-up and leave for a better opportunity in 6 months.

There are many, many jobs and too many online resources available to compare salaries and other benefits. If you aren’t sure you are being realistic, check out your competition on Glassdoor or general rates on Salary.com. Take this data to the powers that be and make a change if needed.

If there are other great reasons to work for the company, things that give you a competitive edge, highlight them. If you have a great environment for learning (see my posts on the subject here, here, and here) tout it! If you’ve hired well-known or respected developers, point candidates to their online presence on Github, LinkedIn, and Stack Overflow for verification. If you have stock options, great healthcare, or free/discounted products, talk about them.

You get the idea.

Conclusion

Overall, this is pretty similar to the process one employer used when convincing me to move to halfway across the country (for minimal pay increase, no stock options, etc.) and I had plenty of other opportunities. The overall process is proven and is common with really good shops that care about hiring the right people. Remember to always end the process after any stage as quickly and succinctly as possible. Do not get a reputation for wasting people’s time.

Image credits:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbiskoping/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/soulrush/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/liquidnight/

2014 Developer Learning Guide: Part 2

In Part 1 of this sequence of blog posts, we covered online and print learning. Part 3 is now available as well. This time we will review some of the in-person options for learning and focus in on smaller groups. But first…

An Elaboration On “The Best”

I suggested in 2014 Developer Learning Guide: Part 1 that A-players, top developers, etc. only want to work for companies that have a great learning culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they already ARE working for these companies. The point is that, given the choice, the best developers know the value of learning and want to be part of groups where everyone is actively engaged in it. If you are already working for a company like this, I congratulate you on your outstanding choice!

The most common argument I’ve heard for choosing or sticking with a company with poor learning policies/funding: “If a company pays well enough, I can afford my own learning/training.”

Money Vortex
Don’t get caught in a money vortex that leads to stagnation.

This is true. The fallacy is that all of the developers will use their “extra money” for this purpose. We all have obligations and sometimes paying off that credit card or taking a family trip might take priority over paying for our own training. When the employer provides budget and opportunity specifically for training, the entire team is far more likely to take advantage of it. This leads to the entire team learning and growing together. You avoid the situation where stragglers are content to stagnate and contribute a steadily degrading quality of work (and contribute steadily degrading quality of feedback on teammates’ work).

TL;DR I stand by my original statement with a few caveats.

This is not to say that everyone should try to learn in the same ways. Some people don’t take much away from certain types of training and learning opportunities. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, it is the purpose of these posts to provide a comprehensive list of the options that are out there! My hope is that you won’t focus on only one type of training. A rich selection of options awaits. I encourage you to try many and find out which work best for you.

In-Person (Smaller Groups)

Book Clubs

Start or join a book club/group/discussion. If you don’t like the word “club” find something different. Oprah won’t mind… why do you even care what she thinks? oprahAndDubmun Hopefully your company is willing  to sponsor a  book group with lunch provided and books paid. This is a minimal expense and provides a great return on investment. Reading books alone often isn’t enough. Having discussions with peers (who will definitely have takeaways you didn’t consider) is a great way to help maximize learning. In addition, adding coding exercises that pertain to the book topic occasionally really helps to cement the knowledge. More on that later…

One thing I’d like to call out here: if your group is larger than six people, consider breaking out into smaller groups for the majority of your discussion time. This is a neat trick I picked up from Mike Clement at Utah Software Craftsmanship meetups. Large groups tend to lend themselves a couple of antipatterns:

  • At best some participants may not participate because the more dominant voices in the room are taking up too much time.
  • At worst, you may have people napping in the back.

We implemented the breakout approach at my current company with great success. We get back together for an overall discussion for 10-15 minutes at the end of the hour and cover the points each group thought were most important.

Selecting the right kind of book is a very important concern here. Voting as a group is a nice way to get an idea of what people are interested in. Always be sure to select titles that will be good for discussion. Code cookbooks are an outstanding example of what not to read. I tend to prefer books grounded in theory, patterns, practices more than how-to books on specific technologies. If you aren’t sure where to start or don’t have money for books initially, there is a lot of great free material for discussions available online. Many blog post make for excellent discussions (hint, wink, nudge).

