I get to lead a monthly session with Calm’s staff engineers.
Some months that is mostly a Q&A, but I find the best sessions have at least some component of directed learning. For example, we recently did a session on presenting to executives, which we used to dig into a decision I’d just made that had frustrated several folks in the session.
However, at this point we’ve already done sessions on most of the “operating at staff” topics from Staff Engineer, so I’ve been trying
to dig up more topics.
Fortunately, I recently got the chance to read Tanya Reilly’s The Staff Engineer’s Path, which is well worth a read (and is readable today as prerelease on O’Reilly’s online platform). The second chapter is focused on the idea of creating three maps to better understand your engineering organization: a locator map (where are you?), a topographical map (how hard is it to go nearby places?), and a treasure map (where are the places that are really worth going?). I thought this would be an interesting exercise to run as a group, with each of us taking ten minutes to create our own three maps, then sharing them out.
The instructions we followed were:
- Using one color, create your locator map, describing the key teams (e.g. Data Engineering, Quality Assurance, Customer Success, etc) and platforms (e.g. Content API, CI/CD, user authentication, analytics, etc) that you work with
- Using a second color, add topographical details to your locator map: draw in mountains where there is friction or little communication, add rivers where there’s a fast path to collaboration
- Using a third color, add treasures: where are the very high potential projects, capabilities, initiatives and relationships that could unlock something special? (Some folks also added hazards to their map, which are sort of anti-treasures. Generally any hazard can be converted into a treasure with a bit of creativity, so I think they are legitimate treasure candidates.)
- Explain your map!
Generally, this was a fun exercise, and the shareout was exceptionally interesting.
That said, if I were to try this again I would probably try it in three phases, along the lines of: first session, draft your locator map, finalize it for the second session; second session, draft your topographical map, and so on.
One of the powerful things about maps is they contain so much data (this is one of the reasons what Felt is doing is so interesting to me), but I also found that trying to work through both the nouns and their physical relationship to each other was too much to get right in one pass. You really need time to iterate before the map gels. For most folks it was obvious within a few minutes that their map was wrong somehow, and doing the exercise within one session didn’t provide enough time to fix. Conversely, maybe that’s part of the value: sometimes an exercise that makes it abundantly clear that you can’t do a good job is a powerful way to break through uncertainty.
Anyway, it was a fun exercise, and I expect to extract more from the book as I spend more time with it.