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.



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.

What are the real products of our work?

I was on the Northern Line recently, wedged up next to a Brazilian student and a Spanish student. I know their nationalities because I was intently earwigging their conversation and listening to them talk about their respective countries in English.

As a former EFL teacher and a creator of online language courses, I love to listen to people from non-English speaking countries talk to each other. I’m quite far away from the customers who buy the products I work on, and occasional encounters of this kind show me the results of my work. More and more people are communicating with each other in English (far more non-native speakers than native speakers), and it’s nice to feel like a part of that.

The boy and girl I was listening in to were having an animated discussion about soup. The girl came from the far north of Brazil and was trying to describe a local delicacy – a soup made from manioc. She was trying to describe some of the ingredients for this soup, and the plants they come from. At one point she was trying to think of the English word for ‘leaf’. I know this because she could say ‘tree’ and ‘branch’ and was sketching the things you get on the end of branches in the air, and saying the Portuguese word for them. At this point, the bad teacher in me was desperate to lean over and say ‘leaves’ to the two, but having learnt to elicit, not lecture, I held off. After some more thinking, the boy remembered the word ‘leaf’. I did a little somersault of joy inside: English teachers just love it when students come up with the language without prompting.

manioc leaves

Soon after, the girl made to get off the train, but before she did they made a very careful plan to meet up later, repeating the place and the time in English over and over again. They were clearly very keen to see each other again as soon as possible, and I detected perhaps the beginning of something more than a friendship between fellow students.

This got me thinking about the real products of what I do. I tend to think of the results of my work as being more and better speakers of English, but what goes along with this? Business deals and partnerships are forged. Directions to interesting places are given on street corners and in town squares. Hungry people order food. Interested people can read stories and access all kinds of information online. Students at all levels can take courses and grow their knowledge. Friendships are made. Love affairs blossom. Babies are born.

It was nice to be jolted along in that tube carriage, thinking of all the things I’ll never know that my daily toils have contributed to; the real products of my work.

(This article was originally published March 29, 2011.)