Kaya Thomas

Jan 27, 2019 ⋅ 7 min read

SFELC Summit Recap

On January 24th I had the opportunity to attend the San Francisco Engineering Leadership Community (SFELC) Summit. The summit consisted of over 40 speakers who are engineering leaders, authors and entrepreneurs.

Usually when I attend conferences I live tweet the sessions as they happen, but for this conference I thought a blog post would be a better way to share my reflections of what I learned from attending.

Here’s some quick takeaways from a few great sessions:

  • Managing for creativity is a different practice than managing for reliability. As a manager for creative teams you have to expand the definition of success, provide incentives like impact and visibility and trust your team to do the work. (The Quantum Theory of Managing Creative Teams, James Everingham)
  • If you want your ideas to take root, you have to spend time getting people to embody it like it’s their own idea. Telling someone to do something doesnt mean they will do it, you have to make the why and what explicit so they can form a personal investment in the vision/project. (Influence Without Authority, Maria Latushkin)
  • You have to educate people on how to spot impactful work. Knowing how to solve a problem is a separate skill from knowing which problems to choose to solve in the first place. (Engineering Your (Engineers’) Career(s): Balancing Impact With Personal Growth, Jean-Denis Greze)
  • Trust is not gained through team-building events, giving thanks or being transparent with information; trust is built through being vulnerable, making intentions clear and sticking to your commitments. (The Accidental Bad Manager, Claire Lew)

For more in depth thoughts on some of my favorite sessions I attended read below.

The Quantum Theory of Managing Creative Teams, James Everingham

I don’t know much about Quantum physics but I think James did well in making the theories understandable in a way that relates to management practices. He talked about classical management using Henry Ford as the prime example. Classical management works when the prime goal is quality and reliability, but in technology with the primary goal being creativity the same management style doesn’t work.

My favorite part of the talk he gave was about the Observer Effect. The Observer Effect states that by simply observing a situation the outcome is changed. For example if you put a cat in a box with a bottle of poison and close the box, it’s effectively in two states – alive and dead. If you open the box, the cat is forced into one state, but when the box is closed the possibility of life is greater. As a manager he posited that you have to hyper-aware of the observer effect and allow your team to keep as many possibilities open as long as you can. You can do this through avoiding prescribing paths and expanding the pathways to success.

Engineering Your (Engineers’) Career(s): Balancing Impact With Personal Growth, Jean-Denis Greze

Jean’s talk focused a lot on how they interview engineers to join Plaid and the signal they try to focus on. What stood out the most to me was a question he said they ask every engineering candidate: “What is the most tedious and boring work you’ve done in the last year?” The reason he said they ask that is because it shows what motivates the person to get up out of bed every morning and go to work despite the fact that they know they have to do that work. They’re trying to signal for candidates that not only understand that boring and tedious work is necessary, but they are willing to do because it what will help the team move forward towards whatever their overall goal is.

Another part of Jean’s talk that stood out to me was the immense focus on impact in their interview process. He emphasizes that it’s important to find engineers that know how to spot which projects/work will be most impactful, not just engineers who know how to solve those problems. That’s a skill they also teach to their engineers at Plaid. I think as engineers many of us focus so much on the problem solving and often leave understanding or determining the impact to other members of our teams (PMs, EMs, etc). I’m trying to work on spotting impact better myself, so it was really interesting to hear Jean hone in on that.

The Accidental Bad Manager, Claire Lew

I love how Claire started out her session, she asked everyone to think of their worst boss. Then after letting folks reflect she asked, is it possible you could be someone’s worst boss? Her talk showed the various ways in which managers could accidentally end up being a bad manager. All her points were backed up with data from surveys she’s done with managers and direct reports all over the world. The three ways she suggested avoiding being a bad boss are through trust, feedback and time.

Starting off with trust, she clarified that most managers misunderstand how to build trust. Lots of managers try to build trust through social outings, giving thanks or being transparent with information. Claire’s research showed that those are some of the lowest ranked methods on how to build trust. Instead she emphasized being vulnerable, making your intentions clear and keeping well-defined commitments as the best ways to build trust.

The last suggestion was around time. Claire talked about how often managers think that being busy equals good, but it’s opposite. She stressed that if a manager doesn’t have time to do the parts of their job that have serious impact like defining team vision, culture, hiring, and communicating the direction of the team then they’re not doing their job effectively. I really appreciated her adding the fact that if a manager is doing the work their directs are suppose to or capable of doing then they’re not providing the opportunity for their directs to grow from doing that work.

The Meaning Revolution in Work, Fred Kofman

Fred Kofman is the author of The Meaning Revolution and Conscious Business. The talk he gave at SFELC was similar to a talk he gave some years ago at LinkedIn which you can watch on YouTube. Fred’s talk was incredible and really made me think deeply about my own career and goals going forward. He started out challenging the audience that we didn’t know what our jobs were. He used soccer as an example; the job of the goalie is to defend and the job of the attacker is to score, but the goal of the team is to win. The goal of the team are the real jobs of every member of the team, but each member is incentivized to fulfill their own self-interest because that’s how their performance is rated. This problem of “parts vs whole” in an organization is unfortunately unsolvable.

Although that sounds demotivating, Fred brought us back by telling us about transcendent leadership. Even though we cannot solve the unsolvable problem, we can find meaning in the missions we’re trying to achieve. It’s human nature to want to transcend meaning to find a way to leave a lasting impact on the world that will be remembered when we’re gone. If we as leaders can inspire others through our missions and encourage them to work on problems that transcend, we can find deeper value in work.

Overall, I thought SFELC Summit was incredible. I learned a lot from all the sessions I attended and appreciated the insight all the speakers had to share. I am excited for next year and highly recommend attending to anyone who is interested in engineering leadership whether as an individual contributor or manager.