management Posts

Touring the Breakfast Factory: Thoughts on High Output Management

by phildini on January 10, 2019

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently moved from being a Senior Software Engineer to a Team Lead. I’m fortunate to have received the advice early in my career that moving to management is less a promotion and more starting a new job; I immediately started looking for information on how to get better at this new job, fast. 

I am doubly fortunate to know Jacob Kaplan-Moss, and to have come across his reading list for new engineering managers last year. As soon as I knew that I was heading towards a management path, I bought every book on his list, including Andrew S. Grove’s High Output Management.

One of my winter break goals was to get through as many books as possible, and High Output Management was at the top of the stack. As soon as I started reading it, I understood why it’s so highly recommended in management circles: it’s the best book on managing teams of people that I’ve read so far. It’s so good, in fact, that some of the best ideas in it seemed obvious to me.The ideas seem obvious because every company I’ve worked for has implemented some part of Grove’s ideas about management. They seem obvious because I have the advantage of living in a world that has had High Output Management in it for the past 30 years.

Take the idea of metrics and outcomes guiding a team. Every company I’ve worked for, especially in tech, has every team or department within it tracking metrics that get reported up the chain on a regular basis. As an engineer, this obsession with team metrics and trying to improve them can seem like a waste of time. “We feel good about the things we’re working on, why do we have to spend so much time quantifying them?” 

The answer to this comes almost immediately in High Output Management: Every team is a black box to everyone not on the team, and the only way to know if a team is successful or not is to check the team’s metrics or see what they’ve shipped (which is itself another kind of metric). Thinking about metrics and outcomes in this way permanently changed my approach to teams. I started immediately looking at my team’s reporting metrics not as some arbitrary goal to hit, but as the only measure of the team’s health that most of the rest of the company would see.

Once you start thinking about metrics and outcomes in this way, if you’re like me you’re driven to make sure the metrics are real for your team. “Real” here means that the metrics actually line up with what the team AND the company care about, that your team can do something to affect the metrics, and that the members of the team are bought in to what the metrics represent. That last bit is especially crucial. Once your team knows why the metrics are important and agrees on what they should be, they can start making suggestions for how to improve them that might be better than the planned workstreams.

Speaking of outcomes and ideas that were popularized by High Output Management, let’s talk about OKRs. OKRs are an instance of the endless acronym parade that permeates Silicon Valley, and this one stands for “Objectives and Key Results”. Grove introduces this in talking about “management by objectives” (MBO, hooray another acronym), which is how every team I think I’ve ever been on has been managed without my ever knowing the term. “Objectives and Key Results” is an unfortunately jargon-heavy way to express an idea that I actually love, namely “Here’s where we think we’re going, and here’s how we’ll know if we’re going in the right direction.”

A trivial example. Say I want to get from my house in Alameda to my favorite taco place in Oakland, Xolo. “Get to Xolo” is my objective. There’s a myriad of ways I could check how close I am, and each one of those is a potential key result. I could carefully measure the odometer (metrics based), or I could know that I’m about a quarter of the way there when I hit the dog park, halfway there when I hit the tunnel, and roughly three-quarters of the way there when I turn on 12th st (milestone based). Take this simple idea and expand it to what your team or company cares about, and hopefully some of the chaos of running a team doesn’t just get a little bit clearer.

“Making things clearer over time” could be a subtitle for the book, in fact. Grove lays out his material in such a way that every chapter has at least one idea I found immediately useful, although the later chapters on performance evaluation and especially hiring feel a touch outdated. This is the disadvantage of reading such a seminal book 30 years after it’s publication -- Grove’s ideas were so good we adopted many of them and kept iterating!

After reading High Output Management, I’m doubly indebted to Jacob KM and the others who recommended it to me. Once, because it gave me more tools in my management toolbox. Twice, because I know have an iron-clad recommendation for anyone who asks “what books should I read about being a manager?”. Grove’s book is near the top of that list.

