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How teams work: Engineering at Samsara

How to manage meetings and comms across multiple workstreams

January 17, 2022

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.

Meet Kate Heddleston, Senior Engineering Manager at Samsara

Kate Heddleston is a senior engineering manager at Samsara — she leads a team of seven engineers responsible for three distinct workstreams, all working fully remotely.

We sat down with her to learn more about her process for figuring out the right meetings and communication cadence for her team — especially one that’s spread across so many different streams of work.

How the team works

Team structure

Kate’s team consists of seven engineers who handle work across three different workstreams and collaborate with many different stakeholders across the organization. They partner closely with product managers and designers for each of the workstreams and often collaborate with Samsara’s firmware teams, infrastructure teams, and platform teams.

Team meetings and communication cadence

Kate moved to this team just two months ago, so she’s currently in the process of evaluating their existing meeting and communication practices and whether they’re serving their purpose.

“The way I look at it, it's not so much about how many meetings we have, it’s more about whether or not those meetings have a purpose and whether or not that purpose is being achieved,” Kate explains. “Explicitly knowing the purpose of a meeting and being able to achieve that purpose makes a meeting feel less like wasted time.”

Here’s a look at where the team’s at today.

Image of Kate Heddleston's monthly calendar

Monday

  • No meetings

Tuesday

  • Project check-ins: Each workstream holds project check-ins twice a week on Tuesdays or Thursdays. These are often cross-functional in nature, bringing in PMs, designers, and engineers from other teams when applicable.
“Weekly check-ins for projects is a really nice cadence, from the manager's perspective,” Kate shares. “It's enough time that there's usually things to discuss, but not so much time that details get missed. If I check in with people much more than that, it tends to feel like micromanaging.”

Wednesday

  • No meetings

Thursday

  • Weekly project check-ins

Friday

  • Team meeting: This is a moment once a week where all three workstreams come together to discuss big topics, track goals and metrics, and share broader updates.

Kate’s team also holds ad hoc meetings for other work streams as needed and has weekly 1:1s.

Kate’s top tips to keep teams running smoothly

1. Build a practice around documenting your meetings

Meetings shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. Since going fully remote, Kate says making meeting documentation a top priority has made a huge difference in improving visibility and communication across her team.

“Every meeting has a doc — that’s one rule I have that works really well for remote work,” she says. “Stand-ups, weekly check-ins — they all have a template we follow with notes and action items. If we’re going to talk about it, we might as well write it down.”

When someone on Kate’s team sends out a meeting invite, it includes a link to the meeting doc as well as any supporting documentation that might help inform discussion, like a JIRA task or product spec. During the meeting, the doc is screenshared so that everyone can follow along and add clarification if something in the notes doesn’t look right. (Tip: Try a note-taking template to make it easy and uniform every time.)

It's huge for action items too, because we write them all down,” says Kate. “I pretty much never have to follow up on action items explicitly, because just by virtue of writing it down, it gets done.

Building a strong habit around documenting what happens in meetings has helped Kate’s team with alignment and accountability too.

“Most people are great about getting their work done. When it doesn't get done, usually it means there was a miscommunication or a lack of clarity,” she says. “Having the notes, the action items, and the decisions we land on written down means that people are more aligned and clear on what needs to get done.”

2. Reevaluate your processes on a regular cadence

Even if you feel like your team’s got its process and communication practices down pretty well today, Kate says there’s always room to reevaluate.

“The thing I like to remind myself is that a good process is like building a good product. It solves a clear goal, it's easy to remember, it's easy to use, and it's often very iterative,” she says.

Kate reevaluates her team’s processes on a quarterly timeline, which maps to how they plan for different projects and workstreams. She likes this approach because different projects often require different ways of working or meetings. As they plan for the projects, they also plan for the processes around them.

“Our workstreams, our weekly check-ins, all of that stuff is basically up for change every quarter,” she explains. “I have the team participate to make sure the process we’re creating actually works for everyone.”

Example: Reevaluating daily stand-ups

Since Kate’s fairly new to leading her team, she’s currently in the process of evaluating many of its meetings — including the daily stand-up.

Kate’s meeting evaluation framework

“A really important part of what managers can do is ask the question: is this meeting solving the problem we set out to solve? And if the answer is, no, being willing to listen to that and think about other tools that can solve it.”

Meeting: Standup

Purpose: Inform and unblock, everyone in the meeting should get tangible value from what’s being shared.

What it looks like today:

  • Cadence: Daily
  • Attendees: Everyone, across all 3 workstreams (12+ people)
  • Format: Formal round robin of what everyone’s doing with little time for discussion

How Kate’s thinking about it:

  • Purpose: Does everyone in this group need to know what each other is doing? Are we successfully collaborating and unblocking each other?
  • Cadence: Do updates need to happen daily? Or could we use this time for something else a few days a week, like team bonding?
  • Attendees: Is our group too large? (“If you have to explain to someone what it is you’re actually working on, the answer is yes,” Kate says.)
  • Format: How might we bring in more discussion and collaboration? Can we use other tools to accomplish some or all of what we’re doing here?

Kate’s leaning towards smaller standups for each of the different workstreams, which will allow them to flow more freely and collaboratively. Before immediately breaking things up though, Kate’s also considering how this might impact culture and morale on the team — especially since everyone’s still fully remote.

“At this point, each of our meetings has a baseline usefulness in the fact that people are seeing each other,” she explains. “Taking away a meeting without thinking about that right now could have a negative effect.”

If she does move to smaller standups, building in more moments to come together and connect elsewhere (https://www.range.co/blog/remote-team-building-activities) may be a helpful approach.

Learn how 3 more companies are rethinking their daily standups
How teams work: Engineering at Samsara
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