Lesson #22: Discussing debt vs. feature work with your team
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Discussing debt vs. feature work with your team
Ah, the classic debate - do we work on engineering debt, or do we work on feature work? How about both? But wait—are we talking about actual engineering debt or customer debt?
When you only have so much time available and everyone has their own priorities, it can be particularly difficult for newer engineering leaders to manage expectations and attempt to make everyone happy. (Spoiler: you’re not going to make everyone happy. There, I just summarized this newsletter in 20 seconds.)
I wanted to spend some time covering this in a weekly newsletter because it’s a constant balancing act I continue to grapple with and will likely aways continue to grapple with. Everyone has their competing objectives and everyone is going to feel like their goals are most important to hit. How do you balance these ever-competing expectations?
You should never feel like you have to make these decisions alone. Just putting this out there first. Ask your manager for guidance. They’re there to help for a reason.
I usually plan out my quarterly and then 6-week work with a fairly standard format.
First, I ask my team ahead of time what it is they would like to work on. I tell them up front when asking for their wishlist of items that not all of them will be captured for the quarter, that this is 100% a wishlist. Setting expectations up front will help avoid contention when the quarterly plan is updated. I also have my own list of debt work (don’t we all) that perhaps I may prioritize as an EM over the “fun” things my engineers might prioritize.
Meanwhile, my Product counterpart is putting together their wishlist. First come customer commits, of course—if we have contractual obligations, those will take priority no matter what. Then come customer-driven requests, and this is generally where I also see customer debt come into play.
It’s your job as the engineering leader to have these discussions with your product counterpart to negotiate how your team will spend their time over the coming quarter. While Product is pushing product enhancements and new features, you know best what internal systems need to be addressed, and you need to advocate for your team to allow enough time to work on these systems.
Finally, I leave 4 weeks of an engineer’s time each quarter for the “miscellaneous” tasks that arise, also known as “‘oh shit’ work”. Never has this extra time ever failed me, and it’s actually been a negotiating tool for last-minute product requests that come up where I can say “I have four weeks allocated this quarter—two per six weeks—is this how you’d like to use this time?”.
The last point I’ll make is this is something you will need to continue to refine and communicate with your team and PM counterpart about over the course of several quarters. Sometimes you’ll need to make exceptions to work in unplanned product feature work, but stand your ground where you can when there’s a discussion to replace debt with feature work. The longer that debt stays aboard, the more of a dumpster fire it becomes. And we don’t want dumpster fires.
What I’m reading
I’m sending this email from Mexico (don’t worry, it was scheduled on Friday - I’m not actually working) so there’s a 90% chance I’m reading romance and a 10% chance I’m reading anything you would be interested in seeing here. Unless you’re into romance novels, in which case I think my math becomes 100%.
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What I’m working on
Disconnecting on vacation. Sweet, sweet silence since I signed out of Slack.
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