SF Engineering Leadership Annual 2022

I had the good fortune of attending the San Francisco Engineering Leadership Community 2022 Annual conference, their first since the start of the COVID19 Pandemic. The event took place over 2 days at Fort Mason in San Francisco, had about a dozen vendors with booths, three “keynote” spaces and a handful of tables for smaller group conversations. In this blog post I’ll summarize some of my observations and learning from the two days:

Management Tips

Build & Staff Teams by Business Priority

Most companies will naturally devote time and energy to teams proportionate to their size. If you have six engineers divided into two teams of three, then it’s natural for each team to get roughly similar energy and attention across the business, even if one of the team is working on a problem that is meaningfully higher impact to the business. Be careful to design teams and team sizes to match business value, or to explicitly devote more energy to the higher impact groups.

Dev Experience is a Major Trend

Most successful tech organizations (Netflix, Google, Facebook, Slack etc.) spend at least 10% of all tech resources on developer experience and tools.

High Performing Teams

The Story Points fad is dead — every leader I spoke to or polled, about 20 in all, agreed that measuring and optimizing for velocity via story points (or similar) is not productive.

One way to identify high(est) performing teams: The 360 Team NPS Score. You survey other teams throughout the organization and have them take an NPS survey for your various engineering teams. You then ask each team to do an internal NPS score (commonly called an eNPS). If both the external and internal NPS scores come back good, meaning that other teams perceive the team as high performing, and the team internally is happy, then you’ve probably got a high performing team.

Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal was referenced a few times, great book. In general there was a lot of focus on the impact of leadership empowering their teams; creating high stakes and strong mission alignment.

Remote Work

Remote is hardest on junior employees.  It’s hard for them to get interrupt driven help and mentorship.  Some common solutions include hybrid work (teams get together in person at least once a week), hiring fewer Juniors, ramping up juniors in person before going to distributed/remote.

Internal Q&A sites sound good on paper but don’t take off. Any manager I spoke to about Stack Overflow for teams (or Gleen or Threads) that said they tried it said it failed to catch on. 

Slack conversation is for ephemeral content. Identifying and porting knowledge from Slack to a wiki is a lossy process, nobody identified any robust or reliable processes other than “keep encouraging everyone to use the wiki.”

In hybrid organizations all in person employees should join remote meetings independently. This was widely agreed upon as the only way to ensure a productive hybrid meeting. 

Donuts have been medium successful at other remote teams. They’re better than nothing but not a silver bullet to creating serendipity and social connection.

I asked a focus group of 15 other engineering leaders what kind of team they think they’ll be managing in 10-15 years, 100% of hands went up for remote, 0% for in person.

Idea for minimizing “unread Slack channel anxiety” — denote some Slack channels as special and required reading, have people star those channels during on boarding.  Then post infrequent but important updates there.  Everything else should be assumed to be ephemeral

DORA Metrics

DORA Metrics are four metrics designed to measure the speed and quality of an engineering team. Sleuth, a company that measures DORA metrics, was at the conference and happy to espouse the benefits of continuous deployment.

Interestingly, at an earlier round-table in the day discussing high performing teams I asked how many other managers were tracking these metrics, and of about 15 people none indicated they were familiar with DORA metrics. Everyone knew what continuous deployment was though and universal sentiment was it is A Good Thing to strive for.

Memorable Quotes

“You can’t a/b test organizational changes or management decisions, especially in a growing organization”

“Don’t look back, you’re not going that way” — thinking about careers

“Tools dictate your process, your process informs your culture, your culture guides tool choice.”

Misc. Conference Tips

Small Groups are Key

In general the larger talks I found to be, on the whole, lower value than the small group conversations. That’s not to say they were of no value, it was nice to hear directly from some folks who have done very respectable things talk about their journey and get a sense of who they are as people. VP of Engineering at Vercel Lindsey Simon, in particular, has a great sense of humor and I found to be a very engaging speaker. The small groups, though, were considerably more thought provoking and is where I spent most of my time.

Being Curious is Key

On two occasions I went out of my way to be empathetic or curious with vendors at the conference. The first was an engineer asking some hard hitting questions to a sales rep of some SaaS software. They were fair questions, but to me it was clear the sales person was out of their technical depth and not able to produce a satisfying answer. After listening for a minute or so I took an educated guess as to what the questioner might be looking for, throwing a bone to the sales person and letting them off the hook for that line of questioning. Needless to say he was very thankful and we had an extended and honest conversation both about his product and the world of selling SaaS thereafter.

Not long thereafter I met the founder of Metaview.ai. He, as the curious customer-focused founder he is, started asking me about my company and interview process. I gave him the rundown, and then started to get very curious about his business. What motivated him to solve this problem, how does he think about interviews, how to provide fair/consistent interview experiences, philosophy on training teams to hire etc. We got into it for a good few minutes and I must have made a good impression as he forwarded me an invitation to a dinner his company was curating that evening. I graciously accepted and that dinner turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Fun / Random Knowledge

All the sounds in Slack came from their first idea that they pivoted from: building a video game

Vercel is pronounced ver-sell not versil


Jon Hansley, CEO of Emerge, a product consultancy in Oregon, discussing Alignment
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