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How Can We Become More Effective Engineers? Part 2: Prioritize Regularly

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In part one of this two-part series, I went over focusing on low-effort tasks that produce the highest value and ways to increase leverage in some of your everyday activities. To quickly summarize, leverage can be defined as value, or impact, produced per time invested. In other words, the ROI (return on investment) of engineering. While increasing leverage is a good measuring tool, it may not always be clear how much value, or impact, a given task will produce. And sometimes, with the sheer number of tasks thrown in your face, it can be difficult to prioritize.

As an engineer, there are so many things to work on, right? Although our sprints may be organized into bite-sized tickets, we should consider organizing our own tasks that fall outside of sprint work. These could be things like reviewing a document in Confluence, writing documentation, or reviewing code from another team. From my experience, when these items pile up, it’s likely other things will slip through the cracks.

Enumerated below are some best practices for managing a huge list of tasks, accessing their priority, and evaluating the short- and long-term gains of a given task.

The Simple Checklist

This is probably obvious, but a simple checklist can help keep track of non-sprint-related work. It can be as simple as a document in Google Drive, a handwritten list on paper, or even the use of productivity apps like Wunderlist or Todoist. Seeing everything written down can give you a sense of what the most important things are and what’s not even worth doing.

Having a checklist can also help identify what to work on in between tickets or during small blocks of time in between meetings. But how can we determine which tasks or items have more value than others?

What Work Produces Value?

Engineers are really good at solving problems in the product and engineering space. We spend a lot of time figuring out things like efficient ways to implement a feature, how to compose different systems, and discovering optimal ways of storing and passing data, just to name a few.

Beyond the scope of adding engineering value are things that also add business value. This can include users acquired, products/features shipped, business metrics moved, processes/systems optimized, and sales made. These things are more important than hours worked, lines of code written, meetings attended, and JIRA tasks completed.

With this in mind, we as engineers should try to focus on tasks that not only help engineers and our users, but also help the business.

Learn to Say No

As an engineer, there is a balance that can be quite difficult to master—such as managing sprint and non-sprint work, helping people, collaborating with other people/teams, and continuing professional/personal development. Often, we can get invited to things like non-team meetings, interest groups, and to review other documents. The inviters are usually unaware of the opportunity cost of our time.

As such, it’s important to learn to say no. Because our time and resources are limited, not every invitation should be treated as an obligation. While it would be nice to attend all of these extracurricular activities, they can sometimes detract us from our other tasks. However, if these invitations are of high priority, then that should definitely be discussed. But since we cannot work on everything, we must focus on what matters—and that means focusing on what produces the most value.

Focus on the Important and Non-Urgent

Because we’re constantly hit with email, Slack messages/requests, bugs, and incidents throughout the day, we could become more reactive instead of proactive about our work. We should be careful as this will make it difficult to focus on longer-term investments like learning new programming languages, continuing professional development, and building relationships.

Every activity can be partitioned into four quadrants based on their importance and urgency (which should not be confused as synonyms). Take a look at the Eisenhower Matrix below:

Most of our time is normally occupied by Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 3, which fall under the “Urgent” column. However, when we focus too much on these quadrants, we neglect the non-urgent but important activities in Quadrant 2, which includes things like:

  • Career goals and building strong relationships
  • Reading books and articles for professional development
  • Building tools to improve our workflows
  • Learning new programming languages, libraries, frameworks, etc.
  • Mentoring our teammates to help them be more productive

Quadrant 2 investments often don’t have any deadlines, so they won’t get prioritized. But in the long run, they provide significant value because they help us learn and grow both personally and professionally.

When dealing with your personal checklist, be sure to find which of your to-dos fall in Quadrant 2 and de-prioritize things in Quadrants 3 and 4 that aren’t as important.

Invest in Team Growth

One Quadrant 2 activity that I think has high leverage and that we can improve on is team growth, which can be defined as growing our engineering team in terms of people and in our knowledge and processes.

Hiring and Onboarding

Hopefully, most engineers are regularly participating in interviewing engineering candidates. It helps when everyone can share the load on this. Most, if not all, engineers should take part in the interviewing process to help keep a strong engineering culture intact. A lot of teams also suffer from being understaffed, so bringing in more talent will definitely help in the long run.

Once new hires are brought in, a thorough onboarding checklist should be available to help enable the new engineer to be productive as quickly as possible. This checklist should be constantly improving as each candidate goes through it and makes modifications. But one thing to always keep in mind for the onboarding process is: How can we help engineers quickly ramp up on a particular technology or system?

Spreading Knowledge

I think this is one area where all companies can improve on. While we have things like interest groups, tech talks, documentation in Github and Confluence, and postmortems, information is usually scattered. For example, if an engineer wants to learn about Ember.js from the ground up, it would be nice if we could simply refer them to a page that has high-level explanations, as well as a set of coding exercises to help them ramp up.

At Google, they maintain a resource called CodeLabs to explain common abstractions used throughout the codebase, as well as provide code walkthroughs and exercises to help solidify the concepts. Even a baby step toward this could be very beneficial.

