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How 1-on-1 meetings can boost team alignment and clarity for your employees

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You’re in yet another boring 1-on-1 meeting. It seems like all you do is go over random updates, or just chat about life. You could be using this time to do real work instead! But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The 1-on-1 meeting, when done right, can be the most powerful tool for building alignment and clarity in teams. If you’re a manager, you need to be using them to their full potential, otherwise you’re flying blind. You might still make it to your destination, but you’ll smash into a lot of obstacles on the way. Even if you’re not a manager, you should understand the support you should be getting (it’s up to you whether you want to ask for it).

Luckily, doing them well is pretty straightforward. Focus on building better habits, and then practice, practice, practice. So, let’s dive in:

Keep regular meetings

Firstly, you should be meeting once every two weeks. Monthly meetings tend to only work when you already have a high level of trust and communication. I’d advise to never meet less than once a month, but if you must cancel a meeting, reschedule it immediately rather than skipping it. Also, make sure you never ask your employees or colleagues if they’re “okay with skipping” because they’ll almost always say yes, not because they don’t need one, but because they don’t want to appear needy.

Remember this meeting is your commitment to show that you care, and they’re a priority. Every cancellation sends a message. What kind of signal do you want to give?

Listen more, talk less

Let your team member set some agenda items beforehand (tools can help with this, see below). This will make it far easier for you to jump to any pressing concerns or challenges they’re working on. If you don’t have an agenda from them, ask them at the beginning of the meeting. This can be as simple as asking, “What’s on your mind?”

Embrace awkward silences. Your goal is to try and flush out what is worrying them. It’s your job to force the conversation into sometimes uncomfortable territory. Also, avoid using 1-on-1s as a status update meeting. There are far better (asynchronous) ways to get status updates. Make the most of this valuable time you are spending together.

Be human. Don’t spend the entire meeting (or any of it!) on your phone or laptop (take notes in a notebook if needed). You are here to listen. Give them your full attention. If you aren’t listening, they will definitely notice, and likely be less open to sharing in the future. This will make it more difficult over time to understand their concerns.

Address the elephant in the room

Your team member may not want to discuss it, but 1-on-1s can be a great medium to raise and discuss sensitive issues. If you do this right, you can learn a lot about how the controversial message is being received. Pay close attention to their tone and body language. Such invaluable signals are often missed when discussing tricky topics in group settings. This can be exhausting if you do this with your whole team, but it’s still worth it. Would you rather spend a few hours diving into this and figure out the state of affairs, or leave things up in the air? Remember that by the time any real issues surface, they may have evolved into something far worse.

Take the temperature

Take notes during/after your 1-on-1 to identify key issues raised. Highlight any areas for yourself that might be a flag, and be sure to followup on it as soon as possible. Record a simple “green/yellow/red” measure for each team member. Look out for extended patterns of yellow/red…

Pay close attention to their tone, words, and body language. You can usually see the signs of a disgruntled employee way before it’s too late. Be pro-active. It only takes a couple of skipped 1-on-1s to miss even the strongest warning signals. Companies move fast, but so do people.

Track performance

Use 1-on-1s for tracking details about incidents related to performance. Sometimes, it can be difficult to see when an individual is underperforming. Each week is a mix of good and bad, so things never seem that bad. That is, until you look at your notes over a three month period, and notice some disturbing patterns.

Communicate your concerns in each meeting. Provide clear guidance to get them addressed. Use the recurring meeting as the platform for reinforcing your expectations. Be as specific as possible. If you have to take the difficult decision of letting someone go, these notes will enable you to decide with data. It’s not only about defensibility and fairness, it’s also about peace of mind during a very stressful period.

You can track positive performance achievements the same way. Use this technique to help justify your recommendations for compensation or other awards.

Follow up

I recommend sending out emails every meeting for the following: reminder emails the day before a meeting, with a reminder of action items from last meeting. Team members should reply with their desired agenda items for this meeting. Also, followup emails after the meeting with the action items agreed upon in the meeting.

