From 11-12 June, over 20 Automatticians attended the Lead Developer conference in London and we took extensive notes. At Automattic, we promote a culture of learning and our attendance at this conference provided some of our team leads with a valuable opportunity to reflect on and develop their own leadership tools.

If you are interested in Automattic and the roles we have available, we’re hiring!

Navigating Team Friction

Lara Hogan: Co-founder – Wherewithall

Talk Intro:

Friction is a common, and necessary, part of team growth—but when left unchecked, team friction is unhealthy for you, your coworkers, your company, and ultimately your end users.

In this presentation, I draw on my experiences at organizations large and small to illuminate the sources of team tension, how you can better understand and manage unexpected teammate reactions, and the best ways to give actionable feedback without escalating drama. Your coworkers, your organization, your users, and you will reap the benefits.

A study found that even when surgeons rotated shifts to different hospitals, only get better in their own hospital. This suggests that teams are crucial.

Teams of humans are amazing. Groups of people coming together to ship things is amazing.

Bruce Tuckman talks about the theory of group dynamics and the stages of group development:

  • Forming: team has a name, some understanding of why they are there.
  • Storming: start to see some friction. Clashing and confusion.
  • Norming: things start to iron out, resolve difference, start to find groove.
  • Performing: things are really smooth.

This process occurs every time the team changes, but storming is so painful. But it is critical – we can’t get to norming except through that stage. We have to feel equipped to handle it.


Pre-frontal cortex – deep, complex problem solving

Amygdala – gather data from the environment and figure out threat.

If enough threat, the amygdala shuts down pre-frontal cortex and takes over.

When the amygdala hijacks at work it is not useful. It responds to perceived threats even outside physical safety.

Human beings have six core needs to feel secure at work:

  • Community, connection.
  • Improvement / progress.
  • Choice – flexibility, autonomy, decision making.
  • Equality / Fairness.
  • Predictability – resources, time, direction, future challenges.
  • Significance – status, visibility, recognition.

Not all core needs are equally important to everyone.


Humans are mostly terrible at giving feedback. We are also mostly terrible at preparing to receive feedback.

We are afraid of having our core needs challenged.

Feedback of equation:

  • Observation of behavior – not about what you feel or assume. Factual.
  • Impact – describe something they care about.
  • Question or request – ask genuinely curious open question, help them to determine the way forward.

We should ask about their preferred feedback medium.

Team Processes

Each teammate has a different way of working. The important thing here is whatever your processes are, that you’re iterating on them, and that they are working for everyone.

Retrospectives help, as it creates a habit of talking about team health. They can help us meet core needs.

People who are willing to acknowledge their own failures are more trusted.

Team charters and docs give clarity about what’s expected of us. Having a mission makes it easier to give feedback on things that don’t align.

Throughout this process take care of yourself, and do what you need to do to distance yourself from an unsafe environment. If you aren’t sure if it’s time to walk away, speak to someone you trust.

Team health is a cycle. Team health is a thing you can continually improve.

12/10, Excellent doggo: the power of positive transformation

Heidi Waterhouse

Developer Advocate – LaunchDarkly

Talk Intro:

How many talks, articles, and podcasts have you seen about organizational change, and how to implement it? How many of them talked about what we can learn from non-human psychology? This is that talk.

I’ll give you concrete and actionable advice for how to make change happen in your organization, one person at a time, by being nice. Make it rewarding to do the right thing, and people will do the right thing more often. Understand that people are motivated by different things and you’ll be able to talk to them more effectively. Inspirational leadership can only get us so far, and we can do the rest with hard work, consistency, and compassion.

It hurts to get fired and it’s hard to talk about. But dignity is for people who aren’t conference speakers.

What would your work life be like if you, and the person who reports to you, and the person who you report to you, had shared goals that you could agree on?

How do you get developers to write docs?

  • Very few devs like writing docs
  • Very few managers are good at getting people to do something they hate to do

Have you ever fired a dev for writing insufficient docs? This never happens.

Have you ever promoted someone for writing excellent docs? Maybe once in a while.

If you say you want it but you don’t reward it, and you don’t punish it, you don’t really want it.

Behavior: team effort to meet a shared goal.

Positive or training shaping isn’t new: from how you teach whales to jump through hoops, to getting cats to act in movies. At the simplest level: the trainer offers a reward until trainee starts offering the behavior spontaneously. They train to exhibit the behavior after a cue.

Dogs used to be trained using shock collars and by yelling at them.

We trained children and employees in the same way (but fewer shocks). You can get the good behavior, but not the good relationship.

Have you had that manager who criticizes you all the time? We then give them rent free space in our head.

Instead we should be incentivizing the good behaviors through using reward. This rewards the good behavior.

A lot of what we call goals are a set of interdependent behaviors and decisions. We have to be clear about what the atomic unit of a goal is. What is the minimum viable behavior that we are going to reward? the goals for other people are just as relevant, but often conflicted.

So how do we change behaviors? How do we make developers write documentation?

  • Can’t achieve anything without knowing what we’re aiming for.
  • Everyone has goals.
  • Not all of us are clear about our goals
  • We must respect others’ goals.

