The value of clear goals


As the business I work for has scaled, we have found ourselves in a situation where we rapidly need to grow the technology team. In this scenario, we have come to see the limiting factor is how fast we can nurture new leaders within the organization. For context, the tech team is organized to have small groups of 4-6 people led with a subject-matter expert team lead.

For our newly minted team lead, I need to take them through the ropes, especially if they are a first time manager. Even if they aren’t, we need to instill in them how we view leadership.

If you imagined we do some Nyamachoma or a related team building activity, you would be wrong. The first task we set out to do is to articulate the defining and setting of clear goals for the leader and their team.

In this entry, I will be discussing why we consider goal-setting to be the most critical activity for a team.

Eliminate politics

In the absence of something to aim for, people generally result to irrational self-interested behavior. In truth beyond the smallest businesses, the activities and aims of the organization are beyond the reach of individual contributors.

Sure, you may have an inspiring vision, but if you are customer support agent in Google Adsense division, what exactly are you supposed to do with “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”?

This ambiguity means the measure of work rapidly falls to the level of who receives the most accolades from the boss or whoever can warm the office seat the longest.

Mutual accountability

I have had a varied gym relationship, filled with “on” and “offs”, mostly “offs”, but that is a story for another day. The point is when trying to understand why it’s so hard to sweat it out for 30 minutes, I came across the concept of a gym buddy. For the time my brother and I went to the gym together, I experienced my longest “on” streak.

You can employ the same principles which make this system work to your teams. Think about this way, to them you are just a boss, overpaid and didn’t do any actual work. Their colleagues, on the other hand, are comrades, they sweat it out together to bring the sprint to fruition. As you can imagine, much loyalty abounds in these relationships.

With clear goals, you can tap into this dynamic. Every team member can see what the others are doing to accomplish shared goals, and they don’t want to be the ones viewed as slacking off. If an individual decides to be a loafer, peer pressure works for you as they receive the stink eye from their colleagues.

Grow leaders

In one of the leadership syncs, the sourcing manager quipped at how happy she now is to see the table full. For context, she was one of the earlier employees, doing the start-up work from tuk-tuks to now leading a 100+ organization. Still, I wondered why the comment. She went on to explain, before we came she had to do everything, to think of everything now, there was a whole team of colleagues.

You can not scale any organization if you can’t grow leaders.

By challenging your team to set clear goals for themselves which align with overall company goals, they start to understand the concept of what it takes to honestly ask themselves “What can I do that will benefit this community I am a part of.” In this way, you forge the next great leaders.

What to look out for

Finally, it’s essential to look at the two things you should never do when setting your goals: impossible goals, and mutually unachievable goals.

Stretch goals are great; they help teams do better than they thought they could. However, when you stretch the goal past the level a human being can accomplish, you lead your group straight to the death march.

The death march is a situation where everyone knows the goals will not be achieved, but you as the leaders don’t acknowledge it. Under this reality, work seems to be going on, but everyone is demotivated and stressed at the same time. Don’t do this to your worst enemy.

Mutually unachievable goals refer to situations where there is just nothing you can do to achieve both. For example, insisting this coming quarter, your QA team catches twice the amount of bugs as well as committing the senior members within the same time to scout out new QA software which will take most of their time in the same quarter. The benefits accrued from the latest technology may achieve the former feat, but the goal just can’t be completed in the quarter, perhaps at best the next one.

Do you have clear goals for your team? How do you set them? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchex


How to manage schedule risk

In one of our usual catchups, I was having a chat with one of our engineering leads, casually explaining a feature request we had received from our sales organization. As a team, most of our clients are internal, and we are always happy to receive such feedback. It came in as a mild shock when the response was we wouldn’t be implementing this feature. I knew it wasn’t a matter of time; we had processes to handle long term as well as delight features. So why the no?

In the same casual tone, he went on to explain a viable scenario where with the feature implemented, the interaction between sales and finance systems would grind to a halt, and we would then need to push an Android update. In short, the feature delivered nothing more than delight value but had the potential to stop the entire business!

I moved on from this conversation with even more respect for this individual; this truly is the mark of great leadership.

