Lead Dev Async AMA Recap: beyond status report

Welcome back to the Lead Dev Async AMA recap, where I’m recapping the conversation we had over on the Lead Dev Slack to kick-off their newest community series. In each post, I share a question that was asked in the series, and how I answered.

Today I’m responding to a question I’ve been asked a lot: how do you get direct reports to go beyond status reports and share how they really feel? This question is great because it was asked by both an engineer and a manager. I’ll start with the question from the manager and my response, and finish with the question from the engineer.

This is my last post in this series.


Going beyond status report: for the manager

I know it’s important to use 1:1 to get ahead of issues before they become real problems, and to make sure I’m hearing what’s really going on. But I also know it can be hard to get my direct reports to open up and go beyond the kind of day-to-day “status updates” that are really better suited for other meetings. Do you have any prompts you’d suggest I use to encourage my direct reports to open up?

I like to open 1:1s with open-ended questions: how are you? How are things going? What was hard this week?

By design, open-ended questions allow your report to lead you. I tend to listen carefully to what they choose to share, and ask follow-up questions that show I’m engaged and I care.

If your direct report is quiet or reluctant, I find it’s worth saying aloud: this is your time. I really care about you and your success here. 1:1s are a time for us to talk about what matters… even if that means you have feedback for me, or have to discuss something that’s uncomfortable or hard. Know that I’ve got your back and that I’m committed to you, even it’s hard. We’ve got this.

You can demonstrate your commitment to this kind of open sharing by routinely and proactively soliciting feedback. Recently in a 1:1 I asked one of my senior directs: “What is missing on our team right now? If you could snap your fingers and change our team for the better in some way, what would you do?”

But not only did I ask the question, I immediately followed by saying: “I really want to know: even if means you have some difficult feedback for me about the way I’ve been leading. I’m ready, open, and need to hear it! And if it’s hard, I promise I can take it—we’ll work through it together. And the team will benefit for it.”

We ended up having a pretty amazing conversation, and he shared deep, descriptive feedback about how we could improve the way we were working together—on the team. His feedback wasn’t even about me, but knowing that I was open to truly hearing what he had to say made him feel safe to share and take us where we needed to go.

Opening up: advice for a developer

I’m currently working as a developer. Do you have any advice for me on how to get out of the “status report” habit and be more open to sharing the tougher stuff? With the power dynamic and my own tendency to please, I can find it really hard to dive beyond the surface and talk about what’s bothering me, or how that project really went. I know my manager needs to hear that stuff to help the team, so I want to be able to open up. How do you raise the safety and comfort level with your manager and break through the awkwardness?

Your question about how to be more open sharing the dark side really touched my heart. I can tell that it’s important for you to be known by your boss and share what matters to you. What a huge opportunity they have there. My mind immediately goes to wondering, what kind of relationship do you have with your manager, and what have they done to make you feel safe to share?

If your manager is already in the habit of saying things like I’ve mentioned above and in the talk—this is your time, I want to hear it even if it’s hard to say, we’ll work through this together—then I implore you to take them seriously and try. I know it can be hard to trust, so take small steps as you grow your confidence. I once worked with a wonderful person who was tremendously shy. The first couple of months we worked together, I worked hard to get them to open up to me about their challenges at work, and it took a while, but eventually they did. It was entirely worth the wait.

On the other hand, if your manager hasn’t already taken actions to try establish trust with you, consider if there are company values or norms that you could bring up when approaching them. For example, if your company says they value transparency, you can lean on that when you bring up your concern with your boss: “I’m sharing this with you today because our organization values transparency, and the way that manifests for me is in sharing foobar with you today.” Or if your company says they value teamwork, you could say, “I love working for a company that values teamwork. Recently I’ve noticed baz about the way we work together, and wanted to see if we could talk through an experience I had, or some feedback I want to share.” Using stated company values or norms is usually a safe and productive jumping off point for hard conversations.

Your question about breaking through the awkwardness made me smile. I will say, it really helps to have a manager/CTO, as I did, who is committed to creating a psychologically safe environment. I absolutely had that at Juice Analytics, where my boss, CTO Chris Gemignani, was 100% willing to hear feedback even when it was hard. We were able to have awkward conversations where I felt awkward and he felt awkward too because more than feeling awkward, we felt SAFE. Above anything else, I hope everyone in the Lead Dev community gets to work in a psychologically safe environment. It’s transformative.

Finally, I am one to embrace, or make friends with, awkwardness. Have you ever heard the phrase, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”? There’s some real value there! When I feel awkward, I try to notice how it makes me feel, acknowledge it, and let it pass without internalizing it or judging myself. It’s tough, but it’s worth a try.

What do you think? How do you go beyond “status report” to have conversations that count and meetings that matter? Do you embrace the awkwardness, even though it’s hard? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This concludes the AMA recap series! I hope it has been helpful. Please let me know on Twitter if you have other questions or want to keep the conversation going. I’m here for you!

