Key Takeaways & Thoughts on Data in Leadership, Tech Strategy and the Human side of Engineering from YOW! Tech Leaders Summit 2023
At the beginning of September, YOW! ran their Tech Leaders Summit in Melbourne – a 1-day conference gathering leaders in tech across Australia spanning from Tech Leads, Engineering Managers, Project & Program Managers, C-Suite and more to learn and share stories of their experiences leading in a technical landscape.
The Tech Leaders summit, as the name implies, is a different track to the regular YOW! Conferences that run across Australia which are more technical and implementation focused. Their mission statement on the website summarises it best:
YOW! Tech Leaders Summit is a forum for sharing successes and challenges with peers. It provides a unique opportunity for technical leaders to share their experiences with up and coming technical leaders.
You can find the list of speakers and their slides here.
We were fortunate to send a team from Mantel Group to this summit and here are the team’s key takeaways and learnings from our favourite talks:
- Data Infused Leadership – Alison Rosewarne
- What is a Tech Strategy anyway? – Tomas Varsavsky
- Building a culture of Health Conflict in Tech Teams – Andrew Murphy
- Unlocking the potential of Staff Engineering Pathways – Michelle Gleeson
Data Infused Leadership - Alison Rosewarne
Alison Rosewarne (Executive Manager of Architecture at REA Group) spoke about the challenges of making organisation-wide impacting decisions. She provided some insights and suggestions on how to make scaled data driven decisions.
She addressed the following challenges
- How leaders can make data driven decisions
- How leaders can gather data (AND make meaningful insights)
- How leaders can leverage existing data
1. Gathering Data at Scale
Alison shared how you can gather data at scale using surveys. They can enable you to get wide participation with less effort and time than 1:1 interviews.
In the Group tech survey it asked developers of their appetite to use various coding languages.
By showing the survey results, you are able to build trust with the community and those who take part in your survey. Also, anonymous responses are likely to provide you greater engagement.
2. Gathering Insights and making Decisions
Alison suggested it can be easy to get caught up in wanting more information and sending more surveys. She recommended to resist the temptation to send more and more surveys to get all the answers, use what information you have gathered as a tool to speed up your decisions, rather than chasing perfect data as it can stall decision making.
Alison also reminded us that having data doesn’t absolve you of responsibility. As a leader you will still need to make a decision, consider the consequences, take action and plan accordingly.
Alison shared that having a strong leadership is the necessary foundation, and data can bolster and enable technical decision making for leaders.
Data doesn't replace human judgement, it just enables it
3. Measuring your effectiveness
REA Group uses OKRs to set clear measurable goals, align on technical priorities, and track their progress. It is something that Alison recommends to measure the technology group’s effectiveness in achieving their agreed goals. However, she warns that it will take some time to do effectively and is not an activity that can be rushed.
At REA Group, from a system health perspective, teams incorporate their system health improvement plan into their team’s quarterly OKRs. Improvement can take many forms could be decommissioning a system, refactoring, or paying other tech debt required to enhance a system.
Key takeaways for us:
- Surveys are one way you can capture data at scale from a wide audience. They can be limited in the ability to have follow up questions but can be a useful tool to reach a larger audience to gather scaled data.
- Gather insights and make decisions: Resist the urge to seek more data. Use the insights you have garnered to inform you and make the decisions you need to as a leader. Don’t be tempted to chase the perfect data. As a leader, you can’t hide behind the data, you will still need to make decisions and carry the responsibility of the decisions you make.
- Creating clear and measurable objectives (such as OKRs) is something that scales well and provides clarity and direction. To do it effectively it will require some time so be prepared to invest the time to get the outcomes.
What is a Tech Strategy anyway? - Tomas Varsavsky
Tomas Varsavsky (Ex-CTO Catch) shared his approach to defining and creating a tech strategy.
