Leading a team, especially a distributed or growing one, can be hard. Oftentimes the best advice and ideas come from other teams just like yours. That’s why we launched Lead Time: How Teams Work. This blog series profiles real teams, how they’re structured, and how they communicate through meetings and other touchpoints. Plus, each article features a top-notch leader who's got proven tips and real stories to learn from.
Katie leads the engineering org at Ambassador Labs. The team is global, remote, and extremely cross-functional in nature, partnering with peers in design and product on a daily basis.
We sat down with Katie to learn about what her team’s product cycle looks like and what meetings she says are must-haves for a remote eng org.
Katie’s engineering team consists of 39 ICs and 6 eng managers, who report directly to Katie. They work on cross-functional sub-teams, responsible for different areas of the product, consisting of engineers, product managers, and designers.
The team operates on 6-week product cycles. Here’s a sample of their meeting and communication cadence over that time period.
“Everything status-related can go through asynchronous channels,” she explains. “There's just something so soul-destroying about being dragged into a meeting and being forced to report back the status of everything you’re doing. It's a waste of time and, worse than that, it can almost make you feel like you’re being scolded. There’s just a weird vibe about it.”
Every 6 weeks
Katie says her biggest challenge has been finding ways to keep eng, product, and design connected and aligned, without adding too many additional meetings.
“It's not easy to do products remotely,” shares Katie. “Product development is naturally very collaborative in nature. A lot of that doesn’t translate really well to online or remote work.”
Subbing in two asynchronous touchpoints to each cycle — daily stand-ups and end-of-cycle product share outs — has helped with alignment and cut back on meeting time. They’re working on ways to improve their meeting structure to make time together more engaging, and experimenting with ways to run remote brainstorms and other collaboration sessions more effectively.
For remote comradery, Katie recommends trying themed cycles (or sprints, months, or whatever your team’s operating cadence looks like).
“One of my teams themes each cycle after a different movie,” she explains. “They’ll make movie posters with really intentionally bad photoshopping. It’ll be Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, with the team photoshopped in riding hippogriffs or something.”
Katie says it’s a fun, easy way to help everyone connect and build a little comradery into the often lonely nature of remote work.
The Ambassador Labs eng team holds a lot of meetings. Out of everything on the calendar, Katie believes the weekly Eng managers meeting is one of the most important.
“It builds a team-first focus,” she explains. “I think engineering leaders need to be really ruthless on team-first focus because the natural incentive for an engineering manager is to optimize for your direct reports at the expense of your peers.”
“They’re who you're in the day-to-day with, so that makes sense,” she adds. “It just means we have to be more intentional about creating connection and alignment at the manager-level too.”
Why is a team-first focus so important? It helps the team prioritize resources and encourages more open communication across the sub-teams as they work towards their org-level OKRs.
Katie’s favorite segment from her weekly managers meeting is a section she calls “real-life-manager” — where the group comes together to support each other and work through problems.
“If there's a challenging or interesting people management situation one EM is dealing with, we'll take it to the group,” she explains. “As a manager, you learn from your own experience but some of these harder scenarios — firing someone, for instance — don’t come up that often. It’s nice to be able to support your peers and learn from their experience too.”