At each company I’ve worked, we have had a split between time spent on Product initiatives and Engineering work. The percentages always changed, sometimes 70% Product, 30% Engineering, sometimes as much as a 50/50 split. The impetus is to make sure that Engineering spends a portion of their time building new features, but also ensures we can do “our own” work such as address technical debt, upgrade systems, and document our code.
The trouble is, it’s one thing to say this at the outset, and another to make it a reality. There are some reasons that I’ve seen this model fail, not because people don’t understand in theory that it’s valuable, but because in practice, there are some common pitfalls that you have to think through. We’ll cover some of these scenarios from the perspective of an Engineering leader so that we can address a good path forward.
Some of the pointers below are reactions and planning based on what can go wrong, so let’s talk first about the challenges you can encounter if this isn’t set up right.
- Product may have conflicts, either with the work itself or the time involved. This can strain the relationship between Product and Engineering. If they are caught by surprise, you can potentially find the boundaries of your work getting more restrictive.
- Your engineers might not understand what’s expected of them. Parallelization of efforts can be hard to do, so building a good process can provide clarity.
- Maintenance path should be clear: Are you planning on making a giant system upgrade? This may affect other teams over time and if you’re not clear about eventual ownership, it could come back to haunt you. 👻
As nice as it is to have some freedom in your engineering time, communication, planning, and clear expectations can help make sure that you avoid any of the issues outlined above.
Once you figure out what problem you would like to tackle, it’s critical to write up a small one-sheeter that you can share with stakeholders on the nature of the work, the amount of time it’s going to take, and why it’s important.
If it’s a large project, you can also scope those pieces down into GitHub/GitLab/Jira issues, and add a label for the type of work that it is. This is great because you can use whatever project management system you already use to elevate the amount of work and expectations weekly. It’s good to keep the dialogue open with your Product partners on scope and the nature of the work so they aren’t surprised by other work getting done. This will largely vary by the culture of the team and organization.
This can help provide clarity for your Engineers, too. If they understand the nature of the work and what’s expected of them, it’s easier for them to tackle the small issues that make up a whole.
You may find that it makes less sense from a focus perspective to have every engineer split time across product and engineering projects. They may instead prefer to split the work up between themselves: three people on product work for a few weeks, one person on engineering work. There are also times where everyone does need to be involved so that they have equal institutional knowledge (migrations can be like this, depending on what it is). Your mileage may vary based on the size of the team, the amount of product work, and the type of project.
Communication helps here, too — if you’re not sure what the right path is, it can help to have a small brainstorm as a group on how you want to get this done. Just be sure you also align everyone with why the project is important as you do so.
Types of projects
There are many types of projects that you can create in your Engineering team time, and each has slightly different approaches from what I’ve seen, so let’s go over each one of them.
Let’s address technical debt first because that’s one of the most common pieces of work that can unlock your team. For every feature you write, if Engineering effort is slowed, you’re not only losing time in terms of product development, you’re also losing money in terms of engineering time in salary.
A bit of technical debt is natural, particularly at smaller companies where it makes more fiscal sense to move quickly, but there are some points where tech debt becomes crippling for development and releases, and makes a codebase unstable. Sometimes it needs to be done immediately to make sure all your engineers can work efficiently, and sometimes it’s gradual.
In a lot of cases, the technical debt pieces are things you learn you need by a bottoms-up approach: the devs that are closest to working with the system will know best what day-to-day technical debt exists than Engineering Managers (EMs) typically will. The challenge as an EM is to notice larger patterns, like when many folks complain of the same thing, rather than one dev who may have a strong opinion. Asking around before you start this type of project can help — poll people on how much time they think they’re wasting in a given week vs the prospect of an alternative.
Sometimes technical debt is a matter of a large amount of refactor. I’ve seen this go best when people are up front on what kind of pull requests (PR) are necessary. Do you need to update the CSS in a million spots? Or convert old class components to hooks? You probably don’t want one huge PR for all of it, but it doesn’t make sense to break this work per-component either. Work together as a team on how much each PR will hold and what is expected of the review so you don’t create a “review hole” while the work is being done.
A lot of companies will do hack week/innovation week projects where devs can work on some feature related to the company’s product untethered. It’s a great time for exploration, and I’ve seen some powerful features added to well-known applications this way. It’s also incredibly energizing for the team to see an idea of their own come to fruition.
The trouble with doing these kinds of projects in the split engineering time is that you can, at times, make the Product team feel a little slighted. Why? Well, think of things from their perspective. Their job is to put forth these features, plan carefully with stakeholders, put together roadmaps (often based on company metrics and research), and get on the Engineering schedule, usually working with a project manager. If you spend half your time working on unplanned features, you can potentially fork an existing plan for a project, go against some of the known research they have, or simply slow down the process to get a core make-it-or-break it feature they need.
