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Building Impact Through Essentialism

Erica Stanley
Engineering Manager

New and experienced engineering leaders can struggle with understanding how to drive impact on our teams. Whether we’re individual contributors or managers, the more we grow, the more responsibilities we collect. Inevitably, we find ourselves with more responsibilities than time or resources. We might fall into the trap of trying to get it all done—with our teams, personal productivity, and even our health possibly suffering in the process. Perhaps the way to build impact isn’t doing all the things, but doing the right things. This is essentialism in a nutshell. We’ll discuss ways essentialism can help us become better leaders and ensure our teams are working with clarity and purpose.

We're going to talk a little bit about building impact through essentialism.

Okay. A problem. And I wonder if anyone here can, right. I have a lot of interest and things I'm passionate about. I also have a tendency to say yes to nearly everything without thinking much about the cost of my time, energy and wellbeing. That's why footage of me saying yes to something you asked me to do.

The last seven years of my career have been marked by an inclination to do all the things or at least. It started with a year of yes. That as I look back, maybe never ended. Let's just say, I know firsthand how seven years of yes. Can wreak havoc on one's personal life. In that time, I started doing lots of things.

I would never have even tried without pushing myself. I started the Atlanta network of women who code. I started getting more involved in the tech and startup committee. Speaking at meetups and eventually conferences and mentoring at hack-a-thons and incubators. And while I wouldn't trade it, because it definitely changed the course of my career.

I often joke that you should follow a year of yes. With at least two years of no,

the problem as I hinted to earlier is that I didn't really commit to the year of no, I just kept taking on more responsible. And for a time that was okay for a time. I was able to manage everything, but I was starting to feel frustrated and felt that I couldn't give any one thing. All of my attention, the breaking point came after.

I decided to make some changes to my career. I mentioned feeling like I couldn't give my full attention to any one thing. And that I felt my impact was starting to become diluted. My career was also mirroring. I found myself in an increasingly hybrid role, one part lead engineer, one part engineering manager, and one part dev ops and much like the feeling I was experiencing in other aspects of my life of being pulled in too many directions.

I also felt this hybrid role in this meant that I couldn't give any portion of that role. The time and energy needed to make the kind of impact. So I decided to move into a role where I could focus on engineering management. Full-time so problem solve, right? No there was still a problem. I was still heavily involved with all the day-to-day activities for women who code.

I was speaking internationally now and just generally a lot more than I had been before. And after a successful women focused regional hackathon with a pre hackathon day of workshops that I kept telling everybody, this is not a conference. They're like, Erica, that looks a lot like a conference. We were convinced to transform it into a multi-day conference, women in tech conference call.

Into my new job. But I wasn't just starting a new job. What I didn't realize is that I was taking on a completely different discipline, something that was different from anything I had done for the previous 17 years of my life as an engineer. And I was doing this at a fast growing, ever evolving startup.

So things started out great. Our VP of engineering had been managing the UI director, the QA director, all of the architects and all of the full stack software engineers. So he was very happy to have me as the first software engineering manager. I took on all of his software engineering reports and eventually a few from an architect that was now very sure that he wanted to stay an individual contributor for the foreseeable.

Eager to help and make an impact early I've volunteered for every initiative that came up in any engineering management meeting, I was gradually assigned my first product delivery team and things were still going, okay, this is fine, but things were starting to fall between the cracks, especially when.

But by the time conference planning hit full force, I was nearly a zombie. I was sacrificing sleep to get all of the work done and the days were actually starting to run together. My performance at work was also starting to suffer. So my manager and I had a series of hard conversations. And during one of them, he suggested, I read a book called essentialism by Greg.

But of course I put it off because I was waist deep and all the things I had to do. And so during the very next quarterly review, without any prompting, it's like, he knew I didn't read the book. He asked why I hadn't read the book and I let him know that I just had not found the time. And he quit that.

Ironically, if I had read the book, I might've found time to invest in important things like personally. He said it in a little bit more of a snarky way than I just said it, but it's okay. We're a snarky bunch. So I decided to read the book is only to temporarily escape the snark and a few sentences into the first chapter.

I realized my manager had been absolutely. I was spreading myself way too thin by trying to do all the things, instead of making a strong impact by doing only the right things. This is the hallmark of a centralism less but better.

