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Culture First Engineering Front-end Development Personal

Li Juen Chang

3 weeks ago I heard the incredibly sad news that my friend Li had passed away. I was his manager for a few years at Culture Amp, and to remember him, I want to share a few stories of conversations we had during out time working together that I think speak to the quality of his character.

Talented, but humble

Li was a remarkable front end engineer. He was quietly productive, building high quality user interfaces faster that almost anyone else around. It wasn’t uncommon to hear feedback that he’d finished building out an entire interface on his own while a whole team of back end engineers were still working on making the data available for it. Eventually people started to notice, and Kevin Yank, our Director of Front End Engineering, asked: how do you do it? Is there some secret the rest of us could learn too?

His answer still makes me laugh. “I’ve got my code editor set up really well.”

To this day I don’t know if he was just trying to deflect the compliment, or if he really thought that was his secret advantage. Tool sharpening is definitely a thing in our industry – we like to quote the proverb “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Li’s editor setup was simple, it wasn’t something he wasted time tweaking over and over, but it was effective. When I watched him work he spent his time thinking about the problem at hand, not trying to remember where a file was saved or trying to remember what a keyboard shortcut was.

Remembering it, I love the humility of his response – he didn’t boast, he wasn’t proud. He knew he was good at what he did, and was happy to share the things he found helpful.

Learning, to share

I remember a point where Culture Amp had just acquired a smaller company, and we were looking for some senior engineers to transfer in and join the team we’d just acquired to help them integrate their product into ours.

At first Li was interested in exploring the opportunity, but then backed out when he realized the move would be permanent, not a secondment from his current team.

We had some conversations to explore the opportunity, and he surprised me with his biggest motivation not being the desire for a lead role, or a high visibility project, or the desire to work with a team based in the US, but instead the chance for mutual learning. He wanted to work with an established team, see what he could learn from them, see what he could teach them, and bring that back to his existing team and work, sharing what he had learned. Which explained why he was interested if it was a secondment, but not permanent.

Throughout our time working together I was always impressed at his willingness to learn, be curious, do deep dives into a problem, and then to bring what he’d learned and share it back to the team around him so we would all benefit.

Contentment

I remember wanting to understand some of Li’s long term career aspirations, and I asked a question I learned from Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor: “At the peak of your career, what sort of work do you want to be doing?”

Most people have a few different answers to this, sometimes its a job title (“director of X”) or a specific role (“I want to be focused in Application Security”) or an ambition outside the industry entirely (“I want to run a small business, maybe a food truck”) or a personal goal (“financial independence, then volunteering”).

It was hard to get a picture from Li of a specific goal he was working towards, and the reason I eventually learned, is that he was content. He really liked the kind of work he did, and found it meaningful. He really liked the people he worked with. “I’m actually really happy in my current role” was something he’d say if I kept asking.

Contentment is rare. Especially in the high-growth software industry. When I think about Li’s good-hearted approach to work and life and his ability to actually enjoy the place he’s at, without longing for more, I think of this quote from the bible:

godliness with contentment is great gain.

Li found contentment, and I admire him for it.


There was a whole lot more about Li I never got to know that well – perhaps because of the manager/employee relationship dynamics, perhaps because we worked from different cities, we didn’t share much of our personal worlds with each other. There was a little bit – I’d hear about an upcoming dance congress he was excited about. Or how a lunch we shared reminded him of Sunday lunches after church with his family when he was growing up. Or about the ups and downs of buying, owning, renting out, and selling an apartment. I had no idea he could speak Spanish. I wish I’d had more time with him, and asked more questions, and shared more of myself too. But even without that, I’m grateful for having crossed paths, worked with, learned and laughed together.

I’ll miss you friend.

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Culture First Engineering

Adapt your facilitation skills for video meetings [remote work inspiration]

Hi 👋 I’m Jason. I’ve been a remote worker since 2016. Full time remote since 2017, and managing a team remotely since 2018. With people across the world suddenly finding both themselves and their teams homebound, I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of the things I’ve found helpful as a remote team lead. I work at Culture Amp, a software platform that helps organisations take action to develop their people and their culture. We have a collection of “inspirations” – ideas you can copy in your organisation to improve its culture. I’ve followed the basic format here.

Facilitating good meetings requires having a bunch of tools in the toolkit to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, people are understood, and it is a valuable use of people’s time. The tools you’ll use for video meetings are slightly different, so it’s worth getting familiar with them.

Why?

Video meetings present slightly different challenges: there can be poor connection quality, non-verbal communication is limited, it’s more likely people will attempt to multitask, and less likely you’ll know if they are, and there’s no obvious “clockwise” direction to go around the room when seeking everyone’s input.

