they know

Note: I was not sure if I should publish this post, because it very much feels like i'm putting folks in too broad categories - I'm not, it's one of the many mental models I use at work, when leading teams. I'm writing this with many grains of salt, and I'd ask you to read it with just as many.

Back when I was doing consulting I learned how to quickly join and onboard to new teams. When you're joining new gigs with a certain regularity, it makes sense to get good at that.

I want to believe that I'm still good at that. But since I'm no longer an IC, but mostly active in a leading role, I'm trying to leverage what I learned in a different context to help me do what I am doing now. What did I learn?

There's roughly three types of activities you can do in a software engineering team:

  • Work
  • Talk about Work
  • Anything else

Step one in the onboarding game is to identify folks who're clearly in category one - the doers. Luckily, there's few fields where things can be as easily quantified as in IT, so I usually just start to look for artefacts of work. That can be code contributions, documentation, concepts, really anything that would count as "result of real work".

To the folks reading this saying well, but what about the people who almost exclusively elevate other folks. That's a thing in certain teams and certain organisations, but it's relatively easy to pick up on that dynamic early in the team. And still, how good can you be in elevating folks if you're not really getting your hands dirty every once in a while yourself?

You want to speak and interact most with the people who actually know how the sausage is made. No translation layers, no middle men, just get the message straight from those folks who get the job done.

Now, finding the people who mostly just talk about the work is relatively easy - they'll put in a genuine effort to share whatever their messaging is to you without needing a specific prompt. I can't recall a single team where we didn't have at least one belonging to that group, and they're interesting. Talking is of course absolutely crucial for every time, but it needs to be in balance with, well, actual work. There's roles were the work is talking and discussing and aligning and solving conflicts and making decisions in groups and whatnot, but most regular engineering folks shouldn't have to sit in meetings all day to talk about what they are doing. To me, that's mostly a dysfunction, and one that can be harmless, or one that is an actual problem. Very much depends on the team and wider organisation.

The third kind is weird, but they definitely exist. Folks with little to no constructive output that are kind of just present in teams without really contributing. The problem is that bored folks can wreak havoc in any place, so those need to be watched.

Once those buckets are, somewhat, established (and reality is, of course, far more nuanced), I put in a ton of effort to actually listen to the folks getting most of the work done. Directly, in 1:1 conversations. And one thing I learned there is that surprisingly, they know. They know if the architecture is shit, they know if they're building the wrong thing, they know what a good refactoring would be - it's just that, too often, no one bothers to ask. And no one bothers to listen. You can save the money you'd spent on cloud consultants and simply hang out more with your engineers. They'll tell you pretty much what you need to hear – but you need to actively listen to that.

Do not listen too much to the people who've got nothing to do or those that anyway never stop talking. Listen to the builders. They know.