And so you can look at any of these principles and kind of start to see a trend choice as an action. So your want to make intentional decisions about what you choose to do. You have to also realize that most of the things we encountered it. Yeah. Is noise. And so you have to understand that most of those things are not where you can be making your highest contribution.

You have to understand the reality of trade-offs because we run into so many different things in a day. And because most of that is noise. You can't possibly do all of the things, no matter how hard you try. And so you have to understand that you have to make trade offs in order to get the right kinds of things done.

The concept of living by design, not by default. Something that I've learned in my life is that if you don't prioritize your life, someone else. And then you want to focus on getting the right things done. So you really have to analyze the things that you're interested in and determine what are the right things.

What's the right next thing to do. And you want to break things up into smaller pieces instead of trying to attack something something huge and celebrate the small wins. And then you want to understand that you don't. Become one does not just become an essential list. This is an ongoing process. You are going to have to get better and better at this and continue to ask the right kinds of questions to get at the right things.

And so the first part of this process is that you want to identify the vital few and separate that from the noise. Then you want to eliminate and cut out any trivia. And once you've done that, you want to execute on that vital few and make those things effortless to do. I've already seen quite a few benefits in my life from having a clearly defined path to very impactful result results so that I'm not seeing a lot of that busy work that was distracting me from getting the impact I wanted earlier.

I'm working with purpose now I'm working on the things that really matter to me that I'm passionate. And because I can see this, this very clear path to impactful results. And I'm working on the kinds of things that the energy to energize me and that I'm passionate about. This has prevented and reduced the burnout.

I was feeling earlier when I was trying to do everything.

So while I am still very much a work in progress, when it comes to essential ism, I have started applying some of the principles to various parts of my life. I'm still involved with a lot of the same things, but I've tried to tailor my involvement to the areas where I really want to make an impact. I'm less involved with every day to day activity of women who called Atlanta.

We now have two directors besides myself and a team of 20 or so leads. I no longer have to attend and plan every detail of everything. We evolved. We rise into refactor. So there's still a conference, but we've spread the work out a little bit better. I'm not the only one reaching out to speakers and sponsors.

Just the ones where I have uniquely the right where I'm in uniquely the right person to communicate with them. We've also automated a lot of the smaller details away. I still speak at conferences obviously, but I'm more selective about the talks I give and the conferences. I don't blindly accept the invites that I get.

I'm still an engineering manager at SalesLoft. Somehow my manager decided to keep me, I have nine reports down from 12 initially, and I have two delivery teams. So that sounds like a lot. It kind of is, but I don't raise my hand for every initiative. Just the ones that I'm super passionate about. I'm currently working on revamping our strategy around junior software engineers for them.

So now we're going to talk about how we can build essential ism into our processes. Let's walk through the process of applying the principles to our jobs as engineering leaders. Remember you first want to explore it, to find the area where you can make the most impact. Then I would say you want to break that down even further and determine what's essential to building the kind of impact that you.

You want to develop a muscle for saying no to everything else, eliminate everything else. Think of as not an obvious. Yes, then it's a no. And then you want to execute on only those vital few things that are necessary to build the impact in your chosen area. So how many of us have engineers that report directly?

The whole room. Okay. So let's explore it. The waste essentialism can help them and how we can help them apply essential as principles to their, to their day to day. First, let's look at some of the benefits of essential ism for engineers, because you're focused on the vital things and not everything that gets thrown in.

You. There will be less context switching and without distractions, you'll start to notice clear, defined progress towards your goals. If you apply essential ism directly to coding, you should be writing in small verifiable bites. Each block of code should do the right thing, not dozens of things, making it more testable and less error prone.

And because you're celebrating the small wins and committing early and often, no more 3000 line PRS. You may also feel a higher sense of ownership, motivation, and engagement, because you're working only on the things that are most impactful and that you can see a direct line to your work and the company's success.

And as a result of all the impact that you're building, you might be called on to move to senior roles where you can have even more impact, and this might help you build your, your career.

So, let me tell you about a story from a one-on-one and during this one-on-one with an engineer, let's call them Zoe. They explained how overwhelmed they are and that there's just too much going on. Now. Zoe is an amazing tech lead with a tendency to jump on issues. As soon as they arise for the good of the team, we talked about how they could bring these issues to the team and bring more visibility into their work.