Instructions:

Here are some tools to add to your toolkit:
  • Recreate “going around the room” to let everyone have a chance to share. You can do this by having the first person to share choose who goes next. As each person shares, they choose who goes after them. This is a good technique for “stand-ups” and other similar status update meetings.
  • Use hand gestures to signify you would like to speak next. Because of the slight delay on video calls, when multiple people want to speak up it’s hard to not speak over each other. Rather than wait for a gap in conversation and jump in, signify you would like to speak next by raising your hand with one finger up – you’re first in line to speak. If a second person also wants to speak, they can raise their hand with two fingers up. Usually a group learns this system quickly but it’s important the facilitator respects the order.
  • If people have noisy surroundings, ask them to mute unless speaking. If someone on the call is in an open plan office, is working from a cafe, has children nearby or even noisy animals outside, these can all make it harder to hear the person speaking. Encouraging people to mute by default makes it easier for everyone to hear.
  • Encourage everyone to have video turned on. It helps with non-verbal communication, and for someone speaking to see if they are being understood. Exaggerated head nodding, thumbs up, and silent clapping are all great ways to give feedback even while muted, but only work if the video is turned on. Exceptions can be made if the connection quality is poor, or if it is a presentation rather than a meeting.
  • Consider screen sharing a document that serves as both the agenda and the minutes, and editing it live. Adding a visual medium alongside the conversation helps participants keep focused and can give extra context. Taking notes and recording actions in the moment is a great way to ensure people are aligned and there aren’t misunderstandings.
  • Be conscious of how screen-sharing impacts non-verbal communication. Often when you start screen sharing, the other participant’s screen is now dominated by the screen share, and the faces of their colleagues are reduced to thumbnail size. This reduces the bandwidth of non-verbal communication like facial gestures and body language, and can make it easier to have your tone misinterpreted. For sensitive conversations, consider turning screen sharing off.

    If you have a dual monitor setup, some products like Zoom have settings that allow the screen sharing to take up one full screen while still seeing participant faces in full size on the other screen. This is worth setting up if you can!
  • Use “speedy meetings” to allow time for breathing and bathroom breaks. When someone has back-to-back meetings in an office, they usually have breathing space as they move from one room to another or wait for the next group to arrive. When video calls are scheduled back-to-back the calendar can be a cruel task-master. Scheduling you meetings to run for 25 or 50 minutes (rather than 30 or 60) gives everyone a chance to breathe and can drastically reduce the stressfulness of a day. Important: if you schedule a speedy meeting, respect everyone by finishing on time.
  • Make space for “water cooler” talk on the agenda. Make sure the first five minutes or last five minutes of the meeting have space for the people to chat casually and catch up. In an office this often happens on the way to a meeting room, or on the way out, or around an actual water cooler. When it’s a video call, you have to be more deliberate. Make sure the agenda leaves enough space for this, and start a conversation that’s not just about work.
Categories
Culture First Engineering

Video hangouts with no agenda [remote work inspiration]

Hi 👋 I’m Jason. I’ve been a remote worker since 2016. Full time remote since 2017, and managing a team remotely since 2018. With people across the world suddenly finding both themselves and their teams homebound, I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of the things I’ve found helpful as a remote team lead. I work at Culture Amp, a software platform that helps organisations take action to develop their people and their culture. We have a collection of “inspirations” – ideas you can copy in your organisation to improve its culture. I’ve followed the basic format here.

Basic idea:
Book in recurring video “hangouts” where a group of people have a chance to catch up with no set agenda.

Examples:
  • A team “wind down” each Friday afternoon.
  • A monthly “remote workers lunch”.
  • A fortnightly “engineer hangout” for engineers from across the organisation.
These hangouts should be optional to attend.

Why?

When teams aren’t in the same physical location, a common trap is only talking to people during set meeting times, and to only talk about the current project. Having a time to chat about anything, whether or not it’s work related – like you might in an office lunch room – is a chance to build better relationships and foster a sense of belonging.

Instructions:

  • Pick a group of people who would benefit from a stronger sense of community and belonging. It might be a team, a demographic, or a group with a particular role.
  • Find the appetite for how often people would like to meet, and for how long. In general, a range between once a week and once a month works for most groups, meeting more often the more important the relationships are. Meeting times can vary between 30 minutes and 2 hours, depending on how much of a “drop in / drop out” vibe you want.
  • Schedule a time! Try to find a time that is unlikely to be interrupted by other meetings, and unlikely to be highly focused time. Make sure it is within regular office hours to show that you value this type of connection enough to dedicate company time to it. For some groups it may be appropriate to book over lunch
  • Send an invite! Make sure attendance is optional.
  • During the hangout:
    • As the facilitator, make sure you’re online the entire time.
    • Greet people as they join, and introduce people who might not know each other.
    • It’s okay if people talk about work. It’s okay if people talk about life outside of work. It’s okay if people don’t talk and seem to be doing work on their laptops. 
    • Ensure there is only one conversation going on at a time. If people want to start a splinter-conversation, they can start a separate video call.