I have thought a bit about this area of spreading knowledge and have two suggestions about how to improve. I hope that these suggestions can help engineering organizations come together as a group and decide on some standards for effectively spreading knowledge.

Two Ideas for Spreading Knowledge

1. Leverage Interest Groups

Interest groups are typically formed around a particular technology, language, framework, etc., and are open for any engineer to join. The goal of an interest group is to help engineers learn and collaborate around a specific topic (for example, Elixir, Ember.js, etc.) in an attempt to help other teams work effectively with that technology. They can create documentation that could be consumed by engineers who have never had any experience with the given technology. The documentation could include a series of documents, screencasts, code exercises, and links to resources. Interest groups can also think about future investments into the given technology.

2. Use Mentors

Engineering organizations are normally filled with engineers that have expertise in a variety of different technologies, whether it’s MySQL, Javascript, or Python experts, just to name a few. Most of the time these engineers are extremely busy pushing the envelope with product features. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a program where fellow engineers could get some mentoring from these experts?

A mentor/mentee model for a given technology could be a great opportunity to work with engineers on other teams, as well as give engineers opportunities to mentor and/or learn. This could be one 30-minute meeting per week where the mentor can answer any questions and provide resources to aid in learning for the mentee.

Some of these are probably in place within your current engineering organization, but how much time and effort is being invested in it? These activities, while may seem to detract engineers from their immediate obligations, can actually yield long-term value.

Further Reading

These are just a few ideas I had on how we can become more effective engineers. A lot of these ideas were inspired from The Effective Engineer by Edmond Lau and Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you’d like to read more on the topic of being an effective engineer and staying focused in a distracting world, I’d highly recommend these.

The post How Can We Become More Effective Engineers? Part 2: Prioritize Regularly appeared first on PagerDuty.

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Set Course For Home: In Defense Of STAR TREK: VOYAGER

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It's time to give the most-reviled STAR TREK another shot.

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Best Buy Chief Digital Officer joins AT&T, leaving digital transformation legacy at big box retailer

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Best Buy Cheif Digital Officer Bala Subramanian led a digital revolution at the company, helping it fend off market-disrupting forces like Amazon. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Best Buy’s chief digital officer, Bala Subramanian, has left the company to serve as the chief digital officer of wireless communications giant AT&T, GeekWire has learned.

AT&T confirmed his addition to GeekWire in an email. A Best Buy spokesperson told GeekWire that Subramanian has been replaced by Brian Tilzer, formerly the chief digital officer of pharmacy giant CVS Health.

“We are excited to welcome Bala Subramanian to the AT&T family as Chief Digital Officer,” AT&T EVP of Digital, Retail and Care Rasesh Patel said in a statement. “Bala will lead our efforts to provide a seamless omni-channel customer experience. He has a strong track record of leading digital transformations and we look forward to the value Bala and his team will deliver for our customers and employees.”

Subramanian spent nearly six years at Best Buy, initially serving as the company’s chief technology officer. During his tenure, he oversaw the company’s digital and e-commerce strategy as it adapted to a new retail landscape, including the opening of its nearly 100 employee engineering center in Seattle.

It has, by all measures, been successful: Best Buy has made a comeback even as scores of big box retailers close their doors. A few weeks ago, it struck a new partnership with Amazon that strengthens its presence on the e-commerce platform.

Subramanian helped Best Buy ride the e-commerce wave by building on the company’s physical footprint, using its existing stores as a distribution network as well as showrooms for customers to test products.

Subramanian spoke with GeekWire about Best Buy’s digital transformation on a past episode of our podcast. Listen to it in the player below:

“Rather than try to think about e-commerce and looking at stores as two separate things — which we as consumers don’t anymore — how do we actually start to use digital as tying those two together, so you can truly look at multi-channel retail? That’s one thing we are focused on,” Submaranian said during the interview.

Now Tilzer, a longtime retail executive, will take up that mantle of transformation, and his experience in retail technology will be vital.

He was most recently the chief digital officer at CVS, currently the largest pharmacy chain in the U.S., before which he led strategy and e-commerce at retailers Staples and Linens n Things. Early in his career, he worked with professional services company Accenture to help retail clients, including Best Buy, implement growth and performance improvement programs.

Submaranian, for his part, is also highly qualified for hew new role at AT&T: Before joining Best Buy, he spent more than 15 years as a technology leader and executive at T-Mobile, which is facing off with AT&T and Verizon as it attempts to merge with Sprint to create a third wireless giant in the U.S. market.

As of publishing, Subramanian was not listed among AT&T’s senior leadership on the company’s website, nor was past AT&T CDO Teresa Ostapower. Ostapower’s LinkedIn profile still lists her position as AT&T cheif digital officer.

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huskerboy
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50 States of McMansion Hell: Charleston County, South Carolina

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HELLO FRIENDS! Long time no see! It turns out, writing a Master’s thesis is a very long and intense process. Who knew? I’d like to take this time to apologize for my unusually long absence. Fortunately, now that I have successfully GRADUATED, McMansion Hell will finally return to its regular schedule, since it is now my full time job. 

What better way to kick off the new season of McMansion Hell than with, well, a McMansion!