If you wish to automate the above, consider using an online 1-on-1 management tool. Be sure to actually review the previous action items in the next meeting. Doing so sets the expectation that you are both going to follow-up on any commitments made. In turn, this reinforces the value of the meetings to both parties.

Hopefully you’ve gotten a sense of how important 1-on-1s are for your organization. Try applying a new technique for a couple weeks, and see how it works for you. The best path to long-term improvement is iterative changes.

This article was written by Salman Asari. You can read the original piece here.

Published July 9, 2020 — 06:30 UTC

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What my biggest mistake as a junior engineer taught me about taking ownership

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This article was originally published on .cult by Tomasz Łakomy. .cult is a Berlin-based community platform for developers. We write about all things career-related, make original documentaries and share heaps of other untold developer stories from around the world.

Building software is what we — developers — are paid for.

Unfortunately, more often than not we’re also paid to break stuff, then we get an “amazing” opportunity to fix what we’ve broken.

I don’t think we talk enough about those stories.

You know how your Instagram feed is full of absolute highlights? Well, it’s the same when it comes to developer horror stories. I’ve heard some which would make your skin crawl. It’s funny though, we don’t often share these stories.

I strongly believe there’s a lesson to be learned from every ‘fuckup’. And there’s probably a funny story behind every odd rule your company has.  “Why do we have a code freeze before major holidays?” — because Mike and Jenny had to spend their entire Christmas Eve migrating the database after a yolo-merge.

Why can’t I push directly to master? I know what I’m doing!” — sure, but one time Andrew wrote-off two weeks of work off the repo when he accidentally force pushed to master (btw, I am not making this up, this actually happened in my career).

Why is there a warning on my shirt telling me not to iron it when I’m wearing it? Who does this?” — you know the deal, it happened once now it’s a continual warning.

Now I want to tell you a story of my biggest fuckup from when I was still a junior engineer.

[Read: Stop counting on tools to fix your work problems]

Someone order fried motherboards?!

A bit of background before we continue, at the beginning of my career in tech I worked as a Junior Software Engineer at a Samsung R&D Center Poland. I was being paid to build some pretty unique apps — my team was creating JavaScript applications for … SmartTVs.

Side note: building apps for TVs is wonderful because there’s only one resolution you need to care about so we could style entire apps with position: absolute; because why not! SmartTVs have an entire motherboard in them (with surprisingly good hardware — we’re talking about multiple core processors and gigabytes of RAM! In a freaking TV!). At this point (back in 2013/2014) hardware was cheaper than software [citation needed].

In 2013, while at Samsung I was moved to a brand new exciting project: Tizen. I was moved since I had ‘vast’ experience with C++, apparently, two semesters at university was enough to qualify.

To quote Wikipedia: Tizen is a Linux-based mobile operating system backed by the Linux Foundation but developed and used primarily by Samsung Electronics.

At the time Tizen was really cutting edge (operating systems under heavy development tend to break all the time) but one day we got a present from HQ.

Three brand new shiny motherboards with the newest Tizen firmware.

In under an hour, two of them were fried to the point of no return.

Yes, I literally fried the 💩 out of them.

Why?

Well, I was told to perform a system update on those motherboards and to follow the instructions I was given.

Unfortunately, the instructions did not take into the account a quirk in the newest system version and performing those steps turned the rather expensive SmartTV motherboard into a useless piece of plastic.

After doing the system update on the first board I knew something funky happened. Did I make a mistake? I must of, crap, what do I do now?

Since I didn’t have a lot of experience I decided to simply repeat the steps one more time, this time making sure that I followed the instructions 100%. Turns out that I did follow them correctly both times.

I could have pretended I didn’t touch those boards, maybe they had arrived broken — honestly, everyone would have believed me.

After all, this was cutting edge stuff, things were supposed to break.

