Preparing Engineering Managers for the Future of Work

Last month, Stack Overflow released its yearly Developer Survey, which witnessed participation from over 64,000 developers hailing from different parts of the world. A notable discovery from the survey was the extensive inclination towards remote work, with 64% of developers acknowledging that they work from a remote location at least monthly, and 11% working remotely full time. The survey also revealed that when weighing their job preferences, developers prioritised “remote options” as a key factor, ranking it second only to the number of vacation days being offered. This highlights the significant appeal of the remote work option among potential employees.

As developers are laying the groundwork for the future, it seems evident that remote work will eventually become the dominant employment arrangement. The restrictive nature of current labour laws and the scarcity of technical professionals in the United States further reinforces this perception. This implies that the distributed working culture of the future may arrive sooner than expected.

For implementing a distributed work model to be successful, there must be meticulous planning that goes beyond just integrating remote employees into a digital workspace. IT companies must fully embrace this approach if they wish to enjoy its full benefits. Although the transition may be difficult at first, investing in strategies and systems to promote communication and collaboration will ultimately pay off in the long term.

For the past six months, I have had the honour of serving as the Vice President of Technology at Works. During this time, I have overseen a team of nearly forty professionals, based in Asia and New York, in the development of essential infrastructure, software and procedures that would facilitate the efficiency and scalability of remote teams. This is expected to result in a surge in Works’ employee count from the current 500 to exceeding 100,000 by the next decade.

The introduction of Github and pull requests has been a revolutionary milestone in enabling remote engineering teams to disconnect the development of their work from its integration. However, the challenge going forward is to take this concept a step further and establish a pull request system that is appropriate for the team’s business context. Can our vast workforce of engineers and operations associates, spread across different time zones, confidently submit their requests, utilise continuous integration and be assured of delivering progress on a daily basis?

In spite of the obstacles we encounter, we retain our optimism that we will overcome them. In the forthcoming three blog posts, I will be delving into the following topics: nurturing the growth of individuals in a distributed setting; expanding teams scattered across different locations as our business progresses rapidly; and establishing effective systems and processes for remote teams. Stay tuned for more updates!


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Chapter One: Building Systems and Controls for Distributed Teams

In a distributed work setting, the effectiveness of the process is critical to the achievement of the end product. Regrettably, very few teams, particularly those in the startup ecosystem, have comprehensive processes established. This is because in this industry, changes occur at a fast pace, making it challenging to depend on the same time-proven procedures for extended periods of time.

Emphasis Is On Outcomes Alone

Regardless of whether a company is functioning with a partially distributed structure, with some employees working remotely, or with a fully distributed structure, with all employees working remotely, there is no universally applicable strategy for efficiently managing a dispersed workforce. Automatic, for instance, is a billion-dollar-valued enterprise with around 400 employees working from different parts of the world, where they are comfortable working from.

One crucial differentiating factor between companies like Works that have adopted distributed processes from their inception and others attempting to shift to a distributed model on their 500th day in operation is the challenge of adapting existing practices to suit remote work settings. Though face-to-face interactions can be beneficial, they are often unavailable. Therefore, it is imperative for businesses to establish distinct and streamlined protocols that facilitate effective communication among all stakeholders.

As managers switch to a remote working setup, they must acknowledge the limitations of asynchronous communication and be willing to delegate more power and accountability to their team members. This transfer of authority permits fewer iterations of problem-solving conversations, while still giving team members the ability to progress with projects without experiencing setbacks. In the end, this adjustment of authority is essential in guaranteeing the triumph of a remote work model.

To evaluate the performance of individual engineers and teams effectively, a measurement framework that all stakeholders concur with must be designed. This framework should specify the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will measure the level of success. To streamline this process, it is advisable to divide the task into smaller, more manageable fragments. At the end of each week, a single figure representing the performance of each engineer and team can be calculated. This enables an objective appraisal of each group’s performance and appropriate allocation of resources and time.

Once you select a metric and establish a benchmark, you release the team and monitor the outcomes.

