Great Careers in Engineering: John Allspaw

As part of our new speaker series, “Great Careers in Engineering,” NYC Tech veteran John Allspaw joined us recently to discuss tips for engineering teams during COVID-19 as well as the values that make a resilient engineer. As a member of our Tech Council, John has been a longtime friend of Primary and has led teams at Yahoo and Etsy, where he was the CTO. Beyond his impressive track record in NYC Tech, he has also had a parallel academic career researching what makes high-performing teams function and is published by O’Reilly Media.

John gave us a hopeful interpretation of how teams are transitioning to unexpected remote work. No doubt we all miss the serendipity of being in an office, and individuals are accustomed to leveraging their ability to communicate in person. John hypothesized that the activity of internal wiki’s and intranets are likely increasing, as team members need to be more explicit and direct about their communication. A forced function of employees looking up available information in advance of approaching their teammates with problems may be a positive change. Engineering is a team sport so collaboration won’t decrease, but the way teams collaborate, communicate and problem solve are shifting.

John believes in cooperative advocacy, meaning that diverse perspectives working together is the best support when plans go awry. He referenced the original NASA Mission Control Rooms designed to have a diverse set of experts across disciplines sit by each other to share knowledge and stay in the loop. This contributes to interpredictability on teams, where people are continually attempting to repair misunderstandings and making effort to maintain “common ground.” You can see it in some environments where engineers with different domain expertise can finish each other’s sentences. Remote engineering teams are not new, but with the global pandemic, this shift will continue to make engineering teams much more intentional about how they work together.

It’s hard for an engineering leader to give advice on expecting the unexpected and constantly “preparing to be unprepared.” As we’re all encountering, John mentioned that “things that have never happened, are happening all the time.” To be a resilient engineer, you need to embrace this. John was careful not to label anything as advice but was comfortable relaying lessons he’s learned from his career with the group.

He shared how tinkering on Volkswagens in high school led to learning Unix and then many steps later to being a CTO at one of NYC’s most successful technology companies. He encouraged engineers thinking through future ladders and titles to also consider the bigger challenges and opportunities for professional growth, as that has been helpful for him.

“I’ve always been attracted to this question ‘What have I not done? What is something I haven’t done? Looking back, what would I have wanted to have done?’ If I want to be a really good Engineering Manager, I need experience doing things like creating a new team, transitioning an existing team to a new set of responsibilities, hiring people, letting people go, identifying problematic interpersonal dynamics as well as quiet-but-high-performing engineers, and more. When looking for a new role, l look for places that will give me an opportunity to do something I haven’t done before. Running towards things I haven’t done without abandoning my skill set has been valuable.”

We have plans for another “Great Careers in Engineering” discussion in July, so please email richard@primary.vc if you would like to join. Interested in chatting about early days Engineering opportunities or considering starting something new? Shoot over a note and we can schedule a time to chat.

— Richard Hughes, Director of Talent at Primary

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