5 min read

Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire
William Dafoe is magnificent isn't he? All credit to Lions Gate Films

I'm well aware that there are plenty of people smarter than me, or with more experience, or who have simply already solved problems that continue to vex me on a day-to-day basis.

You might think that coming to this conclusion would be disheartening. These people are a threat! The existence of these people devalues my own worth!

I have a different perspective. These people are valuable resources to my own growth and I should be organising opportunities to slink around in the shadows and steal their secrets like some sort of unstable and unpredictable vampire.

But, you know, leaving them unharmed and completely sane after my visit.


Dracula Had No Servants

The idea of shadowing someone in order to steal their secrets isn't new. Not to people in general, not to me and not even to this blog.

Back in June 2022 I wrote about the idea and why I thought it was something worth exploring. TL;DR? Aggregating practices and processes from a wide variety of people smarter than me makes me better at my job.

In September 2022 I wrote about my very first shadowing experience, where I stalked a fellow Engineering Manager. TL;DR? I learned some things, generated some empathy, and decided I should definitely do it again.

Flash forward to now and I've just completed my second shadow of a fellow Engineering Manager. A bit of a time gap, but it's been busy and organising these sorts of focused stalking sessions is more difficult than I would like.

I went a little bit further afield this time; still the same general organisational area, but not a team or Engineering Manager whom I interact with all that frequently.

The core goals were still the same:

  • Watch what they do
  • Understand the challenges they face
  • Learn more about how they operate
  • Steal their secrets

All in all, it was a good experience, though a little bit more disorganised than last time. I didn't quite know which meetings I would need to attend during the shadow and I wasn't certain what the main focus of the week would be.

That's okay though, not everyone is as organised as I am, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's an interesting lesson in itself.

But, there was a more important lesson to be learned.

Our Struggle Is To Create Art

Within Atlassian, planning is hard.

The organisation is so large, and there are always so many different things happening, that not only do you have a huge amount of context to absorb, you then have to synthesise it into useful prioritisation decisions.

I have my own process for dealing with this challenge, but during the shadow I was lucky enough to witness a different solution to the same problem. Oddly similar, but different enough to make me sit up and take notice.

I shadowed someone from the Provisioning organisation, within Production Engineering. They are responsible for the systems and processes that allow our users to provision the various pieces of software that we offer (aka Jira, Confluence, etc).

A critical capability for the growth of Atlassian. After all, if we don't have any new users, we don't have any new revenue.

They are often right in the middle of a hundred different company-wide initiatives, all vying for their limited attention. At the same time, the systems that they are responsible for are not as healthy as they could be, probably because they've been so under the pump for so long.

Luckily for me, while I was shadowing, they were in the process of coming up with a new planning process to try and alleviate exactly those sorts of challenges.

From what I learned while sitting in the darkness and muttering quietly to myself, there were two main elements to their new process.

The first was using a Jira Product Discovery project in Jira. These projects are focused on ideation and road mapping, as opposed to project execution, and allow for a consolidated view of all the competing ideas that an organisation could invest in.

The second element was the process itself, which involved regularly grooming the Jira Product Discovery backlog of ideas and scoring them via consistent effort and impact measurements. They were in the process of qualifying those measurements when I was shadowing, and hadn't actually used them in anger yet, but what I saw was looking pretty good.

While I'm pretty happy with the way I represent my project backlog, it was clear that a Jira Product Discovery version of it would be superior. Additionally, I've struggled a lot with prioritisation of projects in the past, often falling back to gut feel when push comes to shove. Something a bit more objective would definitely be an improvement.

So that's one meaningful secret stolen, but what about general reflections?

I Don't Even Know If I Could Harm Myself

The last time I shadowed another Engineering Manager I had two main takeaways on the process itself:

  • I wanted to pick my shadowing week more carefully to maximise secrets stolen
  • I wanted to disconnect from my own team more aggressively

I'd like to say that I picked a planning week specifically so I could learn about how the other Engineering Manager did planning, but it was more of a coincidence than anything else.

It's hard enough to organise a shadowing week at the best of times, let alone to try and align it with something specific. Also, any interesting week for another Engineering Manager is probably an interesting week for me, as we tend to march to the beat of the same organisational drum.

In terms of disconnection, I think I removed myself about as well as I did last time. Which is to say, not very well at all.

One of the things I've had to change recently is the frequency of the one-on-ones that I have with people. They are less frequent now, because I have so many people and I need time to do other things. I don't like it, but reality is a harsh mistress.

While I was shadowing, I kept doing one-on-ones, so that was a fail from a disconnection point of view. A victory from a people management point of view though, because those sorts of things are important.

I got dragged into a couple of other things as well, but at the end of the day I'm starting to think that it's just impossible to really disconnect from your team when you're still around in Slack and whatnot.

It's just about finding the right balance instead.

I Think We Have It

I plan to keep doing these shadowing weeks and someone will need to put a stake in my heart to stop me properly.

Not only do they help me to expand my sphere of understanding, it's also a great way to form closer relationships and generate empathy, both of which are incredibly important to create a sense of community with the wider group.

Next time I'll aim to shadow another Engineering Manager again, but go further afield. Perhaps into the other half of Production Engineering, where all of the Site Reliability Engineering happens.

Maybe even into another organisation within Atlassian altogether.

There are people everywhere who are just full of juicy secrets for me to steal.

It's a veritable smorgasbord.