In Episode 15, Danilo Campos (@_danilo on Twitter, co-creator of the new 1-1 organizer app Digamo) shares detailed advice for how to be an ethical people manager. We dig into a handful of edge cases and examples for how to do this.
JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.
I’m Jennifer Tu, and I’m here with Danilo Campos to talk about how to stay ethical as a leader. Danilo, can you tell us a little about yourself?
DANILO: Hey, there. Absolutely. I am an engineering manager, software developer, and interaction designer. I’ve been shipping code for the last 15 years. And this entire time, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how to do things right and how to do right by other people.
JENNIFER: Cool. Thanks so much for being here.
DANILO: Thanks for having me.
JENNIFER: Danilo, when you say do right, are there any common dilemmas or issues you’ve seen engineering managers find a lot?
DANILO: I think the classic one is time estimation is hard. So, you have a project and that project needs to get out of the door and you have business concerns around that. And maybe you need to close a round of funding or some client really needs this thing, and if the client has the thing that we get more money, that kind of stuff. So, there’s always an incentive to get things out the door. And that is pressed up against the challenge of needing to figure out how long it will take to get something out the door. And the mismatch between how long it actually takes to get out the door and how much time you actually have is, I think, one of the most common places where we see people get hurt in any sort of software context because it’s very easy to start trying to burn people out at that point. So, the incentive becomes, can you work nights? Can you work weekends? And you start using people up in the interest of getting things done. And not only I think is this bad for the people on your team, it’s bad for the outcomes for your team. People are tired and people are feeling not necessarily the most empowered when they’re giving up chunks of their lives to get things done on behalf of the company. And at that point, you have a team that isn’t in a good position to speak up when things are being done poorly or to speak up when decisions are being made that can do harm through the telescoping arm of the software they’re building.
JENNIFER: Or they might be unable to say, “Hey, it looks like we’re building the wrong thing for the rest of the architecture of the system in terms of how the user is going to interact with it.
DANILO: Oh, it happens all the time. I remember my very first startup job. The engineering team was wrecked from an energy and morale perspective because what would happen was that the company would send them down one rabbit hole. They develop for six weeks and they would completely shift gears six weeks later. And so not only were these folks working too much, they were never shipping anything. So they never got to the completion part of their work. They never got the satisfaction, the feedback that their efforts had been worthwhile. So they were just kind of pissing into a hole and never getting anything out of it.
JENNIFER: Oh, that’s so frustrating. What do you do when you have a manager come to you in this situation? Like obviously, once you’re in that situation, you might think about how you might never get into that situation. But what do you do when you’re in the middle of that? You’ve committed your team to more than they should be committed to, and you’re finding yourself saying, “Just this one deadline, can you do a couple nights and weekends until we get this one part shipped?”
DANILO: Well, it’s interesting, because there’s some reasonable argument to be said that the diminishing returns of having people work too much are fairly significant. So, having all these folks do extra work may not get you the extra results you even imagined. My first reflex is always to trim scope, not to add more time, not to take more hours from the team. I want to look at the scope of the project and say, “Okay, look, we promised X, but if we deliver Y, which is nearly as good but has about 60% of the scope, half of the complexity, can we get away with that?” My first instinct is always to see, can we do less and still deliver some meaningful chunk of the value that was promised? Because I think just after a while, everyone’s too tired to be doing good work anyway. And so, instead of getting to 100% of what you hoped for, you get to even less than if you had gotten that scope trimmed.
JENNIFER: That sounds good. And I’m wondering how to do that, both in terms of how to look at your work and figure out what’s a cut out, and also who you need to talk with and what other people outside of engineering you might need to convince and how you do that.
DANILO: Sure. For me, I have a lot of experience in these small startup world. And it’s a very different experience when you’re on this tiny pirate ship that’s got a dozen people than if you are in a situation with hundreds or thousands of employees in an organization. When the teams are very small, management has to come to some accord with the desires of those getting things done because the critical path runs through them. There’s no replacing them quickly. Everyone has to agree.
