Provoking thought

The Debossification of Management

“If you treat me like a boss, we will struggle. If you treat my like a colleague, we can do great things together.”

Boy, do I wish I was quoting myself here, but I’m not. This is a quote attributed to somebody in my team who said it — so the legend goes — to a new joiner. However, since I’m this person’s boss now, I’ll happily take credit (it’s one of those great things we get to do).

The quote keeps coming back to me, it really resonates. I, too, really struggle with the “boss” power dynamic aspects of the job. While we all aim to operate in a collaborative style, reality is that managers get to wield various power tools: they get to decide who to hire, fire and promote; they get to decide (or at least have a say) in whether you get a raise or not. So, you better do what your boss tells you, right?

I’m not super comfortable with this system, because I think it can really block “doing great things together.” However, revolutionizing the whole system may lead to much bigger issues (anarchy!). So, we do what any good engineer would do: we don’t rewrite from scratch, we iterate and refactor.

I’m on a mission to debossify The System as much as possible. To extract as many of the “bossy” judgmenty aspects and turn them into largely self-service tools. Almost like... there should be some appropriate word for it... a platform.

Self-judgment as a service.

The ultimate goal for me is to spend less of my time judging people (professionally, it will be more of a hobby), and more doing great things together. Either that, or chilling in the garden. I will let it depend on the season.

My project in this area over the last year was the idea of introducing “promotion packets” to Mattermost. If you were lucky enough to be asked to prepare, or in participate in this new type of bureaucracy — you are welcome!

Here is an illustration of the issue to address:

“’Ej yo, boss person. I’ve been here for some time, my hair is starting to turn grey, shouldn’t I be a senior by now?”

“Let me think. Yeah, you’ve been doing good work. High impact stuff, one could say. You keep following customers around wherever they go, so clearly customer obsessed. I hereby grant you the title of The Senior, let me just find my sword.”

Of course, this is a mild exaggeration. We stopped using swords two years ago. However, the process and criteria of a promotion are often not very transparent and not consistently applied. As a result, we rely on a high level of subjective judgment from managers. Not the best system. Speaking just for myself of course, I have terrible judgment. For a few months I believed crypto was a great idea.

We need better tools.

Various Big Tech companies have introduced the concept of a promo packet. There’s typically a lot of complexity and process accumulated around this over time, but in its essence it’s a simple and elegant idea.

To make this work, we assume we have clearly defined expectations for each of the seniority levels in the company. Luckily, in Mattermost we have those fairly well defined in our competency matrix.

So, let’s say you’re currently at level x and wonder if you’re ready to be promoted to x+1. To do so, you simply look at the competency matrix, perform a diff between those levels, and try to come up with (find, fabricate) evidence that show you operate at level x+1. You collect this evidence in a document entitled “My Promo Packet.” And when you’re done, you make it look pretty with some nice clip art and WordArt, print it out and ship it to to the promotion committee.

One example for our L4->L5 (SDE II to Senior SDE) transition for engineers:

Sets and delivers architectural vision for high impact features and changes across the product stack and test automation infrastructure.

“I am the de-facto owner of this-or-that product feature. To develop it, I wrote this specification (link) and shared it during our team meeting (recording). As a result of this meeting, I iterated and came up with a new iteration (here). I turned this spec into a roadmap of work to do (link to epic). The feature was implemented and is one of the highlighted new features in version x (release notes).”

When you can provide evidence like this for each of the differences between levels, you’re building a pretty solid case. The appropriate clip art, and tasteful WordArt will seal the deal. And obviously, extra brownie points for using a nice font and printing in full color.

Not only that, it also becomes much clearer to you as a “promotee” where the gaps are, without your boss having to wag his finger. Judging yourself is so much better than having other people be the judge of you.

In fact, the way we ended up implementing it at Mattermost, the final judgment is “outsourced” to peer managers who now review and sign off on these promotion packets for other teams (by consensus). This allows your manager to join Team You, and collaborate on the promotion packet and identify opportunities to fill the gaps (and do amazing things together), rather than to sit on the oppose side of the table being judge and jury.

This week we’re completing our first full cycle with this system, and I think it’s an improvement. But then, I’m biased and am known to have poor judgment. Again: crypto.