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“Storytime With Managers” are the questions you would ask an expert over a cup of coffee (including the ones you feel scared to ask), packaged up into 20min podcast episodes.

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Temporary Teams with Miranda Wang - Transcript

JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.

Hi, I’m Jennifer Tu, and I’m here with Miranda Wang to talk about building teams from individual strangers. Miranda, can you tell us a little about yourself?

MIRANDA: Hi. Yeah, of course. My name’s Miranda. I’m currently based in Brooklyn, working as a Software Engineer for Etsy. I just started working here in January, and before that, I was a Software Engineer for my first job at a place called Custom Ink in Fairfax, Virginia. So I have been working as a software engineer professionally for just over three years now.

JENNIFER: Cool. Thanks for joining me today. I met you at Ruby for Good, which is an event that brings together volunteers to work on software projects for nonprofits and civic good organizations. And the way it works is at the beginning of the event, volunteers self-select into different projects. As a team lead, one of your tasks was to take this group of strangers who had this single shared interest in a project and bring them together into a team for the weekend. So I’m really excited to learn from you about how you managed to do that. I guess to start, I’m kind of wondering what kind of things would you think about before they even started? What kind of questions might I want to ask myself if I were in the same situation as you?

MIRANDA: Sure. I have sort of a two part answer to this question. What I actually thought about before going into Ruby for Good as a team lead for the first time, and what I would think about now if I were to become a team lead at Ruby for Good again next year. So to be perfectly honest, the first year that I decided to be a team lead, I kind of threw myself into it. I had never really done any project leading before, but I had attended Ruby for Good and I was looking forward to attending for a second year.

My coworker at the time, Kalimar, was one of the organizers for the event and he just asked me if I wanted to be a team lead. I was pretty intimidated, but they just started a model with co-leads, so I got some courage by asking my other coworker at the time, Jason, to be a lead with me. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we were ready to dedicate our time to the project. I ended up being really glad that I took the lead. I learned so much about not only leading a project, but also about myself. Plus, I love the mission of the project and we’re continuing to build it out today.

So I wanted to say, if you aren’t sure about whether or not you’re ready to take a leadership role, try it out and take a leap. I think Ruby for Good is a really unique place to try out being a leader because you do have to dedicate some time to it. But it’s not the same commitment as, say, taking on an entirely new role at your current job.

JENNIFER: Yeah, because it ends, right?

MIRANDA: Right. Exactly. It’s just for one weekend or however long you would like to continue working on it afterwards. If I were a team lead at Ruby for Good again, like at next year’s event, I think I would have some different thoughts. I would be thinking more about how I can best bridge that gap between the project sponsor and the volunteers.

JENNIFER: Sorry, I’m going to jump right in. I feel like what I saw from – so admittedly, I wasn’t on your team. But from the outside, it looked like people were really excited about the team that they had joined and the project sponsors and the people you were trying to serve with your software. And so I kind of wonder, how did you create that or how did you support it happening?

MIRANDA: I think, honestly, letting the cause shine through is what I ended up doing because I really, really believed in the cause and the mission of the nonprofit organization itself. And so, we also had a really passionate project sponsor who helped us understand the meaning behind his project. And I think that really touched us and allowed us to share that with a larger group and say, “Hey, look at this awesome mission that our project sponsor, Rudo, has been working on for so many years. And this is why it’s important. This is the difference that it’ll make. And I think that really spoke to people just about how excited we were for the cause. They get kind of radiated out towards other people and other people are like, “What is this mission like? It sounds really interesting. Tell me more.” And so from there on, I think people got really excited about the idea.

JENNIFER: I was wondering if you could break it down even more of how you share that excitement with other people and how you let that purpose shine through. Like, did you talk about it with people one on one? Did you start every day talking about it? Or did you make sure that there was an opportunity for the sponsor to speak up? What kind of things did you do specifically to make this happen?

MIRANDA: For this, I think the project sponsor, Rudo, actually played a huge role in building the excitement for the project. He had a lot of mementos from working in the field with the communities and brought them with him to share with the volunteers and with us. For example, he would have handmade goods from different people like pepper or wooden oars and things like that. And I think it really helps us understand or feel that connection between the application that we would be working on and the people who the application would actually be serving. And I think it was a really unique mission because we weren’t building something that was meant to go on the Internet and be like what we would think the traditional web application would be these days. The project presented a really unique challenge in that the app would be used in the local communities themselves for education purposes, for public policy. And so having that extra uniqueness to the project also helps get people more excited about it, being a little bit different than their day jobs.

JENNIFER: So step one, make sure that you’ve got an amazing project spokesperson who can share the fact of the work that you’ll be doing on the software side. I’m kind of wondering, how could you tell that this was succeeding? Like, were there things that you noticed that were signs of ‘yes, this group of strangers is coming together as a team’? Or maybe on the flip side, were there warning signs that told you, “Hey, I need to make sure that people are coming together and really working together?”

