When I moved into my current role as a product manager at Twilio, I chose to focus on building internal tools for the company. The goal is to empower my coworkers with the tools and knowledge they need to build better products and provide better service to our customers. I believe strongly that companies should be cognizant of their limitations, and that they should provide themselves with the internal products to overcome those limitations.
P.S. This post was originally published on May 26th, 2012.
Knowledge can be dangerous
We all know that knowledge can be powerful. However, when knowledge is owned by a single person or a small team then it is dangerous. Your company should minimize any individual or team specific knowledge. It’s hazardous and will likely shoot you in the foot someday. If you have pieces of the company that are managed by any small group of people, find time to train other employees to understand those systems or business processes. You should worry about the potential damage that can be done to your business if something were to happen because not enough people were knowledgeable or had the right tools to do their job.
An individual’s fear and cynicism can permeate quickly through teams and inspire irrationality in actions. Fear and cynicism are destructive to companies. For example, I’ve often heard engineers refer negatively to certain parts of a company’s codebase. They say “I don’t know what goes on over there” and reject any notion that interacting with those systems could ever be easy. In reality, these engineers are more than capable. Their response is totally irrational and based essentially on fear.
“Beware of the guy in a room”
A few months ago, J.D. Hildebrand wrote about seeing Jim McCarthy speak at the Software Development Conference in 1989. McCarthy spoke about his experience managing teams who ship software projects, and he focused primarily on building healthy teams. Looking back, Hildebrand’s favorite lesson from McCarthy was about the “guy in a room” phenomenon.
Many projects, he explained, have at their core a challenging bit of code that is assigned to the development team’s acknowledged superstar. This programmer takes custody of the crucial module and retreats to his office. The team spends the next weeks tiptoeing past his door so they don’t interrupt his intense focus.
Having superstars on your project is always a blessing, but as I discussed earlier, allowing any individual to solely own a crucial piece of any project is very dangerous. Then McCarthy continued on to make his most alarming statement of the talk:
His code will be ready when it’s ready.
Empower the individuals, empower the team
Try to imagine what happens if this employee, for any reason, is no longer with the company. How will you finish the project? How will you maintain this this core piece of the project in the future? The other engineers will look for every way to circumvent working with this section of the codebase. If you empower individuals from the start, then the team will always be able to function properly, even if it loses the people who once owned important systems or processes.
How do you overcome this information silo conundrum? First you need to make sure that you are aware of all potential pitfalls in your organization. Once you discover which areas need to be operationalized, start to map out how you can best spread this knowledge amongst your employees. Do you have training sessions? Do you rotate employees between teams? Do you build tools which help break the information silo? At Twilio we ensure that almost every system, business process, and carrier escalation path has its own runbook. This has worked for us so far, but a company’s abilities and needs change as it grows.
Tools of the trade
In my role as product manager for internal tools, my focus is solely on improving the way that our employees do their jobs. We build the tools which help a customer support rep diagnose audio quality issues in an individual phone call. Other tools give our sales and marketing teams the reports and metrics which inform their strategies. There are numerous projects like these which empower our employees and make them increasingly more effective in their positions. Twilio’s ability to think at scale and do more with less will continue to be one of our defining characteristics.
Every profession has tools which empower the craftsman or craftswoman. We are lucky in the software and technology industries to have the ability to create our own tools. We are also fortunate that our tools are easy to tailor to fit the exact needs of the task infront of us. Beyond that, it is incredible that so many people in our industry take the tools which they built for themselves and share them for free online.
It is basic human psychology to enjoy the feeling of other people needing and relying on you. However, as soon as you realize that your colleagues are constantly relying on you for information or to do a common task, you should realize that this is a problem. Find a way to share your framework for thinking and solving the problems with them. Build the tools which allow them to get the job done without you. Only when other people don’t rely on you will you be able to focus your efforts on the work that really matters. Make yourself irrelevant, and you’ll discover that you are now valued more than ever before.