Circles: The Life of a Development Manager

Eli Fatsi, Development Director

Article Categories: #Process, #Back-end Engineering, #Project Management

Posted on

I'm a developer and a manager, and my favorite way to balance it all is to run in circles.

First, a Tale:

This morning I put away our camping chairs. Well, sort of. 3 days ago they were in the dining room (I blame the children). 2 days ago my wife was picking up the dining room and must have moved them to the back stairwell. 1 day ago I was sweeping rice and glitter out of the back stairwell (children again) and I tossed the chairs outside. And finally, this morning, I picked them up off the ground and walked them ~10 feet to their hooks - mission accomplished at last.

You can see how it's not really fair to say “this morning I put the chairs away”. My wife and I had been asynchronously chipping away at this little task for days! With 3 young children, many animals, and 2 working parents, a lot of the chores in our house resolve themselves like this. Here's an overly analytical way of thinking about it:

Every task has a priority and a cost. When you have more to do than time will allow, you must consider the priority and cost of your options to decide what to do next. The cost of walking the chairs all the way outside was too great for it's priority, but tossing them in the right direction is an easy way to bring the cost down later. Until one day, they're sitting steps away from their proper place, and the cost is so low that heck let's just hang them up shall we?

Circles

In many ways, my management workstyle has morphed and evolved in lockstep with my meandering house cleaning style. I'm no longer a “single bachelor” / “individual contributor”, with a clear workload and boundless time to accomplish a given task. Now I'm the “father of many” / “manager of people & projects”, with a never-ending list of unrelated things to do.

Which brings us to the point of this post - circles. You can think about my management workload the same way you think about cleaning a messy house. Start in the dining room, make sure nothing's actively spilling onto the floor, maybe grab a dirty plate while you're on the way to the kitchen. Pop into a flow state doing the dishes for a bit (❤ dishes), before you're back in the dining room sweeping the floor with the kitchen broom.

If you only have time for 1 or 2 loops through your world before some hard stop, then you've hit the highest priorities, and moved a handful of distinct tasks ahead. If you've got a bigger stretch of time to work with, even better! Pull the mop out and really clean the floor that you swept. Given enough time you'll have the whole house in tip top shape, but more likley you'll get stopped at some point and thanks to your circles, everything will be (hopefully) fine.

Okay, Talk About Actual Work Now

The house is my job, the rooms are either my projects or the people that I work with. I catch up with Matthew (designer) before I sync with Miguel (developer), where I get to fill him in on the latest design thinking that's relevant to the work we're pairing on.

Although, most of my work doesn't overlap as much as I'm pushing this “take the plate from the dining room to the dishes pile” analogy. I abandon all of my Matthew and Miguel thoughts for an hour so Mariel and I can align on a different project altogether. And I put even more blinders on so I can sit down for an hour and write abstract blog posts.

There are pros and cons to this style of regularly being on the move. Let's examine those together.

When circles are good

  • I can stay plugged in to, or contribute to, a good number of initiatives at any given time.
  • Working in this way is (occasionally) energizing. Always having 5 things to do means every now and then you get to pick your favorite thing (like the dishes), how fun!
  • More seriously, you get the chance to help a lot of different people all at once. Dropping into someone else's orbit to provide a second opinion is often a pretty quick dip, and it's amazing how quickly time can fly when you're hopping from one person's world to the next, providing some context here, a decision there.

When circles are bad

  • Multitasking is hard! Studies have shown that humans aren't great at doing more than a single thing at a given time. I catch myself spreading too thin regularly and try to be cognizant about keeping out thoughts that aren't relevant to my current ask.
  • Finding dedicated focus time can be really challenging. And thus, tasks on your plate that can't be broken down into little chunks often hang out on the “hopefully can do this tomorrow” list for longer than they should.
  • I have a bunch of stuff everywhere! Windows crowding, a pile of browser tabs open for a thing that I haven't thought about in 2 days.
  • I can't easily write down all the things that make up my job. The general goal is to track down as many problems as I can spot and try to make them not-problems. But the specifics of that goal are always in flux.

Some tips to keep on circlin'

Stay Organized

A few years into this journey, I've deduced that the main goals are to 1. know everything that's on your plate and 2. know the relative priorities of those things. So long as you have that knowledge in hand, you're teed up to do the best work you can on any given day.

I keep a collection of notes files that I equate to having a really well-organized backpack. I regularly come back to these notes when I'm looking for something to do, and I keep decent documentation on any floating tasks so I can fully let go of a thought until I have the time to open it back up.

Here's a great post about staying organized from former Viget developer Nate Hunzaker - Getting Organized with an Engineering Logbook.

Learn your route

Email, calendar, notes. These three seem to be pretty permenant fixtures. But as projects come and go, different project boards or pull request indexes will push into the rotation.

Protect the focus time

My project team lately has been keeping certain afternoons throughout the week meeting-free to make this easier 🙏. Knowing what time you have to work with, you can pick up small tasks in the gaps here and there, and save the deep thinking for focus time blocks.

Use your environment

I highly recommend tuning alerts and notifications such that you can drop into an application and see the important things quickly. Other tips involve marking messages as unread, setting reminders, using little timers (eg: Horo), and learning as many keyboard shortcuts as you have the patience for.

That's all I got

This has been a fun blog post to think about. When I'm holding a bunch of laundry in one hand and trying to scrub the counter with another, I think “this is like building up some PR feedback while trying to fix a bug real quick”.

A final nod to the slew of excellent project and product managers I've worked with at Viget over the years. It's from them that I've learned how to multitask and orbit with the best of them.

Eli Fatsi

Eli uses his mathematics degree from Carnegie Mellon to blur the lines between the digital and physical worlds. He codes for Shure, Volunteers of America, and other clients from our Boulder, CO, office.

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