Tom started by sharing his journey into starting with the important question of what a tech strategy is. After being dissatisfied with the existing definitions, he created his own
Tom broke down the complicated task into bite size pieces and an easy to follow framework
Understanding the organisation’s business strategy, it’s current situation by asking yourself where are we at and where are we going by using different lenses such as external, internal, business and technology.
Tom shared a number of possible techniques, tools and resources such as, but not limited to
- Interviews, Gemba walk, surveys, retrospectives,
- SWAT analysis, anchors and engines, mind maps, value stream maps, analytics
- Internal documents, internal data, customer feedback, research reports, media
Uncovering what the key pain points are is essential to then choosing which ones are the key challenges the company wants to address (focus on a couple). This will form the basis for the strategy.
There are a number of techniques and tools that can be utilised. Tom shared a few examples below. Once you choose your tools, you can analyse and surface the next priority, then create steps to achieve it.
- Techniques such as workshopping and prioritisation.
- Tools such as Six thinking hats and financial models
4. Communicate, Action and Regularly Review
Once you have a strategy, Tom shared it’s important to not stop there but to write it down (roadmap or the plan), communicate it far and wide (multiple times), put it into action (with action owners), review and update regularly.
Tom shared that your tech strategy should be
- Connected to the business and customers (via the business strategy)
- Grounded on current reality of the business
- Speak to how it solves customer problems
- Have buy in from the wider organisation (including business/non-technical stakeholders)
- Accessible to non-technical teams
- Visionary but specific and practical (defines the north star)(specific enough to help make day-to-day tactical decisions)
- Include the aspects of technology, people and process (not just technology) and supports the business strategy
Tom provided a clear and simple framework to design your technical strategy. It was also great to be reminded of the different techniques, tools and resources that get you there.
One of the big takeaways for us was the connection to the business strategy and non-technically team members
- Ensuring that the tech strategy is connected to the business strategy
- Have buy in from business and non-technical teams and
- That the Technical strategy is accessible to non-technical teams and individuals
Building a Culture of Healthy Conflict in Tech Teams - Andrew Murphy
Andrew Murphy (Founder of Tech Leaders Launchpad) talked about prickly topic that we all as Engineers face some time in our career: conflict. It’s something that is inevitable; people will naturally disagree given how large, expansive and complex the world of tech is. But understanding that it is inevitable does not mean you shouldn’t think about how we as individuals and organisations can be better at resolving it!
The difference between Healthy Conflict & Unhealthy Conflict
The most important part of Andrew’s talk was understanding that when conflicts arise, they will always fall into one of two categories: healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict. What are the reasons for each type of conflict? What are the signs of each type of conflict?
In Unhealthy Conflict, People Win. In Healthy Conflict, Ideas Win.
Conflict is not inherently bad! When conflict is healthy, it:
- Improves Problem-solving
- Enhances Team Cohesion
- Encourages Accountability
- Fosters Innovation
- Promotes Open Communication
How to identify unhealthy vs healthy conflict
Now that we understand the difference, how do you empower yourself and your teams to recognise when conflict is falling into one of those two buckets, and how do you steer a conflict into the Healthy zone?
The first part is around identification. What can cause Conflict in an Engineering team?
- Debating Languages /
- Frameworks / Cloud
- Choosing a design pattern
- Build or Buy
- Code Review
- Knowledge Hoarding
- Ego-driven Code Ownership
- Denying promotions
- Roadmapping and spring planning
- Working Style / Communication Preferences
- The IKEA Effect
The second part is about remediation: If a conflict is heading towards that ‘Unhealthy’ path, how do you steer the ship so that it becomes ‘Healthy’?
