Context setting in new roles


As friends and old colleagues change jobs, a topic that came up is how to onboard effectively to a new role/team/company as engineering leader. I want to share my experiences in case it is helpful to others.

As an engineering leader in a new company, you are expected to build a stellar product and lead a healthy team. You are expected to learn, synthesize information and make a judgement call on project prioritization, technical direction and even people. How can you do this effectively? Based on my experience, it mostly boils down to one thing: context 🧐. Planning, roadmapping, executing, and growing talent need to be fine tuned to your context. But what is context? It is specific to your company, product, and team. That’s why it is crucial to take the time to observe and synthesize the context before making any big changes, especially when you are starting on a new team, new product, or a company.

How does one build context? We all begin with the product specs, internal documents and even outside reviews of the product and industry. These are all great to understand what is built and established. However, context is often about what was not built, decided against, completely revamped, teams that were disassembled or charters that were moved. If written material you can find covers this, consider yourself lucky. More often than not, the answers to these are institutionalized knowledge that lives in the collective mind of the team.

Your job is to get this information out there, and then synthesize it to establish today’s context. I have found that the best way to do this is to saturate your brain with company, product, team and process context and then synthesize it. The most efficient way I have done this so far is to:

  1. Read the product specs, design docs, and retrospective meeting notes.
  2. Schedule 1:1s with your eng teams, product partners and product marketing managers
  3. In each one of those, ask them if they could change one thing about the end result what it could be

The goal is to understand the people, product, technology and processes that you are operating in.

One way to do this is by holding 1:1 meetings with team members and stakeholders to understand their perspective and gather insights 💡. These conversations can reveal hidden challenges, opportunities, and ways to improve the team’s process. It’s also important to read internal documents and previous retrospectives to get a sense of the team’s history, strengths, and areas for improvement 📚. By taking the time to understand the context, we can avoid making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. We can also tailor our planning, execution, and roadmapping to fit the unique needs of the team and company. This leads to better outcomes and higher team morale.

Of course, understanding the context is an ongoing process. As the team and company continues to evolve, the context changes too. That’s why it’s important to regularly check in with team members and stakeholders, read internal documents and previous retrospectives, and adjust our plans accordingly 🔄! Remember to have fun along the way and enjoy the journey 🎉. As engineering managers and leaders, we have the unique opportunity to shape the future of our team and company. So let’s embrace the challenge and make the most of it 💪.