Re: Scaling Organizations by Scaling Engineers

Some coworkers of mine at Mass Relevance shared this Surge talk by Bryan Cantrill which I quite enjoyed and wanted to share some thoughts on. Since I also would like to blog more, it seemed like a perfect opportunity!

So here goes:

On Bryan Cantrill
This guy kind of reminds me of a more enthusiastic Ryan if he were to give a passionate/rant talk on something. =)

On Formal Reviews
I really enjoyed the part on formal annual reviews. The ones I’ve experienced have been at a more frequent cadence, but I have never once found them to be valuable relative to just telling me “good job, continue to get stuff done.” I don’t mean this as a knock on any of my past managers at Bazaarvoice nor that I view myself as flawless, but these types of formal reviews always seemed like a way to herd the B+C players at the cost of being an annoyance to the A-players (“superlative engineers”). Please never make me fill out a form asking for a “weakness I will work on in the following quarter.”

IMO, excellent engineers will naturally learn and improve themselves. Particularly in the context of being able to do their job even better. Making one write their own arbitrary weakness to focus on for some set time period just to tick a checkbox will be met with resistance or simply not taken seriously. I have never once felt like this part of my performance reviews at BV was ever directly tied to my actual performance nor that anyone actually believed I should focus on this versus just shipping a great product. It always felt artificial and a formality that was immediately forgotten.

Like mentioned in the talk, I agree that feedback is valuable and encouraging improvement is also positive. The formal methods I’ve had experience with have not been very valuable though.

Note: I’m speaking critical of Bazaarvoice on this topic as it is the predominant part of my professional career. There are still a ton of great people there, and learned a lot from my 6.5 years tenure that I am incredibly grateful for. Despite the great experiences I’ve had there, no company is perfect, and this is an area that resonated with me after hearing this talk.

On Management Staying Technical
An aspect I admire most of Mass Relevance’s engineering organization is that it’s very flat and everyone all the way up to CTO still actually get their hands dirty with code. I have all kinds of respect for our leaders here as I’m sure it is quite difficult to juggle everything they’re responsible for PLUS find the time to add new features, fix bugs, and contribute code. This talk really made me realize that because our leadership does this, it gives me a lot more confidence in their ability to make decisions and know that they’re empathetic to the challenges we tackle. There’s a lot more sense of working with my boss cooperatively, rather than for my boss and taking orders.