Using soft skills for hard problems — tech leadership in 2022
In design, some problems can be fixed with more resources. With people, the solution is never quite that easy. …
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In design, you can fix some problems with more resources. Adding some memory and storage can assuage a lot of technical woes. With people, the solution is never that easy — creating a cohesive, efficient team is another story entirely. At this year’s GamesBeat Summit Next, Zak Whaley, director of engineering for PlayEveryWare, moderated a panel discussing these issues.
The delicate balance
During the discussion, named Technical Leadership: Soft Skills for Hard Problems, Whaley starts off by asking about different approaches to management. “What are kind of the problems that you see technical leadership facing, and what are the kind of approaches that we need for engineering management to address those challenges?”
Renee Gittens, general manager at Phoenix Labs, starts off the discussion with thoughts about balance in work groups. “One of the biggest challenges when it comes to leading technical teams or assisting technical teams is trying to find that delicate balance between planning for the future of the product and over-engineering your project a ton. There’s a balance between rapid prototyping and making sure that you’re covering every edge case ever. And then when your product pivots, it turns out you have a bunch of code that you have to throw out anyway. I think helping engineers find that balance, helping figure out the planned approach that you want to do is one of the biggest challenges of that.”
“Striking that balance can be challenging,” replied Lauren Hetu, senior software engineer at Phoenix Labs. “One of the most important things you can do is to keep your team informed about what is important to your business and your product. Help them understand your decision-making process. Work through it with them to decide when is the right time to invest in foundational technology that is the ideal solution. And when is it appropriate to take a non-ideal solution that’s going to save you time. It’s important to try to help each individual on your team understand how to make those choices. While you can help them specifically with the larger things, when it comes down to all these micro decisions that your engineers are making day to day to save 10 minutes here or 15 minutes there, having that context is really important.”
Know your audience
While being able to focus your team is of utmost importance, knowing your audience is also paramount. Why do extra work when it’s not necessary? Aleissia Laidacker, mixed reality expert and vice chair of the IGDA board, feels tailoring your approach can save time and effort.
“I feel like maybe we’re all on this similar vein here, but I think it’s, at the end of the day, figuring out who’s your stakeholder,” replied Laidacker. “Are you talking to the engineers? Are you talking to a CEO? Are you talking to the creative director? Trying to figure out the why behind it in all these cases. I’ve worked with amazing senior engineers, where we must do A, B, C, D, E, F, G. But at the end of the day, let’s say you’re trying to get to an MVP. Maybe you don’t have to go in and do everything from an architecture side. Getting your engineers to understand why we’re focusing on a subset of those areas for development is super interesting. You want to have buy-in, right? You want to make sure your engineers understand that you trust their value and that you’re taking their input. But then vice versa, you need to go back to the stakeholders and say ‘we’re focusing on X today, this is where we need to allocate time.’”
While not always possible, having a transparent process can help your team follow your logic. Yaprak DeCarmine, CEO of Game Jolt, believes in transparency and group decision making from the top down. “Our team size is a lot smaller which makes it easier for us to talk through everything. We definitely overshare. And that actually really helps both the junior and senior people on our engineering team to understand the decisions. Like why something is important or why something should be a priority. It’s not necessarily top down from myself, or David, we do it together basically, which works for us.”
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