An Anchor in the Storm
(NB: This post was originally published at The Pastry Box Project)
January is a time for looking back and taking stock of the year that was. Well, my 2017 was rough. And I’m not even talking about the dumpster fire that is American politics.
See, last year was a turbulent one for me in many ways. Etsy, the company I work for, had two rounds of layoffs which affected many of my friends and colleagues. The resulting re-organization left me working on a new short-term project with uncertainty about what the future might hold. I felt like the work I’d done and relationships I’d built in a year and a half at Etsy had been shattered into pieces.
But, I survived. I’m super optimistic about the future, and I am ridiculously proud of what my team was able to accomplish despite the upheaval, uncertainty, and heartache last year. My team managed to be not just productive, but wildly successful at learning a new domain of frontend development and delivering high-impact work.
2017 was also, somehow, the most successful year of my professional career. I spoke at conferences, I co-wrote a book, I was promoted to staff engineer (one of only a handful of women to reach that level at work), and my silly side project spent a day at #1 on Hacker News.
I’m still struggling to reconcile this dichotomy of experiences last year. The highest highs and the lowest lows occurred one after the other in rapid succession, even happening on the same day. Like the day I sat in a hotel room on the other side of the country waiting to find out if I’d survived a round of layoffs, less than two hours before stepping on stage at the biggest conference of my speaking career. I somehow managed to get up on stage and give my talk, but when I look back on it, my feelings of pride and accomplishment are clouded by sadness - was that a good day? Or a bad one?
I’ve thought a lot in the past few months about what made my team and I so successful at weathering the storm last spring and summer. How did I manage to put my feelings aside and continue moving forward? What I keep coming back to is the certainty that I was successful because my team implemented and followed an agile process that brought order to the unpredictability. But, for a time, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why agile had been so important, until I read Lara Hogan’s excellent post introducing me to Paloma Medina’s BICEPS model, which describes the “six core needs researchers find are most important for humans at work”:
- Belonging = being part of a community, connection with your peers
- Improvement/Progress = progress towards a goal, personal growth
- Choice = having control, autonomy, ownership of decisions
- Equality/Fairness = equal access to resources, fairness
- Predictability = certainty about the future, consistency in direction
- Status = your work is valued and recognized
(NB: These are the Cliff Notes, you should go and read Paloma’s full descriptions)
The uncertainty and change at work threatened almost all of my core needs. A resilient agile process was an anchor of stability that strengthened my BICEPS in a time of incredible change.
When I lost teammates, colleagues, and friends, my sense of belonging got turned upside down. Switching gears and merging two different teams together could have gone poorly for us. But I can confidently and proudly say that we became an extremely high-functioning team in a very short period of time.
Our process facilitated knowledge-sharing and collaboration. Daily standups helped us to get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses and, I felt, brought us closer together as people. After a round of status updates, standups usually became watercooler time (so vitally important for remote employees like me). I felt we had a safe place to talk honestly about our feelings, to share morbid jokes about our situation, to lift each other up.
Nothing is more frustrating than feeling as though your hard work and effort are going nowhere, that you aren’t moving your team or your project or your personal growth forward towards a goal. I’m coming to realize that churning on something without palpable forward progress is my number one cause of dissatisfaction at work.
Agile and the process of breaking down work into small, discrete, manageable chunks provided us with a constant stream of small wins. It is incredibly satisfying to move a ticket into that done column! Feeling like I was consistently achieving our goals was a huge morale booster.
As a smaller, autonomous team operating under the umbrella of a larger team, it would have been easy for my team to be subsumed entirely into the parent team’s roadmap of product work. By having a, separate, well-organized process for planning and executing goals made it possible to maintain control over the work. Not to say that I wasn’t willing to do whatever was required of me, but if we’d lost our autonomy, I wouldn’t have felt the same sense of ownership and satisfaction with what we were doing. Because my team consistently executed well, we kept control and were given free rein to do the vitally important work in front of us.
Personally, my need for predictability was far and away the hardest hit by the changes at work. The uncertainty was overwhelming - would I have a job in a day or a week or a month? What would happen to my team? What was I supposed to do now? There were periods where I didn’t know the answers to those questions.
At its core, agile is a structure for bringing order to the messy and complicated act of writing software. It provided the stability and predictability I needed to survive periods of uncertainty. I always knew exactly what work I needed to do from day-to-day in order to meet our goals. There was a plan, I knew how to accomplish it, and my team was able to pivot quickly when priorities changed.
What I’ve learned #
When I first broached the idea with my squad that we adopt an agile process, I didn’t have any of these ex post facto justifications. I’d done agile for about 5 years at prior jobs, and I knew how transformative it could be. I’d talked to folks about implementing agile for months prior to the layoffs, but I had always waited for someone else with more authority than me to drive that change. Post-layoffs, I realized that I needed to stop waiting around for someone else and just do it myself. I had all of the authority I needed because my team supported me.
In hindsight, that decision is what started my team down the path to success. It provided us with a framework to plan and execute towards our goals, to give us control when it felt like everything was beyond our control, to bring some stability to a time of extreme unpredictability, and to bring us closer together as people.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, our successes helped us make the case to form a brand new, permanent team, with an even more ambitious and exciting mission than before. I am super optimistic about what my team and I will accomplish in 2018, and I can’t wait to share it with all of you!