MIRANDA: Yeah, I think there is definitely a moment where I realized, “Wow, this team is a team now rather than just a group of strangers who just met last night.” It is a really cool feeling to experience because in the beginning, when you’re setting up the project and you’re explaining the background and the environment and everything that you might need to know about what you’re going to work on that weekend, everybody is very separate. They’re all asking their own questions. They’re not really interacting with each other. I mean, they are to the extent of meeting each other as strangers. And I’d say that [inaudible] maybe the first day or so of the event where people are sort of just like working on their own individual things and kind of on their own tracks. But there is a moment in which you realize that people aren’t always coming to you as the team lead for questions anymore. They’re asking each other and they’re helping each other. And I thought that was really awesome to see that team cohesion grow just pretty organically, out of working on this project together and sharing that motivation to help this cause.

JENNIFER: Yeah, that’s a really neat phenomenon to watch. I’m wondering, are there things that you could see as ways to encourage that organic growth, so that way, you nudge people towards reaching out to each other rather than to just a team lead?

MIRANDA: Yeah, I think it’s really important to build empathy among the team members specifically. I think that when do you start as a group of strangers, you don’t really know anything about each other. And as you start working together, you do get to learn more about each other just from working together. But I do think it’s also important too, as a leader, to cultivate that understanding of each other. And it can be done in a lot of different ways. I mean, it can be done from really systematic ways, like doing icebreaker exercises or other team building activities, or it can be non-explicit and just happen suddenly among the different team members.

I think that there’s two really important ways of building empathy among all the team members. The first part is just getting everyone to know each other. And the second part is codifying the rules that we have among each other.

JENNIFER: I’m curious about both of these. How do you get people to better know each other and then how do you know what these rules are and how do you share that with everyone?

MIRANDA: I think a really good way of getting everyone to know each other, I do like to do icebreakers in the beginning as just a way of having something kind of fun to spark a conversation. I don’t really like the very open ended ones where it’s just like, “Tell me a fun fact about yourself.” I kind of like ones where it’s more of like an interesting question, like, “Would you rather travel 50 years to the past or 50 years to the future,” because it will start having everyone kind of having fun and talking about some hypothetical situation where everyone’s just joking around and getting more comfortable with each other. And then you can get a sense of each other’s personalities just through that kind of conversation. I think also another great way of encouraging that is by putting yourself out there first and being an example of, “Hey, I’m someone that’s really sharing a lot about myself,” so that other people won’t feel so shy to share things about themselves. And then once everybody is sharing a lot, I think it really helps everyone have a better understanding of each other.

JENNIFER: How do you find your icebreaker questions? I know a lot of engineers might not be the biggest fans of icebreaker questions. So I’m wondering, how do you find the questions that you pick and how do you know which ones will be appealing to the group that you’re with?

MIRANDA: I will say it definitely depends on the type of person. I know a lot of people aren’t really into icebreakers. I think it’s because they can be kind of hard to answer, or maybe it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the time to spend on it if you have a lot of tight deadlines for other project work that you have to do. I think that for Ruby for Good, it’s a really good way of doing it because the motivations are a little bit different. It’s not all about productivity and completing work for your project, although that is important. It’s also a lot about having a good experience at the event for your weekend. And so, it may work in some contexts over others.

But at my last job, we used to do an icebreaker every time we would have a new person join us at standup, whether that be someone from a different team that wants to hear what we’re doing or just an entirely new employee. So I’ve definitely gotten some good questions just from being in a ton of icebreakers and being like, “Ha, that one’s really fun and interesting hypothetical. I’ll save that for later.” I just like random questions that I’ll see online. I think that sometimes, like in my friends’ group, people will bring up random questions like that, like, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” And they’re always kind of fun to talk about. So, I like saving those for icebreakers to use when I’m leading it.

JENNIFER: So, pay attention to the icebreakers around you, see which ones that you like and which ones the people around you like. And just build yourself a list. I like that.

MIRANDA: Yes.

JENNIFER: What about the [inaudible] that you were talking about of making sure that everyone understands, I think you called it the community norms or the code. How do you know what that is and how do you share it?

MIRANDA: I think this is really, really important because to me, what makes a good team is all about two things, alignment and expectations. I think the picture of a good and healthy team can look really different from one to another. I mean, there are certainly guidelines and ideas as to what makes a good team. But I think I could argue that all it takes to be a good team is an understanding of expectations and alignment across the team members. And I think a big part of that is not only having the team members understand that personally, but also having it written down so that it’s something that everyone can refer back to and agree on.

JENNIFER: Could you give an example of one of these expectations that you might want to share?

