Turnaround Product Engineering by Debby Meredith

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in her own words

Debby studied computer science at Stanford, becoming a software engineer and soon an engineering leader at progressively larger organizations.  She has become the person to call if you want to significantly or urgently raise the bar on your engineering organization.  Debby specializes in going into startups that have a promising business opportunity when either their engineering needs to scale to the next level or is, for various reasons, struggling to effectively execute and deliver products to market. Often, Debby arrives to find some frustrated leaders and unhappy engineers, with eroding trust on both sides, running with feature teams and roadmaps.  She must earn the trust of these talented professionals, engage them, and transform the organization into effective, scalable product teams. Debby in her own words:

I love helping companies develop and scale their engineering and product organizations. Every company is different, and I begin by talking to people from all across the organization, and listening to what they have to say, and what people think I might be able to do to improve the situation.  Also, it’s important that I observe interactions in organizational meetings as well as the systems and artifacts of those to understand the company’s unique people dynamics and process challenges.  After this “intake period”, I generally find the same four fundamental and critical things I need to focus on.

The Example Starts at the Top

There are likely some serious issues coming from the top.  It’s important that I understand and address those, otherwise it’s very possible any changes will be less impactful or temporary.  Many startup founders or CEOs have never worked with strong engineering organizations, and it’s not uncommon to find leaders with fundamental misunderstandings about the role of technology, and the necessary contribution of engineers as a partner to product management and product design.  Further, I find that many founders and CEOs are unaware of the role they play in the challenges and success of the engineering organization.  So, education must happen there.

Focus and Strategy

Building and scaling a successful company is really hard, and every company has far more work they want to do, than people to do the work.  So focus is essential, and product strategy is what lets us get the most out of the resources and people we have.  Despite best intentions, upon close examination, often organizations that are scaling quickly or currently struggling have no real focus or no real product strategy.  Trying to do too many things at once will damage even the best engineering organizations.  In many cases, my arrival is the event the company needs to reestablish what focus really means.  I can’t usually make the choices for them, but I can insist that the leaders make the hard choices that are necessary.

Establish Trust

People are the heart and sole of any company, And, trust can enable those people, working together effectively, to create and achieve far more than they ever imagined individually.  This is the magic of successful companies.  In the very best product teams, engineering’s unique value is consistently innovating with technology to deliver winning products.  When an engineering organization is not perceived as able to deliver, there will be trust issues.  The executives don’t trust the engineering organization, and the engineers don’t trust the executives.  Lack of trust causes all kinds of bad behaviors and morale issues, on all sides, and usually results in a downward spiral.  It’s essential to have healthy ongoing trust.  Reestablishing and maintaining trust requires work — including focus and strategy — at every level of the organization, starting from the top but also from the engineers.  This leads to the next point.

Deliver on Promises

I need to work with the engineers to understand that when they make a promise or commitment, it is important they deliver on that promise.  There are “why,” “when,” and “how” components here that the overall organization needs to understand and support.  This involves coaching the executives to be smart about when they really need a date, and coaching the engineers on how to assess the work and take the obligation to deliver very seriously.  There are two aspects to this:  First, we need to replace unreliable estimation games they’re currently playing to try to predict dates with some rigor — thoroughly assessing what’s involved to get something working and delivered.  I am a big believer in “crawl, walk, run.”  That may mean building feasibility prototypes, or it may mean having some engineers take time to learn or flesh something out.  Whatever the approach, they need to be able to reasonably predict dates — when those dates are truly needed — with high confidence.  Second, once the engineers have made this commitment, they need to take this commitment very seriously and deliver.  This “do what you say you’re going to do” mentality is hopefully true for each person and team within a company.  Regardless, engineering needs to become known for following through on its commitments.

There’s no question that scaling an engineering organization is not a trivial undertaking.  However, the good news is that there are many examples today where this forward motion and successful transformation have occurred, and organizations are able to deliver with pride the products their companies and their customers depend on.

Content source: debbymeredith.com and EMPOWERED by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

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