Saturday, June 19, 2021

A Due Diligence Process For Engineering Capabilities

My process involves a series of steps, all meant to establish the maturity of the engineering organization. What I am looking for is a tight collaboration between business and engineering, business savviness of the engineering leaders and a general sense of trust, orientation to perform and an effective management of low performers. 


1/ General introductory call to meet the CTO / VP of engineering 

The objective of this call is to establish a trusting relationship and plan the diligence process together. Some of the questions asked:

  • How many developers they have?
  • How do they group them? (seniority / technology)
  • How do they assess seniority? What criteria they have?
  • How to they deal with performance?
Recruitment and market size:
  • How do they recruit their developers, what is must have, how does their recruitment test look like?
  • How big is the market they are activating in? How are they positioned on the market? How many developers were they able to hire in the last year and through what channels?
  • How do they train their staff, do they have a structured process for learning / partnerships with universities?
Collaboration difficulties / project challenges:
  • Difficulties working in collaboration with other companies?
  • Cultural alignment and possible cultural issues they had encountered? – this is very important especially for non-western companies working with / for western clients
  • The main challenges they see in case of a merger – how will we align culture, what their concerns are, what would be a roadmap for the M&A
2/ Assessment of their engineering force:
Setup a series of group or individual interview with key people.
  • Discuss an important project they had, that they feel proud of
  • Walk through the code structure (together)
  • Walk through the architecture (together)
  • Walk through the release process – daily builds, prep for milestones, dev-qa, metrics they follow (if any), how they keep quality high and the project in a good shape throughout its duration
  • Walk through the main challenges the project had and how did they solve it
The main items to look for are:
  • How they communicate about the project and get a sense if we would be able to collaborate together.
  • What they define as hard challenge (where the bar is).
  • How creative were they in solving problems?
  • General coding style and architectural challenges.
  • Their maturity level when it comes to engineering practices,
3/ Interview with random developers: junior (2), middle (3), senior (3)
  • Similar to the above, but this time from the perspective of the individual developers. We want a comprehensive 360 view of their company. We want to see to what degree what management talks about can be found at the individual contributor level.
  • Assess their motivation and culture fit.
  • A coding interview together, including architecture, problem solving to verify their recruitment standards
4/ Interview with engineering managers:
  • Challenges they faced (difficult projects)
  • Collaboration and communication skills
  • Engineering management maturity
  • Get a list of undesirable engineers which we might opt out of extending an offer

 Additional questions for determining engineering management maturity:

  • What is the process for setting up, following up objectives, if they are met and how they make them important
  • What metrics do they measure for development?
  • What does a great engineering manager do? What are his/her skills?
  • How are engineers and engineering managers involved in projects / products?
  • How do their teams learn from mistakes?
  • Top 3 qualities of an excellent engineering manager?
  • Top 3 qualities of an excellent engineering director?
  • What is their involvement in sales / entrepreneurship? - this shows how much trust the organization puts into their engineering leadership
  • What is their personal involvement in recruitment? How much they recruit for skill and how much they develop and how?
  • What are they looking for when hiring a person? Some key questions?
  • What have you read and impressed you in the past 2-3 months?
  • Why management and not individual contributor?
  • How much technology and how much people management? 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

System Behavior Charts

This is a link to a (mostly) technical article, but with huge implications for decision making.

Measuring various metrics is the cornerstone of informed, data-driven (or at least data aware) management. However, acting upon these metrics without a proper understanding of the underlying system can only amplify erratic behaviors or lead to hard to contain side effects.

Experts recommend not doing anything as a better alternative to uninformed decision making, but not doing anything is rarely an option for a company eager to perform. Therefore, in our competitive landscape, now more than ever I believe a good understanding of how to read and interpret data is critical for sustainable continuous improvement.

Here are some guidelines:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Notes On Management

On working with multiple managers

Sometimes it happens that you are in a matrix organization and might have two managers with (somewhat) overlapping areas of responsibility. This is not necessary a bad thing. For once, it is a great opportunity to open your eyes and learn from the situation, either as the employee with two managers or as one of the two managers of the employee. As everyone is bringing different expertise and points of view to the table, higher quality insights, learning and decisions will surface. However, it might be at times painful, especially when trust is not fully formed between the involved parties.

Here are some guidelines I found useful:
  • It is critical for the two managers to get along very well and not to try to get advantages one over the other. Think child with two parents. Even for the most well intended people, misalignment will occur and trust will be eroded if the two managers don't take special care to continuously build and cherish a trust relationship between themselves. Relationships are not to be taken for granted. Work is needed to build a maintain a relationship between two people.
  • It is highly recommended for the two managers to align between themselves on the roles and responsibilities of each other and re-discuss these from time to time. Understanding might drift as new situations and challenges arise.
  • Try to avoid the communication triangle and rather aim for the star. 

