Our Engineering leadership team here at Dealertrack has, what I would conservatively call, a healthy ego.
We believe in what we are doing, and we believe we do it well (nevermind that there’s someone out there thinking otherwise).
I define our leadership team as everyone from the chief technology officer, vice president, senior directors, directors, senior managers and managers. I also define our leadership team as our enterprise architect, product architects, solution architects, principal engineers, and tech leads.
As I am sure you can guess, we all think we are special and great and the best thing to happen to Dealertrack since Turing assembled his team to crack the Enigma machine.
About four years ago, our Engineering team moved into our new building (which is pretty sweet) and at the time, everyone in management each had their own office.
We had big huge desks with credenzas and book shelves and visitor chairs. But then something happened: We grew too fast! It is something even we didn’t have an answer for – and soon we had to make a decision.
How could we continue to grow our staff and keep everyone in the same location, while maximizing the space?
Priorities leading problem-solving
We knew the importance of being together, that every wall you put between leaders and teams was another impediment to seamless communications.
We also knew that quite often management requires a degree of privacy, either in conversations or in information on our monitors, so having an office was important for managers. One option was to just pack more people into the existing scrum team spaces, which meant going beyond our preferred scrum team size of 7-9 people.
Healthy scrum teams are the most important thing to our organization. So – despite the egos – we decided to experiment with our spaces: management and technical leadership started doubling up on offices.
Our CTO (my boss) started sharing an office with me, and leaders on the same product lines started sharing offices with one another. Sure, the lack of privacy was inconvenient, and finding a location for one-on-ones could be a pain, but some pretty amazing things happened.
First, we sent a message to our Engineering teams that we are prioritizing their ability to be productive over our need for privacy or status or whatever else having your own office might mean.
We chose not to pack them in, and to ensure that their working conditions meant that they had enough personal space and team common space to be great scrum teams. Engineering leadership prides itself in being strong servant leaders, and I feel like this decision was consistent with that philosophy.
Perks of packing in together
Next, management can be a lonely job. Developers sit side by side, working through problems, asking one another about opinions, and even doing code reviews. Managers, on the other hand, (and when I say “managers” I mean the entire chain from CTO on down) tend to act alone.
For bigger problems we will bounce ideas off our own manager, but day-to-day dilemmas tend to be solved in a vacuum because we don’t have someone who we can quickly ask for advice. Sharing an office often drives us toward better managerial collaboration.
I can’t tell you how many times I got an email/chat/text/phone call with some kind of problem that I had a pretty good sense for how to solve, but because someone was sitting five feet away from me, I took an extra second to ask their advice on how to solve.
More often than not it resulted in a better response from me and a better solution in the end.
Think about how good a developer would be if they never talked to their peers and only talked to their manager about a solution – once a week in one-on-ones? Why would we expect managers to excel in the same isolation?
It is specifically those “two-second” problems – often relegated to chats or pings – that can also prompt a broader discussion in which we wind up sharing philosophies on management or leadership.
Sure, you can get sidetracked and end up talking for a half an hour, but the power of those discussions and the power of sharing different perspectives goes miles toward helping us grow as managers and leaders.
Those conversations often result in thinking differently about our staff or our organization. Again, it makes us better managers and leaders over time.
The promise of passersby
Another positive with sharing an office is the increase in the number of people who stop by that you might otherwise never have an interaction with. We have a fairly large Engineering organization (over 250 alone in our Burlington office) and I certainly don’t know them all, let alone know them on more than a “s’up-in-the-hallway” superficial kind of way.
Having another leader or two in my office means that people on their teams stop by to chat (and by the way, the door is almost ALWAYS open; no better way to alienate leadership from the rest of the organization than to keep that door closed), and I start to know them better as people and as co-workers.
The relationships that I have with coworkers who I might never really know otherwise grow deeper. I know who someone is when their name comes up.
And they know me – and as more than a person who sometimes gets up in front of the crowd to talk about things.
Noticing the forest, not just trees
Finally, sharing what’s going on with your officemates when they’re in a different team provides a broader context for the work you are all doing.
It creates empathy for more than just your team, and a mentality that you’re not alone in this.
An example of how this can help is with hiring decisions. Sure, you both want that developer candidate that everyone is in love with, but with context and empathy you have a good understanding for one-another’s issues and priorities and will generally agree on the right place for that candidate.
I love anything that breaks down silos, and the creation of relationships and empathy goes a long way toward keeping those silos at bay.
I have to say that our experiment of sharing offices has been a tremendous success.
What began as an experiment, out of necessity, has now become the way we work. In fact, we are fitting out a new floor at one of our locations, and I have specifically requested that no single-person offices be constructed.
The occasional re-organization of seats has helped as well. I am on my third office relationship, going from sitting with my boss, to joining our Agile Transformation Lead, to accompanying my peers from our Professional Services division and Engineering Services.
Each time I have benefitted from sharing space and time with my co-workers, and they have all made me a better manager and leader.
Oh, and for the record, I do this when I travel to our other locations as well, I just crash on the other side of someone’s desk when I get there.
I would encourage you to think about your management and leadership skills, and how you are developing them. Are you in isolation, or are you actively learning from your peers day in and day out?