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Peter Goodman

A software engineer and leader living in Auckland building products and teams. Originally from Derry, Ireland.

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I thought I would take a break from my series on Incident Response to talk about something that I wrote for a previous role.

I had just landed my first VP of Engineering role and I was reflecting on the fact that I had been given a lot of autonomy in the past which had allowed me to grow and develop. I wanted to ensure that I was providing the same opportunities to my team, especially the leaders, and so I wrote this piece on Guardrails. The idea was that defining the edges of the road would allow us to move fast and confidently.

I started with defining those edges of the road but then realised it was missing the equivalent of road etiquette so it kind of morphed to include Leadership Principles. These borrow heavily from Netflix and Amazon. I’ve left it pretty much as I wrote it 3 years ago removing some company specifics.

Anyway, hopefully you find it useful.

Highway Guardrails

Why Guardrails?

One of the things that I value the most is the autonomy to be able to take action when I see the need. I want all of the leaders in engineering to have this ability, in fact we need to be able to move fast as an organisation. However there are some considerations that we need to take into account in order to be able to do this confidently and safely.

  • Consistency
    How do we know that leaders are applying the same level of consistency? How do we represent company values, goals, policies in a consistent way? Inconsistencies in the way we treat these topics can confuse, demotivate, silo, and disenfranchise our people.

  • Authority
    At times it’s hard to know if you have the authority to make a decision. It should be clear what authority leaders have and, conversely, where they do not have the authority to make a decision. For example, you may wonder “can I sign a specific legal document, buy office equipment, be flexible with a few hours of leave, ask someone to spend a few days on an unplanned piece of work”?

  • Communication Silos
    It’s sometime hard to know what things you should communicate up or out. “Do I need to tell others what I am doing / deciding / experiencing?” A lack of the right type of communication can create risk for the business, me, you or your team.

Leadership Values

Of course we have our company values, which everyone should know. The following are the principles and values that I believe are important when thinking about how to serve, lead and treat team members.

  • Everyone comes to work to do a good job
    It’s really easy to forget, especially when you are frustrated or under pressure, that it’s extremely rare for someone to be intentionally obstructive or malicious. In fact I can’t think of a single occasion where I knew this be the case. We hire good people and we trust them. In all scenarios you encounter as a leader, try to remember that everyone around you is doing their best and came to work with the intention of succeeding. We all understand our blameless culture as it applies to Post-Mortems but it’s more than that. Blame has no part in constructive progress. Look for the systematic failures and use them to improve.

  • Create an environment where psychological safety exists for everyone
    Psychological Safety is the highest correlating factor for effective teams. You have a responsibility to create an environment where our people feel safe to work every day, to learn from failure, to be their authentic selves and to grow. The foundations for psychological safety are mutual trust and respect.

  • Create an environment where intrinsic motivation thrives [source]
    There are things that you can’t give people, intrinsic motivators that must come from within them. Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose are not something you can directly give to people. You can, however, create an environment where it is possible for them to get these motivators for themselves. How? Understanding what drives each person will help to optimise for their happiness where you can. If you know what they want to work on and what they want from their job then you will be better able to maximise this for mutual benefit.

  • Manage with Context, Not Control [source]
    Read the Netflix description but basically: Embrace Strategy, Metrics, Assumptions, Objectives, Clearly-Defined Roles, Knowledge of the stakes and Transparency around decision making. You should question any time you are adding top-down decision-making, additional unnecessary management approvals, decision committees, and excessive planning. Process shouldn’t be valued more than results. Make sure you are consistently reiterating the “why” and if you don’t know, find out. Think about how to frame the “why” in the most approachable and appropriate way for your teams without changing the facts.

  • Beware of the desire to be right, to know, and to succeed
    You will want to be right. You will want to know a subject that affects you. You will naturally want to succeed. It’s also ok to be wrong, to not know, and to fail but you will and arguably should desire better outcomes. Be careful though to recognise that nobody else should make you feel bad for being wrong, not knowing or failing. That’s a drive that comes from within and it’s constructive, not negative. There is no room for “you are wrong” or “You do not know”. This goes both ways and so this desire should not manifest in “I am right” or “I know” leaving no room for compromise or discussion. Once it is externalised in either direction, this desire can turn toxic.

