Ownership

As a manager of four engineers, this is possibly the most self-serving post I’ll write all year. My team are responsible for handling inbound email, outbound email, making sure our email hits the intended inbox and not the junk folder, our real-time infrastructure and some other cross-team concerns.

These five simple words will impress your boss and double your salary

I originally gave this as a short internal talk. Every week we take one of our engineering values and someone makes a short (and hopefully insightful) presentation about it, how it applies to our work. If we can’t find enough to talk about that’s our sign it’s not a good value and needs to be changed. When it comes to ownership, I’ll always have a lot to say.

The mind of a manager

To set the scene I’ll give you a peek inside my brain. Don’t worry, it’s just my work brain.

These are the broad categories from a list that I wrote down today of about 50 tasks swimming around my mind. While it was therapeutic to see them in one place it was also overwhelming to see just how much I have to get done. Everything on that list is important, but I won’t get to some of them for another month.

I’m spinning plates. Something has to give and I need to think about less. As an engineer on my team, why would you care about what’s on my list?

It’s not controversial to say our CEO shouldn’t worry about every single detail of what we do. The number of people who work here, the scope of our product, the complexities of what we’re doing — there’s no way it fits in one person’s head.

Nor can our CTO, VP of engineering, directors of engineering or even engineering managers think about every single detail of how we build Intercom.

Considering all the details; making sure the right things happen, problems are fixed — that sense of ownership should radiate out to every person in our company. We spin a few plates each.

As people on my team take responsibility for our weekly goals, get more involved in our hiring process or take on those big, scary problems that bring them to the next level of their careers, I get more capacity to take up more responsibility from my manager, my manager has more time to take on bigger impact tasks. This virtuous change propagates up and as a company we spend more time thinking strategically. Our graphs continue to grow up and to the right.

That’s not my problem

When I hear you say “that’s not my problem,” I hear one of two things:

  • You’ve figured the problem out, likely more than anyone else in the company, but you think you’re not best placed to fix it. You want to ignore the problem and hope the right person stumbles across it instead.

or...

  • You have no idea what the problem is, it may actually be your problem but you have no idea.

If you’re looking for those five simple words to impress your boss and double your salary, here they are: I’ll take care of that. Instead of saying “that’s not my problem,” say “I’ll take care of that” and follow through.

I don’t mean work in isolation to fix the problem, or work through the weekend to figure out the solution. Taking care of the problem might mean writing some code yourself or talking to a customer directly. It’s just as likely to mean finding the right owner, making sure they understand the problem and waiting for them to say “I’ll take care of that.”

I need to know the problem won’t be forgotten, it won’t be ignored, it won’t sit without progress or an understanding of what progress looks like and when it will happen.

Opportunity to own

The opportunity to say “I’ll take care of that” is always present, not just when you’re asked to do something. Not just when it’s on your team’s roadmap. Any time you see something broken or a way we can work better you can choose to take care of it.

You’ll find as you take care of more and more problems, you’ll start taking on bigger problems and the trust in your ability to take care of them will also grow. You’ll be seen as the person who can take on the bigger and the biggest challenges. If the thought of increasing the scope of your impact doesn’t excite you I’m not sure you’ve found the right job.