So I think that while there’s a lot of downsides to working in smaller organizations, just because things are often a lot rougher, you’ve got oftentimes less experienced managers there, you have rougher processes. One of the upsides when you’re working in a smaller organization is that you’ve got a lot more say about how to get things done. That said, I think regardless of scale, it’s important to cultivate relationships cross functionally, not just with other leaders, but people who are working in other disciplines who can give you insight into how the business works and what it needs and what it wants, because it’s those sorts of insights that allow you to have the best arguments for how to adjust course. Without the other insights from the rest of the business, all you can really argue from is trying to be decent to people. And that’s not always the overriding concern.
JENNIFER: What do you do when you’re talking cross functionally about what is possible and in scope, and the answer becomes, “Well, we need all of it. We need to ship with all of it.” What can you do in that situation?
DANILO: I like to ask why. Because the more you can drill into you what people want, it’s really easy when you view the engineering team as Santa Claus to ask for all of it. You want everything. Oftentimes, the engineers also want everything. Everyone’s excited to get things done when they believe in the mission. But what’s important to drill into is who needs what and why they need it. Because it may turn out that everything is needed, but there’s a particular thing that is needed right now. If you can figure out where the urgency is coming from and figure out what dependencies have maybe less urgency that gives you a little bit of wiggle room to stagger your work and adjust your focus, adjust your prioritization in order to allow things to happen on a timeline that’s humane and makes sense and works for everybody.
JENNIFER: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering, have you ever encountered a situation where you’ve got your engineers who are really passionate about helping out the user, delivering on the company mission, and they end up taking on more work and basically burning themselves out preemptively? And what we, as managers, can do in that situation?
DANILO: Absolutely. I think that is the flip side of what we’re talking about, where the difficulty of time estimation for software and all the complexity that lives inside of there, it can bite even the best intended people. And so for me, I think it’s really important when you have a team that is doing sustained work to have really proactive effort around taking breaks. Making sure that after you have really gotten something important done, some idle time is carved out to be like, “Look, I don’t want to see anybody except those people who are on call.” And then the on call people are going to get their turn on a break. Making sure to have it be enforced, really, that folks got to give some space to the work so that they can come back fresh. Because if you really care about the mission and you’re excited to do it, it’s important to do it sustainably.
JENNIFER: How do you do that with people who are really, really excited to keep working and go as hard as they can? A lot of people I’ve noticed, a lot of engineers will just say, “I don’t feel burnt out,” and then run as hard as they can until they are burnt out. Do you have any advice for situations like that?
DANILO: I think that we need to look at that point around both culture and policy. One thing that happens is that as a culture, you’ll have leaders who really want to perform their dedication. They want everyone to see how committed they are and they want everyone to see that they are leaving it all on the field and always giving 110%. And so, we can start there and be like, “Hey, leaders, how about you give 80% most of the time? We don’t need to give 110%. How about we just start with 80%?” And we’ve got a little bit of margin there so that when the situation requires it, you’ve got that extra margin to kick in. You don’t want to drive a car in the red at all times. It’s a very easy way to destroy the car. So, the same thing goes for people. If you’re constantly keeping your dial in the red zone, you’re going to burn out and you’re going to hurt the people on your team by burning out. You’re going to hurt the process. You’re going to hurt the outcomes. Being very clear with leadership that, “Hey, I expect you to model a healthy usage of your ongoing energies,” I think is job number one. And then job number two is startups in particular got savvy to the clever dodge of unlimited paid time off.
DANILO: Because when the number is infinity, then they don’t need to pay you for your unused vacation days in any sort of severance context. Now, I think that unlimited PTO can work, and I don’t think that we’re going to get rid of it anytime soon because the financial incentives that I just described are really powerful. And to an extent, I get it. It makes sense. You’re limited in funds. Being able to limit your liabilities around something like that, we’re not going to get to convince anyone to give that up for a while. But what we can do is we can convince companies to make it part of how people are evaluated, that they’re taking that time off. If part of your review is, “Hey, you didn’t use any vacation and that’s a problem. And if you want to get X progression in your career, you’re going to need to fix that.” That is one of the ways that we can ensure that everyone has their incentives aligned to do the thing that is most sustainable and healthy for the job that we’re doing.
JENNIFER: Makes sense. So, you need to set up your culture and your policy to be able to support a sustainable environment. That makes sense to me. One thing I’m wondering is setting up that culture, especially across your company leadership, even if everyone agrees to it. That sounds really hard because as leaders, you kind of want to get ahead of problems. And it’s really easy to tell yourself that you’re going to put in a little bit of extra work to save your team from getting hit with extra work later. Are there any things that you found to be effective to kind of jolt leaders out of that trap?
DANILO: I’ll give you a really simple example of this and that’s that Gmail add-on on Boomerang. Boomerang is terrific because occasionally as a leader, as a manager, as somebody who has the fate of multiple people in your hands, on a Saturday afternoon, you’re thinking about it. And maybe you should be thinking about something else. Maybe in a perfect world, you’d have time to take it easy and give yourself the rest you need. But boy, before you can do that, you just need to get this thing out of your head. The problem is, if you just go and sit down at your machine and you hammer out that email you were thinking of and you get it out on a Saturday afternoon and one of your direct reports receives it, they may feel inclined that they have to respond right now. They want to do their family stuff. They’re trying to live that sustainable balance that everyone’s been talking about. But boy, their boss is up their ass on a Saturday. They just want to make sure that they’re doing their job right.
A product exists just to make sure that this thing arrives for them during business hours. And so, you can do the thing that you need to do when you need to do it. But that doesn’t mean you need to drag everyone else into the fray with you. And so, I feel like that example is very instructive broadly, where the further you are in a leadership hierarchy, the more additional responsibilities, the more complexity you have to manage. But part of your job, I believe, is to protect those on your team from a lot of that complexity as much as you can and as much as it lets them get the rest that they need to keep doing great work.
JENNIFER: Wow, that’s really helpful. Thank you.
JENNIFER: I kind of want to swing away from this topic a little bit. And I’m wondering, are there other situations in which engineering managers might find themselves kind of boxed into an ethical corner and wondering how to get out?
DANILO: Well, we’re seeing a lot of that right now, actually. That ethical dilemma between the needs of the business and the morality of the engineering team is playing out across a lot of companies where we’re seeing it as Silicon Valley reckons with its roots in the defense establishment. We’ve got a lot of very big companies who are going in for government contracts. And in particular, the application of AI is one that is fraught right now with ethical dilemmas for a lot of folks. So, that kind of thing is not as abstract as maybe it has been at points in the past.
JENNIFER: Yeah. So what do you do when you love AI and you also want to not do these kind of things?
DANILO: Well, it’s a hard question. I think that part of what needs to happen in the United States is that we need to look at labor organizing not as a problem for business, but as an opportunity to streamline business operations. When you look at other countries, especially in Europe, there are some European corporations who don’t know how to interact with a workforce that isn’t unionized because there’s a whole bunch of processes and communication that is not being managed on their behalf by a union. And so, when we look at the opportunities here in the United States to make all of this stuff work better, I think being in a position where you tolerate or even encourage workers to come to consensus about the terms under which they need to work so that they can negotiate with management, how to come to a workable set of parameters for the kinds of jobs they want to take on with AI, I think there’s a big opportunity there. And even as I say this, I realize how taboo it is because we really do live in a culture where that sort of thing has been frowned upon. The power of management is seen as something almost sacrosanct. And as soon as I open my mouth to say that, “Hey, maybe there should be a counterbalance to that to help everybody come to decisions that they can all feel good about,” I think it’s very easy for me to be dismissed as somebody with some pretty radical thinking. But these are engineers who’s got a lot of power at the end of the day. They know how to do things not everyone knows how to do. And if they were easy to replace, then they wouldn’t have that power. They wouldn’t be able to take the significant paychecks that they’ve got. So, let’s all agree that people in these contexts have power and come to the table together so that we can make decisions.
JENNIFER: I like where you’re going with this. And I have questions about the implementation.
JENNIFER: One thing I’m wondering is it feels like encouraging unionization might be at odds with your managerial mandate to do what is best for the company. How might a manager resolve that conflict in themself?
