Bookmark Beat: EP 21

Standups and blameless cultures

Hey y'all and welcome back to the Bookmark Beat 🥁. This is my third month of writing it monthly and I'm really liking this cadence. Thank you to everyone who stuck with me during the dry spell and 👋🏼 hello to all the new folks who decided to subscribe over the last few weeks. I look forward to hearing your feedback on what you liked (and, if you'd be so kind, what you didn't like).

My aim is for this newsletter to be accessible to folks who work in tech as well as the more casual reader. So I'd encourage anyone who's reading this that isn't a designer, developer or otherwise working at a tech company to still try out the “B” section - there might be something there that speaks to you 😉

Want to know what podcasts and music I'm listening to? Or maybe you just prefer a realtime feed of my latest bookmarks… if so, check out the “I am” page on my website.

If you'd like to receive updates whenever I write this newsletter, you can do that by subscribing on Substack 📬

“A” Section: This Month's Bookmarks

The Moral Economy of the Shire by Nathan Goldwag

For bachelors Bilbo and Frodo, these were personal, individual relationships. But the norm was likely closer to webs of debts, favors, and obligations, traded back and forth between families, cemented by marriage alliances and social ties. […] To modern ears, this may come across as utopian, or idyllic, but these sorts of status displays were a key part of many economic and social systems.

Home-Cooked Software and Barefoot Developers by Maggie Appleton

“People need not only to obtain things; they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.”

Software is no exception to this.

How to Make a Great Government Website by Dave Guarino

I was just helping someone on Reddit the other day who was saying, “my old employer just refuses to give me proof that I’m no longer employed there, and the agency won’t approve me without that.” That’s a good example of something that would be a procedural denial. It was not because they were ineligible. It’s because they couldn’t get that signed statement from their former employer.

Did we fail to develop the next generation of designers? by Edward Liu

For the next generation, I would love to see universities to eventually follow suit in incorporating [critiques, getting buy-in, speaking business, etc.] into their curriculum. And I would challenge candidates and managers alike to creatively emphasize these aspects within their portfolios. (It’s something I’m working on, too!) Doing so can help to reshape and redefine what it means to have a portfolio.

Hiring Designers by Jonathan Bowman

[R]ubrics will be your go-to guides, used when evaluating folks you are interviewing.

The way this process is designed is that you increase the difficulty of the rubric by each phase of the interview process and you reduce the number of candidates you evaluate, along the way.

Thee Oh Sees (Osees) - Full Performance Live on KEXP

From the top comment: This version of The Dream has, on average, a “WHOOO” every 22.8 seconds. This “WHOOO” density is approximately 3 times as high as that of King Gizzard's Nonagon Infinity album.

“B” Section: Why do we do standups?

Agile gets a (warrented) bad rap. Having been on both sides of the “Agile Consultant” game, I've seen so many one-size-fits-all solutions go awry - causing entire teams to scoff at the idea of a retrospective, “sprint planning” or even a standup. Despite being inspired by the auto-industry, the concept of capital-A “Agile” might be one of tech's biggest exports into other industries. Much to the chagrin of people who just want to do their accounting in peace.

But no matter what your previous experience with the term is, I'd like to defend one practice that I've found works well in any industry: Standups.

When I tell my mom (who is a Deputy Chief Medical Officer at a community health center) that my team has a daily sync where we talk about what we did yesterday and what we're planning on doing today, she's surprised that it doesn't descend into an hours-long planning meeting. And when I tell my father-in-law (who is the Head of Sales at a vinyl distribution company) that we call out blockers and ask for help, he's shocked that nobody feels like they're being thrown under the bus.

Instead, this practice of syncing up daily and speaking to our goals, pain points and gaps in our skillsets leads to better outcomes for the entire company. By being open about what we're working on and jumping in to help others with their work, we end up trusting each other more and growing stronger as a team.

A healthy standup is like a good workout routine. It might be hard some days but the repeated effort makes you stronger over time.

But what about bad standups?

Just like a workout, you can do an exercise wrong. Sometimes you might pick up a weight that's too heavy for you and tweak your back. Or you can just phone it in and not get any benefit. I know that I've had my fair share of standups where I've simply stated “yesterday, I designed some stuff and today I'm designing some more stuff.”

This sort of status update is like lifing weights that are 10x lighter than you normally would lift. You're going through the motions but not getting any stronger. As a team, this can add up and lead to people saying things like “I get no value out of standup” or just not showing up at all.

A good test to check if your standup is working is to ask the person who usually schedules/runs the standup to message in the group channel that they won't be showing up today 5 minutes before the scheduled standup time.

If everyone ends up showing up for standup, people probably find it valuable. If nobody does, there's a problem.

Good standups model blameless cultures

To continue the workout analogy, there's usually a reason you work out. Maybe you're training for a marathon or just trying to get strong enough to move the furniture in your house the next time you vaccuum. Whatever the reason, the day-to-day effort is what makes it possible to do the hard thing when it happens. You shouldn't expect yourself to be able to run a marathon without some practice beforehand.

Standups work the same way. There will be times when things get hard. Maybe a project has a really important deadline or an outage forces everyone to stop what they're doing and focus on one thing. No matter the challenge, a team needs to work together to solve it in a way that won't injure them in the process. These injuries (frustration, unequal distribution of work, burnout, etc.) usually occur when there isn't a blameless culture at work.

Blameless cultures assume best efforts are being made by everyone on the team and allow team members to work without fear of retribution. When we share at standup that we “spent all day fighting against a failing test but couldn't figure it out,” we're not only communicating a problem that we're facing; we're also showing others that we can be trusted to tell the truth. It's even better if someone jumps in and says “I have some experience with fixing flaky tests. Can I help you with that?”

These moments of vulnerability and openness to collaboration make it easier to be in situations where an issue is urgent and communication needs to happen more quickly. By the time a very important person complains about an issue or a production system is down, we've already practiced how to talk to each other, ask questions and offer help.

So, if your team thinks that standups aren't useful, try debugging them by asking “what are we using this to train for?” The answer to this question might just be the thing that makes the daily “workout” less monotonous.

Coda: Books I'm reading

Here's the books I've read (or am still reading) this month:

  • Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler is an empathetic yet serious look at the objections many express against the concept of “gender”. I highly recommend it for anyone who has some knowledge of feminist theory and is looking for an updated lens with which to see the frustrations many conservatives have with “gender ideology”.
  • Work Won't Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe may sound like the title of a self-help book but it's actually a well-researched historical account of labor movements across industries. The book is organized by the different types of jobs that have gone under-recognized (and underpaid) in society and does a great job in building a through-line of solidarity across them.
  • I'm still loving my long reads: The Silmarillion and War and Peace. If you've read either of them before, please let me know! I'm dying to have another person to geek out about them with.

That's all for this EP 💽! If you'd like some more thoughts before the next newsletter, feel free to ping me in the comments on Substack (or just send me an email).

Catch ya next beat 🥁😎🥁