Last weekend I packed a head cold and a southern nonchalance towards weather preparation1, and flew northeast to attend The Lead Developer conference in New York. It wasn't until I got there that it occurred to me I had bought my ticket based entirely on my experiences at the 2018 version of this conference in Austin, and had no idea who was going to be speaking at this one.
Fortunately, my inability to plan was completely validated by a killer talk line-up, presented by co-hosts Meri Williams and Lara Hogan. And while I'll try not to forget to use the internet to my advantage in the future, I remain assured by White October's ability to put together a great event.
What I Took Away
As in my last debrief, there were several unifying themes to this year's conference:
Collaborate to adapt. Software is a world of clear ideals and messy implementations. Sometimes MVPs fail to scale, communication breaks down, and people get paged in the middle of the night. Refocusing a team's objectives and solving problems requires more than brains; it requires the ability to collaborate and respond to new situations
The future is now, later. We may not be able to design a perfect, infinite solution upfront, but the choices we make today accumulate to form tomorrow's context. That goes for our systems and our careers
Who are we at work? Ourselves. A team is not a monolith, it's a fully distributed system. It's amazing that a handful of individuals—with unique experience, feelings, and dreams—can come together to create the things we do. At the same time, it's important to remember that we are individuals: how we work affects how we feel and live. Health and happiness are good for business
Communication and storytelling. We all tell stories: about what we did last weekend, about what we hope our new idea will accomplish, and what we dream for the future. Telling stories, and listening to stories, are crucial for enacting change in the world and yourself. Human interaction is the "glue" that supports our teams and our projects
For the rest of this post, I'll highlight a few of the talks that spoke out to me. The videos aren't out at the time of posting this, but in each section I've linked the title of the talk to its abstract.
UPDATE: The videos are now available!
Climbing the (Invisible) Ladder
Too often, advice on career advancement in tech is sparse, if you can get it at all2. Growth—in skills, title, or compensation—usually means switching companies. In Creating a Career Ladder for Engineers, Marco Rogers has some suggestions for clarifying that progression within your company, as well as some good reasons to do so. Marco calls out flat organizations as having "invisible" ladders, talks about basing a level system around the ambiguous concept of "senior", and provides some suggestions for communicating the ladder to employees.
We believe in the benefits of a flat organization at Test Double, but we've also encountered some of the challenges that Marco describes: what it means to be senior when everyone is the same level, what career progression looks like in a company with no promotions, and how to structure feedback in such a way that people clearly understand where they are now as well as where they can go. It's difficult stuff that we haven't completely figured out, which is why I was thrilled to see Marco's talk. This conversation, and its outcomes, could be its own Test Double blog post in the future.
Everyday Superpowers for Impact
In the talk Being Right is Only Half the Battle, Rod Begbie provides some suggestions for influencing teams by influencing individuals, via a series of skills that will benefit technologists at any level in their careers. Rod suggests that clear communication with other individuals in the organization lays the groundwork for trust, which increases the scope of our impact. Listening to what others say also provides an opportunity to refine our ideas to better suit everyone's needs.
Influence isn't a gradual process, as we're well aware of in the consulting world. But it's also true that micromanaging our brilliant ideas isn't the end goal of a Test Double engagement. In order to leave the client in a position to drive their own change, we're really hoping to model a high-trust style of leadership that doesn't require the constant presence of a manager. Rod's talk does a great job of isolating the specific behaviors that work towards that goal, and is worth watching for any aspiring leader.
Stick it to the System (And Whether That's a Good Idea)
What makes a senior engineer? To that end, what makes an engineer? Without a clear understanding of all the work involved in making great software, it's not surprising that team members may formulate widely different understandings that can impact their respective careers.
Tanya Reilly's talk Being Glue tells the story of a new hire who isn't sure about the boundaries of her role. She writes code, but also notices and tries to fill other gaps on the team: she writes documentation, she gets people communicating to each other, she observes and identifies issues before they arise. When it comes time to evaluate performance, this hypothetical employee learns that she's not a candidate for the senior engineer role… but has she considered switching to management?
Through this story, Tanya highlights a common blind spot in the tech industry: the assumption that coding proficiency is the benchmark for career progression, despite the other types of "glue work" that support a successful software project. By providing job descriptions and advancement criteria that only reward writing code, we're setting up environments where people aren't motivated to take on glue work, or worse, where that work disproportionately falls to minorities who aren't recognized for it. And while volunteering for glue work might like the right thing to do as engineer, it's worth considering whether stepping up for the team is causing us to step back in our careers.
Vulnerability and Career Growth
This is the second Lead Dev debrief where Adrienne Lowe's talk in particular spoke to me. There's something incredibly appealing about a view of management that advocates for empathy and respect of a report's personhood. Despite practical advice about compartmentalizing for work, we arrive to work as fully-formed people—with all the messy inconvenience that entails.
Crucial Career Conversations provides a guide for engaging your reports in conversations about their careers, using the book Radical Candor as a starting point. Adrienne describes a three-step process in which you learn a report's life story, help them describe and clarify their dreams, and then create a plan for bridging the two. It's a system, but one that encourages imagination and vulnerability, and creates a space where people can view their job from the perspective of their own needs.
This post provides a few highlights from what was overall an excellent conference, and I highly recommend you check out all the talks as the videos become available. Anjuan Simmons and Aneika Simmons provided an extremely well-researched discourse on burnout, Liz Fong-Jones talked about managing complexity in production, and Nassim Kammah gave some suggestions for improving remote meetings. Seriously though, every talk at this conference was great3. My favorite thing about LeadDev is that it acknowledges that the tech industry is more than just technology: it's also people, and empathy, and relationships. I'm grateful for my opportunity to attend, and I'll definitely be back.
1What do you mean it's snowing in the midwest? It's April.
2Step 1: Be programmer. Step 2: Profit???
3Excessive word count is what stands between me and gushing about every single talk.