One of our inherent values at Enova is ongoing learning and development. As an engineer, I have the ability to attend at least one conference each year. For me, that first conference was the Lead Developer Conference held in Austin on March 2. The event was hosted by Meri Williams and followed a schedule featuring valuable content from talented speakers. Below is the synopsis of the great talks that were held there and what I learned from them.
This conference started with “Leveling Up: The Way of the Lead Developer” by Pat Kua.
Pat started by describing how not to be a Lead Developer who is one of the three Monsters:
- Mirror Monster: We software engineers are makers, but when we transition into a senior/lead role, we need to ‘let go and give control to engineers’. To avoid the Mirror Monster, we need to ‘Move from maker to multiplier mode’.
- Switch Monster: For us engineers, feedback is binary most of the time, but we need to understand ‘the difference between and cost associated with the Right Solution and a Working Solution’. To avoid the Switch Monster, we need to accept that sometimes, solutions are blurry and fuzzy, and that ‘Blurry is the new Binary’.
- Moan Monster: With reference to the Ladder of Influence, the speaker mentions it is crucial that we understand ‘how’ we say ‘what’ we say. To stay away from the Moan monster, we need to ‘empathize and motivate over moan’.
One of the best talks that I have ever attended was “Do the Most Good” by Mina Markham. Currently she is an engineer at Slack and worked for Hillary Clinton during her 2016 US presidential election campaign.
Her talk contained a lot of political references and emphasized, “We have failed as an engineer if we do not ask ourselves the question: can what we have developed/created be used to hurt someone?” The reference was to the “fake news” during the time of election campaigns and how it was used to mask truth and spread rumors.
She stressed how important is it to be an ‘accomplice’ who has some skin in the game as compared to simply being an ally, and to find joy wherever we can do the most good. With the help of a relatable example, she made a valid point: Let’s say an individual accidentally hits someone with their car. The first reaction that the person driving the car would usually have is making sure the person who got hit knows they did not do it intentionally. This is absurd. The driver’s first reaction should always be to make sure the person is okay, following which they should apologize for their action. Only then does the driver get to let the person know it was an accident and a regrettable mistake. The point Mina wanted to make was, “Let’s not make everything about us, but rather address the issue at hand.” She also encouraged us to get associated with a lot of nonprofit organizations to empower the industry to do the right thing.
Another amazing talk was “Death of Data: Retention, Rot and Risk” by Heidi Waterhouse . The reason I loved this talk was because her ideas throughout the presentation resonated with mine — especially outlining the difference between archiving and data backups. With reference to Data, she asked people to:
- Collect Carefully
- Ingest Mindfully
- Delete Boldly
She made a very valid point about how we have age old data that is no longer relevant and how our current studies are still biased referring to that age-old data. She gave an example of how BMI was a study from 1912 for a very specific section of people and how we have carried the stale irrelevant data to this day, proving her point about the fact that ‘We have encoded our prejudices in the system’.
She then talked about a very unfortunate personal experience she had after which targeted advertisements wouldn’t stop following her. No matter how many times she unsubscribed from all the places that she had once subscribed, there was no escape. It was only after when she took down her machine metal by metal that it finally stopped, and that is when she made a very crucial point in the talk — that the conception of profiling data points is false. “Profiling is about people, not data points”
Heidi concluded with the following guidelines for corporations:
- Hire an Archivist/Librarian
- Constrain storage space to avoid digital garbage
- Train people about data retention
- Automate deletion
“Building Engineering Teams Under Pressure” by Julia Grace was another good talk that talked about ‘Psychological Safety and How to Achieve it in Diverse Teams.’ She started with some scientifically proven facts:
- People trust similar people/gender.
- Diverse teams are the best teams to solve problems
Based on the above assumptions, the question is, how do we foster psychological safety in diverse teams, and why is it so difficult to achieve?
She mentioned that oftentimes we land up in situations where “different people are trying to solve different problems that they think is the same problem,” as compared to what we desire – ”different people solving the same problem in a safe environment,” and this can only be achieved with clarity – clarity of thought, clarity of purpose and clarity between the members of any team. This graph shows how teams with psychological safety and clarity are the ones that are high performing.
She concluded with some tips to achieve psychological safety with clarity:
- Conduct a survey with the individual team members every 6-12 months with questions like purpose of the team.
- Meet for lunches regularly and then get the team on the same page.
- Align on the same Mission Statement.
- Create a team emoji and a mascot – to boost the morale of the team and get a sense of belongingness and ownership.
The Three Mile Island is an interesting study, and Nickolas Means had a some insights to “Who Destroyed Three Mile Island.” I have heard him talk before, so I knew his approach — Nickolas narrates a story in history with facts and then makes his point. The gist of his talk was going over the events that led to the shutdown of the Three Mile Island and how everything that was being done to help the situation just made it worse. He made a pressing point that people have hindsight bias, which leads to documenting the first story, but what we should really focus and look for is the second story, which should be more of outcome bias.
As teams and individuals, we should focus on forward accountability rather than backwards, dig and understand why the decisions that were made then made sense, and understand “what, not who, caused the problem,” because human error is never a cause but a symptom.
There were a number of other good talks which made some substantial points:
- Don’t fear mistakes, but learn from them.
- Prepare your incentives before you need them.
- What got us here will not get us there, so embrace continuous solving and make the industry better with empathy.
- Never let previous experience bias you.
- 1:1s are magical, and one should have it with their direct reports/manager every other week. It does not have to be about all smiles, or status reporting, but speaking your heart out, even venting.
- Own code pushes and see it through to completion.
- Blameless culture is a must for a thriving environment.
- Last but not the least, how Microservices help achieve separation of concern, scalability and flexibility.
This was one of the best non-tech conferences that I have ever attended, and I highly recommend it.