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The Antidote to Being Too Thinly Spread

Dev Processes
Sharing The Vision
Team Processes

19 May, 2021

Nikhil Mungel

Nikhil Mungel

Senior Engineering Manager at Splunk

Nikhil Mungel, Senior Engineering Manager at Splunk, shares how he found a way to manage a team that had increased workload and no North Star to work towards.

Problem

The story began a couple of years ago. I inherited a team of two engineers, both of whom were thinly spread on maintaining a production website. The pair of engineers were doing everything, starting from delivering technical support to operations and managing stakeholders. Fundamentally, the problem was that it was being treated as a web property and not an engineering product.

The result of this was terrible morale, frequent downtimes on the website, and the shape of the system did not allow us to enhance it anymore. The company was at a critical inflection point between on-prem and cloud, and the product stood right in the middle of it, and it was being neglected. For the product to evolve to support the everyday use cases, the current path that the product and the team were on was not sustainable.

Actions taken

When I first inherited the team, the first course of action was to understand the direction the team was headed and what their North Star was. I realized that all they were doing was keeping the lights on. Once I took control, I ensured that the thoughts and ideas were aligned with the company’s values and ethics, while the underlying bedrock did not budge.

For the team to fulfill their intended role, I actively listened to the engineers. And, engineers always have an excellent idea of what is broken and needs to be fixed. Then, I had to ask many probing questions to get to the meat of the matter from a management standpoint. I was able to identify two themes :

  • No clear North Star for the team
  • Maintenance Mode

I worked on figuring out what the product would look like, collaborating with my counterpart in product management and working with the engineering leadership. When I got a good understanding, I ramped up the staffing of the team and delineated the roles and responsibilities between feature engineering, infrastructure engineering, user support, and admin operations. Needless to say that I also changed the positioning of the entire product, not to look at it as a web property but as an actual engineering product.

I also worked to bring the project back to life from maintenance mode. Engineers working on products that are on maintenance mode can sometimes be put in a career limiting role and benefits neither the company nor the individuals.

Lessons learned

  • Develop active listening skills that will enable you to manage your team better. Once your team discovers that they are being heard, they will start looking forward to ways they can share their ideas with you.
  • Take control of the operability costs early on from a staffing standpoint. This will help in correcting areas of waste so that you can improve the financial health of your company.
  • Define each person’s roles, responsibilities, and success criteria within the team, and you will notice an immediate impact. Since it ensures that everyone knows what they are doing and what is expected of them, it reduces overwork.

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