Kindness in engineering
Below is an article originally written by Snap Engineering, a PowerToFly Partner. Go to Snap Inc's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
At Snap, we believe that kindness is at the heart of engineering: we place a high value on integrity, craftsmanship, and collaboration in all of our work. We also recognize that kindness without courage is not always enough: successful companies should foster healthy internal debate, driving positive change.
At the same time, throughout our careers, many of us have learned that the line between debate and conflict can be thin - and that disagreements that are allowed to fester may frustrate teams and get in the way of getting stuff done. To that effect, based on our experiences in the tech industry, we wanted to share a set of simple, time-tested strategies to help folks give productive feedback and make good engineering decisions in complex work environments.
1. Assume good intentions
When we see another person doing something inexplicable, we all sometimes fall back to what feels like the simplest explanation: that they don't know what we know. But especially in a professional setting, this is often the wrong conclusion to reach.
At Snap, we want to celebrate different perspectives, but we want to harness such differences to build better products, not to divide teams. And so, when disagreements arise, we encourage folks to assume the best intentions of others, and to make sure we all have a full picture of each participant's thought process and goals.
In our experience, perhaps the most practical tool at our disposal is deliberation: before challenging a decision, it pays to seek out all the facts in an open-minded and non-confrontational way. It's good to dig up design docs to understand the project's motivation and priorities, and get a solid sense of the alternatives considered before the team committed to a particular approach. Explicit critiques and hard-hitting questions are best reserved for later; even if they remain valid, this lets us fine-tune our thesis along the way.
2. Choose the best way to deliver a message
When giving critical feedback, we believe it's crucial to find a venue where both sides of the conversation can speak freely, and where everybody can think through their responses, discuss alternatives, and dive into the technical details of the matter at hand.
In this sense, it's best for pointed conversations to happen in smaller forums. Lively discussions in large forums are common in the tech industry, but need to be approached with special care: in a very public setting, you might have had a chance to think through your argument and present it in the best possible way; the person who has to respond is not necessarily afforded the same courtesy.
On the other extreme, we feel it is seldom healthy to air frustrations when the other side is not in the room; fairness aside, it just doesn't get much done. When faced with profound and important disagreements, it's incumbent upon us to find a way to resolve them swiftly; and for minor annoyances, sometimes it is best to just move on.
3. Follow the "Jeopardy!" rule
When a loaded question appears to attack our integrity or casts doubt on our competence, we are likely to react viscerally and defensively - and are much less likely to give due consideration to the merits of the other person's views.
To avoid putting others in this position, the oft-repeated tip is to make sure we are criticizing ideas, not personalities; in other words, we should never open with "I can't believe you thought this is a good plan!". At Snap, we try to take this principle one step further, with what I informally call the "Jeopardy!" rule: trying to phrase your feedback in the form of a question that prompts the other person to independently work through the considerations that are on your mind. Instead of exclaiming "but X is going to completely break your design!", it almost always pays to start with "do we need to worry about X?".
In some settings, it is OK to be more blunt; but especially if you're in a senior role, remember that your off-the-cuff remarks carry a lot of weight - and have a lot of subtext - in the eyes of your team.
4. Don't become the resident obstructionist
On some level, opinions are cheap; every person has one. What matters is the ability to turn these opinions into action - and to ship top-notch products to the world.
For this reason, we found it best to avoid the role of an armchair critic: it is not worthwhile to be the person who simply shoots down ideas without offering alternatives. As a corollary: most critiques should include a proposal for how to accomplish our shared goals in a better way.
The proposal we come up with as a part of this thought exercise does not have to be brilliant; going through that step is beneficial simply because it levels the playing field: it allows the other team to poke holes in your design. This sets the stage for collaboratively iterating on the proposal until the right solution emerges - and until everybody is excited about giving it a try.
5. Pick your battles wisely
Just like any other company, we sometimes deal with big, fundamental disagreements that need to be settled for the good of our business. That said, across the tech industry, we also often get passionate about far less significant things, where one outcome may be a bit better than the other - but ultimately, there are no dire consequences either way.
In such situations, protracted, unending arguments impose a very real tax on our teams. They waste a ton of time and affect the well-being of participants, especially in situations where a single person or a small group of people is on the receiving end of a debate where countless other engineers chip in over and over again.