When you look at your goals, are you sure you know what you’re doing? What they’re used for? If you don’t have that alignment, then you might do the wrong thing.

Trying to do a lot of things at once is overwhelming. You don’t (usually) learn to swim by being thrown in a lake. Complex movements, need to be taught and learned incrementally.

We should break tasks down into things that can be rewarded. Then, the person doing the thing needs to choose their own reward. It needs to be meaningful for them. When trying to motivate someone, it’s important to ask them what they want, what would make them happy.

Successive Approximation:

Dr Skinner trained pigeons to drop bombs accurately. You can teach almost anything to almost anyone if you can figure out how to ask for it in small enough increments with enough reward.

We invest a lot in thinking about ourselves as positive and rational beings. We’re not rational, we’re just playing rational on TV. People mostly do what they get rewarded for and avoid doing things they get punished for.

Writing documentation is too big

A blank page is the abyss.

Try creating a template: then they are not writing documents, but answering questions.

Some things to remember:

  • Think clearly about everyone’s goals: if you can’t write it down, it’s amorphous and squishy and no good. If you write it down and it looks like it came from a management book, it’s still no good.
  • Figure out rewards together.
  • Commit for the long term. Do it consistently until it becomes intrinsically rewarding, not just extrinsically rewarding.

Engage teams to achieve high performance

José Caldeira: Head of Development – OutSystems

Talk Intro:

When bootstrapping new teams, they need to go through the standard process of forming, storming, norming and performing. And in the context of fast-growing companies, with their own level of uncertainty, how can we achieve high performance when teams and goals are constantly changing? How do teams deal with different degrees of uncertainty? And how can leaders support them in feeling safe and motivated?

Throughout the years, I’ve found some ways to help teams achieve this. Some of those were a direct result of my experience, others were inspired by my peers and other companies, and others I was able to derive from coaching sports or teaching people. In this session, we’ll talk about some of the ideas leaders can implement to help teams move faster into high performance.

Teams can achieve high performance in 5 steps:

1. Identify Goal

Sports psychologists agree that high performance is connected to highly intense goals. So how do we engage the team? The goals we decide upon must have impact and meaning.

We must define the goals that will be memorable:

Bold… not reckless

Crisp… not fuzzy

Impact… not vanity

Simple… not complex


Definition of the goal then creates a sense of control. By encouraging teammates onto a project, we create a personal development opportunity: 

Embrace… don’t fight it

Impose… don’t wait

Mandatory… not optional

3. Principles

Principles must be agreed upon and aligned within the team

Options… not restrictions

Align… don’t impose

Focus… not an obstacle

Fast… not slow

4. Pitch

We need to sell everything – we need to remember that the goal should create a sense of urgency.

We create a positive message in order to sell and motivate

Energize… don’t discourage

Promote… don’t wait

Consistent… not occasional

5. Storytelling

Humans use storytelling to pass to the next generation. We can use the same strategy but we must remember that creating engagement shouldn’t involve creating a lie

Empathy… not a report

Path… not the result

Truth… don’t lie

In summary:

  • Create memorable goals
  • Creativity through constraints
  • Autonomy through principles
  • Motivation by pitching
  • Engagement by telling stories

Bottoms up with OKRs

Whitney O’Banner: Engineering Manager – Braintree @woobanner

Talk Intro:

In 2013, Google famously published a leading reference for establishing Objectives and Key Results as a way to align teams and set short-term goals. While some of the information is still relevant, it is time to take a fresh look at setting OKRs within your teams. This talk will help leaders abandon the dated, flawed approach to setting OKRs and enable organizational alignment in an exciting new way, suitable for 2019.

OKRs are commonly used, but they produce variable results in both experience effectiveness.

e.g. ‘We want to improve accessibility as measured by 75% WCAG compliance’

Objectives and Key Results

We set goals

We align teams in a shared vision

We quantify progress

We will <objective> as measured by <key result>

It is often introduced from the mindset that we know how to do this well, but most of us don’t.

Here are three brief but key strategies to adopt:

TIP: Skip Individual OKRs

Try tasks instead

Remember that company level objectives are not individual tasks

Individual OKRs are like corporate meetings, they slow us down and don’t give value. Skip the big picture and instead focus on the individual. If not, they will turn into tasks or micromanagement, and become less about alignment.

Try to move from team level OKRs to tasks, initiatives, projects. Your team will love you, because they want to focus on the work. This empowers employers with priorities.

TIP: Ignore metrics, focus on the outcomes

It was discovered that a lot of what they thought mattered was not being measured. Most key results were “swags” – sophisticated wild ass guess. Is it reasonable? Feasible? Achievable? Good? No one knew. They spent a quarter hitting baselines, instead of hitting goals.

Instead, forget the numbers, and concentrate on the measurable outcome

Re-evaluate this once you understand what your team is capable of

e.g. improve accessibility as measured by WCAG compliance: start with general outcomes, and after a couple of quarters then you can set some stretch goals.