In this entry, I will be discussing a bit more about risk and how you can relate to it within your engineering organization.

Be clear

Risk is such an ambiguous concept. You can’t see, touch, smell, hear or taste it. Even intellectually grasping it is a hard endeavor.

It is easy to ignore such things. After all, do you really want to be the Grimm at the project kick-off party?

Still, it’s essential to enumerate your risks and the likelihood the risk will materialize. It doesn’t need to be a long or formal document. Frankly, even if you drop the likelihood calculation, just the fact that the possibilities are on top of your mind is well worth the effort.

If you already do this, pat yourself on the back. Now, to the more difficult task. How do you know the risk has materialized?

Suppose in your risk register, you had “Developer leaves team” and “Vendor X stops supporting Y library.” You may say, well, of course, we will know when these risks have materialized. Once you dig a bit deeper, you will see how this belief is flawed in an insidious way.

Let’s take the first case. Most organizations have a reasonable notice period before you can leave, for an engineering manager, this is cheap comfort. When a team member has decided to move on from your business, all sense of initiative goes out of the window. What you now have is not the whole brained, energetic, committed dev you used to know, rather a by the book, can’t wait till 5pm, does minimum work to get it done lad. In short, your ambitious schedule is f*ckd!

Have a contingency plan

If you have a risk register and have not thought through how you will handle the risks, then in essence what you have is a glorified worry list.

I have come to see risk as having a fascinating characteristic. Once it becomes obvious, a risk will transition then what you need to do becomes obvious but mitigating it, if at all possible can only be done at a high cost. Before a risk is obvious, what you need to do is less obvious, but it can be done much more cheaply.

To illustrate the point, think of an app that failed in production because it runs out of memory. In this case, once it becomes manifest the event is happening, there is little else you can do if you are stuck in a VM type of architecture, scale it, and the application quickly eats through the new RAM. In short, what you need to do is visible but very expensive. If you had thought about this problem when the app was still in Greenfield, you then wouldn’t know if the risk would ever materialize, but solving it would have been as easy as say, choosing a different programming language, or going cloud-native.

You obviously can’t plan for all risks, but if you can select the risks with the most significant impact and the chance of happening. You maximize your chances of being able to sail through the worst of the storm or better yet, avoiding it altogether.

Did it happen to your peers

In Swahili, there is a saying

“Ukiona mwenzio ananyolewa, zako tia maji”.

Roughly translated, if you see your neighbor getting shaved, you better start wetting your own hair.

The point here is if other smart people have tried to solve the problem you are now embarking on without success, and you can not clearly articulate why they failed, there is probably an underlying structural issue.

An example here is the Kenyan cashless markets. Almost all international players come in with a firm intention only to accept online payments via credit cards, soon this softens to Mpesa, and for those that thrive, cash makes its way back into their model. I am not saying I understand why pure cashless doesn’t work or that it will not work, maybe even sooner than we think. What I am saying is, if you are entering the market now, you are well advised to consider lessons of your predecessors.

To get started, you can think of some of these risks, almost every leader in a tech organization I know has had to face some variant of.

  1. Developer leaves your team
  2. An essential vendor/library drops support suddenly
  3. The client gets new ideas as the project starts shaping up

How do you manage risk in your own organization?  Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchexv



Why I never advise anyone to freelance

I have been in the industry for a while now, and one of the questions which keep on popping up is, “Should I freelance?” or even more directly  “After all these years, why don’t you go it alone?”. The indication here is why don’t I become a dev for hire. While I no longer offer value through hands-on coding, I still feel younger entrants into the industry need to understand a bit more of why I think small scale software consulting is not a good idea.

Let us begin with a story. Years ago, I walked over to a clients office with a proposal in hand. I had just started a new consulting firm and even had two devs in employ. This was going to be our first major client. On my proposal, I had the devs profiles, the company profile, and what we thought we could offer.

The meeting was fairly long with the director of the client firm quickly going through what his vision of the product would be, basically a custom ERP. After our quick paced session, he asked, “So what will this cost us?”.  I am against such estimates, so I explained we would need more time. Further given the amount of pre-work required, field visits, interviews point estimation, and so forth. We would need to charge just to develop the scope of work and associated project documents.