To build healthy organizations at Snap, we encourage folks to zero in on the problems that truly matter and resolve them swiftly; but we think it's equally important to know when to let go and move on. Once again, this rule is particularly important for senior folks: we want you to bring your knowledge and wisdom to the job, but you have to leave breathing room for more junior folks to experiment, learn from personal experiences, and grow.
6. Politely escalate the disagreements that matter the most
Important disagreements need to be talked through in person first, but when no progress can be made, escalations are the right way to go. When done correctly, escalations are a collaborative tool for highlighting risks to the higher-ups, and for making strategic decisions - such as providing additional funding for neglected projects, or giving up some revenue to do what's right for the Internet.
The secret of successful escalations is to sit together with the other team and work on a joint problem statement: there must be a broad agreement between you and the product team on the underlying facts, the problem in question, and the potential paths forward. A good escalation captures all that in a concise and accessible way.
Conversely, adversarial escalations - where each team works in isolation to present a vastly different take on the underlying facts and effectively discredit the other - are unlikely to lead to making the right call.
When suggesting paths forward, we like to remind folks to think big: asking to cancel a project or to sign off on a risk is seldom the right approach. Perhaps the solution is to allocate or shift resources; to resolve a policy question; or to commit to a long-term fix that will replace a temporary workaround.
7. When necessary, disagree but commit
Snap operates in a fast-paced environment. As we navigate ambiguity, we need to be able to take chances boldly and in a principled way. To avoid decision paralysis, we must settle debates quickly - and once a decision is made, we generally need to set personal opinions aside and commit to getting things done as a team. This means not just agreeing to not complain - but treating the path we've chosen as your own, and investing in making it successful.
In some cases, our bets will pay off; other times, we will make mistakes. It is important to learn from them - but it is also important to remember that hindsight is always 20/20. It is not constructive to deliver persistent, low-key critiques of other people's work, to constantly undermine or revisit settled decisions, or to belittle people for believing in ideas that ultimately did not pan out. The only result of such an approach is a company that never takes any risks.
Learn more about Snap engineering values
It's been six years since Sarah Cooper graced us with her 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. But how on earth can we appear smart in our new virtual world, in which for many of us, going to work is just sitting in one long series of probably-not-necessary Zoom meetings?
1. Dial in.<p>Dialing in rather than joining via the link instantly boosts your credibility. Who calls into Zoom meetings? People who are still busy and important enough to be leaving their houses! But you needn't actually be one of those people, or even more than a foot away from your computer to pull off this maneuver. (Remember, this article is called *seeming* smart, not being smart.)</p><p><strong></strong><em>Bonus: </em>If it's a large meeting at which attendance will be taken, the person running the meeting will inevitably ask, "Who's calling in from 443-322-2121?" That's when you raise your metaphorical hand, jump off mute, and say "[Your name] here. Really looking forward to hearing your perspective on [meeting topic]." And voila! You've stolen the meeting spotlight.</p>
2. Don't come on camera—ever.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODU5OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjMwNjI3OX0.4fLyq2CvkZAJ7n_03esZepY37mOdyGdDdTEUYt5XEU0/img.png?width=980" id="bc7e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbbf21cc5d8c863b30654ae6993b04f5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>Much like the "dial in," this technique works because it makes you appear aloof. If <em>The Crown has </em>taught me anything, it's that the key to maintaining a sense of mystique and prestige is to keep people at arm's length—and if you absolutely <em>must</em> touch them, wear a glove.</p>
3. Only communicate via chat.<p>Once you've mastered the art of staying off camera, you can level up by communicating exclusively via the chat box. Don't come off mute at all, even if the speaker asks your opinion. You are the elusive chatter and you will not be forced into actually participating in said meeting.</p>
4. Ask to share your screen.<p>Being aloof is great, but it's all about balance. Sprinkling in some active participation will really shock and impress your colleagues if you catch them off guard, so save this technique for when you've strategically <em>not </em>participated in a string of meetings.</p><p>Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting prepping a few inspirational slides with words like "synergy," "optimization," and "redefining 'culture'", or spend a few minutes poking around in Google Analytics. </p><p>Then wait for the opportune moment to say, "Can I just share my screen for a moment? I have some really interesting data I'd like to share...." and BAM — brilliance established.</p>