This Southern Belle, built in 1994, features 4 bedrooms and 3.5 baths, topping out around 4,000 square feet. It can be all yours for around $1.75 million USD!

Lawyer Foyer

So, since this is ostensibly an educational blog, this type of entryway flanked by columns is conventionally called a “colonnade,” which is a fancy term for a row of columns. A column flush with the ceiling like this looks awkward.  In traditional architecture, (which this is arguably trying to imitate) columns should terminate at some kind of entablature, in order to smooth out the transition to the ceiling, usually via a tapered cornice (similar to how crown molding is used to conceal/smoothen the joint between wall and ceiling). This entablature can be very ornate (following the rules of ancient architecture):

Or more simple, modern, abbreviated version), like this mass-produced example from the early 20th century:

(both images are Public Domain via Archive.org)

Okay. Learnin’s over. Time for more house pictures. 

“Sitting” Room

Okay but whomst among us does not remember getting lists of totally ridiculous “street names” of drugs in D.A.R.E.? Like, “Jolly Green Giant” was a street name for marijuana. Trust me, I went to an art school and nobody called it that. 

(In all serious, if you or someone you know is struggling with drug abuse, the National Institute of Health recommends these resources. )

Dining Room

Seriously, who wants to see themselves eating? I already have enough to feel embarrassed and/or self conscious about. 

Kitchen

I’m pretty sure that ceiling is wood laminate (compare it to the actual wood on the floor). Also is it just me or is the way the lighting is oriented a little odd? Usually I see pendant lights above a bar or an island not a whole kitchen. To each their own, I guess.

Living Room

More like Design “Within Reach for those with thousands of dollars to spend on a single ottoman designed by a dead Danish dude.”

Master Bedroom

The only true way to decorate your bedroom for a spicier marriage is going to couples therapy to try and understand at what point and for what reasons your marriage started feeling so passionless that interior decorating advice seemed like a reasonable (read: non-confrontational) solution to your problems and not an obvious ploy to get you to buy a new sofa from Overstock dot com.

Master Bathroom 

i, personally, refuse to bathe without my monumental urns,

Bedroom 2

The obvious solution to window interrupting the molding is getting rid of the window, forcing the inhabitants to live in darkness. 

Pedestal Sinks: for when you put personal hygiene on a,,, pedestal,, 

Bedroom 3

Two beds under one comforter seems like a surefire way to start an argument over who is stealing the blanket. As a parent, why put yourself in that difficult situation?

Sadly, there’s only one more stop on our tour: OUTSIDE! 

My parents’ house didn’t have prom stairs so we just took my prom photos on the front walkway, which partially eliminated the possibility of tripping in heels I had no business trying to walk in. 

Well, folks, that does it for South Carolina! Stay tuned for some exciting announcements about future projects for the blog as well as our next installment of Looking Around (On Kitsch). 

If you like this post, and want to see more like it, consider supporting me on Patreon! Also JUST A HEADS UP - I’ve started posting a GOOD HOUSE built since 1980 from the area where I picked this week’s McMansion as bonus content on Patreon!

Not into recurring donations or bonus content? Consider the tip jar!  Or, Check out the McMansion Hell Store ! 100% of the proceeds from the McMansion Hell store go to charity!

Copyright Disclaimer: All photographs are used in this post under fair use for the purposes of education, satire, and parody, consistent with 17 USC §107. Manipulated photos are considered derivative work and are Copyright © 2018 McMansion Hell. Please email kate@mcmansionhell.com before using these images on another site. (am v chill about this)

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huskerboy
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Xbox 360 lives on with a surprising system update — the first in more than two years

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Xbox 360 owners, Microsoft hasn’t totally forgotten about you even as it has moved on to bigger and better consoles.

Microsoft shipped the first Xbox 360 update in more than two years this week. It’s nothing major — described on the Xbox support update page as “minor bug fixes and improvements” — but it shows that the company still cares about its last-generation console even though it stopped production on it more than two years ago.

Here’s how you can see if your Xbox 360 is running the most up-to-date version of itself: First, go to the Settings hub, then select the system tile and navigate to the console settings. On the right side of that menu is a grey pane showing which version of the operating system the machine is running. The new update is OS version 2.0.17526.0.

Embracing its past has long been a distinguishing characteristic of Microsoft’s Xbox lineup as it battles Sony’s PlayStation and the smash hit Nintendo Switch. Thanks to Microsoft’s big bet on backwards compatibility, Xbox One features the ability to play classic Xbox 360 titles as well as games that date back all the way to the original Xbox.

Even though it is no longer in active production, you can still find Xbox 360 units nearly 13 years after its original release. Places like Gamestop sell them for $70 a pop, quite a deal if Microsoft continues to pay some attention to the device.

Editor’s Note: GeekWire Reporter Nat Levy and Editor Todd Bishop are both proud Xbox 360 owners.

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Let's take a look at Han Solo’s original, pre-Disney origin story

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Long before every tertiary character in the franchise was guaranteed their own origin story movie, there were these things called books that some Star Wars fans would seek out in order to spend more time with their favorite heroes from a galaxy far, far away. Some of the most successful installments in this literary…

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