The mood turned somber as the director took it upon himself to explain just how stupid it was for me to have the guts to ask for payment for the work needed to estimate the real work. New in negotiation, I capitulated and did as he wanted me to do. In the end, they ended up going with another contractor, and we took the cost.

Is this why I ask you not to freelance? No, at least not the only reason. The industry is simply stacked against you. Let me explain further.

Low barriers to entry

There is no other industry where the cost of entry is a laptop, headphones, and a decent internet connection.

Your first response may be, sure, but what matters is not these physical assets, its what is between my ears.

Perhaps this is true, let’s look at it another way. If you are top 1% of the population in terms of intelligence, then a city like Nairobi with 3M residents, there are 30,000 people JUST like you if not better.

The truth is, you are not that special. Continuing to delude yourself in this way maybe fun even satisfying but will prove disastrous to your pocket.

The field will continue to flood with X consulting, X tech, X designs kind of companies. Profits will be suppressed.

The tyranny of time

Time is a limited and precious resource. You can not buy it, rent it, get a loan of it or in any other way extend it. What you got is what you got. Yet all activities need time to gain reality.

Guess what takes a LOT of time? Product development.

Real life coding is nothing like what you get in a teaching environment, there are no neat solutions. Past your fresh start, most of your time will be spent reworking existing code.

Vi has built its entire product successfully based on the idea you spend more of your time editing the code rather than adding new code.

Factor in the time you spend fixing bugs, and you are only coding 30% of the time.

The news gets worse, Business Development is an even bigger beast. Clients rarely know what they want to be built. More often than not, they feel their problem and have a sense tech may be able to help. It will be countless meetings and brainstorming sessions before you have what looks like an addressable problem and even more time to architect the solution.

Optimistically, you will be spending maybe 5-10% of your time coding, aka time you can bill the client. Do you see how this can become a problem?

Scale works against you

We all learned about economies of scale somewhere in Econ 101. The basic idea being our costs per unit reduces with the more units we sell. Did anyone bother to tell you about diseconomies of scale?

Some businesses get stuck in an unfortunate situation where every new unit sold costs more. As a solo tech consultant, you fall squarely in this bucket.

Technical engagements tend to offer little opportunity to apply prior knowledge. Yes, I know you can carry over libraries you have built, but unfortunately, you can not carry over business domain concepts which are likely what the client cares about.

You could always hire more devs, putting aside the question, why would they work for you and not themselves, experienced devs are hard to find, and when you recruit them, the cost will be significant.

Poor bargaining power

The old saying “No one was fired for hiring IBM” still holds its ground to date.

For established clients aka where all the money is, are characteristically risk averse. They have a working business model and don’t want to jeopardize it. Further, after sales support will always be a key concern. In short, procurement departments are allergic to one man shows!

There is some reprieve here, small businesses will be more willing to engage. Competition here will be stiff, even worse, you may find yourself encountering competitors who don’t really care about the bottom line. After all, most people in this industry are here because of the promise of freedom, a chance to work from the beach. It will be tough to underbid such an individual.

So what works?

Advisory services are clearly a profitable industry, so how can you be successful here?

Here is a little known secret, successful advisory firms are NOT paid for performance. If you were to call PwC, they would offer you not a solution to your problem, a hefty hourly rate. You, of course, you have no option, an audit is a regulatory requirement, and you are better off with a known name.

What about mutual funds? Well, always read the fine print. The fees are charged against your investment, not against what you earn. In short, they make money whether their decisions pan out or not.

You could get over this huddle by charging per hour as well. A time tested model is convincing the client to embed you in their team. So you take on tasks just like any other dev. This, to me, looks and feels just like regular employment with none of the employment benefits.

Large networks such as Toptal or Upwork may help. They also embed you in a team. In my opinion, the net effect is the same as above.

In fact, the only viable way I see out is to work on a product and use your consulting fees to get by as you wait to land on a product market fit. Once this is achieved, shift all your attention and resources to the product business.

Have you managed to make a freelance operation work? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchex