Engineers Don't Talk

If there’s one thing I have learned while scaling a product organization from 5 to 125 engineers and product managers it's that engineers will not share thoughtful feedback in front of others. Requesting feedback on the spot yields nothing more than blank stares. I have had more success getting information at lunches, parties and informal gatherings than during meetings. But with over 600 employees at HubSpot, we needed something that scaled with the organization. That is why I have been in search for tools that help us draw vital feedback for the health of the team.

Too Hot, Too Cold, and Just Right

About two years ago our team was small - we had around 25 developers organized into very small teams. Although we felt that we could easily see or hear what everyone else was doing at a time, we tried - a tool for reporting work done on a daily basis.  The team revolted.

First of all, this strategy was seen as too much effort and time. The automatic aggregation and broadcasting to everyone made it very competitive in nature. People simply hated to both read and write the reports. So we gave it up. Today we ship over 300 times a day, and we still know that daily reporting doesn't work for us.

As we grew, we transitioned from everyone reporting directly to me, to establishing tech leads and delegating team members. This is the key moment when I realized we needed to document some of our conversations  to make sure I didn't miss anything. We started off with Google Docs for each individual but that quickly became unmanageable.

We decided to try 15Five with a small group of folks first and we were quickly hooked. Using the reporting software is optional to every person on the team, but has been fully adopted by tech leads running teams of three people. We started with a select few that gave up writing notes on Google Docs after each 1-1 and quickly grew to over 3/4 of the organization in less than six months. 15Five's weekly cadence hit the spot for us because it gave each team the flexibility to accomplish many different tasks and choose what's important for others to know.  

Supporting Autonomy and Development

Eventually we inverted the process so the team would write both their wins and their challenges instead of the lead. The lead sees their directs' reports, and forwards what they think has larger relevance up the stack.

One of the easy first wins is that it served us as a discussion board to talk about coaching and development issues. The ability for engineering leaders across the organization to like, comment and pass up individual contributions is key to our team-growth challenges. 15Five's flexible access control through various groups allowed us to increase our transparency because more people are able to see accomplishments and concerns across teams.

Everything In Its Right Place

I now (manually) aggregate every team's wins and post that into a weekly engineering update. The weekly report contains wins, issues and my updates on direction and growth. The wins are just one or two short sentences per person grouped by team. I am very careful to anonymize individual issues, without censoring concerns. This company-wide report has addressed several challenges we've had in the past.  First, it lets others know that it's OK to voice your opinion. Secondly, it forces us to do something about it. Without some accountability, it's common for managers to hear some concern and sit on it. But most importantly, it removes the virus that attacks most growing startups when someone says: why didn't I know about X?

It’s 2014 and we are still learning how to communicate.  Our ultimate goal is to address every engineer's concerns so they can focus on building our customers' products. It's not easy to obtain feedback from engineers. Large face-to-face meetings are not a good use of anyone's time. With 15Five and similar tools, we can be in constant contact with our team because they feel comfortable sharing.  Our 1-1 conversations focus more on long-term development and less about sharing results. Ultimately, if you don’t start to think about your team communication as you scale, your team will wither and die.