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Constraining decisions with reality

Jeff Ammons

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack

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Problem

I used to work for a startup with a high-energy, visionary founder. He could turn out ideas at a pace about 100x faster than the engineering team could build them, and frequently changed his mind about what the most important thing we could be building was. This created a lot of unrest on the engineering team. People would frequently get pulled off of projects they were working on to work on others, leaving their previous work undone. This created skepticism about everything we started, as people wondered if it would ever get finished, and if not, why should they start? It's never fun to feel like you're wasting your time. On the other hand, we were trying to build a successful startup and had a founder with great ideas. Balancing these two tensions in a way that maximized our company's success was a difficult challenge.

Actions Taken

My initial attempt at this was to just push back more on the CEO/founder, telling him no when he wanted us to pull people off of a project to jump on something new. As you might imagine, this created a lot of frustration for him, so was only a temporary fix. In order to better quantify/qualify what we were working on, to give us better visibility and data for informing priority decisions, we started using a whiteboard and sticky notes to capture work and bulk work into sprints. We had a number of cards that were our backlog, and each week we'd pull a number of cards out that we thought we could get done that sprint. This then meant that when a new request came in from the CEO, my response wasn't 'No" it was "Sure, that sounds great! Let's go over to the board and figure out what to pull off." As you might guess, this frequently meant that we decided to keep working on the things on the board, and to place the new idea in the backlog. Occasionally, we still made the call to pull off work and put the new items in place, but having this process be very visible and transparent helped ease concerns on the team and from the CEO.

Lessons Learned

Making it more visible what the engineering team was working on, and forcing priority decisions against all other priorities helped keep our engineering team from thrashing as much, and removed the burden of saying 'No' to CEO requests. Instead allowing us to accommodate those requests, but in a way that allowed us to handle incoming requests more gracefully and to keep the team happier.


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Jeff Ammons

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack


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