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Show and Tell - Build Stronger Teams with Engineering Showcases

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. When you have a great engineering team (I’m currently on one) you do anything in your power to keep them together. Attrition is the true enemy of good architecture and software practices. We need to pull every lever and turn all dials to keep our great teams together.

When teams are small (think 2-5 engineers) they tend to be very aware of the work each of the other engineers are doing. Often they’re working on the same codebase. A result of this is a general feeling of “connectedness”. This is good. Being able to ask any engineer on a team what the other engineers are working on is a hallmark of a strong team.

This doesn’t always last. As teams grow, sometimes daily standup is the only time they see each other. Sure, they hear about what someone is working on, but without personal context it can sound like noise. This is ok for a short term stint - but over time that disconnectedness leads to isolation. Isolation leads to discontent. Discontent leads to departure.

Enter “Engineering Showcases”.

What is it?

Do you remember show and tell as a kid? That’s the basic premise of the engineering showcase.

  • Every sprint, no matter what, your entire team meets one hour for show and tell.
  • Engineers take 10-15 minutes to talk through something they worked on or are working on.
  • Not every engineer needs to speak every time. You can use a signup sheet if demand outstrips time.
  • After presenting, the engineer opens the floor for questions and comments on what they presented. This should only last a few minutes. If the conversation feels particularly fruitful, let it ride. We’ve found the Q&A section to be a very useful feature.

Presentations should be:

  1. Technical in nature
  2. As detailed as possible
  3. Include code if possible

Presentations should not be:

  1. Formal ( no slide decks )
  2. Long (cap at 10-15 minutes). This is tough, but forces you to present only what’s important. It’s a skill.
  3. Only reserved for the “really cool stuff”. Anything and everything is worthy of the showcase.

Why?

There’s a few good ones.

  1. I’m a firm believer that engineers should talk more about engineering.

    It feels like we all got into this field for that “magic” when you are in a room with folks all working on solving a problem. In most day to day development situations, we tend to work alone. Engineering showcase is one way to get that back. The Q&A sections can be particularly powerful ideation sessions as the entire engineering group gets their eyes on one thing.

  2. Higher visibility = higher levels of connection

    The more we see each other, the more we care about each other. It’s simple. If “engineer A” never knows what “engineer B” is working on they’ve lost a critical pathway to building and maintaining a professional friendship. In contrast, if “engineer A” sees what “engineer B” is working on, and maybe even helps them figure out a problem during the showcase Q&A, they have a positive shared experience. That matters. That can be built upon.

  3. Building Technical Communication Skills

    One of the cornerstones of senior engineering is the ability to communicate technical topics in a crisp, clear way. Engineering showcases provide a bi-weekly opportunity to explain technical topics to a highly technical audience. This consistent practice ensures your team will always be growing their communication skills every sprint. That pays off.

Getting Started

It’s cheap to get started. Schedule a recurring hour-long meeting each sprint (preferably landing towards the end of the sprint). Send out a pre-read to the engineering team to describe what the showcase is, what it’s for, and what a presentation should and shouldn’t be. Feel free to copy paste this article if that’s helpful.

Set up a recurring reminder to ask for volunteers a day or two before the showcase. During the showcase, be sure to move things along and do your best to moderate.

Whatever you do, keep going. There may be a few weeks where it’s hard to get volunteers, or weeks where the conversation is lackluster. Keep going. The habit is what matters here.

Get your team in a room together for an engineering showcase every sprint and they will feel more connected and more engaged. They will know more about the work they are all doing.

Hopefully, it will keep you all a little closer for a little longer.