Guiding Engineers to Create Valuable Software

Dustin Pearce

VP Engineering Infrastructure at Instacart



"There is a certain degree of support and scaffolding that people need to be successful at different amounts. It often requires tough conversations where you have to sort of push people off the ledge while giving them security and safety to fail. It also becomes necessary for someone else to refine that first step and then have them follow along. Most importantly, it generates the quest for engineers create software that adds value to the company."

Actions taken

"Fundamentally, you have to get engineers to achieve some sort of valuable thing with whatever tool they are trying to learn. You have to be very honest, that while there is some familiarity with the tooling and syntax, at the end of the day this isn't a university. It is a business and we have to produce things of value for our customers. It needs to have stakes and be a real thing that does a valuable function." "As a manager, you have to demonstrate to your reports that you want them to have ideas, see problems, and then solve them using software. If they do not have any original ideas, offer them some of yours. You have to frame these things in the context of what is the business goal you are aiming to achieve. If there is no business goal then there is some value in professional skill development, but that is a very background thread that is done a couple times a quarter and it's a very long burn." "In this case, it is one thing or the other. A professional development opportunity that they do on their own time or working with the technology to build something which is more of an immersive strategy. I think it may be better separating these two because then you are giving them options, which can potentially be tricky." "Another thing to do is give them very near term reminder goals focused on getting the software to do a particular task. It can be a good way to bridge the gap between building a valuable thing versus a pathway to learn how to wield a tool. Have them get to this milestone using all their possible resources so that when you revisit it you can find out where they got stuck and/or if they are stuck now. Then you can use your overlap time to help them get unstuck and reach that milestone while another one awaits its completion."

Lessons learned

  • "The outcome of work is a measurable outcome. When people see the benefit of the software they create and the business realizes its value, the energy and quality of work improves along with everything else. Likewise, your job as a manager becomes easier because now you are just helping them prioritize. In my personal experience it is hard to get over that hump of getting people to focus on analyzing and measuring things that they can do better, especially when it comes around their own approach to work."
  • "It is really hard for software engineers to focus in a linear way and so it becomes necessary to give them an example of that, starting with your own breakdown of how you would approach it. Demonstrating how to set milestones will help them prioritize and focus. They can easily get lost in all the things that you can do within a software building program, as well as, in the workload that often piles up."
  • "It is valuable to the company for engineers to learn new things and to adapt and bring in new tech, but it needs to be done in the context of delivery. This may be difficult and scary and we may not do it well at first. However, it is important to get out there and try because it is only through the iteration of delivering things through technology that you get better at it. Reading blogs and listening to others doesn't actually accrue any skill. All it does is build confidence and familiarity. Only repetition builds skill."
  • "Setting milestones will help them focus because they can easily get lost in all the things that you can do within a software building program."

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Dustin Pearce

VP Engineering Infrastructure at Instacart

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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