Michael Lopp is now an engineering leader at Apple.
Michael Lopp (aka Rands) is a former director at Palantir, an author of a number of books on software engineering and management best practices, as well as an ex-manager of the Mac OSX engineering team. He also hates meetings. At the First Round CTO Summit, Lopp explained how meetings can drain the time of engineers eager to solve the world’s biggest problems. Nevertheless, they're essential to aligning large teams' work. Lopp shared the strategies he uses to run effective meetings for teams of all sizes. Read on to get his detailed opinion on meetings, including a rubric to help you evaluate your own company's meetings.
The Scale Tax
As a single founder of a company, it’s easy to make decisions. You start designing your logo, and if there’s a red color scheme that looks right in your eyes, the decision is made. The logo is now red; you’ve already moved on to building out your product or business plan or whatever is next on your to-do list.
Now imagine that your company has taken off, and you’ve attracted a team of over four people dedicated to your initial vision. You’re incredibly happy because now you have a backend engineer, a couple front-end designers and a business analyst. You decide a blue logo would make for a better brand, and you instruct your designers to start putting together a new color scheme. However, a discussion occurs — the designers like red, and they spend a few minutes advocating the red color scheme. Nine minutes later, you manage to convince them to switch to blue, and now you’re on your way to the next item on your list. These nine minutes are what Lopp refers to as the scale tax.
As you scale and add members to your team, decisions take longer. The amount of time they take is what we call scale tax. Most often, you will see scale tax rear its ugly head during meetings.
When to Start Paying Attention
For companies of one or two people, it’s easy to find a common vision. According to Lopp, even companies of thirty people are okay. As Lopp puts it, everyone is “rowing in the same direction” — everyone knows everyone and everyone is still pretty much doing everything. The original thirty are the ones directly hired by the founders, and they generally share a common culture as well.
However, as the company grows, you start to not know everyone — and you certainly don’t know what everyone is doing. Political battles ensue between and inside divisions, and turf wars develop. It becomes hectic. The key thing you need to do as a leader is always have consistent communication in all directions. And one of the key tools you have to make this a reality is meetings. Although most companies have developed etiquette around organizing meetings, Lopp argues that there is a right way to do meetings and a wrong way. The better the meeting, the smaller the scale tax.
At a high level, there are three main types of meetings:
The 1:1s — Alignment and Connection
Meet with your reports. Every week at the same time (no matter what — do not move these or reschedule them) and for at least 30 minutes each (book 45 minutes so you have room if it runs over).
Often, the first reaction to this is “Wait, I have 20 people. You’re suggesting I’m going to spend 10 hours a week having meetings with folks?” Lopp has two responses: (1) yes; (2) you shouldn’t have 20 direct reports.
The goal of an effective 1:1 isn’t for an update from your direct report, or for you to lay down some instructions (this tends to happen a lot). It’s a conversation. There are lots of systems for status updates (project management software, bug tracking systems, Google Docs, Wikis) — 1:1s aren’t one of them. 1:1s are a chance to hear about your direct reports’ ideas for your product, their career goals, and potentially their opinion of their performance — it’s their time.
What you’re most likely going to find is your reports want to immediately go into status or when you ask them if they have anything they’d like to discuss, they’ll say “nope”. To counteract this have a list of three potential topics ready for discussion. That way when they say, “Nope — nothing to discuss” at the beginning of the meeting you can go right to your list to jumpstart the conversation. After a few weeks of doing this, the transition from status to dialog should be well underway.
Most 1:1s wind up falling into three categories:
The update: This is a good conversation or normal high-quality 1:1.
The vent: Essentially a therapy session. This most often comes in the form of your report being pissed off about something. You just have to listen, not actually do anything.
The disaster: They’re freaking out, they’re going to quit, etc. This is the advanced form of the vent – see here for more advice.
Staff Meetings — Tone-setting, Planning & Debate
Lopp recommends a full team meeting at the beginning of every week for at least 30 minutes, though it will most likely run for an hour.
When Lopp first took over engineering for the online Apple Store, he pulled together all of the technologists for their first staff meeting. It was the stereotypical meeting; you had the web nerds up front and the infrastructure guys in the back — and you had the backend and java guys mixed throughout.
He opened the meeting by saying, “Okay, what are we going to talk about here?” He got crickets, no one was used to talking. Then a few people spoke up and it was just status. Lopp’s response was, “No, no, no. I can go look at a spreadsheet or bug reports, we’re not here to do that." Use this time to discuss what’s important, what you care about this week, this month and this year. What’s working and what isn’t and what’s going to be fixed. It’s a place to discuss problems, put out fires and bring in special guests.
Tapestry Meetings — Culture Building
These are periodic, informal meetings for people to get to know each other. Do them.
Get members of different teams together; figure out who in the company you can go to if you need help fixing a bug, or setting up a new server. Figure out who in your company plays tennis so that you can start a Wednesday evening tennis group. These sort of meetings help you develop the culture of your organization. It allows people to build dependencies and form relationships that are company-wide. This forms a “tapestry” across the entire company, which is essential for a well-functioning, united organization. At Palantir, Lopp put together a poker game designed for the team leads to hang out and start learning about each other outside of the business.
Lopp realizes these types of meetings actually aren’t always easy. Sometimes they’re with people you’re competing with or sometimes in parts of the organization you’re not familiar with — but make the effort, break through and be willing to connect.
So remember, while meetings intrinsically suck for engineers (those that like to build), choosing the right kinds and following the right format really can make them suck less.