Presentations/User Groups/Meetups/Open Space

This section is a little more broad. Intentionally. There is an entire class of in-person interactions that can be extremely valuable learning tools. Many are existing groups and some you’ll have to go out of your way to create.

IPresentToYouTheOceanPresentations – The most formal entry of the section. Presentations are sometimes more valuable for the presenter than they are for the people watching. Nothing cements knowledge in your brain like stressing over sharing it with 5 to 500 other people all at once (for me anyway).

What you will take away from attending a presentation depends on your own personal learning style, the effectiveness of the presenter, and how much attention you actually pay to the presentation. I get nuggets from attending presentations but in general they have moderate value for me. So, “Present, present, present!” becomes my mantra.

“But where can I present?” you ask? The opportunities are out there. Present at work, user groups/meetups, coding dojos, code camps, large conferences, or just record yourself and post it online. Not sure how to get started? Go and watch someone present and ask them how they did it. This is also a topic I may write more on in the future.

User Groups/Meetups – Unfortunately I missed a great one of these (Utah Software Craftsmanship) last night because of pressing matters elsewhere. These groups are somewhat hit and miss, but if you find a few that are a good cultural fit and really match your interests they can be fantastic. User groups/meetups are a great place to learn, practice presentation skills, mingle with fellow techies, and often get free food.

Meetup LogoIf there isn’t a local user group that fits your interests, start your own. The most difficult part is securing a venue but local colleges and businesses are often willing to host your group. In addition, larger groups will attract sponsors who may provide swag for giveaways and/or food.

The best current place to look for a public group (or start one) is on Meetup.com.

Open Space Technology – I’ve only participated in one open space-style of meeting/collaboration unfortunately. It was at an Agile Roots conference back in 2009 and had a fairly profound impact on me. If you have the opportunity to attend an open space, I highly recommend it.

For more info check out OST on Wikipedia.

Coding Exercises/Katas

Coding exercises are a general term for writing code following a format lead by a presenter. There are many different subsets of exercises including design, gamified, and code katas. All of these have value, but I’m going to focus on the latter.

If you aren’t familiar with the term code kata, here is what Wikipedia says:  “code kata is an exercise in programming which helps a programmer hone their skills through practice and repetition.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kata_(programming). I like to compare it to a martial arts kata where we work to develop the equivalent of “muscle memory” for certain coding techniques. Kata Coding dojos are specialized meetups of people who perform code katas as a group. Participating in a coding dojo is something I look forward to every week. I always learn something new and almost always have the opportunity to help others do the same.

I have a future blog post queued up about my experience with starting a coding dojo at HealthEquity over the past year.

Part 3

It turns out I have too much to say for a 2 part post. In the third and final part of this post I will cover more in-person options for learning. It focuses on larger groups and formal training. Find it here: Part 3.

Also, be sure to check out Part 1 if you missed it.

I’d love to see your thoughts and comments below or to @dubmun on Twitter.

Interview/Hire Great Devs: Part 1

Hiring great technical people starts and ends with making a great impression on the best people. This means you have to get the best people in the door.  Once you have hired some of “the best”, your team will attract more of the same but starting out can be difficult. This post focuses on what to do once you’ve attracted their initial interest. I’m specifically covering interviewing and hiring awesome developers, but much of this is applicable across technical disciplines and other skilled positions.

Initial Phase: Resume/Profile Screening

Know What You Are Looking For

NYSpyglassStart the process by knowing what kind of great technical people you are looking for. Are you looking for great young talent that is unafraid of making mistakes? Or tried and tested people who account for exceptions before they arise? Are you looking for teachers or learners (or both)? Do they need certain specific skills or only the great desire and ability to learn, grow, and improve? What is the near, mid, and long term composition of your team?

