23rd June 2017

Our favourite sessions at The Lead Developer 2017

Mark Pavlitski
Development Manager

Earlier this month, a few of us in the team attended The Lead Developer conference in London. Aimed at people leading tech teams, most of the sessions focussed on the people and processes side of management, with a few technical lightning talks in between. In this post we offer a few of our personal highlights from the two days.

Erika Carlson

Better fearless feedback for software teams: Erika Carlson

'Feedback' is an oft-dreaded term among teams.

We fear reprisal for that thing last month we thought no one knew about; we shrug off praise; and we feel obliged to criticise others, all in the name of 'feedback'.

In this talk, Erika covers some of the taboos of feedback, how to make your feedback more approachable, and perhaps most importantly of all how to say "thank you" when someone gives you genuine feedback, whether it's positive or constructive.

Giving feedback is difficult; it's a skill, and like any skill it can be learnt (or at least improved upon, when you're given the right constructive feedback from your team!) When giving feedback, focus on the action and outcome rather than the individual. Think about whether you would give that same feedback to your best friend or another, preferred team member, if they were in the same position.

Receiving feedback can be just as hard – even upsetting at times. If it's a positive comment, that's really great. Simply accept the praise and say thanks, there's no need to deflect. If it's constructive, it's important that you take a moment to recognise that your colleague is trying to be genuinely helpful. Thank them sincerely for their feedback and take time to digest what has been said. Getting angry or defensive won't help at this point. Take some time, think it through, and come up with an action plan to help yourself improve.

Overall this was a really thought provoking discussion about how to improve team relationships and ourselves.

From Mark P

Adrian Howard

How to talk to Earthlings: Adrian Howard

Why we're failing at management and how we can do better.

Most of the time we're failing because we're not practising active listening. We're waiting for a gap in the flow of conversation to contribute our interesting observations, we're too quick to provide solutions, and we don't take the time to read between the lines.

Sometimes, we're not hearing what someone is actually trying to tell us.

Adrian shares an experience where he received a complaint from the QA department about some issues they were having with the development team. On the surface, the issues all pointed to the process, but if Adrian had stopped there and started to go about fixing some of the issues, he would have completely missed the point and failed his team: the problems were stemming from a sexist member of the development team giving a particular person in QA a hard time just because she was a woman. No process improvements would have fixed this.

How did Adrian find the root cause? By actively listening, reading body language, and asking lots of open questions.

Leadership is not about having all the right answers, but it is about asking the right questions.

Adrian gives these top tips:

  • Listen
  • Shut up
  • Avoid asking leading questions, i.e. "Do you think more BDD testing would fix the issues with QA/dev?" to more open questions such as "What do you think are the issues with QA at the moment?"
  • Follow up the response by asking for more detail, i.e. "Can you tell me more about how you might see that working?"
  • Shut up when the other person finishes speaking, and count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three mississippi, four. This silence gives the person time to elaborate if they want to.
  • Use reflective questions; reframe the question using the same language they've just used.
  • Ask people for stories, i.e. tell me about the best day you've had at work in the last fortnight.

The biggest mistake you can make as a manager is to assume your job is to tell people what to do.

This was a really empathetic talk with lots of practical take-aways for becoming better leaders in our workplace.

From Holly D

Mathias Meyer

Building and scaling a distributed and inclusive team: Mathias Meyer

How to deal with communication in distributed and remote teams.

Mathias Meyer, CEO at Travis CI, speaks about how they've adopted open source tools to facilitate their growing company over the years, as the team has become more distributed around the world across different timezones and cultures.


Primarily they use Slack for all communication – be it one to one or across projects. This makes a huge difference to the way that they communicate internally, and they now very rarely use email.

They even use Slack for triggering deployments to the different server environments, meaning that new developers don't need to have various user keys configured and set up with access to servers, etc.

The also use GitHub for pretty much everything that requires discussion. They utilise this tool not only for their public repositories, where anyone can comment and raise issues, but also for their internal communications. For the internal communications they use private repositories so only employees can see them, but they use the same issue queue / wiki pages for dealing with any communication needed. This fosters a very open culture as everything that needs to be discussed is visible to all employees.

The wiki pages are used for general documentation about the company – e.g. health and safety – whereas discussions about the company as a whole are dealt with using the issue queue, where all employees can (if they want to) contribute to the discussion as to how something might be done within the organisation.

Even when a new starter joins, a list of all the tools etc that need to be set up on their computer for them to be able to work is created as an issue within an internal repository, which is assigned to someone to deal with and can then be passed to the employee when they start.


Diversity is one of Travis CI's core values.

The differences in culture has been their biggest challenge as the company has grown from being based in Germany to expanding across Europe, to the US and Middle East.

While English has always been their main language, the variations in how different cultures deal with people range from being very direct to being vague and skirting around issues. At times this can cause problems.

Also, as they communicate internally primarily through Slack and Github, written text can be interpreted differently by the end user and so it can be tricky to read tone.

Working on creating a culture of inclusive communication has been key to overcoming this barrier, and encouraging team members to remember not to take everything said as 'fact', but thinking about what might be the meaning behind it.

From Mike D

Videos of all the sessions are due to be released soon. Follow @TheLeadDev on Twitter for updates.