4 min read

What I Did In The Shadows

What I Did In The Shadows
God I love this movie. All credit to Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

I like knowing things.

I like having enough different pieces of information floating around in my head such that I can create connections between them. To spin an insane spiderweb that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

A while back I wrote about shadowing other Engineering Managers so that I could steal their secrets. To know more things, make more connections in my head and be wiser and more effective as a result.

Luckily for me, someone actually agreed to be shadowed. To have me perch on their shoulder like some sort of deranged nosferatu, hissing incessantly and trying to stay out of the sun.

So, with that mental picture firmly in mind, let's get on with it.

Leave Me To Do My Dark Bidding!

I wanted to experience everything, so I got the other engineering manager to invite me to all of the meetings that they were having for the week. Team rituals, planning conversations, etc.

But being an engineering manager isn't just meetings, even though it feels like it sometimes. It's also doing assorted managery tasks, and, if you're really lucky, getting some time to reflect and think about the future.

I didn't want to miss any of that goodness.

So, to capture the rest of the experience, whenever there wasn't a meeting, we'd hang around in a persistent Zoom session that I set up.

I also organised an emergency valve. If at any point the person being shadowed got tired of my presence, they could just tell me to go away with no apologies or politeness expected. My intent was to be quiet and observe, but I know that just having someone hanging around while you try to do things can be very exhausting.

With expectations set, it was go time.

Over the course of approximately four days, I got to experience:

  • The team's stand-up
  • A couple of one-on-ones
  • A catchup with a feature lead about their project
  • A team walk
  • The team's weekly operational catchup (aka TechOps)
  • How the other engineering manager organises their own work
  • A catchup with the full working group for a project
  • A focus period working on a product vision
  • Some random administrative stuff

That's a lot of stuff!

But did I learn anything?

My Heart Is Cold And Dead

I'll be up front, there were no earth-shattering revelations.

The person I was shadowing wasn't doing things so differently that it forced me to re-evaluate my life choices. They were an engineering manager in a relatively nearby team who had started a few months after me and who had the same manager. Our modes of operation were pretty similar.

That doesn't mean I didn't learn anything though.

I learned more about the problem domain that their team was focused on. I got to see some of the strategic work going into shaping the future of that domain along with bits and pieces about its daily operation. This is useful to me because it helps me to understand more about the larger ecosystem of Atlassian and the strategic work specifically was useful as a demonstration of how I might go about similar work myself.

I'm pretty bad at being strategic, so every little bit helps.

I learned more about how their team operates. Some key learnings here include how the team talks about and evolves their ways of working, how much work the team is trying to do at once and the interpersonal dynamics within the team.

The ways of working stuff was particularly interesting. It was built up from a combination of ongoing conversations, delegating topics to specific team members and consistent documentation, and I intend to steal it unashamedly.

The last thing I learned was empathy. I know, not a typical lesson, but it was great to just see a few days in the life of another engineering manager. To understand more about the problems they are facing and how they are dealing with them. Not only does it help me to put my own stuff into perspective, it also helps me to form a closer relationship with the other engineering manager.

Maybe Sweep Up Some Of The Skeletons?

As with anything I do, I'm always looking for ways to improve. This shadowing experience is no exception.

The first improvement would be to pick my shadowing week more thoughtfully.

It wasn't that I picked a bad week or anything, but there was nothing special about it in the scheme of things. Not really. In fact, it was a little suboptimal because I missed out on the last day of the week due because the team got together physically in Sydney (I'm in Brisbane).

In the future, I might try to align my shadowing with a particular time. I want to know more about how other people approach difficult tasks, so shadowing that sort of thing sounds like a good idea to me.

Annual reviews perhaps? Or maybe quarterly planning?

I have to be careful though, because those times are incredibly busy and stressful and adding shadowing to the mix is a pretty big ask.

The second improvement would be to disconnect myself from my own team more aggressively.

I tried. I set some expectations about not being around. That my team should treat me like I'm on "holidays", but I found myself getting pulled back into the team shenanigans, especially towards the end of the week.

I think the biggest problem is that it's hard to disconnect when you're still using your normal work environment to shadow. I need to strike a better balance between having access to all of the normal work things in order to do the shadowing, but not being distracted by all of the normal noise.

I'm confident I can do better with a bit of practice.

Get Away From The Sunlight!

Would I do it again?

Almost certainly, but not with the same person. Not for a while at least.

What I'm after is a breadth of experience, not a deep understanding of another engineering manager and their team, so doing it again with the same person would run contrary to my goals.

I think doing it once a quarter would be more than enough. If I keep the engagement short, to just a single week, the risk of it impacting the team or any of my own quarterly deliverables is low. It's just like being on holidays, except with the added benefit of learning.

Something that definitely doesn't happen when I'm on holidays.

Really, want I want to do is find a way to steal the best bits from everyone.

To take everything that makes them amazing and then graft it onto myself.

I will become a wonderous chimera.

Or some sort of horrible abomination.

Either or.