DANILO: I think it’s all about examining our preconceptions. Because when we look at the United States in particular, our culture says that the needs of the corporation are paramount. And it’s hard for us to square the needs of workers against the needs of the corporation if the two are in conflict. But if we look at it as we’re all on the same team here, management is deeply organized. We should have similar organization to serve the needs of workers in order to streamline business operations. It’s not even a matter of we have to have unions. Unions may not be the right tool for the job. I’m open to them as a possibility. But in general, giving workers the opportunity to reach consensus between themselves around policy that they accept as these are the sort of defense jobs we’re comfortable doing and these are the sorts of defense jobs we’re not comfortable doing. To me, that seems like for the business, it’s going to be a lot more efficient down the road if we have really clear communication lines to figure that out, to litigate grievances around disagreements that come up from these sorts of things. I think there’s a real strong power to making sure that engineers in these ethical situations have a voice and have a clear path to resolution that does not involve them walking out the door. If you do something where you lose all your workers, you haven’t come out ahead, especially if those workers are in strong demand.
JENNIFER: That makes sense. What do you do in a larger company where you might have management above you that might be maybe less sympathetic to these questions that engineers are raising? What do you do when you’ve got management above you that’s saying you need to stop this?
DANILO: Sure. I mean, I may not be the right person to ask, because at the end of the day, I have never been a creature of big companies. Every time I’ve spent time in a place with more than a few hundred people, I get uncomfortable and I start itching for looking for the exit.
JENNIFER: I know you get uncomfortable, but I want to make sure that – you are extremely qualified at talking about what goes on in large companies. You’ve been there and you have done incredible work while you’re there. And that’s why I’m asking you questions like this, because you have that experience.
DANILO: I appreciate it. I feel like my experience though, tops out at companies around a few hundred people. I really don’t know how you navigate the politics of something like this at a Facebook or at an Amazon, at an Apple, where you have companies that have reporting structures that are simply byzantine, where you’ve got so many layers of politics that are invisible to you. That is a level of complexity that I think is really challenging. At the same time, though, one of the things that you can always do if you have a skill set that’s in demand is vote with your feet. If you are in a position where you don’t feel like the people above you are sympathetic to giving the people you’re working with the deal they need to sleep at night, you can always go and find someone else to do this job with who is more ethically aligned with what you care about. Because at the end of the day, there is a lot of stuff that I disagree with Venture Capital about, but one of the things that that establishment has absolutely gotten right is that software is eating the world.
And so, if your skills as a leader of people who make software, if your skills as someone who makes software, if those are being compromised in ways that you’re not comfortable with, you have alternatives. You have choices. And it’s not always easy. You can’t always do it instantaneously. Folks got families to support. I get it. But over the long term, we don’t have to stay at the places that don’t respect our convictions. And I really encourage folks to do everything they can to communicate their needs, to express their reasoned issues with how policies work that they disagree with internally. And if that doesn’t work, it’s time to investigate your other options. Don’t forget they’re out there.
JENNIFER: All right. That is amazing. And I think maybe this is a good place to stop. Danilo, any final words of advice to our listeners? And also, what’s the best way for people to reach out if they have more questions?
DANILO: My advice broadly is if you listen to this, there’s a very good chance that once upon a time, you fell in love with the magic of what these incredible computers in front of us can do. And it’s also entirely possible that somewhere along the way, that magic has been dimmed and obscured for you. And I ask you to try to find the ways that you can rediscover that magic and celebrate in it and find the best ways to discharge your understanding and enthusiasm for that magic. Because we need you and we need you to treat this with the wonder that you once did. So, I hope you still have that within yourself somewhere. I know that it’s been challenging for me to see it sometimes. Keep digging for it. Bring it back out.
If you want to catch up with me, I’m on Twitter @_danilo. And I just shipped an app with my dear friend, Nicole Sanchez, to help you do your one on one meetings better. If you’ve got a Mac, you should go and download it. It’s digamo.app. Go ahead and download it. It’s in beta. Tell us all about what we need to do to do better. And I hope you’ll check it out.
JENNIFER: Thanks so much.
DANILO: Thank you for having me.
JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. I’m Jennifer Tu. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we are edited by Mandy Moore and the DevReps crew.
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