S1E23 – Building on the Foundation (Building Your Engineering Organization Series – Part 2 of 5)

Show Notes

Let’s imagine that you are just taking on an engineering organization. Maybe it is new to you or maybe it is completely new. What should you do to set yourself up for success? What are some of the important, or critical, aspects to think through, write down, nail down, or get agreement on?

In a five-part series, Mon-Chaio and Andy look back over the long, and sometimes rambling, episodes of The TTL Podcast and try to condense them down to something more digestible. In episode one you learned about defining your cultural and structural north star. This episode summarizes the tactics that are necessary to flesh out those north stars, including hiring strategy, clarity of tasks and boundary, and explicit intentionality.




Welcome to our second episode in our end of year retrospective, summing up, what have you, series on taking on or starting a new engineering organization. In this episode, I’ll be looking back over our last 20 episodes and plucking out the little nuggets of insight that I hope will help you on the next stage of your journey.

A couple things to address before we dive in. If you haven’t listened to the first episode of this series, which is episode 22, I suggest you go back and take a listen. Mon Chaio walks you through laying the groundwork for all of your next steps, including what you’ll be going over here. Secondly, I want to add a little bit of story of how we decided to start doing this podcast, which is that the first idea was that we would combine our interest in research, technology, organizations, organizational and personal dynamics, and The cocktail idea fell to the wayside when it occurred to us that neither of us drinks all that much, and because of the time differences between us, Mon Chaio would have to drink in the middle of the day on a regular basis.

So that idea didn’t really pan out. But, we are going to have a special Christmas episode that brings us back to that idea. So keep listening, and you’ll get a cocktail recipe or two on Boxing Day. And thirdly, and the last point I have before I dig into the content, as Mon Chaio said in the previous episode, we’re going to be trying out a different format for this series.

A clip show format, you could say. we’re taking turns hosting them. Last time you got Mon Chaio, this time you get me.

Mon-Chaio: Mon-Chaio here with a quick interruption. As Andy mentioned in the last episode, while he’ll be the one taking you through this episode, I’ll actually be doing the editing, so will have an opportunity to chime in after the fact here and there. So look for me to banter with Andy asynchronously. I mean, we are solidly in the remote work era so we can collaborate on a podcast episode, asynchronously … right? Well, I guess we’ll see. Uh, but for now back to Andy.

Andy: Alright, back to the content. In the last episode, Mon Chaio took you through the first step. Decide on and write down those core values and minimal structure that you want to use as your North Star, your guiding light.

You’ve now got that. Maybe it’s written down on a little A5 sheet, an index card. Now your task is to take that index card and make it real in the dynamics of your organization. To have dynamics, you need to have people. Those people will, whether you design it or not, form into groups, teams, cliques, tribes, or whatever other name you want to apply to it.

And from the group structure that forms, combined with who those people are, and several other factors, you’ll have different group dynamics. Starting with who the people are. I remember, early on in my career, I was sent to a supervisor training course. It was somewhere in South Seattle, in a single story office block in some industrial park.

I don’t remember where exactly. It was kind of a nondescript, nothing special. I just remember rows of tables, getting some handouts, and sitting there for two days or so, while the teacher talked to us about different aspects of being a supervisor. Most of it didn’t stick with me, but there is one thing he said that I’ve remembered ever since.

One of the most important aspects of the job of a manager is deciding, quote, who is on the bus, end quote. So let’s talk a little bit about this bus. In episode 17, Hiring Strategy, we talked about using your strategy, your bus, in hiring.

