Perspectives in Leadership: Leveraging data to enhance the developer experience
February 17, 2022
Greg Ceccarelli understands data. He understands the importance data has in determining an organization’s potential successes as well as how it can be used to predict and avoid pitfalls. He also understands how essential it is to seek context with intention as it relates to data, and to ask the right questions.
One of the many things that help Greg thrive as the General Manager of Pluralsight Flow is his understanding of data, especially how it affects employees. Greg has spent much of his career in data science, which might make it surprising to learn that one of his greatest strengths is his ability to connect with people. But that’s what you’ll discover in the latest episode of our Perspectives in Leadership podcast.
Greg sat down with me recently to discuss the current state of software development and why data will always be essential, but the developer experience needs to take precedence above all else. The entire podcast conversation is a must-listen for all technologists, but what follows is a snippet of our chat, including Greg’s thoughts on building trust across the org chat, transparency and how innovation needs to start with people.
*Answers have been edited for length and clarity*
As someone with a data background, you seem to very much understand that we need to be using that data to make sure that the people at the organization are feeling fulfilled and productive. Why should leaders be focused on people over anything else right now?
As you progress up the leadership ladder, it’s natural for the emphasis to shift from what needs to be done to how it should be done. That’s where lasting success comes from. The process. At the core of that process, though, is this need to really focus in on the experience of your employees. To make sure that you're removing roadblocks and thinking about career growth for them.
Even if that experience hasn't been at the forefront of the managerial mindset through the course of history, it certainly is now because there is this battle for talent. Fundamentally, within tech, even if you're not a digital-native tech company today, software is in your essence. That is driving this huge talent demand supply imbalance.
Businesses are constantly under this pressure to innovate and deliver more value to their constituents, whether that be shareholders externally or internally. Given that climate, I think it's so important for orgs to focus on the assets, which are their people that they already have. I think one of the biggest misnomers to me, a lot of effort at companies is put on attracting net new talent. And there's almost this dissonance between the emphasis investment that's put on attracting new talent versus retaining talent.
To focus on data for a moment, developer experience platforms like Pluralsight Flow are designed to give deep insights into workflows and processes. How can executives and leaders build trust and confidence with their team members when they're using this type of information? How can this data be used for good?
The preliminary answer there is to ensure that managers of teams understand what the ingredients are to make a team successful before you're even introducing a tool like Flow. There is a formative study that Google did back in 2015 about keys to successful teams: Who is on a team matters less than how team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions.
There are certain pillars to what they uncovered. First and foremost, team psychological safety. Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? The second pillar is dependability. Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time? Are there clear goals, roles and execution plans for the team?
Another is defining the meaning of work. Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us? Do we fundamentally believe what we’re doing matters? If those elements don't exist on a team, then you’ll have problems regardless of the data tracking you’re doing.
I could myopically view the outcome of a code fundamentals report that shows an individual's contribution over time or the way that they've interacted with others as a disincentive to drive performance. But if those elements that I referenced are there, then I think it can be a huge boon for providing transparency into the process that you're ultimately trying to model, which is, for an engineering team, confidence in the way that you're able to deliver software, to elevate the effectiveness of a team.
We don't work in the era of scientific management anymore. There's a lot more nuance to the work that technology professionals do. The ability to manage complexity is essential, but, at the same time, so is the developer experience on a personal level.
How important do you think executive and corporate transparency is when thinking about this type of data? Especially with talent turnover numbers being so high currently.
It's paramount. It's absolutely critical, especially within the context of knowledge work, to have as much transparency as possible. Ultimately, people want to understand how they're impacting the broader organization, and if they don't understand their aspect, they can't understand what it means to the company's broader goals and strategies. Then they're not going to find the relevant meaning in their work.
And I think that's really relevant, tying back to transparency. I think that some of the most damaging things within the context of an organization are when there are information asymmetries. Naturally, over the course of time, depending on the growth of an organization, those things can appear. As functions grow, those asymmetries become more dispersed. The org is less connected.
Asymmetries influence the work that teams do that ultimately matters for people. They influence individual fulfillment and overall effectiveness.
What's one piece of advice you can give our listeners that has helped you in your own career in terms of connecting data and leadership?
I ask myself constantly, “What is leadership?” I think it's being able to convey a vision that then you can rally your organization around. Being able to radically unblock progress to success for your teams. It's about understanding what your role is and what motivates you and how you're going to be effective in amplifying that unit of influence. So if there's one piece of advice that I could give that impressed upon me, it’s that there's a difference between hard skills and soft skills. Where the data comes in is that it enables me to see how the hard skills are affecting the soft skills. The data provides context.
People often have it inverted where they think of hard or technical skills as the challenging skills to learn. What's more important are what people think about as the soft skills. Things like executive decision making, empathy and communication. When you're dealing with people, these are extremely important to develop.
This gets back to this idea of being transparent. If you want to create transparency, you have to communicate and you have to be accessible. I try to do team AMAs, I send weekly recap emails. I make myself available for anyone who wants to talk about any aspect of our organization. I’m only going to be successful if I can amplify the outcome of my sphere of influence. This is where the data comes in. I can look at our performance over time and communicate what it means for our team at large and as individuals.
Being a really solid communicator across several mediums is something that takes practice and commitment, but can really help you become a more effective leader.
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