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Human Skills 024: Operationalizing Values
with Amy Chantasirivisal
Amy Chantasirivisal is someone I've been chatting back and forth with online for a couple of years now. She is one of those engineering leaders who tackles the human problems head on, building high trust, high impact teams, such as the one she's now building at Hint Health.
This was such an interesting and ranging conversation. We talked about the tradeoffs of different business funding models, and how those play out into management choices. We dove deep into the knotty challenges that managers face navigating supporting their reports through various ups and downs. But more than anything, we talked about values, how they drive our work, and how high level values get operationalized into day to day work.
What are some of the trade-offs you end up making based on company funding models?
One of the biggest things that I learned early on about the VC startup world is the throwing money and people at a problem. And that has been actually a source of actually a lot of startups that I've been at really struggling later down the road.
Because for example, if CS is bombarded with a lot of issues, customers are reporting bugs or something like that, in the VC model, I was very accustomed to, "let's just hire more CS people and worry about the actual root cause of these issues later." Which down the line ends up becoming, "well, because we took shortcuts when we architected the system or we chose not to fix bugs and instead ship more features."
And so that whole... going fast and just kind of throwing more bodies or more money at a problem, definitely comes to bite you later on, I would say more often than not, right?
And so part of the intentional growth that I seek to bring into my teams is to have that conversation around what is the actual cause of the issue that we're trying to fix? And can that actually be fixed by us rethinking our methodology? Changing our processes, taking a step back and maybe delaying something on the roadmap... if it means that later down the line, you know, we don't have a headache from skipping this one maintenance task that really needs to be addressed.
Is there a framework you use to help make decisions around these types of tradeoffs?
I would say there's a lot of constraints to management in those discussions. I wouldn't say that there's a tried and true formula or anything like that, that I think about as I'm helping to guide teams to these types of decisions, but there are, I would say, different vectors or different aspects of the problem that, that I would look at as a result of these conversations.
And so it would be things like, "what is the current business priority?" And then almost like doing like a pros and cons list of if we took this route and did things according to this scenario, what is the possible and probable outcome versus the other route?
And then considering, okay, the business priorities, what do individual team members actually want to do or what do they feel strongly about potentially is like the right or the better thing to do? Does this align with maybe a longer term strategic thing that we're trying to do?
So, for example, the decision between, I don't know, let's just say like doing some optimizations for automation or something, you know, automated systems, whether it's like automated testing or maybe automating some deployment stuff that the team wants to do.
The trade-offs there are what's the opportunity cost, right? If we spend this time now, what do we potentially miss out on and are we okay with that? Is that worth the cost now? And so it's, it's really about balancing a bunch of those different kinds of constraints for sure
How do you think about the roles of values at work?
It is something that I think about a lot. And in fact, I'm having many conversations with my team members about this right now. I think for the purposes of building trust within a team and building credibility between leadership and the people who are actually executing on the leader's plans... that feeling of authenticity. Do the values reflect the behaviors?
I'm having a lot of conversations right now, for example, around, "So what are our values and how does it actually show up in day-to-day work?"
How does that show all the way up in how an engineer does a pull request comment? How does that show up in the way that people respond in Slack messages?
And you would think that, you know, some big grand values list that's on a marketing website doesn't have anything to do with that, but it really does. And so for me, it ends up becoming the thing that I do on many of the teams that I've joined in the past is to take the company values and one, do kind of like a gut check with people to see if like these values actually resonate with them and with how they work and then to actually start to codify a lot of that.
In terms of how do these values then get translated into practices, team norms, behaviors, and the way that we actually work together to make that more concrete.
Because everyone's interpretation of company values or even like personal values can be very different depending on who you ask, what their background is, how they were raised and what culture they grew up in and all those sorts of things.
And so there's so many ways to interpret this big broad value statement that it's really beneficial to get into the nitty gritty details of what that actually means.
How do you draw the connection from a high level value statement to e.g. how it shows up in a pull request (PR)?
Let me think about which value I want to pick out from our current list. So we have one value around learning: Always be learning. And that also coincides with a value that we also have around caring deeply about each other.
And so those two things are really important. And they can show up in PRs, for example. So what does it mean to care deeply, what does it mean to value learning?
When an engineer goes in to look at someone else's PR, that's an opportunity to potentially teach someone something or to share knowledge that you as a person may have that this person may not.
But then to care about someone means to be able to share that knowledge in a way where it's not to nitpick. It is not to deride or demean someone for not knowing a thing, but it's really like, "hey, on this line, I saw that you wrote X, Y, and Z, and perhaps a better way to do it would be ABC." In an effort to help you grow your own skills.
And so to just approach those PRs with a kindness, right? And to come at it with the intent of helping someone want to... help someone grow their career, is how something like those two values can trickle down into, let's just say, a PR comment.
How did you come to your personal set of values?
A lot of that comes from my own personal experiences. Professionally, there was the whole growth at all costs, right, in my early career that just I burnt out multiple times early in my career. So there was like that, that really influenced a lot of the values that I hold now.
But there was also the fact that I was often the only woman on the team. I was on a team where there were more people named Dave than there were women on the team. And then I had a child. So then I was also often the only mother on the team. And then oftentimes the the only Asian person on the team.
I think in these situations where I have been part of the group of others for so long... but then also having to figure out how to fit in. And how a lot of that just felt very inauthentic to me, but I did it in some ways for survival and to gain the credibility and the respect in order to do my job. I had to fit in.
And so I think all of those experiences are really what led me to where I'm at now, in terms of valuing people, valuing trust... and then knowing that there's other ways to build an organization that do not require all these things that generally happen in the startup world.
Because I've had that experience, like a positive experience at a company that was not a startup, and it was like a healthy one. And people were... able to be vulnerable with each other and to have hard conversations and make hard business decisions and favor people over profits.
And so knowing that there are successful businesses, however small, that I can do that just means that in, in tech and startups that we just haven't figured out how to scale that yet. And so that's where my values come from. That's what I'm trying to prove in the work that I'm doing.
Links to Amy
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