Hiring Strategy

Andy: But ideally, you’re basing where you’re going to be in a few years off of an overall strategy of what you’re trying to do as an organization, where you’re positioning yourself in the market, how you treat your customers. That’s all strategy, whether or not you’re high touch or low touch. Are you doing an online app? Are you doing a software as a service? Are you doing something where really the software developers are writing more of internal tools. That’s all your strategy about how things play out. And your strategy will also encompass things about, like, how are you going to grow your market? Are you going to enter this region and then that region? Are you going to go after this kind of customer, then that kind of customer? All of that should have, at least a little bit of thinking around it and that starts giving that framework on which you can start building up, okay, this is when we’re going to need a bigger team when we’re going to need more people. Not when you decide, oh, because we learned that Postgres didn’t scale in the way that we wanted, we’re going to create our own data store, and that is a short term thing that you finish it, you fix it, and you’re done. That’s not a strategic thing.

Mon-Chaio: Strategy to me needs to clarify the intent behind any actions taken, which of course includes hiring. Hiring is an action that you take. So I think that’s one aspect of a good strategy. You need to be able to look at it to determine actions. One of my managers at Metta actually used to say something that I now steal because I really like it. He used to say strategy is how you snap back to good. Anytime you feel like you’re off track, strategy will be your guiding beacon where you can look to it and say I have plan A and I have plan B. Which one should I pick? And it’s whichever one snaps closest to your strategy.

End of Hiring Stategy Clip

Andy: Where you need to take the organization will always be the guiding factor in when and who you bring onto the bus. Sometimes you need to take a civil engineer on the bus that is heading to the dam that you’re building. Sometimes you need to take a concert pianist to the Royal Albert Hall.

But most of the time we’re going to be taking software engineers or related disciplines somewhere to produce a product. Once you know what your bus is and where it’s going, next you’ll want to work on who needs to be on that bus. In the last episode, Mon Chaio talked about knowing your core values. In episode 11, Changing Culture, we discussed how setting your culture and hiring are intrinsically connected.

Hiring Culture Clip

The whole point of culture is to gather a group of people together to do great things, to be more than a sum of their parts, and that does not happen randomly. Random collision does not make that happen.

Andy: But it also gives a useful guidance, back to our thing about hiring, you want to aim for influence in creating the most high leverage things, that small number of very important things and let others vary a bit. So this isn’t like controlling every aspect of how people think or how they behave. This is about choosing a few very specific things that will have that big, highly leveraged, high impact network effect across the entire organization.

I’m not gonna say it’s easy to do, but it is, I think, within the realm of what the lead and the manager should be doing, paying attention to that and always reflecting on, do we have that right bit? How can we influence it to get that more strongly? Or I’ve been emphasizing the wrong thing, now I need to shift that.

Mon-Chaio: Absolutely. And I’m glad you referenced that hiring point because as we talk through influencing culture, I think it is really important to keep in mind that concept of core values. We didn’t define the number, but we said the lower the better. That’s not always true. You can have too few and then you get randomness. But you should really focus, like you were saying, on the leverage points, of making sure the core things are emphasized over and over again and get built very strongly.

End Hiring Culture Clip

Andy: Alright, so you’ll be hiring people, or matching people to what needs to be done if you already have adopted an existing organization. Very similar things, but what are you bringing them into? I’ve worked with teams that were organized around specific products, or teams that were organized around components or capabilities.

I’ve also worked with teams that changed their structure to match the current project. Mon Chaio talks about having triple A teams. Teams that have autonomy, authority, and accountability. And that gets to the heart of it, in the last episode he suggested thinking about the boundaries that you’ll want to set up.

As you hire people in, you’ll still want to think about that. But you’ll also need to start thinking about the roles and tasks that individuals and teams take on. We spoke about the different kinds of tasks to consider in our very first episode.

Clip BART – Primary and Survival Task

In the BART paper, they talk about the survival task, right? This concept that regardless of what the formal or informal tasks are, there’s always this unspoken task where a group wants to. Live. Yes, they want to continue existing, right? And I would say that they want to thrive would be the other part that I would add to that.

And I think really that was the crux of a lot of the attrition. When your boundaries are unclear and you don’t feel like your authority is clear, it’s very, and you know, and then your tasks are unclear. It’s very difficult, I think, for people to feel like their groups can survive and thrive. Now we can always ask the question.

