Great League of Engineers

Notes from a unique team productivity event.

Last month I was scheduled to speak at Happiness Conf in Boston (my home base city). The mission of this unique conference was to meet and share what makes a startup team productive and happy. This was supposed to be an event just about the productivity and team building, not focused on any specific technology or methodology. I really liked this idea, and wanted to share the Kensho successes in hiring smart people and growing rock star developers in-house.

Suddenly 2 weeks before the event I received an email from the organizers stating that the Happiness Conf was cancelled due to low ticket sales. Considering that the organizers have not promoted the event (I have not seen any mentions on any Boston newsletters or twitter campaigns), this was not very surprising. Sadly this unique opportunity was not to be.

I was so upset and so set on being at the conference that I have decided to organize a mini-event on the same topic. Instead of 2 full days I planned to find a space for a couple of hours in the evening; invite a couple of people from the startup / meetup community to deliver short talks about what makes their teams productive and organize a panel with smart people to answer questions from the audience. Luckily, there were a couple of spaces that could accommodate this event at a very short notice. We picked the Brightcove downtown Boston office: it is at a great location and has space for up to 200 people.

The invitation distributed through Eventbrite quickly gathered more than a 100 registered guests (at the event we ultimately saw about 50 attendees). To provide a good balance, we had 4 speakers (including myself) deliver a 15 minute talk each. The speakers were

  • Sharon DiOrio @sharondio "How to annoy and drive developers away" (slides)
  • Brian Sodano @codemouse "Achieving Happiness & Productivity at the intersections of Love & Problem-Solving" (slides)
  • Gleb Bahmutov @bahmutov "Building an orchestra of rockstars" (slides)
  • Ben Rubin @bsrubin "Environmental and Organizational Hacks to Keep Your Startup Happy and Cranking" (slides)

I am extremely grateful to the 3 speakers who agreed to spend time preparing the content and speaking about what makes them productive as engineers (or unproductive!) Ben Rubin was an excellent non-engineer speaker who provided a good balance and fit very well with the rest of the presentations (thanks, Ben).

After the talks we had a panel with the speakers and a couple very sharp technical people

  • Matt Taylor, CTO Kensho
  • Jeff Whelpley, @jeffwhelpley Chief architect, GetHuman
  • Samson Timoner, @samsonjt Founder and former CTO of Scalable Display Technologies

The MC of the evening, Bhavesh Dayalji has prepared many questions in advance to get the panel started - but it was unnecessary, because the audience members had no problems asking the questions themselves. The panel members answered the questions thoroughly and building upon the answers provided by the other panel participants. Two things stood out in my mind during the panel discussion

  • A strong emphasis on "playing ball" with the business / sales teams. The developer teams usually complain that the business people sell a product before it is even technologically proved possible. The panel really agreed that this is a necessary evil: the business trends are sometimes aligned against the technology trends and must be dealt with, whether an engineering team likes it or not. We have to sell a product to pay the bills.
  • Several members of the panel shared the same biggest error of their careers: jumping into the management position too soon. Everyone who has made this mistake felt the longing to go back to coding, and felt like missing on learning new technologies and contributing meaningfully to the team.

Between the talks and the panel, the word "passion" was said several times. I agree that whenever one discusses what makes the team productive, it must be that the team's goals align with the engineers' passion for coding, for tinkering, for building systems. We are most productive when we do what we love. The dev team is the happiest and most productive when the passion of the individual members aligns with the overall company's goals.

Any team lead or manager, or even CEO should go through the linked slides (I will ping each presenter to make sure I have all the slides) and make notes. We are engineers, we love challenges, respect the market realities, and ultimately love solving problems - it is up to the leaders to pose the goals worth reaching for.