Lead Dev Async AMA Recap: talking about life

Welcome back to the Lead Dev Async AMA recap, where I’m recapping the conversation we had over on the Lead Dev Slack to kick-off their newest community series. In each post, I share a question that was asked in the series, and how I answered.

Today I’m focused on a topic that’s especially relevant for pandemic times: how to respond when your report brings up non-work related topics in a 1:1.


Let’s talk about life

Do you have advice for discussing non-work related topics that a direct report brings up? Particularly under the current circumstances (global pandemic, rapidly shifting to remote work) where your direct report may suddenly have a lot of additional responsibilities outside of work.

In my talk I mention how 1:1s are your report’s time—those 45 minutes of the 40 hours that they give your team each week that’s purely theirs. If they want to talk about what’s going on outside of work, that indicates that they trust you. That’s a good thing!

There are lots of reasons why someone might bring up non-work topics in a 1:1, and the reality of the global pandemic persuades me that it’s now more than ever important to normalize that talk. Communication is hard, and it could be that they are bringing up non-work topics because they want you to know what they’re dealing with at home, or personally, and how it’s impacting them. Listen carefully and try to connect what they’re sharing with how they work and what you’ve observed.

Are they feeling isolated? Being aware of this means you’ll look for ways to help them feel more connected.

Are they struggling with their new home “office”... that turns out to be their laptop on a card table? Perhaps there are things your company can provide or purchase to ease the transition.

Are they worried about the fate or future of the company? As context-giver-in-chief, this is an opening to share what you know (to the extent that you’re able to share).

Finally, remember that as a manager or lead, you’re not alone. If you’re concerned about how responsibilities outside of work are impacting individual contributors or your team, it might be worth broaching this with your leadership team and trying to get some shared understanding around expectations for delivery during the pandemic. It could be that leadership has a tacit, but not explicit, understanding already that people are working at lower capacity, and goals have already been adjusted accordingly. Encourage company conversation so folks are on the same page. Expectations are a lot easier for everyone if they’re out in the open.

What do you think? How would you answer? What kind of conversations has your team or org had, or what changes have you made, since COVID-19 upended everything? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Check back in for the next question in the recap series! We’ll talk about how to go beyond status reports in 1:1s to have conversations that matter.

Lead Dev Async AMA Recap: getting buy-in

Kicking off the new Lead Dev program, Async AMA, was terrific! I was floored by how many people took the time to go back and watch my talk, and then engage on the Lead Dev Slack. Several folks mentioned that they watched my talk more than once! 😱 I was surprised and immensely grateful.

The quality of engagement in the AMA was outstanding. Developers and engineering managers alike asked thoughtful, detailed questions.

For those of you who couldn’t make it, I wanted to offer a recap of the conversation. I’m going to do this in a series of posts to spread it out, since there were so many great questions and I really took the time to give detailed answers.

On each post, I’ll paraphrase question, but I’ll provide the same answer I gave the Lead Dev community. I hope it helps!

First up, let’s talk about a topic that has come up more than once for me over the years: getting buy-in, or how to convince your colleagues, higher-ups, or manager that 1:1s are a good idea.


Getting Buy-In

I’m a manager and senior engineer who believes 1:1 are instrumental for individual growth and achieving team goals, but my colleagues in leadership don’t think holding 1:1s are valuable. They say, “if there’s a problem, they’ll tell me.” How do I convince them of the importance of 1:1s?

Let’s talk about “if there’s a problem, they’ll tell me” and how this approach almost certainly guarantees you’re not going to hear critical information from the folks most equipped to tell you: your direct reports.

First, “if there’s a problem, they’ll tell me”… when? Think about it from the perspective of your report. You’re a manager, and they’ve seen your packed schedule: you’ve already got so many meetings it looks like someone spilled paint on your Google Calendar. If you’re not making time for scheduled, anticipated meetings with those who report to you, you’re putting the burden on your report to somehow find time with you. That challenge can be enough of a barrier to entry that they might not even bother… and that means you’re not going to hear about the problem.

Second, think of the power dynamic. “If there’s a problem, they’ll tell me…” But, are you sure they even feel like they can? While I’m beloved by past bosses for my ability to “speak truth to power”, a lot of folks don’t have my chutzpah. Whether it’s from a cultural norm (“tall poppies”), personality, or personal boundary, it can be very hard for someone to approach “the boss” with a concern. And if they’re a marginalized person, they’re always doing the math in their head of how much they have to lose if they bring it up—and if that’s really the battle they want to fight. You’re not doing anything to enhance transparency or communication in your organization by leaving it all on your direct report to bring the issue to you. In fact, it may even be harmful, as again, you’re not actually hearing about the problem.

So as we can see from just these two examples, the “if there’s a problem…” attitude, while pervasive, is super flimsy. It sounds like it might just be… an excuse. And so then I want to dig even deeper and ask… why is the manager making excuses? Is it that they don’t see the value? Is it that they don’t want to make the time investment? Is it that they don’t get support from their own boss?