Does that group deserve to survive or thrive or, you know, are group’s even important? And like, is survival of one group important versus survival of another group? And I do want to get into this a little bit later. This mythical just collaborate through it type of thing. Mm-hmm. But what Bart would say, and I tend to agree, I don’t know if you tend to agree, I tend to agree that regardless of what you say from the top, there’s this human instinctual nature of belonging and survival.

Mm-hmm. And so if you’re part of a group, you’re gonna want that group to survive. Yeah. And when you don’t feel like that group is surviving, You’re gonna jump ship to belong to a different group. Yeah. And, and they, the, the paper even goes into the dynamics that play between the survival task and other things, and they give names to two other tasks around the survival task.

They have the primary task. Mm-hmm. They say also if it referred to as the functional task or work task, which corresponds with the mission of an organization. Mm-hmm. In this case, the primary task would probably be somewhere along this line of like, creating this thing for desktop. Right. Right. Or creating this.

This thing for mobile and desktop, right? The survival task is, When a group works on a task, members of the group always, albeit mostly unconsciously, very important, it’s mostly unconscious. Have the survival of the group in mind. We call this the survival task of the group. The primary task and the survival task coexist at times.

The survival task is in surface of the primary task and complimentary, but mostly. It is in conflict with the Primr task. And so that survival task of the group, they want their group to continue, can come bring them in conflict with whatever it is they’ve been tasked to actually do. And I love the fact that the paper calls out that it’s almost always in conflict.

I think that is

End Clip BART

Andy: Being clear on both boundaries and tasks are key to helping individuals and teams engage and remain with the organization. Mon Chaio had his story about two teams that were at odds with each other in that BART episode. Possibly because they hadn’t acknowledged that their boundaries had changed, and perhaps because their survival tasks took precedence, and they didn’t acknowledge that was happening.

A useful model for thinking about one of the primary changes that a technical organization will encounter is the Explore Expand Extract model. I’ll let Mon Chaio tell you about some of the impacts that you might encounter when using this model from episode 6, Untangling the Metrics Request

3X Model Clip

Mon-Chaio: I can’t remember where I read this first, but I’ve seen it written. In numerous places. So I don’t think the attribution is necessary, but there’s this concept of like, explore, expand, extract, which you’ve probably heard of,

Andy: Mm.


Mon-Chaio: three stages that a company operates in where when you first go out, you’re doing experimentation to try to find where you need to go.

And then, you know, the second stage is more experimentation. The third stage is you know what you’re doing and you just have to extract as much value out of it as I often think that perhaps CEOs or companies in general are very euphoric in that explorer stage. Their teams are usually smaller experiments usually happen more rapidly and in the explorer stage it’s not. Really a great idea to develop a lot of platforms or to develop tool chains, or one might say ci cd. I don’t necessarily believe that, but what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to move super fast in a direction with or without technology, with or without tooling. And so for the leader of a company that might sound very akin to what they understand.

And then as a company moves into the. Explore phase, they’re starting to settle down, or sorry, when it moves into the expand phase, they’re starting to settle down. They’re starting to try to scale, and it feels different,

End 3X Model Clip

Andy: The last place I want to take you, when thinking about how to build your foundations, How to start moving your bus toward your north star of a living organization. How many metaphors can I mix and still get away with it here? Alright, so the last place I want to take you is to think about the different ways that you can ask people to interact by setting up what teams you have.

We haven’t had a chance to talk about team topologies yet. Look for that sometime next year. But we have done a deep dive into how dev and ops teams can work together, as well as how data science teams can fit into the picture. In that episode, episode 18, we talked about one metric that you can pay attention to when thinking about teams.

