Advancing the State of the Art for Engineering Leadership

Early on in my career, I assumed that being a great leader is about having the right answer all the time. After seeing several projects succeed and fail and reflecting on the reasons, I started to see things much differently. The most successful projects are almost never headed in the right direction and set up perfectly at the beginning. And the biggest train wrecks don’t always fail because of lack of knowledge. People often talk about good communication, project management, or execution being more important than ideas. To me, these are different ways of saying the same thing: establishing a healthy iterative loop is more important than having the right answer on day one.

When I worked at Facebook, I took over a high priority project (reporting directly to the CEO) that wasn’t doing well. When I started managing the team, I had 1:1s with my manager, new reports, and dozens of other people collaborating with us - literally everyone told me the project was doomed. As a result, the team was shrinking, confidence in the project was waning, and everyone had essentially given up. Fast-forward to 9 months later and we hit 3 out of 4 goals we set for the year and had a well-established, sustainable team to own the problem space long-term. How? We established an iterative loop that helped us build confidence and, ultimately, deliver results that surpassed any of our expectations.

  1. Learn. I had a fair amount of theoretical knowledge about the problems we were solving but everything else was new to me. I committed to learning everything possible about the project including the technical, organizational, and business challenges. Diving into a murky, ambiguous problem space was probably the scariest part, but being comfortable with doing that is an important skill to build.

  2. Set expectations. I acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and long road ahead while assuring people that, given time, we’d right the ship.

  3. Devise a plan. I worked with the team to identify the biggest keys to the team’s success (including things like educating other engineers at the company, recruiting, persuading other teams to devote resources to the project, and concrete deliverables), vetted that with the team and our collaborators, and distributed the work among several teams.

  4. Execute. Sequence work, track progress, and keep people motivated.

  5. Win. That actually worked!!

The above cycle repeated itself as new challenges presented themselves. But each time we returned to “learning” again we were more confident in our ability to win and build on previous successes.

If you’re standing at the base of a mountainous challenge, consider how you might define a feedback loop to claw your way to the summit.