Understanding how different people contribute helps with setting goals

Braeden Kepner

Head of Engineering, Machine Intelligence at Dropbox



"When assessing performance, I used to be very focused on how much people get done and how much output everyone was generating. In a sprint context, I lived and died by the story point output for each person on the team. In a team I used to manage, an engineer who was an average performer in terms of the point/story scale, was transferred to another team. As he became less involved in my team, the whole team's velocity fell by ~25%."


"I quickly noticed the drop and in 1:1s with the rest of the team started to ask what they thought was happening. It became clear that the engineer who had changed teams had been the one everybody else went to for help with high-level planning and task breakdowns, especially for more complex and difficult tasks. He had been an average performer in terms of his individual output but had been the enabler for the whole team."

Lessons learned

"This episode really made me realize that there are many ways in which a person can contribute to a team. When assessing someone's performance, you have to take that into account. You need to consider both what is getting done and how it is getting done."

"It's hard to find metrics for enablers, so I tend to use an investigative approach and try to understand how things work from the inside of the team."

  • "I stay constantly alert for small-talk, such as when a team member says 'Yeah, John helped me yesterday' and I look for patterns."
  • "I ask questions during one-on-ones, such as 'Who in the team is doing a great job?' or 'Who do you go to when you have a problem?'"

"It's ongoing work, but once you get a sense of how people contribute to the team you can set appropriate goals for them. For example, if an engineer is often helping the team with architecture-based questions, you can help them set ambitious goals to take on more formal architecture for projects."

"As an aside, I try not to tie monetary rewards directly to altruistic behaviors (helping other people on the team, being a mentor). It's important to recognize and encourage the team to help each other and learn from each other, but (and there's a fair amount of research that supports this) rewarding altruistic behavior directly with money can actually make it less likely to happen rather than more."

Curated links

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Braeden Kepner

Head of Engineering, Machine Intelligence at Dropbox

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsMentorship ProgramsPerformance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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