Handoffs Clip

Mon-Chaio: I certainly think there’s some frameworks that we can use to think about just general collaboration, which would cross disciplines. One, for example, might be handoffs. When should you think about handing stuff off versus when should you think about working more collaboratively?

What are the pros and cons and trade-offs to doing handoffs? I think that’s one thing. Another thing could be something around business value. How valuable is that particular discipline to your business in the particular context? You know, if you are, say Uber, perhaps security engineering is very, very important to you given the regulatory environment that you operate in or if you’re a bank or something.

But perhaps if you’re rover.com or you’re a dog walking service, something like that. Maybe security doesn’t play as big a role, and so your context is different. Right. But I do think that there are some central things like handoffs that possibly we could use to frame it across the disciplines instead of saying every discipline is unique.

Andy: Yeah. I agree with you. I think that there’s a lot of patterns that exist out there for how groups organize, and they, there’s nothing all that specific to the particular disciplines. The pattern you choose really comes down to how those disciplines need to interact for the context of that particular business.

End Handoffs Clip

Andy: So what I want you to keep in mind is being intentional. Intentional in keeping to the approach you want, to produce the culture you want, and produce the results you want. Pay attention to that, to how you relate to your foundation as you build up the team.

When you’re hiring, make sure you look for things that truly matter and leave out things that don’t. Work out boundaries between teams that add to achieving the results you need and are guided by your foundational values and vision. Give those teams tasks that are relevant to them, that help them feel included, and relevant to your outcomes in business as well as your culture.

Mon-Chaio: A quick editor interjection here to reinforce what Andy aptly pointed out about intentional hiring. In thinking about what you need versus what you don’t, make sure to also consider your subconscious needs in addition to your conscious needs. I’m including an HBR article in the show notes which goes into a bit more detail about the emotional side of hiring. Uh, but the short of it is we all have subconscious needs that we want to fulfill in everything we do. And hiring is certainly no exception.

One example, given in the article is subconsciously wanting the person you hire to relieve you from some of your more annoying tasks. If you don’t explicitly acknowledge these needs, you will find, and I certainly have in the past found out, that while you’ve met your hiring goals on paper, you still will have fail to set up your organization for success.

That’s just one example. And again, the article in the show notes goes into a number of different examples, which you can read if you’re interested in learning more. I’ll turn it back over to Andy to wrap up this episode with an anecdote that neatly demonstrates the importance of explicitly aligning your tactics with your cultural and structural north star.

Andy: I want to give you an example of putting some parts of this to use. I once interviewed someone for a principal or staff engineering position. Let’s call him Ji. We hadn’t hired someone at that level before, and I didn’t have any process specifically set up for it. A core value of the organization, though, was informed choice.

That informed me for a way forward on the interview. I explained to the candidate what the organization and I expect from a principal engineer, and we discussed what that meant for him and for the company. We both agreed that he had some promise in fulfilling the role, as he’d been a coach and leader at several organizations.

So together, we decided on an unorthodox way of interviewing him. We would hire him as a contractor for a week, during which he would work with the team, meet others, and both sides would get a better sense of how this would work and how he could fit in. Each day, I checked in with him and others who had been working with him.

After three days, he spoke to me and he said, I don’t think I can provide the level of impact that you’d be looking for. We discussed it, and after he explained why he believed that, it made perfect sense.

He had had the impact he had in the past because he had taken junior or disorganized teams and trained them to be more organized and skilled. This team was already organized and skilled, and he didn’t see being able to use his skills in this organization, because the team was already skilled and organized.

Xi may well have been a great hire, but maybe not in that group, or maybe not at that time. My purpose in telling the story is to bring home the point that culture is built by taking actions congruent with your values, and bringing people into the fold who want to do the same. Then you get them organized into structures that bring out the best in them.

I hope that you found this recap useful and enjoyable. If you have any suggestions or questions, please send them to us at hosts at thettlpodcast. com. That is H O S T S at thettlpodcast. com, and I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, be kind and stay curious.


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