Peer 1:1s

Using Randomness to Strengthen Your Team

For many of the most inspiring leaders that I know, 1:1s with folks on their teams are sacred: the same time each week, at least 30 minutes, without fail. But what happens when you’re unavailable (e.g., traveling, or on an extended vacation) and still want folks to have someone to talk to? What if you also want to deepen relationships and improve the flow of feedback on your team? Peer 1:1s, set up randomly, can help!

Yet another 1:1 meeting?

Some of the most valuable feedback comes directly from the people that you work with most closely, ideally on a daily basis. If you are a developer or designer, you may already be getting timely, actionable feedback your team practices peer code or design reviews. However, these kinds of work-product reviews typically don’t offer an opportunity to ask and receive the kind of individual feedback that we could all use, for instance:

  • What are my strengths (what should I do more)?
  • Where can I improve?
  • How can I communicate better?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how much do you trust me?
  • What can I do to improve your work and life?

In fact, in most companies, there is no venue for such direct and timely feedback between peers. Managers are often conduits for feedback between individuals, however this can easily devolve into a game of broken telephone. Your company may be collecting some of this feedback from your peers as part of the review process. Unfortunately, this happens far too infrequently to be truly useful--feedback, like milk, has an expiration date, after which it turns sour and is best discarded. (That reviews happen so infrequently is also good news, because the vast majority of review processes are broken beyond repair and should be abandoned. I’ll explore alternatives to the typical review process in an upcoming post.)

Setting up peer 1:1s

If you let a little randomness help you, it’s simple:

  1. pick two people at random;
  2. find an open 30-minute time slot on their calendars;
  3. find (and book) a place for them to meet, in person or virtually; and
  4. pick a few questions at random from Jason Evanish’s list of 101 1:1 questions or Seth Godin's What's Next?

You may also choose to have an executive assistant or the people themselves do steps 2 and 3. To make things even simpler for whoever is running the peer 1:1 process, I’ve open-sourced a Google Apps Script that we’ve used at Next Big Sound along with a Google Spreadsheet that can get you to randomly pair people in no time. (Pull requests are most welcome!)

Why use randomness?

First, it’s much quicker than manually optimizing the pairings, especially in larger teams. Second, the risk of randomly selecting folks who under no circumstances should be in the same room--or randomly selecting questions that should never be asked--is also fairly low in most organizations. Of course, if something is not right, you can always re-run the randomizer. Most important, randomness often produces inspired choices (of both people and questions) that you would not think to make. Here are some recent peer 1:1 pairings and questions at Next Big Sound:

  • two engineers who’ve been working quite closely recently discussing what “the company [is] not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market”;
  • a UX Designer and a Systems Engineer who’ll be talking about the latter’s “biggest time wasters”; and
  • a Data Journalist and our VP of Operation who might share their tips “for getting unstuck”.

The benefits of peer 1:1s

Peer 1:1s may be a little uncomfortable at first, especially for folks who may not know each other well. This is why we only pair people who opt into the process, and also make what is discussed during these 1:1s confidential. This is also one of the main benefits of peer 1:1s--they help connect individuals who may not have an opportunity to frequently interact at work in a relaxed, low-risk setting. While these folks may not share much (yet), they do have in common the experience of working at the same company, or perhaps even with the same manager. The few random leading questions--and the shared discomfort of being selected at random--are great starting points for the conversation!

If the paired individuals do happen to work together more closely, peer 1:1s turn into a forum to offer each other direct and timely feedback, and strengthen existing relationships. Finally, peer 1:1s give folks some experience of what it’s like to run 1:1s as a manager, and may inform their decision to pursue a career in management (or run away screaming).

Of course, peer 1:1s are not meant to be substitutes for “regular” 1:1s. (Rands’ The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster is the classic post on why such 1:1s are so important to the health of the organization.) But they do give people who opt in a meaningful opportunity to strengthen the organization in only 30 minutes a week.

UPDATE (October 30, 2015): After I originally published this blog post, I found out that a number of organizations are practicing random peer 1:1s. Most notably, Etsy does this across the entire organization, and has open-sourced a helpful tool, Mixer, for making such "assisted serendipity" happen.

