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.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Before I joined Juice as Director of Engineering, I was at Emma, working as an individual contributor on a medium-sized team. Not only did I have a terrific manager, but we also had a brilliant VP of Engineering modeling open, empathetic, and egoless programming and leadership. Yep, I was very lucky.

When I sat down with the VP, Jason, to let him know I’d accepted the offer, he was thrilled for me… and we laughed, because there was no denying that this was a huge jump for me: from IC to leading multiple teams. I asked him, what should I be reading to prepare? Radical Candor was his first suggestion. With a subtitle like “Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity”, I wasn’t surprised: that’s how I saw Jason.

I can’t remember exactly why Jason told me he loved this book, but I can make some solid guesses. To start, he and Kim have pretty similar personalities and leadership styles. They’re both very caring but also quite firm. They’re crystal clear about what we’re here to do as engineers, which is ship software, but they also understand that work is only part of your life, and they want it to be a meaningful part of your life. They offer support but also have high expectations–especially if they’ve extended that support. Yeah, they can be a little intimidating–but they balance it with warmth and silliness in the right measure. Neither shy from the tough conversations. Both highly value management as a skill and practice.

As I read Radical Candor and more about Kim, I thought: this is Jason. And this is me, too. I want to create a collective sense of ownership and shared destiny on my team. I want to inspire trust in my engineers by offering context and creating consistent, transparent processes that are reliable but still flexible when they need to be. I want them to write clear, straightforward, and maintainable code. I want them to do hard shit and struggle, and fail, and also feel wildly happy when they succeed, because they’ve made something they’re proud of. And I want them to feel with every commit, a sense of purpose, because they’re clear on how their work builds toward bigger goals.

Does that resonate with you? Is that the kind of leader you want to be, too?

Radical Candor tells the story of a woman in tech who learns how to be an effective, compassionate, kick-ass boss over years of training under some of the most driven and exacting engineering executives in the world. Kim divides the story into two main parts. Part one covers the management philosophy of caring personally and challenging directly. Radically candid work requires you to bring your whole self to the job, create a culture of open communication, seek to understand what motivates the folks who work for you, and motivate by inspiring meaning. Part two, tools and techniques, offers specific advice for deepening relationships and establishing trust, effective praise and criticism, healthy team dynamics, and getting results.

Kim shares her lessons and failures generously, from crushed startups to painful firings. Stories are woven into frameworks, tips, and best practices that you can adopt for your team. It’s conversational, but still instructive. And when it’s time to get down to business, it’s super clear what’s actionable and how you can try it out. Often management and leadership books can both feel and bleed you dry, but Kim’s style is fresh, relatable, and energizing on every page.

In April I’m giving a talk at The Lead Developer NYC called Crucial Career Conversations. It’s the story of how I put Kim’s career conversations framework–with my own flourishes, of course–into action. I’m convinced that the way we’ve used the framework at Juice has helped our contributors sharpen their focus and goals and brought closeness to the team. The decisions and work coming out of career conversations haven’t always been easy, but they’ve been healthy and gratifying for the team and the individuals making them.

Many management books are careful to define the mechanics of management, but Radical Candor captures the soul of leadership.

If this book review sparked an interest in reading please check your local library and see if they have a copy. If you prefer to own a copy, I recommend looking at some of the smaller retailers or independent bookstores first. IndieBound.org’s Indie Bookstore Finder helps you find independent bookstores near you by entering your address, or if shopping online, try ThriftBooks, Magers & Quinn, Books-A-Million, or Better World Books. Finally, if Amazon.com is what works best for you, I implore you to at least shop through smile.amazon.com, which is their a-portion-to-charity portal. Learn more about shopping with Amazon Smile here. Affiliate links are not used on Leading with Spoons. 


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.