Getting in the room.

March 28, 2020. Filed under management 113 staff-plus 11

This is a draft guide for staffeng.com

One of the most common frustrations I’ve heard from engineers is that they’re not in the room where important decisions are being made. They don’t understand the company decisions, and have important context that seems to be missing or ignored. Staff-plus engineers frequently cite access to “the room” as a major benefit of their level, and titles do increase the likelihood that you’ll be involved in decisions that impact you.

However, it’s important to remember there’s no single “room” to enter. Getting into the right room isn’t a one-time challenge to be faced, rather entering rooms will be an ongoing, iterative career challenge. That means it’s worth getting good at!

Early in your career it might be a sprint pre-planning meeting with your tech lead and product manager. Later it might be a quarterly planning meeting, an architecture review, the performance calibration, the engineering leadership team, or the executive team. There will always be another room to enter, and to reach senior levels you have to become effective at not only entering but also stayingin these rooms of power.

Getting in the room

To get into the room, you need:

  • To bring something useful to bring to the room… This could be details on a critical project, context from a critical team, subject matter expertise related to the room’s purpose, experience running a similar project or team at a previous company, a relationship with a key relevant customer, or something else entirely.
  • ...that the room doesn’t already have. It’s not enough to have something useful to bring to the room, it also needs to be a perspective that isn’t already present within the room. Small groups function better than larger ones, so operating forums generally sacrifice redundancy and representation for efficiency. To be included in those rooms you’ll need to bring something distinct from the current membership.
  • A sponsor in the room. These rooms have limited slots and have to function well as a group. To get into the room, you’ll need someone to sponsor your membership. Your sponsor is allocating their social capital towards your inclusion, and their peers will judge them based on your actions within the room. These rooms often have a mix of seniority levels, so it’s often the case that your sponsor’s manager is in the room evaluating them based on their decision to sponsor you.

How you bring something useful to the room is going to be context specific to you and the room you’re trying to enter: there isn’t any single pattern to follow. Whether someone with similar context is already in the room is also unique to your circumstances, and at some points in time the only options are to wait or look for another room to enter.

On the other side of things, sometimes the easiest way to increase your value to the room is by decreasing the cost of including you. Some of the approaches that work well are:

  • Stay aligned with your manager. Folks evaluate leaders on how aligned their teams are with their announced approach. If they’ve proclaimed a shift to continuous deployment but their team is chanting for release trains, then folks get skeptical about who is leading who. You’ll be much more likely to be sponsored into the room if you’re highly aligned with your sponsor. If you’re particularly aligned, they’re more likely to yield their own seat to you and stop attending.
  • Optimize for the group. One of Stripe’s old operating principles was “Optimize for Stripe” and that mentality of optimizing widely for others builds trust and confidence in your judgement.
  • Speak clearly and concisely. Learn to speak concisely: as you develop an economy of speech, you’ll be able to contribute more ideas with less time. Learn to speak clearly: if folks don’t understand your proposal, then it doesn’t matter how good it is. Keep in mind that it’s your obligation to be understood, not the obligation of everyone else to understand you.
  • Be low friction. It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing each discussion as the last opportunity to stop an impending disaster. With that mindset, each discussion is a near-emergency, and emotions run high. Those sorts of discussions usually spend their time draining frustration rather than making forward progress. If you’re known as someone who can navigate difficult conversations effectively, you’re much more likely to be involved.
  • Come prepared. Some companies infantilize their engineers, accepting that even very senior engineers won’t read the agenda, do the pre-reads or prepare for the discussion. There’s a considerable gap between what’s tolerated and what’s rewarded, and you’ll stand out if you take the time to organize your thoughts before each meeting. Equally more important is following up on what you committed to.

To get into the room, you have to work both the numerator and denominator: keep developing a unique and useful perspective, while also becoming more effective at delivering that perspective within the constraints of a meeting.

Staying in the room

Getting into the room is your first hurdle, but the second hurdle is staying in the room. Most important is to keep doing the things that got you into the room: bring important context into the room, present a polished version of yourself, be concise, be flexible.

There are a few patterns that will consistently get you kicked out of the room:

  • Misunderstanding the room’s purpose. Each room has its own purpose, and you’ll create friction if you attempt to use a room against the existing group’s intent. It’s very common for the external perception of a given room’s function (“they make all the decisions in the leadership team meeting”) to be rather far from how the room thinks of its role (“we don’t make decisions, just surface problems to discuss”). Take the time to understand how the room operates and integrate into it with respect for that intention.
  • Being dogmatic. As rooms get more senior, they have to discuss very sensitive topics (compensation, layoffs, promotions, acquisitions, etc) and they have a fixed amount of time to work together each week. If you’re dogmatic, you will create friction that slows down discussion and impedes the group’s ability to make progress.
  • Withholding consent. Effective groups are formed from individuals who are willing to disagree and commit. You can often force a group towards your perspective by withholding your consent until thinking moves your way, but the group’s pace will slow to a halt and you’ll likely get removed from it.
  • Sucking the oxygen out of the room. There are brainstorm discussions where every idea is welcome, and there are moments when you’ve shifted into operating mode to unblock project execution, and you have to read the room on which is happening. Usually this comes from an urge to show value, but remember that you’re in the room because of what got you into the room, not in the hopes that enter the room will magically transform you into someone entirely new.
  • Embarrassing your sponsor. Remember that you got into a room because someone in the room advocated for your inclusion.

That said, I think it’s easy to get caught up worrying too much about staying in the room. Sometimes you’re better thinking about whether the room’s a valuable place to invest your time.

Exiting the room

It’s important to remember that while there are infinite rooms to be in, there’s no room where the work actually happens. You’ll be most impactful if you’re selective on which rooms you stay in. While I’ve met many folks who resent not being allowed entry into some room they’re fixated on, I’ve never met anyone who regrets leaving a room too soon. If any given room doesn’t feel useful, exit the room.