How Being a Bass Player Made Me a Better Dev Lead

I’ve been playing bass since I was 15. I play other instruments as well, but I have always been primarily a bass player.

Music has always been not only a joy to me but also a salve. Writing software and leading technology organizations is such an “in your head” endeavor. Playing music for me is much more about intuition and feeling. I can do it for pure pleasure, and if I stumble on something I like, I can go deeper, or just hope I find it again in the future. No stress.

I was recently talking to another technology leadership friend about playing bass, and it made me realize how many things those two pursuits share.

While you can play bass alone, it is not a solo instrument. You need a band. Similarly, you can’t do much as a leader unless you are part of a team.

A good bass player may move to the front from time to time, but usually, they are in the back, keeping everything on track. A bass player keeps the groove going, pushes the song forward, but isn’t necessarily the one that everyone is looking at. If the bass player isn’t there, though, the band is missing a critical element. A lead is a vital element of a development team, but a lot of the value they add isn’t always visible.

While I always appreciated and admired the well-known quick-fingered, super-complex players like Geddy Lee, Flea, Les Claypool, and Mark King, the bass players who most influenced my playing are people like Peter Hook, Paul McCartney, Carol Kaye, and James Jamerson who excelled with elegant simplicity. A worthy engineering lead is not about flash, but about substance. Not interested in complexity for complexity’s sake, but in doing what the team needs and no more. As the Swedes say, “lagom.”

As part of the rhythm section, the bass player works with the drummer to keep time, but also to modulate and push things when needed. As a bass player, you might be helping an over-caffeinated drummer not push the tempo, or you might be conspiring with the drummer to give the song a bit more energy if you think that is what the audience needs. The lead of the team needs to be aware of the team’s dynamics and maintain a good pace, but also be mindful of the customer, and the business and push the team when needed.

While the bass is a melodic instrument, it isn’t necessarily carrying the melody. It supports the melody, tracking the chord changes. The bass player keeps the structure of the song, which allows the other instruments to take chances, embellish, or step into the spotlight to solo. Similarly, the engineering lead maintains the team’s vision, architecture, and the big picture so that the members of the team can shine or try out new ideas without fear of losing the thread of what is essential.

In a recent Lifehack article, Joseph Jo identified “8 Desirable Dating Qualities Of A Bass Player.”

I thought that six of the eight also are desirable qualities of an engineering lead:

  • They Love to be Connected
  • They Are Content Regardless of the Lack of Attention
  • They are Passively Creative
  • They are Considerate
  • They Tune in with People
  • They are the Artists of Adaptation

So, if you want to be a better engineering lead, you don’t need to buy a bass and join a band, but you might want to start trying to think more like a bass player.

Building a Management Training Curriculum at Avvo

[This is a repost of http://engineering.avvo.com/articles/building-a-management-training-curriculum-at-avvo.html]

This week, we kicked off manager training for Avvo technology managers. Before we could build a curriculum, we needed to decide what was important to learn and where we as a group needed the most development.

If I had done this with my organization at Adobe, years ago, I might have made a list of capabilities or requirements for our roles and then assessed each person against those requirements. I’ve since learned that the top-down approach tends to isolate and alienate people. It is something done TO them. They don’t feel investment or ownership of the process. If they disagree with the list or my assessment of them, it is hard to challenge due to the nature of the process.

When I was at Spotify, I worked with Paolo Brolin Echeverria and Mats Oldin to build manager training for my Tribe. They developed an excellent kick-off exercise that I repurposed for my team at Avvo.

The process is straightforward.

We began by individually thinking about the qualities of a good leader in our organization. We each wrote every important quality we could think of onto individual post-its. This effort took about 20 minutes. Then, one by one, we put each of our post-its onto a large board. As we placed each quality, we explained why we believed it was important for a leader at Avvo.

Kyle getting us started
Kyle getting us started

When we finished putting all of our post-its on the board, we affinity-grouped them. Affinity-grouping resulted in 30 groups of similar qualities as well as a few individual post-its that did not fit into any group. The grouping process required a lot more discussion so that we could all agree on the final groupings.

Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups
Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups

At this point, we had collectively described 30 essential qualities of a leader at Avvo, which is far too many to effectively focus on. To narrow things down, we each received six votes to put towards any group of qualities that we felt were the most critical. Then, we tallied the votes and took the top eight as our core qualities of a manager at Avvo.

The voting process also led to a lot of valuable discussions as we saw where we had voted as a group. Were these right eight? Were they the most important eight? The eight qualities that we picked were: empathy, develops autonomy, builds good teams, is real and trustworthy, is a big picture thinker, supports mastery, gives feedback, and has a bias for action.

Dot voting in progress
Dot voting in progress

Individually, we then assessed ourselves against the eight core qualities on a three-point scale: “I need training on this,” “need training, but it can wait,” and “I can train others on this.” One by one, we went up to a board that had the eight qualities mapped on a spider graph. We put dots on a line for each quality where we rated ourselves. We explained why we chose that assessment. This led to further good discussion about how to assess ourselves against these qualities.

Our collective spider graph
Our collective spider graph

The group as a whole found this exercise to be very valuable. We had excellent discussions on what it means to be a good leader at our company, including the values we agree on, and the ones that we don’t. We were also able to prioritize those collectively in a way that everyone feels ownership and allegiance to them.

And we came to an understanding of where we need to develop the most as a group. This mutual understanding will inform the curriculum for our management training – my original goal.

A diversity challenge: tech start-ups have a great opportunity

For decades we’ve been complaining about the lack of diversity in the technology industry. We’ve worked on the pipeline problem. We’ve worked on reducing bias. We’ve worked on the sourcing problem. We’ve worked on the retention problem. The net result thus far is that we’ve barely moved the needle.

Most of the companies that are investing in diversity programs are the larger companies. For them, their continuing lack of diversity is a public embarrassment.

At scale though, it is a far greater challenge for a company like Google, Microsoft, or Facebook to get to any percentage of tech workforce that mirrors their customer base. The numbers are too large to move the needle. It’s far easier for startups.

A critical part of building an inclusive culture that supports diversity is reducing the “otherness.” Inclusiveness is also much harder to do in a large company. If Google hired 1000 developers of color across all their offices, those individuals might never encounter another person like themselves on a daily or weekly basis. They may still be the only person of color that their peers see at work. They will be spread too thinly across the population.

Large technology companies should still work consistently to improve their diversity, but startups are much better suited to solve the diversity problem for the industry as a whole.

A startup with a development team of ten, four of them being women, has a ratio of 40% female developers. Any woman who interviews with the company will see that they are welcome. Any man that interviews will understand that they would be joining a company that takes diversity seriously and will be expected to conduct themselves appropriately. This would be the same for any other underrepresented group. If the company is serious about building a diverse workforce, they will find it easier to continue to be diverse as they grow.

Bringing in a diverse workforce at the early stages of a company will also mean leadership opportunities for those employees as the company grows. It will help address the lack of diversity in industry leadership, which further helps build minority representation. It will also eventually mean more startups started by underrepresented industry groups, which will continue to fuel diversity in the industry. Some of these startups may be acquired, putting their leadership into the leadership of other companies and increasing diversity in those companies as well.

According to most surveys, startup founders’ biggest challenge is hiring development talent. Meanwhile, there are ever-larger numbers of coding schools and boot camps graduating eager junior developers, willing to work hard, and coming from largely underrepresented populations in the industry. There are also many experienced minority developers at the larger companies who would be interested in being in an environment that lets them feel free to be themselves.

Unfortunately, most startups neglect the critical cultural aspects of building their company as they chase product/market fit, funding or customers. What many of them haven’t considered is that building a diverse company will help them find the right product for mainstream audiences, that sources of capital are increasingly valuing diversity in their funding decisions, and that diverse teams build better products that attract more customers.

So, I call on my fellow startup CTOs and CEOs to take on this challenge. If we succeed, we will not only build a better industry; we will also create better companies for our shareholders, our employees, and ourselves.