The way I’ve seen this play out well is when the EM communicates up front with Product. Consider this a partnership: if Product says that a particular feature doesn’t make sense, they likely have a good reason for thinking so. If you can both hear each other out, there is likely a path forward where you both agree.
It’s good to address their fears, too. Are they concerned that there won’t be enough time for product work? Ask your team directly how many weeks at half time they think it might take (with the expectations that things might shift once they dig in). Make it clear to everyone that you don’t expect it to be done at a break-neck pace.
Ultimately, communication is key. Ideally, these are small projects that won’t derail anything that can be done in parallel to the regular work. My suggestion is to try it with something very small first to see what bumps in the road there might be, and also build trust with Product that you’ll still get your work done and not “go rogue.”
The final piece of this is to figure out who is responsible for metrics, outcomes, and when things don’t go well. Part of the reason Product gets to decide direction is because they’re on the hook when it fails. Make sure you’re clear that as an Engineering leader, you’re taking responsibility for outcomes, both the good and the bad to maintain a good relationship.
Slow, ongoing work
This is probably the most clear-cut of any of the types of projects and will likely get the least amount of pushback from anyone. Examples of this type of work is internal documentation, tooling (if you don’t have a dedicated tools team), or small bits of maintenance.
The communication needed here is a little different from other projects, as it’s not necessarily going to be one constrained project that you ship, but rather an iterative process. Take documentation as an example: I would suggest building time for internal documentation into any feature process.
For instance, let’s say you created a new feature that allows teams to collaborate. Not everyone across the company may know that you created a microservice for this feature that any team can use, and what parameters are expected, or how to add functionality down the road. Internal docs can be the difference between the service being used, as well as your team being asked to pair with someone every time someone needs to use it. Or worse: them trying to hack around and figure it out on their own, creating a mess of something that could have been worked on quicker and more efficiently.
Unlike the innovation projects, slow, ongoing work is typically not something folks really crave doing, so setting a process and expectations up straightaway works best. Internal documentation is a sometimes hidden but very important part of a well-functioning team. It helps with onboarding, getting everyone on the same page about system architecture, and can even help devs really solidify what they built and think through how they’re solving it.
Migrations are handled a little differently than some other types of projects because it likely affects everyone. There is no one right way to do this, and will also largely depend on what type of migration it is — framework to framework, breaking down a monolith, and migrating to a different build process or server all may have different approaches. Due to the fact that each one of these is likely an article of its own, let’s go through some high level options that apply to the organization of them.
- My first suggestion is to do as much research as possible up front on whatever type of migration you’re doing. There’s no way to know everything, but you don’t want to get part-way through a process to find out something critical. This is also helpful information to share with stakeholders.
- Are there internal debates about what direction your company should head in? Timebox a unit of time to work through the problem and make sure you have a clear decision-maker at the end. A lot of tech problems don’t have one “true” solution, so having one owner make the decision and everyone else disagree and commit can help. But you also want to give a moment for folks to have their voices heard about what gives them pause, even if they are in disagreement — they might be thinking of something you’re not.
- Document a migration plan, both at a high level and then work through the impact on each team. This is also a great time to explain to Product why this work is important: is your codebase becoming old and can no longer play well with other libraries and tools? Did a new build process come out that could save your engineers time in a release process? Help them understand why the work is critical.
- Be clear about maintenance and ownership. If one team migrates a build process that then causes issues for another, who’s fixing things to unblock that team? You should decide this before it happens.
- Some migration paths allow you do things slowly over time, or team by team, or do a lot of the work up front. However, there is usually a time when it’s going to be critical and all hands on deck are needed. Unlike some of the other work that can be parallelized, you may have to work something out with Product where all other feature work is stalled for a little bit while you get the new system in place. If you work closely with them, you may find that there are times in the season where you naturally have more of a customer lull, and it could give you the breathing room you need to get this done. I’d suggest that if they’re willing to let you take Engineering time to 100% for a little while, you return the favor; and once the platform is stable, dedicate 100% of the team’s time to Product work.
This final step might seem optional, but it’s a big deal in my opinion. Your team just pulled off something incredible: they parallelized efforts, they were good partners to Product, they got something done for the Engineering org at large. It’s crucial to celebrate the work like you would a launch.
The team needs to know you value this work because it’s often thankless, but very impactful. It can also build trust to know that if something hairy comes up in the future, that it does actually help their career path as well. Celebrating with your team what you accomplished costs very little, and has great cultural impacts.