5 min read

The Shadow Knows

The Shadow Knows
Alec Baldwin, Tim Curry and superhero schlock? Sign me up! All credit to Universal Pictures

No matter where I am or what I'm doing, there are always plenty of people in my general vicinity with skills and experience that I don't have.

At first glance that sort of thing can lead to feelings of inadequacy, but if you push through that initial discomfort, you can see it for what it really is.

An opportunity.

An opportunity to steal all of that wisdom and incorporate it into the gestalt that is you, like some sort of information vampire.

I'll Be There

In any organisation, people are constantly doing all sorts of things, either using well established patterns and processes or brand-new experimental approaches. They are succeeding wildly, failing catastrophically, or falling somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

That wealth of experience seems like something that I could be leveraging to make myself better.

Occasionally you get lucky, and people volunteer to share their trials and tribulations through some medium (like a blog post). At Atlassian, this sort of behaviour is encouraged, so there are plenty ways to improve yourself by living vicariously through the experiences of others.

But I want more.

The things that people choose to share are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Not everyone will take the time to summarise their experiences for others to consume. It's not easy and requires both effort and a willingness to put yourself out there.

Even if they do present something for the consumption of others, they might not present the entire picture. Not for malicious purposes or anything, it's just a natural part of summarisation that some of the experience is lost in the telling.

I want to get that goodness first-hand.

Unfortunately, I'm not yet capable of silently perching inside someone's head and looking out through their eyes as they go about their day-to-day.

But I can shadow them.

If they let me.

Around Every Corner

I learn a lot by pairing with the people I'm responsible for. I get to see first-hand all sorts of interesting things, like the problems they solve, the amazing value that they deliver and the difficulties that are sometimes inherent to that process.

In turn, this gives me a lot of empathy, knowledge, and the ability to reflect on their experiences from a different perspective and maybe make them better.

So, if I want to learn from someone, a peer perhaps, I could start by pairing with them. Grab an hour or so of their time with the intent to observe them while they work on something.

Or I could escalate things and go harder.

I could shadow them for an entire week.

Shadowing is a fairly common process when someone is transitioning away from a role or position. It's a classic way of learning exactly what they do and can capture all sorts of things that they might not think to write down as part of an official handover.

I might not be replacing anyone anytime soon, but that doesn't mean I can't benefit from the awesome learning inherent to the shadowing process.


In Every Empty Room

Well, maybe.

I can definitely see some challenges in getting this sort of thing going.

Pairing is an exhausting activity, and a solid shadowing experience is almost certainly going to involve a lot of pairing. Doing that consistently for an entire week sounds...daunting.

Not everyone is going to agree to that, and it's completely understandable. I like to think I'm pretty convincing (or relentless depending on your point of view), but it's still a lot to ask from anyone.

The best way to deal with this is probably to agree on a set of guardrails around pairing so that there is plenty of time for rest and recuperation during the shadowing period. That is, don't pair eight hours a day for five days, that way lies insanity.

Moving on, shadowing could be confronting for the person being shadowed.

Having someone watch you while you go about your business, making conversation and otherwise encroaching in your mental space could definitely be an understandable sticking point for some people.

I think I can deal with the potentially confrontational nature of shadowing by offering to be shadowed myself before I ask it of anyone else. That way not only do I understand what it feels like, I also show others than I'm not willing to ask more of them than I am of myself.

Another thing to do would be to establish clear expectations about what I'm trying to accomplish. I want it to be a learning experience first and foremost, and an empathy generating experience second. There will be a lot of questions, but no judgement and no criticism, unless the person being shadowed explicitly asks for it.

The last sticking point is a common one: time.

As an engineering manager, I'm constantly busy. Right now it takes a lot of time and effort to keep the team running, wrangle a bunch of different threads and give people the care and attention that they need. I don't think it will always be like that, but that's how it is right now.

So to make time for this sort of experiential learning, I think I would have to treat shadowing like a holiday of sorts. I would have to disconnect myself from the day-to-day and focus all of my time on the shadowing, following another person around like some sort of oddly intelligent shade. A bonus of this is that it would test the autonomous capabilities of the team as well, which is always fun.

For the person being shadowed I'm not sure I can do anything about the time requirement :( I can aim to make the process as simple and easy as possible, but it's going to cost them something and I just need to make a good case for the value being delivered in exchange.

Which might be hard because it's mostly valuable to me.

As Inevitable As Your Guilty Conscience

So, shadowing for self-improvement.

Learning from my peers and betters.

Generating empathy for what other people go through and appreciation for the domains that they are working within.

I know that there will be challenges, but I feel like the potential gain is well worth the effort.

In fact, I'm committed to giving it a go during the next quarter (aka FY23 Q1).

I'll need to lay some groundwork (like this blog post), but I think it's an accomplishable goal.

Really, it's an experiment, and I should treat it as such. I have a hypothesis (spending dedicated time with a peer will generate understanding, empathy, and improvement) and I'll need to evaluate that hypothesis after the experiment has completed to see if it was actually worth the effort.

So, expect another blog post in the future describing why this was a great/terrible idea.

And I'll finally know what knowledge lurks in the hearts of men. Or women. Or however people choose to self-identify.

That's up to them.