To get things done, first make your work visible

One of the difficulties of working in a tech startup is that the engineering team comes under immense pressure from every other team. Product, Marketing, Content, Finance, BI – all these teams need support from Engineering in order to get features built, get content published, get SEO fixed, get data in front of the right eyes.

My department – the Education Team, consists of language experts, not engineers, and so if we want something technical done, we need to submit that as a proposal during our quarterly planning cycle and compete with all the other teams to get it prioritised. If we come up with an idea or a problem mid-quarter, it’s very hard to get anything done about it, as the engineers are super busy trying to meet their existing sprint goals.

One thing that really helps in getting an idea or fix prioritised is to make it visible to the engineering team. Words are often inadequate for this task – unless the concept is super simple, it’s very hard to put yourself in the shoes of a customer purely by having something explained to you verbally. What we’ve found is that creating MVPs of our own, using the tools we already have and then demoing those to the engineering team visually, really helps to generate empathy, understanding and excitement around building solutions.

 

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As an example, we’ve recently created a prototype for an advanced grammar practice unit. We can build part of this already in our CMS, using the exercise types we already have. But we lacked an exercise type which specifically handled verb conjugation in French and Spanish. We have one that almost worked, but was a little buggy. As soon as we demo-ed this to the company, we had engineers coming to us saying ‘I can fix that exercise type for you so it works in this context’. Suddenly, a problem which had previously been just a bunch of words in a list of problems became something real – an opportunity/challenge. Engineers don’t get excited by long lists of problems (who does?) but they do get excited by problems they can fix or solutions they can build.

It can be very tempting if you work in a tech company to get annoyed or frustrated with engineers because ‘they aren’t helping’. But before we do, it’s helpful to ask ‘are we making our work visible’? Visibility can turn problems into opportunities – something that everyone can get behind.

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