MIRANDA: Sure. One that comes immediately to my mind that I always like to include is that no question is a stupid question. I think that’s really important to allow everyone the space to ask whatever that they may want to ask, because even if they think that it’s not a question worth asking, it usually is really good. And usually people also have the same question. So I really like encouraging people to ask as many questions as they want to.

JENNIFER: What do you do to share that sentiment and get people to really believe it and start to act on it?

MIRANDA: I think that I just show everyone – I like to write down all these different rules, not really rules, but guidelines or mottos that we, as a team, have agreed to follow. And I think it’s great to kind of create it and edit it with your team because every team is different and everyone needs to be onboard. And so, it can be a really great exercise maybe at the beginning when you build your team to do sort of a normie exercise where you sit down and you say, “Hey, here are two things that are important to this team. Does everyone agree?” And everyone can sort of put in their input as to what they think should be the guidelines for the team. And then once everyone is able to put in what they think, then we can have an open discussion about what expectations we have for each other. I think that allowing everyone to take ownership of a part of that is what really helps it stick with the people.

JENNIFER: Does that take a long time to do?

MIRANDA: Yeah, it does take time that maybe you wouldn’t need to if you didn’t do it at all. But I don’t think it takes a really long time. I think it can be contained within just like an hour meeting or something or less, depending on your team size. And I think it’s really a time worth taking because it saves you a lot of time in the long run when your team maybe isn’t aligned and can cause things to slow down in the future.

JENNIFER: How could you decide what to put into this set of norms that you wanted people to discuss? Because you must have had to cede that conversation with something, right?

MIRANDA: Yeah. I actually took a lot of it from the Ruby for Good Code of Conduct. There is a written Code of Conduct for Ruby for Good. I believe it’s on the website. But it talks all about how to be a team player.

JENNIFER: I’m kind of curious if there were any points throughout the event in which you found yourself needing to course adjust or reestablish alignment because the team or individuals were drifting away from where you had started at the beginning.

MIRANDA: Yeah, I think that one challenge that I faced was that in the beginning, we encouraged a lot of pairing on different tasks. We were hoping that this would help increase cohesion of the team and help junior engineers be able to contribute more by pairing them with a more senior engineer. I think it felt a little bit unaligned as the weekend progressed because everyone was so focused on trying to get as much work done for the project as they could and started drifting away from really doing that collaborative pairing, and people were sort of just being more isolated.

JENNIFER: What did you do?

MIRANDA: What I did was I didn’t really do anything that special or significant, but just remembering to remind people about pairing, like checking in with different pairs and saying, “Who’s working on what and how is it going?” And I think that would sort of remind people to kind of come back together and work together again. Or if I would notice that certain groups specifically were pairing as well together, I would go to them and say, “Hey, is this working? Is this not working? How can I help?” Maybe we switch up the pairs a little bit, depending on whose current line of work is more aligned with someone else’s current line of work and kind of playing almost like Cupid or like matchmaker. But with pairing and seeing what is the best way, like trying to find that reason as to why it’s slowly drifting away from the first alignment. Because I don’t think it’s ever a reason of people not wanting to stay aligned. After having agreed upon it, I think it’s always a hidden factor that needs to be found out and fixed.

JENNIFER: Yeah. And so what you did was you did some direct intervention, one-on-one, to reinforce, “Hey, this is something that we talked about and I know you want it. Is it working for you? If not, let’s make it happen.”

MIRANDA: Yeah, exactly.

JENNIFER: Cool. All right. I wish I could keep talking with you more, but we’re starting to run out of time. Miranda, I was wondering if you could leave our listeners with some words of advice. If anyone is starting out with a group of strangers and needs to bring them together as a team, what is one thing that you wish they would think about?

MIRANDA: I would tell them to try to put yourself in their shoes, in the group of strangers’ shoes and try to make sure that everyone is ready to be open and honest and upfront. And just as long as you have clear communication across the team, then I think that would be the best thing to do.

JENNIFER: Miranda, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today about building teams out of strangers. If people want to talk with you more about this or want to hear more about the project you’re working on, what’s a good place for them to reach out?

MIRANDA: Yeah, of course. I really enjoyed talking with you today as well. You can find me on Twitter at @Ch0xi or you can email me at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you.

JENNIFER: All right. Thanks so much.

MIRANDA: Thank you.

JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we’re edited by Bryant from Zinc. If you like this episode and want to hear more, tell us on Twitter. We are @wecohere.

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About the podcast

Storytime With Managers is hosted by Jennifer Tu of Cohere.

Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod (CC-BY)

Editing is by Mandy Moore and the DevReps crew!

Editing for Seasons 1 and 2 was by Bryant from Zinc - thank you, we couldn't have started this without you!

We are distributed by anchor.fm.

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