In triangle communication, each two people have a separate communication channel, meaning they have separate meetings without a common tripartite alignment process. In the star communication, all three meet regularly all together and they reconfirm their understanding. This latter setup drastically lowers the risk of misunderstanding and / or of the child with two conflicting parents situation.

On what I call the airplane model of organization design


I have a strong belief that people have a great capacity to take the right decisions provided that they have the freedom to do so and the right information easily accessible. When I am thinking about organization design I am centering it around what I call "the airplane model". The model itself is simple: the individual is in its center (the pilot). The rest of the organization is there to support him take the right decisions (the instrument panels in the cockpit, easily accessible). Beside the empowerment and motivation that comes from such a setup, of being in control of the course of your work, the model has some other less obvious advantages:
  • It scales. The pilot is everyone and everyone is flying its own plane supported by others. The programmer codes while the team-lead helps him get access to knowledge (architects, websites, classes, conferences), tools (task boards, IDEs, code metrics, continuous integration servers) and goals. The team-lead leads while his manager offers insights, perspectives, a sounding board, access to resources, confidence, the program manager access to configured Jiras, QA to product metrics and so on. 
  • It mandates collaboration and knowledge sharing because the underlying assumption is that nobody flies blind. Decisions are fully owned, but checking the instruments (discuss, check metrics) is a must.
  • It is a quest for continuous improvement: always simplify access to information, always discuss, interpret metrics or discard irrelevant ones. Bad decisions can happen and they are expected as long as we learn from them, but ignorance is not permitted. I personally am OK with any decision as long as I have the certitude that all factors have been properly weighted.

On compound interest and organization design

In any management endeavor, initial conditions matter greatly but they can be beaten given some conditions occur. However, beating the averages is a hard job. Given the fact that growth and decision making at any point in time are random variables normally distributed around the system's average, usually the system beats the individuals, thus organization design is critical for a successful growth.

A little bit about compound interest and exponential growth:

Let's consider the following two cases of growth:

First case: 

Initial condition: 1 and 4 respectively, same exponential growth of 1.7. It is obvious that the initial 1:4 factor is preserved and the difference is only amplified as time passes.

Second case:

Same initial condition 1:4, but this time exponential growth is set to 2 to 1.7. After roughly 10 periods, the initial advantage of the second series is completely lost and from here on the difference grows at an exponential rate in favor of the first. This means that it takes time to recover, but once the gap is recovered, the first series obliterates the second.

But how do we translate these results to day to day management thinking?

Obviously, the initial conditions matters. A company or a team with more funding, better trained people, more connections or that simply starts earlier has a clear advantage over a less fortunate competitor. Because the less fortunate competitor needs time to recover, he may simply run out of business before the gap is closed, even in case of perfect execution. However, once the gap is closed, better execution gives much higher yields.

So the main question is, provided that we have enough funding to survive, how do we increase the exponent? I think the exponent has three defining characteristics: ability to learn, to execute and to incorporate learning back into execution. To learn means to experiment, to play. That means a culture willing to tolerate failure and learn from it and willing to invest in people - to give them space, freedom of self expression, a "let's try attitude". It means a culture with fewer ties and dependencies, with simpler checks and balances, ones that trusts their employees that they are capable to solve problems and learn from mistakes. It means a culture that requires dialogue but abstains itself from being prescriptive. To me, these goals are well met by the airplane model described above.

Initiative is fragile. Push an employee too much to explain himself, to give too much proof that he is right or punish him (even slightly) for small mistakes and the initiative is gone. Next time he will just wait to be told what to do.

I imagine organizations and management lines as meshes of masses connected through springs. The more ties a mass has and the stronger the springs, the lower the movement ability an individual has. And with the lower movement ability, the exponent described above (a function of the ability of the individual to excel in a given context) simply converges to the comfortable average, while the whole system slows down due to lost energy to friction.

Closing thoughts:

The article describes three roughly independent management ideas centered around organization design. There is a red line though. That is systems (of humans) are not to be taken for granted. It is not enough to have the brightest in the room to get results. How you organize them, how you make them communicate (and in humans communication is extremely expensive and tricky due to the low bandwidth of conscientious thought and speak and due to the whole set of unspoken assumptions and emotions involved), how do you setup systems with enough degrees of movement to maintain individual initiative and still have some control over the direction of flow is what gives the higher returns. And all these are layered on a leadership style that must be humble, willing to listen and to point people in the right directions, not for completing tasks, but rather for gathering information and  learning, and then have them take their own decisions with confidence.