That way we could help them determine the vital few from the noise. We also discussed the Eisenhower matrix as a way to determine the absolute right work for them to take on the work that would allow them to make their highest contribution.

At another one-on-one I talked with the engineer, let's call her Jordan who had recently been promoted from our support engineering role, which is our former junior engineering role to software engineer. As a result, she wants to take on anything and everything in an effort to prove herself and to rise through the ranks.

She had a tendency to set, to have several Jair stories in progress. At one time, her goal was to knock them out as quickly as possible, but she was losing sight of quality as the even more important goal. All of her stories were getting backed up in QA. This made her work unpredictable and unreliable. We came up with a plan to help.

Our focus on quality is celebrate the small wins by actively communicating with QA before starting on a story. So she knew exactly what she was building towards and waiting to pick up a new story until the previous one passed QA. We had like a little celebration every time she had something that didn't go through QA remediation.

Let's talk about the ways a centralism can help engineering.

Essential ism can help you build trust with your team. When I was doing my best to take on everything, I was a knowingly eroding the trust. I had built up with my team because I wasn't in control of the things that might fall between the cracks. They couldn't trust that I would get the right things done, being intentional about the things I do or don't take on, has built that trust back up over time.

And that trust is essential to building high performance. As sales off the five dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni has become something of a cultural Bible at the company. Practicing essential ism can help turn these five dysfunctions into the five functions of a high performing team by maintaining hyper-focus on the areas.

Most important to team health

essential ism can also help shorten the feedback loop of yeah. Sarah Drasner and engineering leader. I have tons of admiration for recently commented on Twitter about the long feedback cycles, inherit to management. As compared to development, applying the centralism can shorten the path to progress and get results necessary to complete that feedback loop even quicker.

So you can get that feedback and make things better, much quicker than you could. If you were trying to do everything all at one time.

Let's talk about the ways our teams can benefit from a centralism. One of the big benefits of a centralism 14. Clarity amongst the whole team, because you are hyper-focused on the vision for that team. You can communicate it much more clearly to the team. And because of that, they have a stronger tie to the work that they do day to day.

And the goals of the company, there's less roadmap thrashing because you've decided as a team, what is the most important thing that the team can be working on to make the highest contribution to the company? This also cuts back on context switching, which is a individual and teamwork. And the team because they have this, this really great understanding of the vision and how their work ties to the larger goals.

You have the shared ownership and collaboration among the team. Also, essentially, as it makes it easier to identify and resolve impediments because you can more easily determine what things are. Distractions, distractions are easily identified, you can solve for your slowest camper. So this is actually an analogy from the book that talks about how can you make something more efficient if you are a scout leader, for instance, and you want to make sure that the whole.

Camp reaches the area that they need to reach at the same time. And so instead of having maybe your fastest camper out in front, you actually put your slowest camper in front. So you're optimizing for that slowest camper and everybody is moving at the speed of that camper. So you can identify that thing that is slowing your team down the most and be hyper-focused on that so that you can remove that as an impediment, dependencies are easily revealed and tracked much earlier in the development.

And you can have a much more productive heads down time when you do get his downtime, you can even have scheduled his downtime. So we do something where we have no meetings week at work, where we remove all, but the most essential meetings for a team. And then you can also have team off-sites where the team gets to focus on the things that they have deemed essential.

Now, I have to say that the schedule has downtime really only works when you have that team clarity. So that everybody understands their role in the.

Another thing that comes with the centralism is having some buffer time. So not having the team constantly committed to feature development means the team can set aside the time to work on things important to the engineering organization. Things like stability and quality and performance. You can have featured scheduled feature development.

Where you might have a quality quarter where instead of working on product development features, you can work on building up the quality and the application. We also have something called engineering weeks, which we combined with that no meetings week, which is pretty much like an engineering wide hackathon.

And there's so many amazing things that come out of that because they got the heads down time. They needed to build something very awesome. There's several things that come out of engineering week that make it into that. And then you give an individual engineer time to focus on their personal and professional development.

As we learn to apply essential ism to coaching individual contributors, our work as engineering leaders and our work on teams, we'll start to get a better understanding of the questions we should ask ourselves at each step of the work process. What areas should we focus on to make our highest contribution?

The area of greatest. What's essential to bring about that impact. What can we eliminate from the noise so that we can be hyper-focused on the essential, how can we make executing these central work? Effortless. Thank you. Do you have any questions?

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.