But in the end, I decided to tell my team lead:

  • we have a problem…
  • I followed the instructions correctly
  • but…2/3 of our shiny new boards are absolutely bricked
  • the manual needs to be updated as soon as f-ing possible because it may affect our other departments

Luckily he just chuckled and asked me why I’d gone and fried the second motherboard immediately after I broke the first one 😂

Lessons learned:

  • Take ownership – admit when you’ve made a mistake, don’t try to blame it on others. Acknowledge the failure and try to become a better person/engineer having learned a valuable lesson.
  • Raise issues early and clearly. – it’s even better to raise an early alarm (even if it’s false) than to be silent when something is clearly broken.
  • Follow instructions and documentation, but within reason – documentation ~can~ will get outdated and a software engineer needs to be able to deal with that. And it’s probably worthwhile to make sure the docs are up to date.
  • Don’t try to hide things that are broken (or suboptimal). Being open with others can bring you a long way, at the very least, it’ll position you as a trustworthy member of your team.

Published August 3, 2020 — 09:46 UTC

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How to use ‘controversial’ content to drive high-quality backlinks

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I understand the hesitation you might have when starting this article. Controversy can feel a little scary and negative, especially when it’s associated with your content.

But there are definitely ways you can utilize the share-power of controversial content without it reflected poorly on your brand. 

And when you pull off that balance, you can earn impressive media coverage and backlinks, setting a very solid foundation for organic growth.

[Read: How to perfect remote UX workshops for your team]

Tip #1: Don’t speak — but share others’ voices

There is certainly a time and a place for you to communicate your brand’s values. But you probably won’t want to take a stand on every topic out there. After all, companies are made up of human beings with differing opinions, and you won’t want to alienate people.

The key is remaining neutral while still contributing value to a conversation. For example, if you wanted to talk about politics but not take a side politically, you can communicate insights from both sides of the aisle and let your readers decide what they think.

But let’s look at more practical examples, because most of us will probably be avoiding the really controversial topics of politics, religion, and the other classics we’re told to avoid at the dinner table.

My team and I created a project for a client about the expenses associated with relationships. Certain aspects of this topic get a ton of debate — like, should the man always pay on the first date? — but we didn’t pick a side. We surveyed people on how much they spent and reported on the results.

The project earned coverage (and links) from USA Today, The Motley Fool, Elite Daily, and more. And publishers like to seize the opportunity to write compelling headlines that could amplify people’s reactions to the data.

The finding that single people spend more money than those in relationships and marriages isn’t inherently controversial, but the debate that can arise from this kind of data. For example, topics like how many dates you should go on a month, expectations of gifts, and more, can certainly go the route of controversy. 

So if you have a topic, think about what data or insight you can supply that lends itself to the discussion.

Tip #2: Go “controversial lite”

Jumping into legitimately controversial topics isn’t usually wise. So, I like to suggest going for “controversial lite,” meaning topics that people probably have varying opinions on, but those opinions aren’t attached to their core identity. 

For example, you may have an opinion about the best TV show of all time and feel strongly about it, but hearing that a friend vehemently disagrees wouldn’t end your friendship.

This is the sweet spot to aim for. 

This project by Insurify is a great example. The insurance comparison site analyzed their own database and calculated which states have the rudest drivers. This is a data-backed way to spark conversation and play to the ego of people in different areas without being likely to engender actual conflict. But it was also compelling enough to get great local coverage.

Driving in general can be a semi-controversial topic, especially when you get into comparing the quality of drivers in different cities or states. But disagreeing about which state has the meanest drivers won’t end relationships, either.

Tip #3: Try creating “tangential” content

In the spirit of not wanting to attach your brand to anything controversial, you can try creating “tangential” content. This is a strategy I like to employ when we’re trying to get national news coverage for a client in the US, whether the content we’re creating is controversial or not.

Why? Because national publications aren’t going to want to run an ad for your brand. It’s possible to create content that’s absolutely in line with your service offering and performs well, but it’s not something you can typically succeed at on an ongoing basis. So when you run out of material, you can broaden your scope.

One of our most successful content projects ever, Perceptions of Perfection, is a great example of this. It was for our client Superdrug Online Doctor; their brand mission is to “take the hassle out of visiting your doctor for common issues or embarrassing moments.”

Instead of doing all of our campaigns about medical issues, we went the tangential route. We zoomed out to think about health and what verticals were similar. In this case? We went with beauty.

Body images and beauty ideals are certainly debated in American culture, and this project adds to the discussion in a creative, more objective way. We asked designers around the world to Photoshop the same image of a woman to be what their country perceives as the “ideal” female body.

The project comes from a place of curiosity rather than having an agenda, which is key. The brand can care about the health and wellness of women and research the topics without desiring a particular answer. That makes the result easier to trust. All in all, this project earned more than 1,500 backlinks.

Note: while you can do controversial research more in line with your core brand offering, if the results promote your business, it may be perceived as biased and be less likely to be covered in the media. Exceptions exist, especially if you have a very authoritative brand, but it’s something to be mindful of.

Conclusion

If you want to dabble in creating controversial content without getting into a PR nightmare, try these methods of focusing on the data and not diving right into the ultra-controversial. Ask yourself what about the topic is controversial and what is every possible reaction someone could have upon reading the content.

If you’re comfortable with all of these reactions, then give it a shot! Good luck.

Published August 3, 2020 — 08:00 UTC

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5 things to consider when you run an internship program

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This article was originally published on .cult by Randy Tolentino. .cult is a Berlin-based community platform for developers! We write about all things career-related, make original documentaries and share heaps of other untold developer stories from around the world!

In June of 2019, hundreds of college students arrived on the IBM campus in Austin, Texas, to participate in a three-month-long internship program. During these months, they’d gain firsthand experience of life at a large, global tech company.

The majority of them were aspiring software engineers, followed by a number of designers, researchers, and offering managers. For the entire summer, they’d be assigned to IBM product teams, where they’d engage in industry-level practices like design thinking, agile methodology, and the many stages of your typical product life cycle.

Personally, I’ve always been impressed by the interns, mostly because of their energy. From what I’ve seen, they carry themselves with an obvious excitement for learning. They’re punctual, intelligent, and passionate, and our company is blessed to have these early-career professionals join us for a short period of time.

That’s why I was excited when I learned our team hired interns to join us for the summer.

As a frontend developer on a cross-functional team, I have the privilege of sitting alongside a diverse and talented group of people. Each morning, after the routine coffee/tea, hellos, and stand-ups, we dive headfirst into a highly collaborative environment where we navigate the complex world of enterprise cybersecurity product development.

One morning, I came into the studio a little later than normal. I had a car appointment at 7 AM and didn’t get in until about 9:30. When I walked in and got settled, I noticed a new person sitting at the empty desk.

Ah… must be the intern, I assumed.

Manuel joined our team as a product designer but also had an engineering background. He was originally from Argentina and was on his way to Stanford to pursue his Master’s degree in the fall. But in the meantime, he’d dedicate his summer to helping our team in IBM Security.

For the first few days, Manuel ramped up through the team’s onboarding process. He learned about our products, our design language, and how the team worked. After the first week, we found out that Manu would be joining our product team — a group of eight designers and developers.

As a first step, we helped him get situated in our area. His new desk was right behind mine. He brought over his laptop and his backpack, and began to get situated.

“Alright, here’s your monitor… we just have to find the cords.” “Thanks”, Manuel said. I spun my chair to see what cords they needed. Mmm, what kind of monitor is that? I wondered. Everyone on our team has the same one — we have those 27” Apple monitors that you see in all the tech office stock photos. But the one they gave Manuel was different. Yeah, I definitely don’t have those cords. For the next few minutes, we looked around trying to find the right cords and dongles until we finally surrendered. “We’ll find ‘em… somewhere”, a teammate told him. “Don’t worry about it, it’s okay”, Manuel replied. He organised the rest of his workspace, then continued with his work.

I’ve always had an extra sensitivity towards the onboarding process, so not knowing where the monitor cables were bothered me. I felt accountable. I thought to myself, why didn’t you plan ahead so that he’d have everything in place before arriving?

At the end of the day, I started to pack up. I spun around again. “Hey, Manuel!”, I said quietly. He turned around. “What’s up?” “You’re gonna take my monitor.” “What? No, Randy — you need it, man!” “Nah, I’ve already decided… besides I want a more minimal desk anyway”, I pretended. “Randy, you sure?” “Yup, I’m sure. When you come in tomorrow, it’ll be on your desk.” “Thanks, man. I owe you a burger.” “Haha alright, sounds good… I’ll see you tomorrow, dude.”

