- Advantages / Opportunities
- Path forward
- Creating clear lanes of accountability and support
- Role definitions and assignments
- Creating support systems
- Pitching the new roles
- Leveraging opportunities for growth and experimentation
- Engendering a spirit of adaptability
- Communicating effectively
- Single source of truth
- Share → iterate → expand audience → repeat
- The hidden challenge to sharing early
Mise en place is French for "put in place"... Chef's don’t start cooking until everything is literally in place. Mise en place reduces friction in the kitchen
- Good Habits, Bad Habits, Wendy Wood The culinary process of mise en place is one that I had leveraged to organize my team at its inception. So it was fitting to once again leverage that process of preparation in planning to step away from that team for parental leave. Thanks to an immensely generous parental employee benefit, I've had the opportunity to be home, learning how to be a dad...and also pick up iOS development on the side. Herein is my synthesis of how, as an engineering leader, I tried to ensure that everything was in place to empower my team to continue to succeed in my absence. As always, this is more reflective than prescriptive.
These are my personal opinions and as such are not intended to represent the specific viewpoints or policies of any employers past or present.
Maintain progress and perhaps even increase momentum on the team's output during my leave.
Inertia may overcome progress when…
- role definitions and assignments are excessively malleable or otherwise unclear. This is not conducive to taking ownership or making decisions decisively.
- engineers are unsupported in new roles, creating a protracted path to success
Advantages / Opportunities
Our team built momentum over a year+ of successful development, iteration, and documentation of execution systems.
To achieve the goals and surmount the challenges, leverage the lead time before my child's then-presumptive arrival to
- Create clear lanes of accountability and support.
- Leverage opportunities for growth and experimentation created by my absence.
- Engender a spirit of adaptability within the team.
- Communicate effectively and early.
Creating clear lanes of accountability and support
Role definitions and assignments
People within and outside of the team should know who to turn to for what when I’m not around. That was highest priority for things to establish ahead of time. The approach I took to this was to slice my role into subroles that could be assigned or opted into by multiple individuals. Some tasks, such as hiring, performance reviews and admin activities, must flow to an interim Engineering Manager (EM) by necessity. But beyond that, my hiatus provided opportunities for folks to try out different functions, challenging themselves to expand their capabilities.
One such role that I carved out was a team-level tech lead to supplement the existing project-level tech lead model that we already utilize. The engineer in this role would be responsible for maintaining context across projects, thereby supporting the team’s interim EM and Product Manager in spotting risks ahead of time, planning, etc.
Creating support systems
To ensure that engineers who would be taking on new responsibilities would have sufficient support, I reached out to Staff and Senior Engineers who are familiar with our team’s projects and people. These convos weren’t centered on implementation/execution support. That level of support would neither be reasonable to expect nor even necessary. Rather, the goal was to cultivate a network of skilled engineers that my team could reach out to for questions or concerns where my institutional knowledge may have previously come in handy. These relationships could also serve as starting points for long-term, impactful mentorships.
Pitching the new roles
With the roles defined and support in place, the next step was to fill those roles. I opted for an opt-in model, with first refusal going to the engineers who demonstrated consistent or budding competencies in the areas called for by each role. This ensured that those taking on these roles were motivated to do so.
To actually pitch the roles, I explained their respective expectations and support available and addressed any concerns that emerged. The main expectation to set was how to prioritize the demands of the new roles against existing commitments. This amounts to an exercise in saying the right “no”s to ensure capacity. With roles assigned, the next step was to ease folks into them. This included things like shadowing meetings that I would normally take on the team’s behalf, artifacts/status reports that I would normally update, etc.
Leveraging opportunities for growth and experimentation
Disruptions to the status quo can inspire, and indeed may require, innovation. This catalyst for innovation creates opportunities for growth. Here, I use “growth” to mean the expansion of capabilities (the types and scopes of problems one can solve) and capacity (the workload one can successfully manage).
As an example, an area that I presented an organic growth opportunity was getting folks onboarded to our on-call rotation. Since going on leave would necessitate my coming off of the rotation, that disruption created the impetus for engineers who had yet to join the rotation to do so. Doing so also requires engineers to deepen their knowledge of the systems that we operate. The end state was a net increase in the size of the rotation.
Engendering a spirit of adaptability
Leadership changes can elicit a sense of uncertainty. And truly, some amount of discomfort when navigating changes is to be expected. But with preparation, that discomfort should be both tolerable and temporary. Lean into that mindset.
To ensure that all relevant parties were aware of changes in a timely manner, I aimed to
- Put together a single source of truth for the aforementioned roles and responsibilities
- Share → iterate → expand audience → repeat
Single source of truth
Capturing decisions, dates, and other relevant info in a single document meant that it could be audited by those impacted or interested, enabling ease of iteration and sharing. Sticking a link to the doc in my Slack status meant that folks who I may not have directly connected with could find it if they happened to reach out for something during my leave.
Share → iterate → expand audience → repeat
As an example of how this was useful: I'd meant to indicate available support from one of the Senior+ Engineers I’d met with, but a bit of awkward wording gave the impression that they were taking on management of the team 😳. Thankfully, this was called out in early feedback and cleared up before creating confusion with a larger audience.
The hidden challenge to sharing early
Perhaps the hardest part of writing this piece was deciding if or how to address the hardest part of navigating this process - the personal fear of loss. I’ve opted to broach the topic because the point of being vulnerable is to be honest about experiences, thereby deepening our ability to learn from them.
Pregnancy is difficult and all too often does not have a happy ending; especially for Black parents, a cohort that now includes me. I dreaded sharing information - the dates, the roles, the process, etc - only for the worse to happen. Going through this process of preparation required courage - the courage to have hope. That courage was bolstered by the support of leaders who extended kindness.
What motivated me to lean into courage over fear was that I was trying to pull off changes that having more lead time would increase the likelihood of success of what I was trying to pull off. The serendipity of that choice was that my son ended up being born unexpectedly early - not long after I’d shared the final artifact widely. Because we’d locked in the core of the plan already, however, the team was already well positioned to roll with the accelerated timetable. Had I waited much longer to begin this process, it would likely have been too late. So in this case, the courage and prioritization were rewarded; it was growth discomfort.
At the time of writing, I am still on parental leave. Disconnected as I am from the day-to-day realities of work, I don't know first hand if I’d anticipated the pivotal challenges and opportunities and charted the right course based on them. In essence, did I craft a successful strategy? Fortunately, I’ve heard from colleagues on the inside. They have indicated that things are going well and, without solicitation, called out the frameworks set in place before my leave as a contributing factor.