Autonomy with accountability allowed me to take a sabbatical

A bit more than a year ago I had the chance to go for a 3 months sabbatical. Back in the time I did serve two teams as Engineering Lead. This post is about how I prepared my teams for a sabbatical.

Representatives

Before I started the preparation phase with the teams I identified team members who could help me leading the teams while me being on leave. Capabilities I valued important for those candidates include:

  • communicates charismatically & clearly
  • showed social influence
  • ambition to lead

I was lucky enough to find people who showed those capabilities before. When I asked them to lead the teams while I am on leave, they all agreed. Also my lead accepted my proposals.

We did weekly sync meeting to talk about subjects I considered important to lead the teams as well as subjects that came up during the preparation phase. One of those topics was hiring. It wasn’t only me doing the hiring for the teams prior to my leave. However I was mainly screening CVs from a technical perspective and reviewing the interviewers notes to propose an offer. We did not share hiring amongst all team members because not everyone wanted to spend time on this topic. From the preparation phase onwards I had a counterpart who is involved in all phases of the hiring process I am accountable for. Since then we often discussed our decisions.
We also shared views on how we see the hidden hierarchies that exist in every organisation.

Manager Feedback

I like feedback. Thus I searched for a survey I could use to get feedback about me as the teams’ manager. I used a slightly adapted version of Google’s Manager Feedback Survey.
This is just one tool from a longer the list of Google Rework Tools.

Based on the feedback I decided to dive deeper into technical aspects of the services the teams were responsible for. Around that time I joined some golang courses and looked into documentation publishing.

Ownership & Autonomy

Application and service ownership is key for teams to be able to achieve autonomy. Service ownership includes decision proposal authority during all phases of the software lifecycle process. Also, incorporating business aspects e.g. based on KPIs, SLOs and customer feedback is needed to truly own a service.
The teams monitored KPIs & SLOs and used this information as input for planning. Within the preparation phase we identified the need to focus even more on that, to improve the services. Also, the teams defined a support mechanism to make sure customer requests are answered in a timely manner, mostly within one business day.

An established 24×7 rotation system existed already and contributed a lot to achieve ownership. There is just a way higher incentive to take care about software/application/service quality once you know you or your colleagues might be woken up at night due to avoidable mistakes. Engineers aspired to work autonomously the more ownership they felt for their applications and services.

The grade of autonomy I felt, made me confident to leave for sabbatical.
That is what trust is about.

Did I measure the autonomy level of the teams- No I did not. This is why:

There are many autonomy and/or team health checks that refer more or less to spotify’s squad health check. We used similar health checks prior to my sabbatical preparation and could not derive value from that. Measuring health objectively on a team level is indeed a challenge because the check levels are almost always subjective. Feedback mechanisms similar to the managers feedback lead to improvements, the health checks did not. Please note, this just means team health checks did not work for us, I still consider team health checks a future option.

After coming back from sabbatical the teams got overall positive feedback about their performance and delivery.

This was the litmus test that enabled me to state in retrospective: the teams achieved a high degree of autonomy and truly owned their services.

Conclusion

Accountability can’t be shared. Responsibility can be shared.
Teams truly owning their services can be autonomous teams. The level of autonomy my teams achieved allowed me to leave for a sabbatical.

Kent Beck’s tweet is just great:

Kent Beck on Autonomy Vacation

It was a strong inspiration for the sabbatical preparation and as well a blueprint for this blog post title: Autonomy with accountability allowed me to take a sabbatical.


Thanks for reviewing this post: João Santos & Dominik Hilse.

Lothar Schulz

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