I started the year of 2019 as a front-end developer at Toptal’s core team. Just a few days later, I was invited to be Team Lead for a brand new team.
My emphasis turned, again, to working with people. That was a delight and I fully embraced the opportunity to help build a team. We had a few company veterans enlisted to start the new team, all of whom I had not worked with before, and we needed to hire two more front-end engineers.
The first recruitment process was for an excellent React engineer. It was done very deliberately and unhurriedly, to make sure we raised the overall level of the team on the React stack. It took us a little over 2 months until we found a great guy, who has contributed a lot this year.
The second engineer was a gift to us, as he was initially hired for another team. Happy to say he’s also doing tremendously well.
We quickly became a real team. It seems we did a few things that helped: communicating a lot, admitting mistakes and ignorance openly and quickly, and being real human beings.
One teammate brought along the Personal Questions call from his previous team. This call has a simple structure: one team member asks one or two questions, personal as the name says, to everyone on the team.
The questions are as simple as “What was the best trip you ever took?”, or “What is your favorite dish?”. It’s up to the team to let this call become just a little window on who they are, or a huge gateway to people’s souls. Yes, it’s possible to cry while listening to someone tell you about their favorite food once they tell you the story behind it. The bond I felt with the team was immense.
Dedicating at least one or two hours per week of each team member’s time to building rapport makes a big difference, particularly in new teams. Next year I will work to learn more ways of doing that.
I made my share of mistakes. The one that comes strongest to mind is about having patience before giving feedback to people you may like personally but don’t think are doing a good job — especially when they are not reporting to you. Convincing people to change is hard enough as it is, doing it without mutual trust and knowing their motivations is likely to backfire.
Another lesson I was reminded of by a mistake of mine is the “no surprises rule”. It’s often hard to know, in advance, how sensitive some task or decision may turn out to be. Next time something I do starts to deviate too much from what was agreed-upon, I should remember to share that early on, and avoid surprises, because the surprise itself may make people react negatively to something fundamentally desirable, or I may have the wrong assumptions or decisions and other points of view will help me see that.
I stayed with the team for a total of 9 months, we launched a good chunk of the new application we were developing, and then I was enlisted to start a new team from scratch: to recruit every single engineer, and help recruit designer and product manager.
It was painful to say goodbye to a team I loved so much.
Soon it was back to recruiting, this time a few weeks of full-time effort, and we are still at it. We seem to be close to hiring two people, and have one more front-end and one more QA person to bring onboard on the engineering side.
This recent team switch gave me time to study programming after a several-month hiatus. I am focusing on new React APIs, from Hooks to Context and Suspense, as well as testing, TypeScript and, soon, Apollo.
I did continue to study the Elixir language source, something I’ve done for maybe 3 years now. This year I did relatively little of it. I love Elixir just as much as always, and am thankful for having learned so much from its community.
I plan to go multi-team as soon as I have a chance, be it in an Engineering Manager or CTO role. Thus I dedicated more time than ever to reading about leadership, management and communication, often with a big emphasis on tech. Especially for people who are new to management, I recommend The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou.