This week will be my last at Unruly; I’ll be moving on just shy of nine years from when I joined a very different company at the start of an enthralling journey.
Unruly’s grown from around a dozen people when I joined to hundreds, with the tech team growing proportionally. Team growth driven by needs arising from commercial success with revenue growth, investment, being acquired, and continued success today.
A constant over the past few years has been change. We had continued success partly because we successfully adapted products to rapidly changing commercial contexts. Success in turn instigated change that required more adaptation.
It’s been a privilege to be part of a company that was successful, affording me with many opportunities and remaining interesting for nine years; I’d like to think I’ve played some small part in making it so.
It’s almost a meme in tech that one “should” move on to a new organisation every 2 years to be successful and learn. Those who stick in the same place for longer are sometimes even judged as lacking ambition or being content with not learning new things. “Do they have 9 years of experience or one year of experience 9 times?” people quip.
There are, however, benefits of staying at the same company for an extended period of time that don’t get talked about a great deal.
Witness Tech Lifecycle
A cliched reaction when reading code is “who [what idiot] wrote this?”. It’s easy to blame problems on the previous administration. However, to do so is to miss a learning opportunity. If we followed Norm Kerth’s prime directive:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
We could see code or systems that surprise us as an opportunity to understand what the context was that led people to build things in this way. Yes, perhaps they did not have the skill to see your “obviously better” solution. On the other hand maybe they had no idea that what they were building would be used for its current application. Maybe they had cost, or technological constraints that are now invisible to you.
Understanding the history of our software and systems can help us shape them into the future, avoid past mistakes, and improve our understanding of the domain at the current point in time.
It has been particularly interesting to see first hand how things play out with tech over an extended period of time, such as
- How early design decisions enable or limit longevity
- TDDed codebases supporting substantial change safely for many years
- Hot new hyped tech becoming tech nobody wants to touch
- Tech being used for drastically different purposes to what it was built for
- Code that is habitable and is “lived-in” out of necessity remaining easily maintainable for many years
- Highly reliable and valuable systems suffering from operational-underload. Having little need to change they fade from memory to the point that no-one knows how to make a change when it’s needed.
- Seeing the industry change rate outpace the rate at which software can be refactored.
Sticking around at the same place for a while makes it possible to observe all this happening. Even if you haven’t had the luxury of being a witness to the history, it’s an interesting exercise to dig through artifacts such as code, systems, documents, as well as speaking to those who were there to understand how things got to where they are today.
Witness Lifecycle of Practices
It’s been interesting to observe the cycle of teams trying new things to work more effectively. It often goes something like
- Frustration with the ineffectiveness of an aspect of how the team is working
- Experiment proposed
- Adoption of new working practice
- Cargo culted as “how we work”
- The original intent is forgotten
- The practice changes as people copy what they observe imperfectly
- Context changes
- The practice is no longer helpful; we keep doing it anyway out of habit
It seems to be relatively easy to communicate traditions and rituals through time—the things that we do that can be observed by new colleagues.
It appears much harder to retain organisational memory of the intent behind practices. This can lead to practices being continued after they stop being useful, or being twisted into a semblance of the original practice that doesn’t achieve the same benefits.
This happens on trivial things e.g. a team found they were recording meetings just because other teams were doing so, even though no-one was listening to their recordings.
It also happens in more dangerous contexts—we observed our practice of continuous deployment drifting from a safe, tight feedback loop to a fire and forget strategy of hope. Newcomers had observed regular, confident deploys, but missed the checking and responding part of the feedback loops.
Even well documented XP practices are not immune to this: the practice of continuous integration becoming synonymous with tooling and then used to support isolation rather than integration. TDD becoming synonymous with writing tests first rather than a feedback loop—creating resistance to refactoring rather than enabling it.
Various things help teams pick up on these sort of problems and adapt, but it takes longer to recognise there’s a problem when intent has been forgotten.
Our teams have regular retrospectives with facilitators from other teams. We’ve encouraged blogging & speaking about the way we work, both internally and externally. We even have a team of coaches who work to help teams continuously improve.
None of these are sufficient. I think where we’ve been most effective at retaining both practices and understanding of intent is where there’s a clear narrative that can be retold to new people in the team. e.g. tales of wins originating from Gold Cards (20% time), help people to understand why they’re valuable.
Sticking in the same place for a while gives the luxury of remembering the original intent behind working practices. Even if you’re new to a team it’s worth questioning things the team is doing, rather than assuming there’s a good reason; try to understand the intent and see if it’s still achieving that today. Fresh eyes are valuable too.
Observe Teams Grow
Seeing the same organisation at different stages of growth is quite interesting. Observing practices that worked at one scale ceasing to be effective.
It’s easy to look at things that work at other organisations and assume that they’ll work where you are as well. However, it’s enlightening to see things that used to work in your own organisation cease to work because the context has changed.
Take deployment strategies: when all your users are within earshot you can maybe just shout that there’s going to be an outage and see if anyone objects. At a larger scale, zero-downtime deployments become important. When risk is higher, things like canary deploys and blue-green deployments become necessary (if you want to continue to deliver continuously).
Take communication: if the team is small and co-located perhaps everyone can know what’s going on through osmosis. As the team grows, more deliberate communication is needed to keep people informed. As scale increases, more and more effort is needed to distil meaning from the noise of information.
Safely Explore Different Roles
Sticking in one place for a while affords one the luxury of not having to learn a new tech stack, domain, and culture. There’s of course plenty to learn just to keep up with the pace of change within the same tech stack and domain, but enough remains constant to create space for other learning.
For me it created space to learn leadership skills, change management skills, people management skills, coaching skills, facilitation skills and more.
In a supportive organisation it may even be possible to try out different sorts of roles without risking being out of a job if it doesn’t work out. Charity Majors’ post on the engineer manager pendulum really resonates with me. I’ve enjoyed the the opportunity to switch between very different roles within product development over the past few years. Others have even switched between BizDev, Adops, Product, Data and Development roles.
The last few years
I’ve been privileged to work for a supportive company that has provided me with opportunities without hopping around. I’ve had the honour of working with many brilliant people from whom I’ve learnt a great deal.
In the last nine years I’ve made many mistakes, and lived to correct them. I’ve helped build products that failed, and helped turn them into a success. I’ve hurt people, and been forgiven. I’ve created conflicts, and resolved them. I’ve seen code become legacy, and salvaged it. I’ve caused outages, and recovered from them.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should stick at the same place for a long time, just that it can be fulfilling if you find yourself in a place as great as Unruly.