TIP: Avoid cascading goals: take a bottoms up approach

This takes way too much time and stifles innovation. HBR found that most managers overvalue their ideas by 42%. Front line employees undervalue theirs by 11%.

Instead, take a bottoms up approach. It helps spark innovation and fosters the best ideas if employees can understand how they can build impact.


Try tasks

Focus on outcomes

Take a bottoms up approach

Guiding self-organizing teams

Rebecca Hill: Frontend Engineer and Team Lead – WeTransfer @rebekaka

Talk Intro:

It’s all well and good for the agile manifesto to recommend self-organizing teams, but what does that actually mean in practice? What’s the best way to do it, how far should you take it? Total anarchy is probably not the answer here… right?

After bouncing around leading a whole bunch of teams of different shapes and sizes over my career, I have some insights into how to guide effective self-organization and create amazing teams. I’ll also share plenty of battle stories, including major re-organizations of entire engineering departments, structured completely by the developers in them.

Whether your entire department needs shuffling, you’re starting a new team, or just adding a new team member, you should walk away with plenty of ideas of how to guide your team to make the best possible decisions – for themselves.

Self organizing teams is an umbrella term for a spectrum of team organizing styles:

  • self governing – set direction, design the team, manage work, execute tasks
  • self forming – design the team, manage work, execute tasks
  • self organizing – manage work, execute tasks

Then, more traditional manager led teams – just executing tasks.


Rebecca lead a team of mainly brand new people to the company. This was a rare opportunity to start from scratch:

  • here was a group of people who cared about each other
  • who wanted continuously to get stuff done
  • wanted to have fun doing it

How long do you think it would take? A couple of months?

They started off with sessions to figure out how to work together, and everything up was up for the team to decide. Having everyone decide this stuff together was very powerful, and it meant that everyone was really invested.

The team would advocate for standard structure and keep iterating on it. They kept a team agreement document – this helped with onboarding.

They talked about values. The top two were motivation and honesty.

They chose team name together: picked Cosmos.

They felt really optimistic… but then shipped a bunch of bugs. They were too new to the code base and each other.

They ended up with people struggling to work with each other, and with people from other teams.

They began taking part in workshops on active listening. It is a simple concept, but how rare is it to feel fully listened to! They got good at asking questions and listening to the answers. They began to give specific feedback. It’s important not to forget to challenge your high performers – you should be spending as much time on them as everyone else on the team.

Do not underestimate the amount of time good leadership and management. When you have a responsibility towards people, they have to come first. If you’re struggling, look after fewer people, don’t just look after the people you have less.

Remember to authentically celebrate success.

Be positive.

Don’t fake it, but do make the time to give praise and positive feedback.

Did they reach the vision?


But that’s because the vision was whack.

That vision of perfection? NO.

The vision of #BestTeamEver? Hell yes!

In summary

  • People come first
  • They take time
  • They are worth it

What I learnt about hiring diverse teams from conducting a fully-anonymous recruitment process

Bethan Vincent: Head of Marketing – Netsells @bethanvincent

If we want to truly encourage diversity in our industry, we are going to have to listen and respond to feedback from under-represented groups that challenges our assumptions.

We spend so much time and attention on user research, user feedback and service design but when it comes to recruitment we seem to lose the same motivation. By taking the time to step back and see what our processes are saying to candidates, we can ensure that we are taking steps to increase diversity awareness. It might not be easy, but it’ll be worth it!

There was a common problem: they wanted to hire a diverse team.

They decided one way to get people in was to improve the way they hired.

They noticed that managers tended to hire people who are like them. If you have mostly white dude managers, you tend to hire mostly white dudes.

So they built a totally anonymous application system.

  • Anonymous application (with a mobile number), five skills the applicant felt they had, five skills they wanted to learn.
  • Slack interview
  • Technical test
  • Then come into the office – at this point they had to de-anonymise people.

They got some good press. They thought had solved it. But they realized they weren’t the same people as their applicants!

So they went to conferences and spoke to a lot of people. They also approached successful and unsuccessful candidates.

They learned a lot from this exercise.

People want to showcase “soft” skills alongside “technical” ones.

  • They found women felt uncomfortable listing their skills. You have to explicitly tell people you want to hear about them.
  • Women were put off by the anonymous platform.

Job seekers want human connection (+ they want the lowdown on what it’s really like to work with you)

  • Minorities tend to speak to people before joining, “what’s it really like”.
  • You can let them go around your process, but why not make it part of the process?

Lengthy tests and at home exercises are not inclusive.

  • This is particularly gendered. People with caring responsibilities do not have time.
  • It’s a facility that it rules out people who are “not committed” – they have lives and other things to do.

Your job listing is just as important as the application process.

  • Vague job postings: if something is not explicit, people will fill in the blanks with doubt.
  • Then, if you’re ashamed to fill in the blanks, you’re doing something wrong.

If we really care about diversity and inclusion, we need to listen.

  • †Had good intentions, but built something for them.
  • Status quo holds certain people’s values, the world is tailored to them.
  • Don’t just say “thanks for the feedback”, if you really care you do something.