Many questions should be asked and those questions don’t always have a clear answer. Do you need a consultant or full-time hire to help determine what you are looking for?

Be able to narrow your search quickly based on your must-have criteria and let the rest be discussion points during later phases of the hiring process. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes per resume, LinkedIn profile, or StackOverflow Careers profile weeding out the “No Call” people. It should be obvious because you already know what you are looking for.

I recommend creating two Top 5 lists to assist with knowing what you are looking for. The number of items on the list isn’t the focus. Use 3 or 7 or whatever suits you. It’s the exercise that is important. Write down 5 must-have attributes and 5 must-not-have attributes. Use these lists during initial screening. Pass on anyone with less than 4 must haves or more that 1 must-not-have.

Second Phase: Phone/Online

Personality First

Phone screen or Skype/Hangout for personality and team fit first. I prefer to see people face to face but this isn’t always possible. If you are starting a new team, this phase is even more important. The person you are screening should be someone you can see yourself having an interesting conversation with over lunch. You will be spending a lot of time together building a team. Getting along well is vitally important.

Split PersonalityThe personality screen doesn’t need to be long. Maybe 15-30 minutes. If it goes well, move on to the next phase without hesitation. If is doesn’t, this is the end of the road for this candidate regardless of their other credentials. This may seem extreme or harsh but honestly it saves your time and effort as well as the candidate’s.

On the flip side of this is the importance of representing the culture and personality of your group as accurately as possible. Talk about your goals and aspirations as a team and as a company. This gives the candidate an opportunity to self-select out of the hiring process as well. You don’t want to hire people who won’t be happy in your environment. Honesty is definitely the best policy.

If you are looking for a leader (or emerging leader) this is also the time to make a early assessment of the candidate’s ability to fill this role. Confidence and charisma matter more here that they might otherwise.

The Learning/Knowing Equation

A technical (and partly cultural) phone/online screen of the people you think might be a good personality fit is the logical next step. The interview should be performed by a trusted technical member of your team. This phase is going to go back to the first section because you must know what you are looking for. Rank candidates based on that knowledge.

That said, don’t hold out for a “unicorn”. For our purposes, a unicorn is a developer who knows your tech stack inside-out, knows your business, and knows what you need to do to solve all your current and future problems. I believe unicorns can be developed if you hire people with the right potential, but they cannot be found and hired. At some point the mask comes off.

unicornDeveloper

With this in mind, your focus should be on the candidate’s ability to learn and on gauging what they already know and their ability to teach it. These traits are and probably always will be vital for a technology employee. Of course you’d like someone with experience in some of your technology. The point here is not to miss out on someone who is a fantastic learner/teacher and doesn’t check all of the other boxes on your checklist.

teaching LearningI describe this second screening as partly cultural for a reason. Your interviewer should be verifying that the candidate not only can learn and adapt quickly, but also if they enjoy learning and adapting quickly. When going through the things they do know, the interviewer should look for something they are personally less familiar with. They then can encourage the candidate to teach it to them.  Remember to discover if the candidate is not only capable of teaching but also if they enjoy it. The collaboration component is important.

There are great tools to help with this phase. A good screen-sharing app like GoToMeeting, Skype, or Screen Hero is the best way to do some quick pairing on a simple problem. The problem should be something the candidate may not be wholly familiar with so that their capability of dealing with the unknown can be assessed. That said, this should still be fairly short and sweet. 30-45 minutes tops.

If it seems like this is a good possible fit, personally invite the candidate to visit your facility. If you don’t have a facility, invite them to lunch. If you are looking at remote or relocation hires and the position is permanent, you should arrange transportation/lodging. Under no circumstances should you ever make an offer at this point in the process.

The candidate should have a clear and concise understanding of the next steps at this point. If you are unsure if you should move on to in-person contact, the answer is no.

Part 2 Coming Soon

I will cover the particulars of the types of things you should be doing to “Hire Awesome” in the in person interviews. No specific date, but stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d love to see your thoughts and comments here or on Twitter.