5. Show off your Zoom-saviness.<p>Try saying, "You know you can mute people, right?" to the host when they beg whoever's got the lawn mower and crying baby in the background to put themselves on mute for the nth time.<br></p>
6. Create an alter ego.<p>This tactic requires commitment, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Join the Zoom meeting from your normal account + name, and then join it again on a second device from an alias. Have your alter-ego ask some probing or stat-based questions in the chat and have the answers ready ahead of time. It should work something like this:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Your alter ego Charlene</strong><strong>:</strong> "Does anyone know what percentage conversion rates increased by in Q2?"</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Real you</strong>: *doesn't miss a beat* "It looks like Charlene has a question in the chat. That would be 36%."</p><div>Never mind that no one on your team knows who Charlene is or why she's at this meeting, they'll be too blown away by your brilliance to notice. (Bonus points if you use this strategy in conjunction with techniques 1, 2, 3 or 4!)</div>
7. Place an obscure object in your background that exudes intelligence.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzk5Njg2Mn0.V9_-3Ij3v_QndseqlrXRt5Nn39EJ97-itjls5zzYPf8/img.png?width=980" id="a369d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="604a2f04b53c2e3bc801bfa5256f367b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>We're talking a telescope, or perhaps a hardcover copy of <em>War & Peace </em>(no one need know that its only purpose in your life is as a makeshift yoga block).</p><p>If you don't have any suitable props at your disposal, do not despair: download some screenshots of Sheldon's apartment from <em>Big Bang Theory </em>or the chalkboard in <em>Good Will Hunting </em>and use those as a virtual background.</p>
8. Ask "Is this really the best course of action given the current climate?"<p>Economic collapse, COVID, racism… No need to specify whether you're referring to one or all of the above; just sit back and watch your boss squirm amidst the ambiguity.</p><p>This strategy pairs very well with techniques 2 and 3. You can prep additional vague-but-probing questions ahead of time and pepper them into the chat box throughout the meeting:</p><ul><li>How will this scale?</li><li>Do we really have the bandwidth for this right now?</li><li>What's the value-add here?</li></ul>
9. Remind everyone that you have a paid Zoom account.<p>"Oh, it looks like we're getting the 40-minute warning. I have a paid account, do you want to switch to my room?" It's helpful, with just a touch of condescension. Everyone knows condescending people are smart. And everyone knows that people with paid Zoom accounts are super important.</p>
10. Tell everyone you have a hard stop.<p>When pressed for details, share your philosophy on "work-from-home" balance and how committed you are to getting up once an hour to walk to your refrigerator.</p>
11. Ask the screensharer/host to "pull something up" for everyone.<p>Ask the presenter to navigate to a screen that only you know how to navigate well. Laugh maniacally while they suffer from crippling performance anxiety. Let them struggle for as long as is tolerable before saying, "Oh you know what? I can just share my screen if you want. That would probably be easier." BAM you're the hero. Don't worry, no one will even pause to consider that you could have proposed this course of action from the start.</p>
12. Say Zoom fatigue as many times as possible.<p>If you're too tired to employ any of the other strategies, just say "I know everyone is experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, so we can keep this meeting short." Then hang up as quickly as possible. Meeting averted! </p><p>After all, there's no better way to demonstrate your intelligence in a virtual meeting than to demonstrate why it wasn't really necessary in the first place. </p>
A five-step framework for addressing systematic racism at work
The world has changed in the past few weeks.
We're watching corporations and organizations across the world come out in support of Black lives in droves. Many of those organizations are doing so for the first time in their history.
I sat in front of my CEO to discuss several complaints of racism. I was new to my role as a Culture Director. I was nervous about his reaction to the complaints. But I also knew he strongly supported developing this new department; I knew that he would take the right steps. So I was shocked when I heard him say sheepishly, "I don't know, Noelle...all of this stuff about racism. I just don't see it. I don't even see color. I'm pretty much color blind."
Living in the midst of a pandemic has brought about a whole host of changes and challenges for workplaces and employees. One of the most notable? Virtual interviewing. With most on-site interviews on hold for the foreseeable future, it's important that you be prepared to make a great first impression—virtually.