Andrew used a great acronym for conflict resolution and steering Unhealthy conflicts into Healthy Conflicts: PAUSE
- Acknowledge internally. Mindset and preparation. Courage and composure
- Acknowledge externally. Listen carefully. Empathise and respect
- Ask open questions. Assume positive intent
- Acknowledge their assumed negative intent. Apologise and correct it. Talk to your perspective
- Re-align common goals. Agree what happened previously. Agree what should happen in the future
Furthermore, Andrew highlighted 2 distinct conflict personality types we should be aware of:
- The Withdrawing Dialogue Style (‘Silence’) are people who become quieter during conflict and tend to withdraw their stance, resign to the fact that they won’t get the outcome they desire. This is also known as the ‘conflict avoider’
- The Forcing Dialogue style (‘Violence’) are people who become more aggressive/emotive as the conflict goes on, often doubling down on their views and resorting to attacking the other person and their ideas.
Andrew’s teaching highlights the importance of understanding people, our differences and being adaptive and flexible to promote healthier conflict styles across teams and the company to deliver better outcomes. Embed that culture into teams with things like Code of Conduct and Ways of Working to ensure everyone understands and practices them.
Unlocking the Potential of Staff Engineering Pathways - Michelle Gleeson
Michelle Gleeson (Co-founder of Kaleida) talked primarily about the rise of the ‘Staff Engineer’ role that has gained prominence in recent years; a role that is more focused on driving technical excellence and fostering innovation rather than the conventional path of management.
In many organisations across our industry, the career pathway for someone in Engineering is quite linear: You start off as a Junior Developer writing some code, growing some experience and maturity to lead teams and then eventually advance to a management position where you then come off the tools and manage employee’s output and career.
What this image shows is that the pathway can be thought of differently: there isn’t just a linear path up for an Engineer’s career. Propelling someone into a career that focuses on Management and People just because ‘that’s the only way forward’ for you to advance in your career doesn’t make sense from an organisational perspective nor does it make your employees happy if they don’t want to do that. Not every technical person wants to become a manager or is even good at managing people. To say that Engineers may not be great people-people is not a controversial or groundbreaking statement and we think some Engineers would agree.
The Technical Pathway unlocks a new thought that perhaps we should create a pathway that celebrates an Engineer’s technical skills to have them focus on technical topics like “How can we improve our app’s responsiveness?” or “What ground breaking new innovation can we build to diversify our revenue stream?” without the associated responsibilities of budgets, people and learning and development.
Recognise and celebrate a person’s individuality through your pathway
When you distil Michelle’s talk down to a core idea – it is really about recognising, valuing and celebrating individuality in an organisation. Understanding that every person that joins your organisation is unique and what each person offers is 100% unique and different to another person can change your thinking from ‘I need person A and person B to fit into this box’ to ‘I need to create boxes for Person A to fit into and another box for Person B to fit into’. It’s an idea that is not just limited to a Technical/Engineering landscape but can be applied to any department or area within an organisation because it will empower and make your employees happier and more productive because they are doing the work they want in the way they can.
Be proactive in defining your staff engineering pathways
Directly related to the above key point about recognising and celebrating individuality, now that idea must be translated to tangible outcomes in an organisation that can be utilised by people. It’s no easy feat. In order to do so, leadership must come together and think about how they can set up pathways to recognise and celebrate individuality so they can succeed. Think about the processes, the budgets and the people in-place to help support that. Every organisation is different and it won’t be easy or even make sense for your type of industry or organisation, but it is worth being proactive about because it will set up your employees and your organisation for success.
There were a lot of great books and literature that was recommended throughout the summit by different speakers. A couple of stand out ones we have personally read (or going to read!) are:
When it comes to leadership within the technical and engineering landscapes, the focus can sometimes be shadowed by the more exciting technical discussions about what your development is or what your cost savings are from moving to the cloud. Engineering Leadership is an important and broad topic that should have the proper focus and the requisite buy-in from business stakeholders and non-technical teams/leaders. Companies need to look holistically at how the technical strategy fits within the context of the business strategy, aligning their objectives and creating new avenues to grow the business through technology. Technology is ultimately there to serve the Business, together.
It’s great that the community sees the value of this and through conferences like YOW! Leaders Summit and Web Directions Code Leaders bringing together people interested in that topic and having speakers who are very much Thought Leaders in their space with decades of experience.