focus

Ok, let’s talk about focus.

I learned a parenting hack a few weeks ago. One that really helped me to smoothen some previously tense or potentially tense situations. Whenever I need my toddlers to do something – like put on clothes, brush teeth, some part of the routine, and they’d be opposed to it (which is not crazy rare), I started saying something. That something is: “ok, we’ll do $something_fun soon, but the very next thing we’ll quickly do is X”. For some reason, that connects super well to their brains, and it’s remarkable to be reminded of something super important: focus. We’re focusing on a distant goal, while being clear that also the tangible, short-term actions have to be taken.

There’s probably a list somewhere that contains 20 signs that you’ve been doing engineering leadership for way too long, and finding analogies for everyday challenges in absolutely normal situations probably ranks highly there. But now that we’re here, let’s focus on focus a bit more.

Of all the things that feel like a magic trick in my professional life, answering to a group or an individual the question “what’s the most important thing for you to be working on” is my number one. Dysfunctional groups aren’t dysfunctional because it’s a ton of fun to be in a dysfunctional group (it’s not), it’s usually happening because people passionately and with dedication pursue different, and in a good number of cases, incompatible goals. The problem in those cases is not how software is built, or how the rituals are organised, it’s that the most important question has not been asked or answered: What is the most important thing to focus on.

Teams are remarkably adaptable, at least if there is some healthy fabric that keeps the substance alive. I stopped counting the situations in which this ounce of clarity transformed a hopelessly lost group into a delivering powerhouse. And make no mistake, there’s something self-sustaining there. The moment a group recognises that it is able to make progress towards that mythical most important thing, the faster they sometimes get. There’s joy in recognising that you’re having an effect, and that actions lead to tangible outcomes. It’s common sense that’s wildly uncommon, unfortunately.

There’s a place for ambiguity, for dealing with situations where there’s no clear guidelines on how to make the best decision or how to move forward. Doing two things because you can’t decide for one is probably the worst thing you can do. Just decide, switch on that laser beam and focus on getting the next thing out of the door.

This is, of course, a simplification of the real world. Most teams face a perpetual dilemma of having to work on the technical foundations, spending time on incidents, rituals and also finding space to do some actual feature development. This is where engineering management needs to provide the space to focus on what’s really relevant, while not focusing on a bunch of interesting stuff that’s of little value. If we know what the most important thing is, everything else is just

Not that important.

500 words

I used to have a habit of wrapping up my day by writing 500 words. As it happens with habits, I dropped that one and got a bunch of others in its place. Looking back, I feel the 500 words helped me to reflect on the matters of the day, or to conclude or continue some thoughts on the more long-running insights.

The fantastic thing about writing is that it can be a purely unidirectional process – from thought to words, and that’s pretty much it. There’s freedom in just writing, without applying too much polishing, massaging or tuning to the final result. It’s probably the same difference between authentic conversation, that is just happening in the moment, and a rehearsed speech or presentation. Both have their time and place.

One thing that “corporate” did to me is to make me careful – careful in how to phrase ideas, which words to use, which words to avoid and so on. That’s a good thing, being professional is not a bad thing, and neither are healthy filters. When it comes to my own writing, I found and find that limiting. But it’s super hard to shut down a routine and an inner janitor that is carefully checking every message during working hours just to have some more freedom when writing outside of those. Well, here I am trying, and probably oversharing a little in the process.

The best piece of advice I ever got in regards to writing was to just write. Not to do reviews in the process, not to do editing after every sentence. I’ll take it a little further, and I won’t fix anything but typos in this. Let’s see where it goes, let’s see where it takes me. Incidentally, it really is super comparable to being “in the zone” when writing code. Not every line of code in itself has to be art, what counts is that the final result does what it’s supposed to do.

For code, that’s probably something like solving a problem or implementing a function or whatever. For written things it’s the gist, the meaning, that has to be transported. And maybe it’s an overly pragmatic and limited viewpoint, but not every word matters in that regard – as long as the message makes it from a to b.

Writing starts to suck, at least my own, when my thoughts take a detour on the meta level. That is, when it’s no longer about the content or the message, but more about the style of writing or some other self-filtering that’s getting ready to self-apply. And while that can be useful, on a certain level, for the most part, it’s just very much limiting. So please excuse the occasional slip-up as I’m trying to work around my inner north-korean thought police.

If you’re wondering what I’ll be writing about – I do have the same question. I guess we’ll find out along the journey, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me (and you, whoever that is.)

But I can guarantee it’s gonna be around 500 words each time.

Reboot

There's never a better time for a change than now. In that sense I decided it's about time to clean up my blog posts, only leaving some of the more recent ones around. The old blog content was certainly fun – but I have to be mindful it's also from an entirely different episode in my personal and professional live. I don't think it's relevant anymore.

Off to new beginnings.