The next day, I came in early and disconnected my monitor. I wiped down all the cords, cleaned the screen, and cleaned Manuel’s desk.

When he came in, his monitor was good to go.

Contributing to growth

As people who work on a team for a company, we have the inherent responsibility of contributing to growth. These growth metrics typically measure everything from sales and customers to project-level deliverables like features, bug fixes, or optimizations.

This all makes sense, we work in businesses.

At the same time, we have responsibility for the growth of people, especially as hosts for aspiring professionals. This is a great opportunity for us who work for companies that have internship programs.

After reflecting on my experience with the interns we worked with, here are my five main takeaways that you can use to frame the overall experience while they’re with your team.

Understand the opportunity

Naturally, the first question that comes to mind when an intern joins the team is based on skills. What programming languages does she know? What’s his design process?

But forget skills for a second. It’s important that we take a step back and remember that they’re people first. Ask them questions, listen to their stories, and learn about what inspires them or what goals they have . There’s so much value in knowing people for who they are and not just as resources on a project.

Remind yourself that interns are people who come to both learn and offer knowledge, but only for a brief moment in time. We should help them make the most of this amazing opportunity.

Establish sponsors

Every intern should have at least one sponsor. This sponsor will answer questions about the team, the broader company, and also serve as a guide for everything else there is to know about how your team works.

In many cases, these sponsors help interns with their first few project deliverables, but, a great sponsor does more than just help the intern complete work.

Share the luxuries

A teammate of mine loves his chair and he can tell it’s his because of the leather seat and leather backing. One day, he came into work and realized that somehow, his chair was swapped out with another one — this happens in ‘open’ office spaces all the time. When he noticed that Manuel had his chair, he let it go and decided to let Manuel have it.

Whether it’s your standing desk, your extra monitor, or window seat, consider sharing these luxuries with your interns. Lending these perks out to interns is only temporary. In addition, it also creates a long-lasting, positive impression on your interns to give up your own personal luxuries for their sake.

Team experiences

If you were to create a list of all the experiences that you go through in a given week, what would that list look like? For me, it would involve a good amount of time at my desk, writing code, followed by a number of informal presentations. On the team culture side, you might also attend team lunches, after-hour outings, or other social events.

Instead of just having interns focus on heads-down work, give them a chance to have all these experiences. Create a real checklist and ensure that they’re time on your team includes all of these activities. By doing so, you ensure that they get the full experience of what it’s like to work with your company.

Future success

Remember that interns are only with you for a short time, but, you can have a greater impact on their career than you think. I encourage you to have conversations on their career paths, introduce them to other people in different roles, and let them explore a variety of possibilities.

Lastly, help your intern document their work so that they can carry their experiences with your team as they progress in their careers. Help them create a small portfolio of the work they accomplished so that they can update their resumes, social media profiles, or add it to their personal websites.

Remember, they chose you

I love the analogy of comparing one’s career to a journey. On these journeys, we encounter challenge after challenge while learning to master many valuable life-lessons. Along the way, we intersect the paths of others who are also on their own journey—some of these people will serve as our teachers, while others find you in search of knowledge or wisdom.

I think this way when thinking about interns because it gives a deeper meaning to the context.

It’s important to keep in mind that for many interns, we’re their first impression of what it’s like in the tech industry. While there are hundreds of other programs they could’ve applied to, they decided to join your company’s program. This is an honour.

If you understand the opportunity, you’ll see that you have a direct influence on the future of our industry.

Consider being a sponsor for an intern on your team and let them sample some of the luxuries you’re privy to on a daily basis. Let them experience all of it. And lastly, set them up for future success by helping them establish a portfolio of the work they did with you and your team.

In the end, the goal is for your interns to walk away from their time with you thinking, ‘when I graduate, I want to come back and work for this team, and for this company’. If you can get that sort of feedback, then rest assured that you just created a memorable experience for the people who represent the future of our industry.

Published July 31, 2020 — 06:30 UTC

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