Working with Engineers - Time, Team Chemistry, and Van Halen. [The Web Explained: Part 11]

Working with Engineers - Time, Team Chemistry, and Van Halen. [The Web Explained: Part 11]

March 15, 2021 | 🕐8 Min Reading Time

⏳ Time. The most precious resource. You probably shouldn't waste it in meetings.

I've personally experienced and lamented over our society's complete disrespect for the absolute blessing that is even the smallest increment of time. On an individual level, it should be our most carefully guarded resource. On a company level, its misuse should be analyzed, reported on, and further optimized in the same way that the financial balance sheet is. The hourglass of our lives is very real, and if you let it, the disappearing grains of sand can be the biggest limitation to your potential, always running in short supply.

Too close.

I propose another solution. If we view the limited time we all have as a forcing function to eschew the madness of inconsequential things, we can shine our light on what really matters to us in life and accomplish what many will view as superhuman. Spoiler alert: It's not superhuman. It's at the very core of what we are supposed to be as humans. We all receive a fresh warm sunrise every 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds, and how we use the time until the next one is entirely up to us. You, me, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and the random guy scratching lottery tickets outside the 7-Eleven all have the same number of hours in a day to transform our calling into something greater than ourselves. It's not magic; it's priorities.

Two Latin words sum this up succinctly, Memento Mori — "remember, you are mortal." When you view your life from this wonderfully depressing zero-sum lens, things start to change. You find your tolerance for petty arguments and pointless meetings-that-should-have-been-emails vexingly low. Your soul begins to feel pressure to do that thing you've been putting off. The simple act of reflecting on your mortality causes you to appreciate every second for what it is, an incredible gift that should be stewarded and protected like the finest riches and metals on the Earth. Like that collection of Beanie Babies I have from 1996...or as I call it, my retirement plan.

Still not convinced? Take a look at this illustration of your life in one-week blocks from an absolute treasure on the internet, Wait But Why:

Your life, in one-week blocks

Some of us will get more blocks, many of us will get fewer. The message should be clear; we need to get busy living instead of blowing through the blocks of time like we are Rambo, and it's an infinite supply of ammunition.

Aside from the total allotment of time we all get, when you break down the months, weeks and days as unique opportunities for fresh starts and continual progression towards your full potential, you begin to train yourself to recognize patterns, good and bad. In the context of working with an engineering organization, there is one such modality that rises above all the rest, and that is flow state.

Have you ever been so deeply involved or focused on something that time seemed to disappear, and the only thing that mattered was what was right in front of you? Do you remember a deep satisfaction when you finally looked up and realized that you'd finished that song, that painting, or that project? That's flow state - being "in the zone," it's where creative deep-work thrives, and it's what creative people like Engineers require to do our best.

What's this mean concretely? It means that most people (engineers especially) need hours of uninterrupted thought to connect all of the synapses required to build the next great thing. Every "quick" check-in, Slack message, or tap on the shoulder will shake someone loose from this state, and once disrupted it can take upwards of 23 minutes to recover and re-engage with the target they were locked onto before.

If you find yourself spinning up a ton of meetings, take a real solid look at whether or not they need to exist, or if simply starting a shared space to collaborate asynchronously would be more beneficial. Giving people space and time to process your questions and provide thoughtful responses will always yield better thoughts than being expected to answer questions in real-time like some sort of crappy work-trivia gameshow.

Simply, if you're going to work with any creatives, whether they be film editors, mathematicians, or software engineers, you need to respect the maker vs. manager schedule. In the words of tech titan Paul Graham:

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.

Those of us on the maker's schedule are willing to compromise. We know we have to have some number of meetings. All we ask from those on the manager's schedule is that they understand the cost.

Remember that even though most Agile proponents love the term "sprint" — it's a marathon. Being tired isn't a badge of honor. Play the long game. Let your engineers get shit done. Let yourself get shit done. Allow room for happy accidents and the occasional breath. You'll both be happier, more creative, and ultimately more successful. A useful piece of advice from the book Make Time is to simply pick ONE SINGLE THING that you want to accomplish in a day and protect the time to check it off your list it like it's your only child. Do this consistently, and you'll quickly begin to abhor those days where it's 5:30pm, and you realize you have no idea what you accomplished, other than lots of meetings.