Global Retrospective: devops, the First 5 Years

Devops is officially 5 years old. In the time since the inaugural devopsdays event in Ghent in 2009, it has evolved from an idea about agile infrastructure to an emerging organizational philosophy (or practice), one that even huge, mainstream enterprises are adopting. Devops is also an open, vibrant, and diverse community of practitioners (or philosophers), who are actively debating culture, automation, measurement, and sharing both their successes and failures openly. The theme for the 5-year-anniversary devopsdays gathering in Ghent, Belgium is “the future of #devops”. This is a natural place and time to pause and reflect about how far we’ve come and where we’re going. To that end, part of this devopsdays will be devoted to a retrospective (a blameless postmortem of sorts). On the first day, October 27, Yves Hanoulle and I will have a place, where attendees can write down their observations and ideas about the past and the future of devops on post-it notes, placing them into one of 3 areas: stop, start, or continue.

  • What hasn’t worked well in the devops movement, and we should stop doing? Place in the “stop” area.
  • What could we do in the future to make devops even more successful (by some measure of success)? Add it to the “start” area.
  • What has devops gotten right, and practitioners should keep doing? Add to the “continue” area.

Can’t make it to Ghent? No worries! You can participate in the historic global devops retrospective on twitter, by using #devopsstop, #devopsstart, and #devopscontinue hashtags. Yves and I will collate and summarize all the ideas received by 17:00 (5PM) Belgium time on October 27, and will present the results at the conference and in a blog post on this site on the following day.

On the second day of the conference (October 28), there will be 3 open spaces devoted to “fleshing out” one (or more) of the ideas that we’ve all come up with during the retrospective. These ideas will likely come from the “stop” or “start” categories--we’ll have the what and the why, and the open spaces will help us brainstorm how we get there and who will be leading the way. In addition, each open space will conduct a premortem to identify potential problems with these ideas.

Finally, each of the groups will produce and share a blog post about the results of their open space, and nominate one or more people to represent the open space during the combined Retrospective Podcast with Devops Cafe, FoodFightShow, Arrested DevOps, The Ship Show.

Devops is a global phenomenon, continually shaped by its far-flung and inclusive community. We hope you take this opportunity to participate in the retrospective--in person or on twitter--and to make the next 5 years of devops even more awesome!

Update [October 27]: The raw results are here.

How devopsdays NYC built a well for a village in Cambodia. (A #devopsWater update)

Last year, the attendees of the devopsdays NYC conference used the money usually spent on t-shirts to drill a deep-bore water well for a village in Cambodia. They donated $2500 ($12/person) to Lotus Outreach, which quickly set out to find a suitable location, and a local partner organization to oversee the construction of the well. The result?

On July 5, 2014, clean, safe water started flowing from a newly-built well in the isolated Brormoay Commune in the Rike Reay Village, Veal Veng district, Pursat province, Cambodia. The well now serves 81 villagers, and even more people from the surrounding area during the dry months. The 36 village children, of whom 15 are girls, will no longer have to miss school and risk their lives to fetch water far away from their homes. The families no longer have to spend money to purchase water instead of paying their kids’ school fees.

Those of us who attend technology conferences are some of the most well-paid and financially secure people in the world. We can certainly afford to buy our own t-shits, and spare the landfills the other “swag” routinely given out for free at conferences.

So the next time you register for a tech conference, ask the organizers to donate the money they would otherwise use for t-shirts to a worthy cause. If you’re organizing a conference, give your attendees the option to donate part of their registration fee to charity. In a small way, the world will be a better place.

Here's the full report on the devopsdays NYC well.

The importance of attribution in nascent fields and communities

In the rush to be original, innovative, provocative, or first-to-market, we often forget to acknowledge “prior art” or provide the context for the new ideas that we’re espousing.  The resulting lack of credibility is one of the most serious threats to emergent fields and their practitioner communities (such as devops or systems safety). Would devops exist without ITIL or the work of Deming? Would Agile exist without Waterfall? Would the all-electric Tesla Model S exist without the hybrid Prius and the gas-guzzling Hummer?

That is not to say that there’s nothing new under the sun. However, even the most groundbreaking ideas do not exist in a vacuum, but only in relation to previous ideas. They build on—or refute—what came before.  Humans suffer from a built-in resistance to change, and when new ideas are presented without proper context or attribution, they risk becoming just someone's brilliant ideas, too easy to dismiss or accept, depending on the person’s popularity, without full and critical evaluation.

In science, it’s simply not enough to receive new ideas in dreams or visions; ideas that stick must have solid foundations, and often come with bibliographies many pages long.

Want to build your or your idea's credibility? Want to strengthen your nascent field or emerging community? Emphasize their lineage, and give full attribution.

An open letter to #1 Recruiter From #1 Hedge Fund In The World

Recently, a recruiter (who I'm lovingly calling "#1 Recruiter") sent this gem on LinkedIn with the subject "I would like to talk to you":

I work at [Company]  (#1 Hedge Fund in the world), reviewed your profile and I would like to talk to you. Please let me know your availability to connect next week.