  • Admit your mistakes
    Admit when you are wrong and let your team see it. Talk about what you learned and don’t aim for infallibility.

  • Know your bias
    Be aware of your biases. Own them and develop controls for them. Who are the people that give you good feedback? Rely on them to centre you where you know you need balance.

  • Ownership and Accountability
    One of the reasons for a blameless culture is to optimise for ownership and accountability. In the presence of blame ownership and accountability take a back seat. If you see a need, take ownership and be accountable for it.

  • Process for process sake is never the answer
    The agile manifesto tells us “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. Unnecessary processes add drag and cripple agility. We should endeavour to be light on prescribed processes and only apply additional process where required by compliance, productivity or safety. See “Freedom and Responsibility” from Netflix

  • Challenge that which has gone before
    Our norms, processes, approaches, and opinions are not universal immutable truths. You should foster a healthy intolerance towards friction and challenge it where you see it.

  • Make Informed Decisions [source | source]
    This is similar to Netflix’s “Informed Captains” or AWS’s “Bias for Action”. Basically you should look to make decisions quickly without waiting for a collective agreement. You do not need consensus but you must make reasonable efforts to seek dissent. In other words you must ensure your decision is well informed. Ask for feedback, socialise appropriately with those who have a vested interest and consider their input. The bigger the decision, the more feedback you should seek but don’t boil the ocean waiting for everyone to agree. Uninformed decisions are risky and demonstrate poor judgement. Be informed and decisive.

What you need my permission for

The following are scenarios where I ask that you seek my permission. Again in the interest of promoting autonomy, this list is purely the edges of the road.

  • Spending Money
    Familiarise yourself with the <Insert company finance guidelines here>. There are some things that require higher approval and some things I can approve. However, generally you can‘t approve spending or spend company money without seeking approval. For team meals and recruitment expenses we have other prior arrangements so ask myself or one of your peers how they work.

  • Signing Contracts
    This has two aspects - Finance and Legal. The <insert company finance guidelines here> governs whether you are allowed to commit to spending money via contracts. The legal aspect is whether you are allowed to sign on behalf of the company. As a general rule don’t sign anything before seeking my approval and legal.

  • Hiring people
    This is a team effort and requires multiple people in order to control for our biases and utilise our relative strengths. Generally if someone is going to report to you then you will need a “one-up” confirmation . At a governance level we need someone with the authority to approve the salary and headcount.

  • Firing people or offical disciplinary action
    Rather let myself and HR know at the earliest opportunity when you think you might have a problem. This is protecting you and our people.

  • Committing to changes in job description, salary, bonus
    See above

What you need to tell me

The following are things I would really like to know that you are doing. You don’t need my permission but I’d really appreciate a heads-up. Send me a Slack message about it. The reasons I want to know can be varied but for example these things may have visibility beyond our team, I may get asked about them and I want to be able to be informed in preparation, they may expose you or your people to risk that I want to make sure we are comfortable with. It’s not an exhaustive list and the principle of “no surprises” always applies but consider informing me a courtesy.

  • Achievements, Success and Excellence
    This is the most important one. Recognition.

  • Your concerns
    I can only help you if I know what they are

  • Your feedback
    Help me improve.

  • Incidents
    If our customers are affected by an incident, we should follow the incident response procedures first and make sure it is posted in one of the Slack channels we use for escalation. I don’t need a specific heads-up in a DM as I watch these channels

  • Team moves
    Moving team members between teams, although sometimes necessary, can be disruptive and sometimes leave us exposed to bias and poor judgement.

  • Office moves
    Moving entire teams around the office can again be disruptive. Seek advice from HR but keep me informed.

  • Significant roadmap / commitment changes
    Let me know what gets reprioritised and/or commitments we are not going to meet.

  • HR concerns
    Really, tell HR. But also help me make sure our people are safe and happy.

My commitment to you

  • Direct Actionable Feedback
    I will give you feedback that you can action in order to meet your goals and those of the department and company.

  • Open Information Where possible, I will endeavour to give you all the context and information you need to do your job to the best of your ability.

  • Live by these Leadership Values
    I will endeavour to hold myself to the same values and standards I set for you.