Or are they afraid?

In my experience, as I cover in my talk, a lot of managers are reluctant to do 1:1s because they know a 1:1, done well, is a place where they’ll hear the difficult stuff it’s hard to talk about. It’s a place to be deliberate, thoughtful, and show that you’re up for the challenge of supporting and leading. It’s where you hear how your direct report wants to grow, how the last project really went, what’s been frustrating them at work recently, and YES, how you could be a better boss for them.

This can be scary for some managers. It means facing the fear of the unknown: what are they going to say? The fear of discomfort: what if they say something that makes me feel terrible? The fear of being vulnerable: what if they start talking about their work and it becomes rapidly obvious that I have no idea what I’m doing, don’t even know what they’re doing, and heck, have no clue how to troubleshoot that Kafka cluster?!

It can be hard to hear or face these things. But managers shouldn’t let fear rule, or use excuses to cover it up. As leaders we have a tremendous opportunity to support individuals, teams, and organizations. We owe it to them to do the hard work of facing the discomfort and growing through it. Our direct reports don’t expect us to be perfect. They do expect us to show up and try our best every day for them.

Finally, I’ll say this: sometimes ya just gotta lead by example. Once upon a time a peer manager leading another team told me they didn’t have time to do 1:1s. It only took them about six weeks of seeing how big of a difference 1:1s made on my team that they were able to find the time on their calendar to make 1:1s a priority. 😉

What do you think? How would you answer that question? How have you advocated for the practice of 1:1s? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Check back in for the next question in the recap series! We’ll dive in to how to approach discussing non-work related topics that a direct report brings up.

Kicking off the Async AMAs at Lead Dev

Hey everyone, I’m excited to share that The Lead Dev chose my 2018 talk on 1:1s as the focus for their first in a new series of AMAs with past speakers!

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Why an AMA? As we all grapple with the new reality that is a post-COVID world, Lead Dev is thoughtfully adjusting the way they deliver programming to support their huge audience of tech leads, engineering managers, and CTOs. The Asynchronous AMA is a new way to bring us together. Each week Lead Dev shares a conference talk video from one of their speakers and then organizes an AMA on Slack.

Join us! Each week:

  1. Watch the featured video. This week, it’s me! Watch on Youtube: The team-changing magic of 1:1s – Adrienne Lowe | The Lead Developer Austin 2018
  2. Ask your questions and share your own experiences in the Lead Dev Slack #asynchronous-ama channel
  3. Join us on the designated day when the speaker will drop-in throughout the day to answer questions

You’ll need to be part of the Lead Dev Slack community to participate. Join us by clicking here.

Watch my talk to learn the ins and outs of effective 1:1s and how to evaluate if they are going well—or off the rails. Come hear a case story of how one organization started doing 1:1s and how the practice (spoiler alert) had a positive impact on patches and release dates for important and valuable features.

And, of course, learn why I used this image…

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and this GIF!

Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it, no sweat–I’ll follow up with another post recapping how it went.


Welcome to Leading with Spoons, adriennefriend‘s new home.

Leading with Spoons picks up where Coding with Knives left off, telling the story of a developer turned leader of developers.

I started Coding with Knives in 2014 to share my story of learning to code, and it helped me launch my career as a developer. In 2017 I became Director of Engineering at Juice Analytics, where I lead our platform and ops teams. I’ve been able to put what I learned as an engineer to work building high-performing teams with trust, transparent processes, creative freedom and ownership, and a strong sense of purpose. My goal is to enable, empower, and inspire developers to do the best work of their lives.

Why spoons?

First, the obvious: to keep the theme going. (Coding with Knives… Leading with Spoons…). It’s also a reference to my roots: I’m a career-changer chef turned developer who got her start at tech conferences talking about learning to code with cooking metaphors. And as much as I love a knife, my secret favorite utensil is the gentle, versatile spoon. Spoons deliver ice cream, corn chowder, crème brûlée and curry in equal measure. And besides, you can’t eat off a knife. (Except when you do, and you look terrifying.)

If you’re familiar with Spoon Theory–the disability metaphor that describes how chronic illness and disability depletes energy available for daily life and work–you’ll absolutely hear resonance here. Many of us in tech have already lost a number of spoons before we even sit down at the keyboard. As an engineering manager, my goal is to help my engineers retain spoons at work by offering practical people-focused leadership, guidance, and support. At Leading with Spoons, I’ll help you learn how.

Topics to come include:

  • Strategies for efficient meetings, from standup to sprint planning
  • How to create a sense of shared destiny on your team
  • Effective 1:1s
  • Inclusive hiring processes
  • Mentoring engineers of all experience levels
  • Repairing relationships between teams
  • Career conversations
  • Onboarding new engineers
  • Features of psychologically safe teams
  • Performance reviews, improvement plans, and other hard conversations
  • The on-call experience
  • Celebrating successes

And hey, maybe I’ll even share a few recipes along the way.

Welcome to Leading with Spoons. I’m glad you’re here.