I tweeted and ignored the SPAM, but a few days later, #1 Recruiter followed up:

I am following up with you because I work at [Company] (#1 Hedge Fund in the world), reviewed your profile and I would like to talk to you. Please let me know your availability to connect next week.

Notice the expert use of copy-paste. To be fair, he did include a few extra links with information about the company, including their "Culture and Principles" web page. Nice touch!

This interaction neatly summarizes just about everything that's wrong with recruiting (and LinkedIn). So instead of ignoring, this time I wrote a brief reply, cc:ing the CEO of #1 hedge fund in the world:

[#1 Recruiter],

If you actually reviewed my profile, you would see that I know at least half a dozen people who currently work at [Company]. I am *quite* familiar with the company, and appreciate its culture.

One of the core tenets of your company's culture is radical openness and honesty. With that in mind, I'd like to be open and honest with you. What you've sent is SPAM. It reeks of mediocrity, the opposite of your company's "overriding objective [of] excellence". Stating only that you work for a company with money ("#1 hedge fund in the world") as the reason to connect will not net you people who "value independent thinking and innovation". I'd be weary of anyone who actually responds to your message (and I'd guess only about 1 or 2 out of a 100 do); they, like you, hate their jobs and are just looking for money.

If you truly are looking for people who seek and can create "meaningful work and meaningful relationships", why do you approach those you're trying to recruit in such an utterly meaningless, repulsive way?

Why not take the time to actually tell candidates what working at [Company] would look like? Why not take 5 minutes to highlight the specific parts of the person's background that stood out to you, and that would be especially relevant at [Company]? It would save you time in the log run, and help you find amazing candidates.

It's not difficult, but it does require you to make a decision about which business you'd like to be in: selling counterfeit Viagra, or representing (favorably) the #1 hedge fund in the world.

prescription-strength offline mode

It might be surprising--ironic, even--for the first post of any blog to be about taking time to be offline. Being offline is hard, even if your work doesn’t require you to be online 24x7. But being offline appears to have similar benefits to taking medical cannabis. In an opinion piece in New York Times, Mark Wolfe describes great improvements in his parenting abilities after being prescribed pot-infused brownies. He became less distracted, more patient, and more engaged with his kids, as evidenced by the following before and after interactions:

Here is what a typical weekday evening exchange between me and my oldest daughter once looked like:

Child: Daddy, can you show me how to make a Q?

Father: (sipping bourbon and soda, not looking up from iPad) Just make a circle and put a little squiggle at the bottom.

Child: No, show me!

Father: Sweetie, not now, O.K.? Daddy’s tired.

It’s different now:

Child: Daddy, can you show me how to make a Q?

Father: (getting down on the floor) Here, I’ll hold your hand while you hold the pen and we’ll make one together. There! We made a Q! Isn’t it fantastic?

Child: Thanks, Daddy!

Father: Don’t you just love the shape of this pen?

In my experience, many of the benefits of prescription-strength brownies that Mark describes are available without a prescription by simply being offline for a while.

At the end of August, after a particularly grueling few months at work, I took a vacation with my family. Although the house was perfectly wired, I decided to disconnect completely: no phone, no SMS, no e-mail, no twitter, no web. (I didn’t have to worry about Facebook because I committed “Facebook suicide” a few years ago).

I was completely offline for 10 days.

The first few days were rough. It was hard to not have my phone with me at all times--my whole life was, seemingly, on this device. Every time I would get bored or impatient with the kids, I would instinctively reach for it. Every time I would go to the bathroom, I’d feel the urge to do as nature intended, i.e., read Hacker News. Or to check work e-mail, to make sure things were running smoothly.

I didn’t give in, and after a few days, the withdrawal symptoms started to subside. I was becoming calmer, more engaged and connected with my family. Not surprisingly, the kids responded in kind--they were noticeably more relaxed, happier, and there were far fewer tantrums. (Well, there was one notable tantrum in which my oldest raged about the injustice of wearing not the optimally esthetically pleasing shorts on the way home from the beach. But even under couture-induced stress, I remained more open and present than usual).

Coming back from vacation, I hesitated before getting back online--I really appreciated the lack of distraction that I experienced after disconnecting for 10 days. After checking if anything required immediate attention, I took about a week to ease back into it. And I’m happy to report that some of my vacation-time habits stuck: when I’m at home, I put away the phone, and generally stay offline as much as possible. After all, isn’t lingering for an extra minute with a tired child worth not being completely caught up on twitter? And sweeter than a brownie?