I challenge you to look at how you contribute to noise wherever you are. Are you allowing your teams to have long, predictable, protected-no-matter-what spots of unincumbered focus? Are you affording yourself the same respect? You should. If not, there are many great examples of teams and organizations that do this well, and if you are willing to be inspired, I can't recommend learning from the folks at Basecamp enough:

I'll link to a few awesome resources on how to think about time, but let's be honest...Pink Floyd nailed it already:

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today And then one day you find ten years have got behind you No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun ... Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way The time is gone, the song is over Thought I'd something more to say

🧠 Learn more about Time and how to wrangle it:


🎸 Team Chemistry: A dissertation on Van Halen and software development.

One helluva good band. Remember when Van Halen replaced David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar? I don't because it was in 1985, and I was 4 years old, but I do recall the seething hatred and vitriol for what became known as Van Hagar that never subsided. The fans revolted. It wasn't the same. Some may argue this point, but Sammy was a damn fine singer, a great showman, and despite his inability to drive 55, he was a pretty good dude. It's just that the band wasn't the same. While both lead singers had some great hits and could arguably share bragging rights, by simply changing one member, the band's entire chemistry seemed different. It was different.

Doing what you can to keep a good engineering team together, despite the project, is like making sure that David Lee Roth is the lead singer and Eddie Van Halen is on that freakin' matter the set.

The best engineering teams I've ever worked with often share some sort of history. They are teams that have spent at least 6 months forming, attacking problems, and owning something that they can take pride in. It's amazing what happens when you find two or more people who, while diverse in all the ways humanity can be, manage to find a shared purpose centered around making something greater than themselves.

When you find these natural bonds between engineers, do whatever you can to protect and encourage connection in your organization. Screw fungibility. Allow a team to forge bonds and build relationships. Do what you can to ensure they develop and protect their own unique culture, rituals, and inside-jokes. In doing so, you'll allow them to discover what works best as a collective.

The efficiency that you will see from having a team that has been allowed time and space to form a strong and cohesive bond isn't just something that sounds good; it's freakin science:

In a study conducted at the University of Oxford examined 1,004 development projects, involving 11,376 employees. A 50% increase in team familiarity was followed by a 19% decrease in defects and a 30% decrease in deviations from budget.

By keeping teams together, you allow them to:

  • Pivot more easily when the nature of the work changes
  • Spread knowledge amongst several people, reducing knowledge silos
  • More efficiently plan and coordinate activities

In Entreleadership by Dave Ramsey, he talks about the power of a good pairing, albeit with horses:

“One of the largest, strongest horses in the world is the Belgian draft horse. Competitions are held to see which horse can pull the most, and one Belgian can pull 8,000 pounds. The weird thing is if you put two Belgian horses in the harness who are strangers to each other, together they can pull 20,000 – 24,000 pounds. Two can pull not twice as much as one but three times as much as one. This example represents the power of synergy. However, if the two horses are raised and trained together, they learn to pull and think as one. The trained, and therefore unified, pair can pull 30,000 – 32,000 pounds, almost four times as much as a single horse.”

Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division

I should amend this with one final caveat. By simply sticking 5 or 6 people in a room and letting them marinate for 6 months, you are not guaranteed to have a high-performing team. Unfortunately, there may need to be hard choices along the way if it's apparent that a single member of the team is actually slowing things down and fostering disunity.

When analyzing a team, I've always found it helpful to think of a team as a collection of mathematical operators: adders, subtractors, multipliers, and dividers.

  • Adders add real value to the team. They're the ones that just get shit done.
  • Multipliers are like adders, but these are your leaders. They make everyone around them better. Treat them well.
  • Subtractors aren't always bad, but they take away from the overall output of a team, if only for a short while. A new junior-level engineer, intern, or other entry-level position might be a (temporary) subtraction.
  • Dividers are toxic to the team and, if left unchecked, will destroy a team from the inside-out. Dividers spread gossip. Dividers only talk about how unhappy they are. Dividers tear down other people's sandcastles but never think how they would do it better. If you can't seem to get through to a Divider and help them understand how they're showing up, the best choice is to remove them from the team. I've unfortunately found myself in this position a few times in my career, and it's never easy. It sucks. But, in every instance, the person went on to find a new team and, in some cases, a new company that suited them better and allowed them to meet their full potential. By removing a Divider, your team may get more done with less friction, and despite a potential loss in headcount, they'll amaze you with what they accomplish.

Putting the right people together is one of the hardest tricks any leadership in engineering has to pull off. So if you find yourself hatching an idea to "pull this person over here, that person over there, etc.," you might want to try alternative battle plans to accomplish the mission.

Keep the band together...even if they're a little weird, and demand that M&M's be verboten.

🧠 Learn more about Team Chemistry
> Harvard Business Review: Hidden Benefits of Keeping Teams Intact
> Jocko Willink/Business Insider: When to Mentor, When to Fire