Have you read High Output Management? Think I’m wrong in some of my thinking on it, or want to talk about strategies from the book that worked for you? Drop a note in the comments.

Senior Engineer -> Team Lead

by phildini on January 1, 2019

In November, I was promoted from Senior Software Engineer to Team Lead. As of right now, I lead the Platform team at Patreon, and have three software engineers who report to me. I want to talk about how I realized this was something I wanted, how I made this happen for me, and why I’m excited about it. 

First, how did I think this was something I wanted? It’s helpful to know that I am mercilessly driven by the idea of impact. At least once a week, and sometimes multiple times a day, I ask myself these questions: “Am I working on the highest-impact thing I could be working on? If not, why not?” Being impact-driven (which dovetails nicely with being outcomes-driven for devotees of that brand of organizational thinking) means that I’m always looking to increase my impact, and especially looking for tools that will give me more leverage.

For the kind of impact I want to have, the impact to shape customers’ experiences and shape the paths of teams and shape the careers of individuals, the tools available to managers and team leaders are more impactful than the tools available to engineers. Now, I expect some disagreement to that statement, and I welcome discussion in the comments. For the goals I care about, the tools of a manager are higher impact than the tools of an engineer.

How did I make this happen for me? I saw an opportunity, and I pushed for it. That sentence masks a truly monumental amount of privilege, and luck, institutional biases that I think about a lot. Would a non-white, non-dude have been as successful in their push? What institutional biases might have kept those around me from pushing? So, there’s a lot hidden that I would love to go into in another post when I say: “I saw an opportunity, and I pushed for it.”

What opportunity? Well, Patreon is constantly working on becoming a more lean, more agile shop. As a result, in the Summer of this year an Engineering Director was leading the Platform team, at a critical time in the Platform team’s history. We were in the middle of trying to launch the Reddit integration, our Product Manager was on his way out to work full-time on being an author, and we had just hired a new grad engineer. I saw that there was an opportunity for a strong leader to step forward, so I did. What followed was a month and a half of me talking to peers, managers, directors, VPs, and HR folk, to see how feasible this was. I ended up writing my own job description for role that I now occupy, and then vetting that job description in another round with the people I listed above. I began pushing in late September, and in early November my transition to Team Lead become official.

As an aside, why “Team Lead” and not “Engineering Manager”? For one, I’m still doing some engineering work, on the order of 40% of my time. This doesn’t mean “I’m coding 40% of my time” but it does mean I’m doing “Senior Engineer” things with 40% of my time, and “Team Lead” things with the other 60%. I’m also Team Lead for the team I was a Senior Software Engineer on, the Platform team at Patreon, and as a result my number of direct reports is fairly small compared to other Engineering Managers at Patreon.

This is probably obvious since I said above that I wrote the job description, but I am the first and so far only Team Lead at Patreon. There are others who I think would be great at the role, and this is one of the reasons I’m excited about it: Team Lead hopefully gives engineers a chance to explore management without “closing the door” on returning to engineering.

Why am I so excited? At the root is how much I am excited about Patreon, and especially my team at Patreon, and what I think the Platform team is capable of. I’d also be lying by omission if I didn’t mention a few other things: I’m excited by the challenges that management presents, and how different they are from engineering. I’m excited to learn about a whole new discipline of work that has so much impact on engineering, but is not strictly engineering. I’m excited to gain a new lens through which to see the world.

I also really hope I don’t fuck it up. I want to do right by myself, my reports, and the company, in roughly that order. If I’m not doing right by me, I can’t be an effective leader or example. If I’m not doing right by my reports, then my team as a whole suffers, and my measured output as a manager crumbles. If my team is unhappy or unproductive, then the company will as a whole will suffer. The challenge of having to manage the stack of responsibilities, of having to coordinate conflicting demands, of figuring out how to build a team while meeting the needs of each person on the team is a challenge that I’m exceptionally excited about.

Want to know more? Want to challenge me on my thinking or ask questions about how I got here? Leave a comment below or ping me on mastodon at @[email protected].