It is important to understand that these benchmarks are not static and may change as you progress. This is not a criticism but rather a means of acknowledging areas for improvement and determining how future evaluations can be enhanced. You may feel like you are relinquishing some control, however, if the outcomes are commendable, then there is no need to be overly concerned.

Distinguishing Signal from Background Noise

Remote work brings forth a specific set of challenges, particularly in regards to efficient communication. When the sole means of communicating with colleagues is through digital platforms such as email, Slack, and Google Hangouts, it becomes tough to differentiate between significant messages that need immediate attention and those that are just fleeting thoughts. This “struggle between signal and noise” can result in misunderstandings, miscommunications, and annoyance, making it challenging for both employees and employers to send clear and timely messages.

In a distributed work setting, the lack of background noise can make it challenging to discern the importance of a message. Building a rapport with a colleague by participating in casual talks and activities is an effective method of acquiring knowledge about their preferences and expectations so communication can be customised appropriately.

Due to the various communication platforms that remote teams often use, such as Github, Trello, Slack, and Google Docs, it can be challenging for them to stay organised and keep up with the large volume of data that is shared. Without a centralised knowledge repository, searching for and utilising information can become time-consuming and difficult, which can create additional pressure on communication.

As a remote manager, it is crucial to ensure that communication is efficient and that incoming support queries are directed to the appropriate person. To achieve this, it is necessary to establish systems that capture feedback and translate it into actionable insights. For instance, Github provides a communal space for the team to communicate and address issues. Utilising Trello simplifies the process of addressing an issue by collating various information. Conducting regular retrospectives and accurately documenting them on Google Docs is an effective way to ensure that all opinions are taken into account and to collaboratively tackle systemic issues.

In a world overflowing with information, it’s crucial to focus on the messages that hold significance.

The Challenge of Excess Free Time and Its Solution

The volume of communication that occurs on Slack is staggering. While I am a staunch advocate of Slack and our company employs the platform to the fullest extent, it’s important to remember that it’s only a tool, and its misguided use can have negative consequences.

Note: Hyperlinked the phrase “amount of communication that takes place” to our blog post titled “IT’s 6 Most Important Roles in Business”.

In a worst-case scenario, Slack can devolve into an unproductive “meeting” without a specified agenda or progress on action items. However, it’s possible to utilise this asynchronous communication technology in more advantageous ways. For example, using chat to discourage speaking behind someone’s back or having a private conversation. Additionally, ChatOps can be an effective approach to software development by employing bots to keep the team informed on progress and deployments during the process.

To accomplish the desired results, it’s crucial to create a culture and establish a set of principles that will encourage the best possible utilisation of the appropriate tools. Slack is an excellent tool for the early stages of the creative process, such as brainstorming, but for a final product, it’s necessary to have a secure place where it can be addressed and resolved.

For optimal efficiency when working with Slack, it’s advisable to transfer conversations from private messages to public channels. A reliable method of determining the success of an engineering team is to look at the number of bugs reported and resolved within a specific timeframe. Hence, it’s crucial to expose these issues right away and break them down into smaller components so they can be addressed as soon as possible.

Collaboration is an invaluable asset when it comes to finding solutions to any problem. By addressing issues in public channels, we can achieve resolutions more swiftly. Additionally, a larger group of individuals can participate in the process, enabling greater feedback. It’s worth noting that problems that are kept hidden often worsen and take more time to solve. Therefore, working together is a fantastic approach to ensure that issues are resolved promptly.

It may not be as simple as initially anticipated to effectively establish and manage channels in a large corporation, such as Works, with over 500 employees. We’re still in the early phases of comprehending how to build these communities and how to utilise key performance indicators to guide our staff in refining their chat behaviours.

To summarise, efficient procedures are crucial for the triumph of distributed teams. To achieve high-quality results, it’s important to prioritise tasks, choose a suitable data repository, and guarantee that any issues that arise are promptly addressed by the team. In my next post, I’ll examine more deeply the unique obstacles associated with training and mentoring remote teams.

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